Walking in the dark

adventfourhope

Advent. Time of transition and threshold. Hushed and holy time of waiting. On this Advent cusp last year, Diana a friend and my church warden, slipped peacefully to heaven after a long illness. She and I had walked much of it together, particularly in her last months. I had to preach on Gaudette Sunday after her funeral, on Joy and how we get there having just buried someone  greatly loved. You can read that here.

Last week another parishioner died, but this time very suddenly and with no warning, leaving family and parish reeling with shock.

Today was my last service in the community I have loved and served for three and half years. I preached today, having to hold a community once again in grief.  I titled it

Walking in the dark

 I ought to be used to walking in the dark by now. I do it enough. I regularly tramp the roads, paths & fields around here in the dark. Usually, in the deepest darkness just before dawn, with my dogs for company. Sometimes there is a tiny twinkle of starlight to see by. Every other sense is heightened as you walk by feel, rather than knowing where you are putting your feet.

I ought to be used to walking in the darkness of an unknown future. I have done that rather a lot over the course of my life, in various ways. Stepping out of all that was familiar, not knowing where the way would lead.     There is a word that best describes these times. Liminal space.

Liminial simply means threshold. The doorway between one way of being & another. Imagine yourself in a doorway looking out – the light is behind you –from the room where all is familiar & recognisable, but all you can see ahead is dark & unknown. Sometimes we are aware a threshold is coming, & see it from afar- other times the world turns upside down in a minute, & we find ourselves on a threshold we never ever imagined or wanted.

life-coach-doorway

 

Today we are all standing on the threshold of a new year. A new church year – because the church’s calendar is different to the one used by the world. It always begins on Advent Sunday. Rather than parties & fireworks – Advent begins a time of waiting & preparation towards Christmas, on a much quieter, sombre note.

The first Christmas of world war II, King George the VI faced down his own fears of his stammer to give a radio broadcast to nation & commonwealth in the turmoil & disorientation of war. As he looked into the fear-filled uncertainties & darkness of the year about to start,

he quoted a poem by Minnie Louise Haskings

I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year
‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’                                                        And he replied,
‘Go into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”

That poem is as relevant to each of us at the start of this new church year, & into 2016 as it unfolds, as it was to those who heard it on their crackly wireless sets in 1939. None of us knows what it may hold, internationally in our war-torn world, nationally or personally. As I will explain more fully at the end of the service, I am leaving here with no fixed future. I don’t know at this point, where God will lead me. No doubt each of us in this building, come to this threshold of a new year with uncertainties of one sort or another.

We heard the choir sing earlier the Psalm set for today, Advent Sunday – Psalm 25. The writer beset by troubles & uncertainties on every side, crying out to God to show him the way through.

“Make me to know your ways, O Lord, teach me your paths… for you are the God of our salvation, for you I have hoped all the day long”

Just before the Gospel, which painted a dramatic picture of a world in fear & turmoil, we sang a hymn echoing the Psalm writer’s thoughts. (Click on the words below to hear it sung by David Archuleta )

Be still my soul; your God will undertake to guide the future as he has the past. Your hope, your confidence, let nothing shake – all now mysterious shall be clear at last. Be still my soul; the tempests still obey his voice who ruled them once on Galilee.

The Advent candle of Hope we lit at the start of this service is a symbol of God’s faithfulness to us. His promise to take our hands, & walk beside us in the dark.

The faithfulness on which the Psalmist knew he could rely.

To you O Lord I lift up my soul; O my God, in you I trust. 

Trusting the trustworthy. Waiting, watching & walking in the dark, knowing that God walks at our side. Hope that shines in our hearts & does not disappoint us.

We prayed together as we lit that first Advent Candle.

God of Hope, you light our path. When we feel drained, defeated, & downtrodden, you tend to our souls. When our bodies & hearts are chilled by personal winters, you warm us by your Spirit’s fire. As we begin this time of Advent waiting, instil in us a hope that carries us through troubled times, as we anticipate the new heaven & new earth that is ever manifesting in our world. It is in the name of the One for whom we wait & in whom we hope that we pray.

As we stand at the Advent Door, what keeps you from hoping?                 What things are you carrying that weigh you down & slow your steps?     We may not see Him in the darkness, but God stands in our deepest shadows hands outstretched, to lead us forward. To carry all that wearies us. He waits patiently for us to reach out & put our hand in His.

The apostle Paul wrote a lot of letters to a lot of churches. People he had loved, cherished & walked along side. This letter to the Thessalonians is believed to be the first one that he wrote.

AD51 – within 20 years of Jesus death & resurrection, to a very early church.

Another word that is often used to describe Advent is LONGING.          Longing as we wait in the darkness for the coming of the Light. Paul writes with a bursting heart – to this small struggling congregation he loves so dearly. He is longing to see them again. He is longing for them to sink their roots deeply into God’s Love & to grow tall & strong – flourishing & sharing that love with each other & the world around them.

Let me read it to you again in a slightly different version.

1 Thessalonians 3: 9-13 (NLV)

How can we thank God enough for you and for the joy and delight you have given us in our praying for you? 10 For night and day we pray on and on for you, asking God to let us see you again, & for Him to fill up any little cracks there may yet be in your faith.

 11 May God our Father and our Lord Jesus bring us to you very soon. 12 And may the Lord make your love for one another and for all people grow and overflow, just as our love for you overflows. 13 May he, as a result, make your hearts strong, blameless, and holy as you stand before God our Father when our Lord Jesus comes again with all his holy people. Amen.

This Advent Sunday, at the threshold of a new year, the threshold of a new journey stretching out ahead of us- I could not ask for a more appropriate Epistle. ( I didn’t choose it – it is simply the one set in the lectionary for today) I could not ask for a more appropriate prayer of thanks & blessing – written by a heart brimful of love & longing. It echoes the feelings in my own heart as I stand here looking out at you all. How I thank God for each of you! How you will continue to be in my prayers as my journey peels off from yours. It has been a privilege to serve & travel with you for these three & half years. Paul’s prayer & longing for the Thessalonians is mine for each of you.

baby14112014-1

As we step out into the darkness & go our separate ways – I don’t know where those paths will lead. But I do know this. That the hand that holds mine, is one that I can trust. I also know that His hand holds each of yours & that nail pierced feet walk at our side.

d2a37e1d74656d8fc54555d3d4461d46.png

 

 

Silent Night

Christmas Truce 1914

Christmas Truce 1914

This Christmas Eve, 2014, sees the hundred year anniversary of that strange and wonderful happening – The Christmas Truce. A spontaneous Truce that broke out all along the Western Front, that first Christmas of the Great War, 1914. In many places the opposing trenches were only yards apart, shouting distance across the no go area known as ‘No Man’s Land’ strewn with unburied bodies, excrement and mud. There is so much about ‘The War to end all wars’ that looking back with the retrospectascope of a hundred years, makes us wonder ‘What were they thinking?’….

Thousands of Christmas trees had been shipped to the German Front line. A fictional account which picks up the facts and emotions portrayed in letters from those present as it unfolded gives a sense of the wonder. Phillip Maddison an English soldier in Henry Williamson’s A Fox Under My Cloak, found Christmas Eve to be literally a silent night.

‘His company, under the cover of moonset was to pick its way across the ‘frost-cobbled’ mud with posts, rolls of wirs, hammers and staples, to edge the line forward a few yards. Under the gleaming stars they walked easily. Although they risked being mowed down by machine-gun fire, Maddison ‘rejoiced that he was not afraid’.

Not a sound came from the Germans. The unbelievable became the ordinary, so that they talked as they worked, without caution, while the night passed as in a dream. The moon moved down to the top of the wood behind them; always it seemed, they had been moving bodilessly with their own shadows. Some time in the night Phillip saw what looked like a light on top of a pole put up in the German lines. It was a strange sort of light. It burned almost white, and was absolutely steady. What sort of lantern was it? He did not think much about it; it was part of the strange unreality of the silence of the night, the silence of the moon in the sky, of the silence of the frost mist…

Suddenly there was a short, quick cheer from the German Lines, Hoch! Hoch! Hoch! and with the others he flinched and crouched, ready to fling himself flat; but no shot came. Voices reached them across the dark void of No Man’s land. Then the Scots saw dim figures silhoutted on the German parapet, and about them more lights. With amazement, Maddison realised that a Christmas tree was being set there… They began to hear from the German parapet a rich baritone voice singing ‘Stille Nacht, Helige Nacht’ . The voice came across the mist and ‘It was all so strange; it was like being in another world, to which he had come through a nightmare…

This book is quoted in another called Silent Night, in which ‘acclaimed historian Stanley Weintraub reveals the truth of this inspiring episode and tell the story of those men whose goodwill, humanity and faith all too briefly prevailed over the madness of the Great War’

I will be using this remarkable episode in history woven in with the Christmas services I am taking this year. There is a very obvious correlation, and many gifted people have produced dramas, liturgies and materials to highlight the link for the Centenary.  I also write a poem most Christmases and have for many years now. The following is the result of some of my journeying with centenary commemorations.

Silent Night

Light in the darkness
It started with one.

A flicker of flame against the black of night
A pin-prick of hope in a canvass of hate and fear.
One became another, a host of mystery
Sprinkle of tiny lights
Ribboned out across the Front.

Light in the darkness
It started with one.

One star. One angelic flame fracturing the night.
herald of Hope to a people dwelling in darkness.
one became another, a host of mystery
Holy couriers ablaze
Phosphorescence of grace

Song in the dark
It started with one

A lone voice lifted into the silence, void of guns
Longing for home, a soldier’s strain of Christ child come down
One became another, a host of mystery
As voice echoed voice across
No man’s land, scarred waste of war

Song in the dark
It started with one

Orison of joy sung out to astonished ears
Singing of Home, an angel’s word of Christ child come down
One became another, a host of mystery
Incarnation of Love
God birthed in dung and trench

Light in the dark
It started with One.

christmas-star

A time to die

butterflies towards the light

A time to die…     

A couple of weeks ago, I said goodbye to a dear and beautiful friend, Sue. After a 5 year fight with cancer, she is now with God. She was my friend, my next door neighbour and a parishioner. I had the privilege of travelling with her through the ups and downs of her last year. The hope, the heartbreak, the fear and the peace. I have done the same journey with many friends over the years, and it doesn’t get easier. As a former palliative care nurse, in the community and hospice, I have also journeyed with many other families in a process of release and letting go. Of loving and leaving. It was a job I loved, although inevitably costly. It is possible to care for someone who is dying and hold yourself apart, with a protective distance, but that was something I could/ can never do. The end of life is ‘Holy Ground’ that requires bare, unprotected feet, in my book. It is far more abut being, than doing. And being with, means exactly that. Being. Present to, and attentive to the whole person and their needs of the moment. With. Alongside. In the dark and the light, the pain and the peace.

Part of me will always be a palliative care nurse. It is a ‘hat’ I can never take off, nor that of a midwife, an earlier profession. Both professions inform and shape the priest I am.

Sue accepted her approaching death with grace and courage. She knew the gentle arms in which she was held in life, would be the ones who would carry her Home. From home to Home. Her husband Bill, read the following beautiful poem at her Thanksgiving service.

A Song Of Living

Because I have loved life, I shall have no sorrow to die. I have sent up my gladness on wings, to be lost in the blue of the sky. I have run and leaped with the rain, I have taken the wind to my breast. My cheek like a drowsy child to the face of the earth I have pressed. Because I have loved life, I shall have no sorrow to die.

I have kissed young Love on the lips, I have heard his song to the end, I have struck my hand like a seal in the loyal hand of a friend. I have known the peace of heaven, the comfort of work done well. I have longed for death in the darkness and risen alive out of hell. Because I have loved life, I shall have no sorrow to die.

I give a share of my soul to the world, when and where my course is run. I know that another shall finish the task I must leave undone. I know that no flower, nor flint was in vain on the path I trod. As one looks on a face through a window, through life I have looked on God, Because I have loved life, I shall have no sorrow to die.

Amelia Josephine Barr

It was not one I had come across before, but I would like it to be read at mine, whenever that is. It encapsulates my own feelings about life and death succinctly.        I have loved life. ‘I have sent up my gladness on wings, to be lost in the blue of the sky.’ I have found the joy even in the darkest of places. In the minutiae, ordinary and everyday. This God-supplied underground stream always bubbles cool and clear, a constant source of refreshment that has nothing to do with circumstances. I don’t mean to imply for a moment that I don’t get tired, grumpy and unappreciative. But the stream burbles on, regardless. Calling me to joy. Calling me to thankfulness. Eucharisteo in the centre of everything. Calling me to the wonder, curiosity and spontaneity of a five year old.

For a whole variety of reasons, I have never feared death, although I have brushed Heaven’s gates myself, at least a couple of times. I feared bereavement, and when my father died suddenly in his fifties, my darkest fears were realised. The deepest of many losses that would follow down the years. It is hard to say goodbye. Somehow, in meeting that loss face on, and in the long journey of grief that followed my father’s death, the fear of bereavement evaporated. Perhaps just as well, as it has become all too familiar territory.

A family friend who died from breast cancer (at a similar age to Sue), just three short months before my father, wrote beautifully of her acceptance of the situation she found herself, and how ‘with His Peace, he graced this place of tears‘. My father had travelled closely with Guisela, through her journey with cancer. A few weeks before she died, she shared with him a verse from Psalm 139. ” All the days ordained for me were written in your book, before one of them came to be” v.16 “Isn’t that wonderful?” She marvelled to him, as he wondered just who was preparing who, (as it turned out, they were preparing each other for the start of their eternal lives in Heaven)  She found deep rest in the knowledge that her ‘times were in God’s hands’. The safest hands of all.

She expressed her feelings in this meditative poem.

Acceptance

Resignation is surrender to fate-

acceptance is surrender to God.

Resignation lies down quietly in an empty universe.

Acceptance rises up to meet the God who fills that universe with purpose and destiny.

Resignation says ‘I can’t.’

Acceptance says ‘ God can’

Resignation paralyses the life process,

acceptance releases the process for its greatest creativity.

Resignation says ‘ it is all over for me’,

acceptance asks, ‘ Now that I am here, what is next Lord? ‘

Resignation says ‘what a waste’ ,

acceptance asks ‘ In what redemptive way will you use this mess, Lord.? ‘

Resignation says ‘ I am’  

Acceptance says ‘ I belong – to you, God’

At the Thanksgiving Service for Sue’s life,

I read the following reading from Ecclesiastes :

Ecclesiastes 3:1-11 The Voice (VOICE)

 For everything that happens in life—there is a season, a right time for everything under heaven:

 A time to be born, a time to die;

a time to plant, a time to collect the harvest;

A time to kill, a time to heal;

a time to tear down, a time to build up;

A time to cry, a time to laugh;

a time to mourn, a time to dance;

A time to scatter stones, a time to pile them up;

a time for a warm embrace, a time for standing apart;

A time to search, a time to lose;

a time to keep, a time to throw out;

A time to tear apart, a time to bind together;

a time to be quiet, a time to speak up;

A time to love, a time to hate;

a time to go to war, a time to make peace.

What good comes to anyone who works so hard, all to gain a few possessions?  I have seen the kinds of tasks God has given each of us to do to keep one busy,  and I know God has made everything beautiful for its time. God has also placed in our minds a sense of eternity; we look back on the past and ponder over the future, yet we cannot understand the doings of God.

I was honoured to be given the opportunity to pay tribute to Sue at the service.

I have had the privilege of knowing Sue, (and her lovely family), for about 18 months, and lived next door to her, for just over a year. I was her friend, a back door, kitchen table visitor, who somehow bypassed any of the normal formalities of relationship, drawn in by the warmth of her smile and hug. ‘a time to embrace’

Others here are much more qualified than I to speak of Sue in years gone by, and will do. I simply want to give tribute to a brave and beautiful lady who let me travel with her on the last part of her journey.

Being brave, doesn’t mean you don’t know fear. Being brave is feeling the fear and doing it anyway. Ernest Hemmingway said, “Courage is grace under pressure” and he could have been talking about Sue. Sue met the challenges she faced with, as Judith put it, outrageous courage and grace. Another friend of hers, who I hope won’t mind me borrowing her words, put it beautifully.

“Sue faced the highs and lows of her cancer with clarity and integrity. She never shied away from the impact of her treatments and her losses and yet she managed all this with huge generosity of spirit, often with wry humour and always with a deep commitment to her family at the heart of everything.”

This is the Sue I knew, loved and travelled with. I came across a quote that said:      “Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.”    A time to love..

There is no question that Sue was a woman who was deeply loved. You all here, today is part testimony to that- and look around you at the flowers- This church was ablaze with love & light last night as Sue’s friends filled this place with fragrance & colour. There was music/wine/memories/tears & laughter.. a time to laugh, a time to cry.. Sue knew and felt the love that surrounded her as a tangible force that gave her strength, very particularly so in these last months. She would often tell me, with tears in her eyes, how much she drew from the love and care of family and friends that she experienced being poured out for her.

She also knew herself deeply loved by God. Held in his love, she was radiant with it in recent weeks as her path led closer and closer to Heaven. She was deeply at Peace, as she came to the end of her life, here on earth with us all. Wrapped in his Peace, like a soft blanket, (as she described it once) she was able to face death with courage.

“loving someone deeply gives you courage” and Sue was a woman who loved with all her heart. There was no half measures in love for Sue. She gave and gave and then gave some more. She loved Bill and Charlotte and Joey and the rest of her family with a fierce passion that gave her courage. She loved the God, who called her by name, walked at her side, & into whose arms she knew she was about to be scooped up with great tenderness.           A time to die..

On the night she died, I woke suddenly following a extraordinarily vivid dream. I dreamt I knelt at her bedside, and put my arms gently around her frail, worn out body. Her better- than-well-self woke up in my embrace and hugged me back. She was grinning from ear to ear and glowing with joy. She didn’t say a word, but her sparkling eyes said it all.

“and I know that God has made everything beautiful for its time” God certainly made this lovely lady Sue, beautiful-in her time, inside and out, & now, outside of time itself, and dancing with the angels, I expect she is more beautiful than ever.

Butterfly

( Sue loved butterflies and they were the theme of the thanksgiving service for her life.)