When the Manse phone rang at a quarter to midnight on Friday evening Janice and I looked at each other immediately concerned that it was bad news. When Rev Brian Wilson told me that John Montgomery had had a heart attack and passed away in India I was shocked and devastated. John was on one of his many trips, I never
seemed to know he was gone until he was back. This time he was in India at Woodstock school where he had worked for many years and a place he loved so much. As the next couple of hours played out we discovered that he had spent a lovely night with friends around the fire, sharing stories and laughing – a scene any of us that knew John had had the privilege of being part of and could well imagine. He had gone to bed but around midnight had wakened with chest pains and told his hosts he was going to just walk down to the clinic. A phone
call to the clinic 15 minutes later revealed that he hadn’t arrived and so they followed his trail to the clinic and found that John had collapsed and died on his way there. It is very hard to take in.
Friday night was about the shock and the grief with John’s sisters Sheila and Gillian. Yesterday was a day to meditate on a life. In my grief, you will all not be surprised that I use a lot of music. Time and
again I am drawn to the work of Deacon Blue whose songwriter Ricky Ross has a pastoral side that helps my catharsis. Yesterday a line from their song Riches about Christian Youth Worker and first speaker at PCI’s Youth Reach Festival Jim Punton played around in my head – ‘It’s good to know how big a life can be/Especially when it falls away so easily.”
John Montgomery lived a big life. It was an eccentric, out of the box, unconventional life. BUT it was a imaginative and self sacrificial and wonderfully Jesus filled life. When I lived in Derryvolgie students might have called John “a box of frogs” but as a trail his life I have
to say that John Montgomery was the holiest batch of frogs God had ever put together. As I click the gate of the Manse there will always be a tangible memorial to John. At Philip Mateer’s last Garden party for Marie Curie I mentioned to John that the gate on the Manse was bust yet again. We returned from a few days by the coast not long after and the gate was fixed, in a most imaginative box of frogs type way BUT it was fixed! He has heard and acted. How many of us have such stories.
I cannot remember when John’s life and mine first intersected BUT I am thankful that it has been intersecting for over 20 years. There are many of you that make this job better every Sunday by just sitting
there. Every time I looked down and saw John’s critiquing smirk this job was better. Yesterday I remembered how I remember everytime I am at there, passing him on the M2, by passing Ballymena toodling along at 35 mph. Like a Zen Presbyterian! I remember coming into my office in Derryvolgie and my Administrator saying we had this interesting guy on from India wanting you to phone him back. I smiled and went for the phone. What could Montgomery be wanting! Itai came to live with us after a few calls and shinanigans! Itai had a friend whom John also helped to go to Calvin College in Michigan. I’ve been there twice in the last two years and always met with John’s student. The last time, in March past, I was waiting to meet him in a
cafe and as I ordered the bew of the day – a Nutty Irishman – I joked with the guy behind the counter about how racist that was and he said, “You’re Irish. Do you know a guy called John Montgomery!” Come on what are the chances! The chances are much much smaller if you live the self sacrificial life that John lived. Many of us have memories at times like this BUT most of John’s have tangible moments when he helped us and made a difference in our lives.
After I mentioned his passing on Facebook a few of you sent me your comments –
“I loved him and considered him one of my best mates at speaking of faith. I could tell him what I really thought and he would look down from his great his height and just smile.”
“A wonderful creative Godly soul.”
“Tho' I'd only got to know him a little, he was for me an embodiment of non-attachment, and of kingdom come. He held material things only very loosely, and was ready to drop anything and go anywhere for the sake of people, friendship, solidarity, or service. Sad day for the rest of us, who he'd sidled up to, taken an interest in, and who he's left feeling attached to him.”
Until the sadness of the sacred ending, we never appreciate the story that's been written and so with John. This is a remarkable story and though the ending is full of shock and grief I wonder will we all look back and see the poignancy of an ending that was way too soon but perhaps how he’s have liked it. Travelling, with people he loved in a place he loved.
I am going to weep this week. I am going to feel bereft. But I am excited to hear the stories. And I will thank God for those small moments that were BIG in impact. Every time I click my gate. Thank you John. Thank you God.
He wrote a long letter to his niece Sarah about singer Taylor Swift. In it he spoke of my evening on Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks and in pointed out almost the bizarreness of a night in Church about a record no one listens to and yet how I drew people into the wonder of it and brought out some valuable things. I take it as a critiquing compliment. I want now to play that song by Deacon Blue. It is written for the death of a saint who lived by the ways of another Kingdom with different values on riches and work and of how that person is now in the fullness of that Kingdom he lived.
It's good to know how big a life can be
Especially when it falls away so easily
And how hard it is to let you take your leave
Also I wish you all the things that you believe in
You found a great big Kingdom
And you gave it all away
And how I want live there
And how I hope you'll stay
And take riches now that they're different
And work with your burden lifted
Take riches now that they're different
And work with your burden lifted.
- from Riches by Deacon Blue