WONDERFUL FUNERAL THANKSGIVING for Edward today. Deeply, deeply moved by the tender care that went into its preparation and celebration. Visceral honesty, integrity, decency, tender loving care and goodness in Peter’s tribute. Gospel incarnate celebrating the reign of God in and through all things. Church of England liturgy working alongside ad lib and Mahler, Westlife, Katherine Jenkins and Sweet Sacrament Divine. And all supported and upheld by the bereaved working in close partnership and trust with the priest. And all working with supremely sensitive funeral directors, St Ann’s Hospice staff, Rowan Chapel staff and one another. A beautiful occasion of a kind that enables one truly to celebrate good life on the one hand, and good death on the other; an occasion of a kind that brings one face to face with a profound reality in and about all humankind: that we’re every one of us less than perfect and every one of us also capable both of loving and of being loved much. I wept for the joy of being alive today, and for the privilege of my calling as a priest. At a funeral.
DAY AFTER DAY I encounter degrees of faith and the most profound wisdom in the lives of people dwelling “in the desert places” that humble and inspire me. We’ve been having a bit of a run of bereavement and painful illnesses of one kind or another in Lent 2011. Several of my closest friends are living with cancer and the necessary treatments. Others bear different but no less troubling conditions with a grace that, quite simply, comes from beyond them or me. Bishop Kelvin Wright is one such graced exemplar. (The Truth Shall Set You Free)
My beloved parish priest was leaving for pastures new when I was but a young boy. I remember his parting words to our church family as though he uttered them yesterday. And I rejoice, forty years later, that they are as deeply true today when spoken by me: “If”, he said, “it is true that in any sense I have ministered to you, please know that it is doubly the case that you have ministered to me”.
And long years into my own spiritual journey I’m still learning “new every morning” to trust the grace and goodness of the God who hails and holds me tenderly in my own desert encounters. And Julia Esquivel, marvellous, extraordinary – and exiled – Guatemalan, enunciates what I – what all of us – most need to know: that, under God, the only thing we’re ever going to be really “Threatened with …” is “Resurrection”.
When the Hour Comes,
you shall change my desert into a waterfall,
you shall anoint my head with fresh oil
and your strength shall overcome my weakness.
You shall guide my feet into your footsteps
and I will walk the narrow path
that leads to your House.
You shall tell me when
I will walk your path
totally bathed in joy.
In the meantime,
I ask you, Lord, you who awaken
in the most intimate place in my soul
the Feast of Life!
Julia Esquivel (born 1930)
Amenazado de Resurreccíon – Threatened with Resurrection
There is a day
when the road neither
comes nor goes, and the way
is not a way but a place
Wendell Berry, A Timbered Choir, 1997 VII
It is as ancient, and as bonding, and as loving, and as natural, and as painful, and as poignant, and as sacred a rite as a bringing to birth. Indeed it is a Genesis – soft breath of a new beginning. Not a way but a place … beneath and above the trees, resting and revelling and reaching into light …
THANKS TO 3 WALKER BROTHERS and their wives I’ve had one of those delightful afternoons that planning for funerals – strange as that may seem – can afford. Winnie would have enjoyed our trip down memory lane.
The Walker brothers’ mum had left a rich legacy of memories. Happy family life, baking, holidays, homecoming and laughter. Less cash to hand, but also less anxiety. Fairly “simple English food” but, in other areas of life, more variety.
Tandem bicycling, far beyond the boundaries of home in Old Trafford, and wobbly legs in school next day. Memories of holidays in North Wales, for a family of five. Suitcases, pans of cooked food, bedding, with a motorbike and sidecar bulging at the sides.
The record player was still being wound up. Records weighed half a ton. Eggs were kept in X boxes! Families listened to each other and to radio: News, Views and Jimmy Clitheroe. Family memories: all have a story to tell. Today’s were told and enjoyed well.
WE SEEM TO GIVE THEM BACK to you, O God,
Who gave them to us: yet, as you did not lose them in giving
so we do not lose them by their return; for death is only an horizon,
and an horizon is nothing save the limits of our sight.
So lift us up, Lord of all life, that we may see you more clearly;
and seeing you more clearly may know ourselves nearer our loved ones
who are with you.
CHURCHES IN BRAMHALL have been praying for many months for Kay Howe. Her grandparents are dearly loved members of the congregation at St Michael & All Angels Parish Church. Kay’s Godmother is a member of Bramhall URC Church. Her family home is in Holland.
Kay has been battling with leukemia, lovingly supported every step of the way by her parents Rob and Marion, her siblings, grandparents and an unseen host of people in different parts of the world who have been inspired by, moved by the story of the Howe family’s courage, grace and dignity.
Kay died this morning. And the news came as a physical punch, a blow to the stomach. And accompanying the dizzying stars in all of our eyes there were, and are, hundreds of question marks. Why? Why? Why?
And I want to write for all to see: I simply don’t know.
But I DO KNOW that the source of life and of love in Kay, in her family, in the tender hearts and hands of medics and of other carers, in countless pray-ers in these long past months, has shone in and through them in a way that leaves me more assured than ever, even in the midst of their and my most anguished questions, of a loving, benevolent, knowing God into whose depth and mercy Kay has now entered fully and in the most perfect peace … one that is beyond all our present imaginings, and yet almost as near to us as we are to ourselves. And the knowing has enabled tears to flow from my eyes for much of the day.
QUESTIONS, wonderings, reaching out into the unknown are the stuff of our days. I question, in company with others, the theological position and judgment of the Church I love and serve, and, amongst other branches of that Church, that of the Roman Catholic Church. And yet in spite of the questions I offered loving and grateful thanks tonight as I waved at the tv screen, with a lump in my throat, and wished Pope Benedict XVI a safe flight home to a well earned rest. I find myself humbled anew by his grace, by his perseverance, by a love that drives a man of 84 years of age still to strive to proclaim a gospel of peace, a gospel of faith, of hope, of love, notwithstanding that he, like me, sometimes, and in certain situations, has his “Achilles heel”, blindspots personal and corporate, and sometimes appears to some to fail.
For whilst questions are the stuff of all of our days, heartache is too. And whilst I’ve frequently seen evidence of highest love in the hearts, and actions and lives of some of the most ardent atheists one could ever meet, I know also that I recognise in the sacrificial lives and examples of countless “religious people” a necessary Faith, a longed for Hope, and an indispensable Love.
I am moved and grateful tonight for the conversations that have taken place the world over between people of faith and people of no faith. May there be ever more respectful conversations between the rich and gloriously diverse peoples of the earth. May it be that those who are presently angry, or grieving, or marginalised are brought especially to the highest and most honoured seats in the halls of those conversations. I hope and pray that we will continue to find common ground, common love between us: because when any of us find ourselves asking Why? Why? Why? (as all of us must) when faced with wrenching anguish – like that felt when we’re parted from dear loved ones like Kay, we NEED EACH OTHER.
We NEED GOD. We NEED LOVE.
Kay: rest in heaven’s peace. You ran the race. You win the prize. Pope Benedict: sleep well, and thank you for your prayers.
TENDER MOMENTS today, and Swift and true,
High soaring flight, we and you and an old
Friend, and Winnie the Pooh. Parent and child
Adventuring on lines and squares.
Wordsmith wedded. Patient, warm and wry, sunlight
And sky. Lebanese mystic wrote “Don’t fear to die”. Hush
Then. We made them again. Recollections. We and
You. Tender moments today and Swift and true
SRM – for A & J and we and you
ANOTHER RICH FAREWELL TODAY … a returning for me to a former parish; a returning for Peter to the Father heart in whom, especially in recent years, he was graced with absolute confidence. His parish priest and a work colleague spoke beautifully of the irrepressible joy we all witnessed in a man, latterly a very fragile, frail man, who delighted most of all in bringing others delight. Peter spoke of the devoted wife who cared for him tenderly as “my angel”. He was the crucifer at All Saints’. And there was “something in the way he moved” that she and we recognised as of the stuff of the angelic, too. Truly one of God’s messengers has gone home.
They stand, those halls of Sion,
All jubilant with song,
And bright with many an angel,
And all the martyr throng;
The Prince is ever in them,
The daylight is serene,
The pastures of the blessèd
Are decked in glorious sheen.
FUNERAL THANKSGIVING is such a privilege. The calling to mind of the goodness of God throughout an entire human lifetime, the calling to mind of the ordinary goodnesses and the affectionately regarded foibles of a human soul. Memories today of a man in a clock workshop each of whose clocks provided his family with a different account of the time! Of a man who loved simply and straightforwardly. Of a man who spoke of loved ones as “the light of my life”. Of a man who needed gently propelling to social events by a patient wife, but who was known by all others as “the life and soul of the party”. Men are such funny creatures. And that’s probably true of women too … His family said that he was “Just Jack”. I like to think (and pretty confidently believe, actually) that that’s how God will have looked upon him, and on us, too. With all the love in the universe: just Jack.
BEREAVEMENT VISITING invariably leaves me humbled … and enormously glad that here in Bramhall we’ve an excellent team of willing visitors whose chief purpose in our shared life is to offer the gifts of friendship. There’s a silence and a shouting in the lives of all the broken-hearted. Would that the costly gifts of time and space be made available for the sharing of both.
A dear friend of mine, reeling from the death of his beloved wife, told me:
the trouble is, Simon, I’ve dozens of people to do something with, but no-one to do nothing with.
There’s an all-important treading lightly required here: but I pray that some of us may offer gifts of friendship and encouragement to do nothing with alongside the more usual to do something with. God bless the new friends I’ve been privileged to bring together this afternoon. I don’t doubt that each will bring untold blessing to the other. A kind of nothing that is an unimaginably important something !