This morning I went to the thanksgiving service for John Elliot. John was 75, but we were not prepared for his death a week-and-a-half ago following an accident. Our thoughts and prayers are with his widow, Rita; his daughter, Jayne; and his sons (who we don't know) Philip and Andrew.
John had a rough childhood, eventually entering into the violent world of Sheffield's gangs. Later, he served in the Special Forces, seeing covert action in various parts of the world. On one occasion, he entered a South East Asian country along with other soldiers, and, after the rest of his squad had been hunted down and killed, he hid in the jungle for three months, picking-off his hunters one by one until they were all dead, before walking out of the jungle. John was a hard man, physically and emotionally; and, in certain circles at least, a feared man, too. But being the only one of his squad to survive on a number of operations led him to believe that "him upstairs" was protecting his life for a purpose.
After John's first wife died, he started accompanying his daughter Jayne to church. In time, he came to faith. Instrumental in that was an Alpha course, on which he also met Rita. Rita was one of the leaders on the course. John and Rita met, fell in love, and were married at our church. There is a beautiful story to this: when she was 19, the Lord had given Rita a vision of the man she would marry - John - and she had waited until her mid 60's to meet and marry him!
In the short years of their life together, John and Rita were instrumental in setting up a Prison Fellowship, regularly going into Doncaster Prison to minister to the men there; and following on from that, establishing a group for men who had come out of prison, wanting to follow Jesus, but whose backgrounds made it difficult for them to join in with a "regular church" community. And throughout this time John himself experienced an increasing measure of freedom from his own past, and significant emotional healing. The hard man became soft. A big-hearted little man who had struggled to express the love that was there became a big-hearted little man who was able to express that love for others more and more.
John and Rita joined The Order of Mission, and just six months before his death they had moved - along with another couple in the Order - to a small local church that is growing a good working relationship with St Thomas,' in order to serve them. In that short time they had already made a big impression!
It was an honour to know John, and I look forward to meeting him again one day. Thanksgiving services are strange things: the joy of our certain hope of heaven mixed with the sorrow of our temporary but very real loss; an act of defiance in the face of death, which has thrown its best shot at John, spent itself, and lost.
High King of Heaven, O bright heaven's Sun,
Grant me its joy after vict'ry is won;
Christ of my own heart, whatever befall
Still be Thou my vision, O ruler of all!