Fear and its attendant, anxiety, are ever present among school leadership these days and are one of the givens of the role. I just say that because it is true. Several heads have said to me last term that they are just scared about the future of their schools, about the inspectorate, about what assessment means, about the impact of their governors, or difficult parents, and so on.It is because we carry our schools in our hearts and identify deeply with them that this matters.
About 4 years ago, Simon Downham, vicar at St Paul’s Church in Hammersmith, came up to me at the end of a service we were attending at his church and asked if he could pray with me. I had been wanting someone to do this, but all the “ministry team” were occupied, and somehow the Holy Spirit had alerted Simon to me. Before we prayed, he said to me never to underestimate the war that is being waged for the lives of children and their families in the heavenly places, and to know that everyone who was working for them will be impacted by this battle. You have no idea how encouraging that this was at the time. Just retelling it here helps.
Last summer, I was, with one or two from our leadership team, concerned to the point of sleeplessness about the end of key stage assessment outcomes; we had no reasonable way of interpreting and understanding them (we still don’t, by the way, and those who believe that FFT and RaiseOnline give that understanding are just deluded). I had always anticipated the start of any year with joy and great excitement, but this year it was different – I felt genuinely anxious, because of the cloud of unknowing that surrounded assessment and the way it would be put to abuse by politicians. To my attached Improvement Partner, Peter, who speaks sense to my soul, I wrote the start of September that I was surprised at my lack of resilience, as usually I did not succumb to this level of anxiety. He wrote back to say that many of my colleagues were facing exactly the same level of uncertainty and worry.
The day after I wrote to Peter, I attended my son David’s wedding in Henley-in-Arden, and during the service, we sang Guide me O thou great Jehovah, which contains the wonderful line:
When I tread the verge of Jordan, bid my anxious fears subside
At the moment I sang those words, all my fear fled completely, and was replaced by a joy and hope that was wholly supernatural. I had never experienced such a dramatic psychological healing before. Later, I tried, as you do, to reimagine the fearful state I had been in and could not, so effectively had Jesus removed them and healed me. What was even more wonderful was that my son, getting married and being very anxious about his responsibilities on the day, was relieved of his fears at exactly the same time when he sang the same words. Just wonderful, and a highlight to both of us of God’s commitment to us as his children. The term, though a struggle in some aspects, was one that was marked by courage and great progress.
Fast forward to Christmas Day this year when I went to church at St Mary’s in Bletchley, where we regularly worship and participate. I had biked down from Bradwell where we live, only to find that at the door, everyone was being handed balloons – not the filled variety, but ones to be blown up during the service. You need to know something here: Balloons and I have history. As a child I became hugely fearful of them, to the point that my mum knew never to have them in the house, and if they were necessary, never to blow them up near me. I don’t know where this fear came from – I suspect, that, along with my strong disliking for fireworks, they were a result of the loud exuberance of the Chinese new year celebrations during my Hong Kong childhood. Whatever the reason, the fear remained – I’m OK with fireworks now, but even the sound of breath being blown into a rubber balloon causes me genuine anxiety and I often leave the room if such activity is being attempted. It is very strange, but I could not face going into church surrounded by a big congregation of unskilled blower-uppers of balloons, so I got on my bike and went back to the Christmas preparations at home.
I should have gone in, of course. That’s the purpose of telling the story, and it’s the purpose of God in taking me through that experience and reflecting on it. Our annual walk up and down our beloved Aberavon beach last Thursday morning (we started before dawn so I could catch the sun coming over the Port Talbot docks and steelworks) gave me a chance to pray through the issue and draw courage and strength from the King who gives these things in such abundance to those who ask. 2017, from where I sit, looks a lot like a year filled with balloons. There are uncertainties all over the place, and the political events and wars of 2016 has led to a rise on fear in many people that I know and converse with, if they think about them at all. When I look back on 2016, it was a year of many triumphs, wonders and huge effectiveness in our work as a school for those we impact and influence. However, it was also a year of deep sorrows – the decision to leave the EU still seems to me to be a tragic and unnecessary piece of foolishness at national scale, that led to a diminishment of our country; political upsets in Italy and USA added to a field of uncertainty that underpins the mood of many social democrats when facing 2017, and the unreliability of our government, compared even to that of the 2010 coalition, gives us little to cling onto in our national leadership – no poitical party is well led in England at the moment.
But we press ahead, knowing some certainties. God has not forsaken us and his powerful love and Jesus’ resurrection and kingdom give hope every single day to us who trust Him. The political experience of 2016 is no guide whatsoever to the goodness and faithfulness of God in 2017. We are called to enter a world of balloons, facing the future without fear, wholly trusting in God’s mercy and protection, not just knowing God, but being Him to the world; not just knowing and reading the Bible, but being the Bible that many will read; not just speaking God’s encouragement and strength to those who are limping, but being the one they can turn to and lean on.
After we had left Aberavon beach on Thursday morning, refreshed and delighted by all we had seen, we visited Barbara, a wonderful missionary lady who with her husband Cyril, served with WEC for many years in Thailand and Indonesia. Cyril, the most encouraging man I have ever met, passed away three years ago, and visiting Barbara is a pilgrimage and delight for Sally and I whenever we are in South Wales. As we finished praying together, Barbara sang the old Bill Gaither chorus:
Because He lives, I can face tomorrow,
Because He lives, all fear is gone,
Because I know He holds the future,
And life is worth the living,
Just because He lives!
Once again, the Holy Spirit swept all the fear from my heart as she sang, and restored to me – and will restore to me – the courage I will need to lead and teach those deeply beloved of God during this coming year.
Consider, Jesus said in Matthew 6, the birds of the air. They are (I paraphrase heavily) the antidote to worry. They don’t faff around waiting for the next meal, but trust to God’s provision for each day, for food, for shelter and for His protection. That’s just an excuse, really for this final picture, of unconcerned and busily-provided-for sandpipers using the receding tide as a banquet on a cold Welsh beach. Fearlessly.