February 25, 2017

When Jon Strutted His Stuff

The first time I met Jonathan Strutt I realised that he matched his name.  Or so it seemed to me. There was a definite strut to him from what I could see.

There I was, January 1988, a callow journalism graduate, freshly minted, starting a new job at a new Christian radio station, still grappling with heaps of issues: my complicated romantic relationship that was destined to get even more complicated over the next few years, the memory of my parents’ divorce fresh in my heart, and a fundagelical church background which was good in parts, bad in parts, and downright disconnected from my life in other extremely significant parts.

And there was Jonathan – or Jon as I have known him since.  Fresh out of Sarf London, cockney geezer, all flashy beard, curly black hair, big strong physique, skinny tie, pink short sleeved shirt showing off his impressive guns. Oh and an equally funky cockney wife, Edie. He was the station’s new sales manager and he was the bloke that just had “it”.


Jon was funny, loud, tanned beyond what any Pommie in Perth had a right to be.  He drove around in his sleek white Pajero like he owned the joint, doing sponsorship deals with all the big Christian players in the Perth business world. Whatever he had written all over him it wasn’t “fundagelical”, that much I knew.

Oh, and did I say funny? I did.  But I gotta push it. Funny and loud in a “alright guvna”, “up the apples and pears”, “gotta speak to the trouble and strife”, kinda funny that we’d all seen on BBC sitcoms, but which was now standing in impossibly tanned flesh before my very presence.  He would sweep through the corridors and his laugh would echo through the cheaply partitioned building, followed soon after by the laughter of everyone else.

I was hooked.  Six years younger than my own dad, but it seemed like fifteen. My own dad had always seemed old.  Where did Christian blokes like this Jon Strutt come from?   Christian blokes who were Pentecostal Calvinistic Baptists who spoke in tongues, prayed for healing at staff devotions, knew the Old Testament backwards, had planted a church in his London house that exploded into huge proportions with people falling over themselves to be converted, and who had spent much of his adult life as a London Bobby in the “‘ello, ‘ello, ‘ello, what ‘ave we ‘ere?” mould.

And joy.  Waaaay too much joy.  Suspiciously too much joy.  Who has that level of joy?,  I thought to myself.  And freedom too.  Freedom mixed up like plasticine with a whole bunch of joy that was infectious. So mixed up I couldn’t tear the two colours apart and inspect them for theological rigour -which was my wont at the time.  Extremely infectious joy.  I was worried.  Christians should know their place in the joy spectrum, and it wasn’t that far along to the Left I can tell you.

Or I could have told you. At that stage in my life joy was a strange beast, a museum creature I would visit, poke, look at, takes notes about, but struggled to ever experience. And freedom?  I knew that it was for freedom that Christ had set me free.  But free from what?  And to what? I wasn’t sure I was experiencing it that much.  But Jon and Edie?  They didn’t have to say they were free, they just gave off the sweet whiff of freedom and that was enough.

So when, after my mum and brothers decided to return to Ireland to live, and I was suddenly in Perth by myself,  and Jon and Edie asked if I wanted to be their lodger, I jumped at the chance.  Now to see what all this joy and freedom was about.  Now to prove that their joy was all linked to a life of ease and comfort and  settled family life.

Nothing could have been further from the truth.  Here was a couple who had packed up a thriving church life in London, uprooted from school their three children who were about to enter young adulthood, left families behind, and moved to remote Perth. Life wasn’t easy for them at all.  Huge adjustments had to be made.  Loss was their primary experience.  Their kids were finding the change of schools and youth culture hardest of all.

But they had a big house.  A great big house in Perth’s southern suburbs with a pool and a second floor and more space than I’d ever had in a house.  And they needed it.  Everyone was always over.  All of the time.  Church people.  House church people.  Work people.  The kids’ friends.  Anyone who they’d gotten to know.  Christians, pagans, singles, marrieds, divorcees, addicts, strugglers,  local teenagers with 1980s rock hair cuts.  Who has that many people in their lives?  Jon and Edie did.

And they had a natural way of talking about Jesus.  They could talk about Jesus as if he were really real and like, you know, right there with them in the house, to a whole bunch of people without any embarrassment or worry.  People like Christians, pagans, singles, marrieds, divorcees, addicts, strugglers, local teenagers with 1980s rock hair cuts. You get the idea.  Their lives had a seamlessness to them despite the pains, travails and losses they had experienced, and were even, unbeknownst to me, still experiencing.

And I got to live with them, eat with them, clean the house with them, do bombies in the pool with them, sing loudly with them, pray with them, break bread around a big table full of stray post-church Christians with them.

And fart with them.

Jon farted as often as he laughed.  And as loud.  Let’s face it, you’re either a farting household or you’re not.  And my household had decidedly been in “no-fart” territory for as long as I could remember.  Not the Strutts, and definitely not Jon. He saw it as his moral duty to ensure that his young son Pete (a friend to this day), was instructed in the sober task of breaking wind frequently and at a decibel level that would, since the introduction of noise regulations, have broken laws in at least three states.

I well remember the 1990 World Cup finals, getting out of bed at 3am to watch England lose on penalties or some such yet again, and thinking that if the World Cup of Farts was ever held, Jon would be the star striker.  He’d win the Golden Butt Award, that was for sure. One such early morning, despite concentrated efforts not to,  I let out a strangled  retentive “parp” to which Jon remarked, whilst leaning over to echo my sentiments on his own chair, “I’ve never heard you fart before!” To which I replied, “I never have.”  And it occurred to me right there that perhaps joy, freedom and farts go hand in hand, so to speak, and that my whole life was just too tight; way too tight spiritually, physically and emotionally, for me to think that it would get me through the years that lay ahead.

One Christmas the Strutts gave me a bathroom towel for a present.  Not any old bathroom towel, but with the words “The Best Lodger” stitched into it.  The “best”.   Meaning not “the only”. For the Strutts had had lodger after lodger after lodger living with them. They were always helping out someone who needed love and a family and a spiritual home and a roof over their heads. Lots and lots of those people. It’s as if they set out to find people like that, offer them a home and then sweep them up into their lovely lives.  Yes, lots and lots of people like that.  And me.

It’s hard to define Christian liberty as a concept, until you see it.  But I well remember one warm spring Saturday afternoon, Jon sitting out shirtless by the pool, glass of red on the side table next to him, cigar in one hand, Bible in the other.  And I can’t even remember the passage he was reading, but he called out “Steve, Steve, get over here!” before showing me some spiritually charged diamond from Scripture, and laughing at its beautiful applicability to our lives.  It was one of those “I’ll have what he’s having,” moments.  The memory has never left me.

Well time moved on, I returned to the UK, back again to Australia where they put me up again for another year. Then they moved back to the UK and worked with a deliverance ministry.  It was a big move and involved even bigger changes.  By that time their children were up and running and doing life their own ways, which included various times between the two countries.  That’s one important thing I could have told them. It’s the curse of many a UK migrant.

When they returned here they’d had some good times, some bad times, and some unsettling times.  Much of that to do with churches.  But both of them had the capacity to forgive and provide a theological reason for doing so.  Jon had a capacity to ensure that bitterness could find no foothold, and if it did he would pray and sing it away, banishing it to the dark corner it belonged in.  Most recently the Strutts were living in the southern coastal town of Busselton, where they served in churches and schools, and where Jon did landscaping and sharing the gospel with whoever crossed his path.  They loved my Jill since the day they met her so we have that in common.  I often phone him when I have a big theological or pastoral decision to make.  He’s still got that freedom and joy he had all those years ago when I first met him.

Or at least he had. Up until yesterday. For today he has more.  More freedom and joy than he could ever have possibly imagined or hoped for yesterday, or even that first day he said “yes” to Jesus.  For Jon has gone to be with Jesus – his source of joy and freedom all that time.

Jon had been ill over the past few years, but had rallied each time. People prayed fervently for him and he always attributed his recovery to God’s sovereign intention to keep him alive until his work on earth was done. Jon’s work on earth is now done.  I spoke to him by phone in his hospital bed just on Tuesday because, out of the blue, he’d come down with pneumonia.  When he handed over the phone to Edie, she was full of sorrow. Sorrow and joy and freedom.  Jon died on Friday morning. He was 67.

I am in a season of mourning at the moment, that’s for sure.  Five funerals of significant people since the middle of last year.  Yet the death I have thought most about in that time has not been Jon’s or even my own beloved father’s, but my own.  I am 17 years younger than Jon was, 24 younger than dad, and death is barrelling down the highway at me.  I know I will surface from this melancholic time, but in the meantime, in the valley, I am experiencing a freedom and joy beyond circumstances.  Freedom and joy are not my natural bent.  Heck, they’re often not even my supernatural bent.  But Jon showed me a life with those qualities, and the way he lived that life made me want it too. In so many ways he helped me to arrive at it, though some may beg to differ.

So goodbye my sweet joyous, free, bronzed Pommie friend and lover of Jesus.  I mourn, we mourn, but not as those who have no hope. I will travel to your funeral and will doubtless hear story after story the same as mine. And if it were up to me, as the service finishes we would line up outside the building to present you with a 21-fart salute, all rounded off by a strangulated popgun “parp” from me right at the end.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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