Leaning into darkness

 

River

It is hard to believe that such peaceful place of quiet beauty can swallow a life. A hot July day, the first of the school holidays and youngsters kicking up their heels, their lives and the long lazy days of Summer stretching ahead of them. They could never have foreseen that the day would end in tragedy, with a 15 year old lad losing his life beneath the surface of this river. Today, four years on, I watch from a distance as they gather around his grave, my heart heavy for their grieving.

I can never forget. Days into my curacy, I was pitched headlong into this unfolding drama of loss almost from the first moments. Racing to the scene, talking to traumatised youngsters and worried villagers as we waited the many hours until the emergency services found and recovered his body. From the television interview to the funeral and beyond into the weeks, months and years of heartbreak and adjustment to loss that followed, it was my tender privilege to travel with the family and the community. The sudden tragic death of a teenager inevitably causes profound shock waves not unlike a major earthquake within the microcosms of family, village and school. Life can never be the same. It can only be slowly and painfully rebuilt.

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How I wish this was a rare, exceptional event, as no family should have to face this horror. Alas my heightened sensitivity has zeroed in on news reports over and over each summer of young lives lost by drowning. Innocent fun turning fatal in the blink of an eye. Over sixty children lose their lives in this way each year in the UK, and is the third largest cause of child deaths. In the last few weeks I have heard of at least four, one only yesterday. Five years old.

Sudden death of any cause has the same seismic effects on hearts and lives. Every day it seems we wake up to hear of yet more horrors and violent atrocities with communities and families ripped apart by terrorism and hate crimes. Each candle burning, each flower laid representing a precious individual gone from the lives of those who loved them. Grief that will go on – long long after the news focus has moved on. Worlds turned upside down. It is hard not to be overwhelmed by the darkness.

One of the most famous prophetic descriptions of Jesus comes from Isaiah 53, describing him as ‘A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief‘.  At its simplest, and from personal experience I know this to mean Love that sits with us in the dark. The darkness of grief and the darkness of unknowing. Watching, waiting, keeping vigil. Nail-pierced hands that hold ours. Tears that fall from God’s face.

Three years ago today, on the first anniversary of this young man’s death, I came across a timely prayer poem that spoke deeply to me and I offer it here. It turns out they are the lyrics to a song on an album called Take Heart by Velma Frye, co written with Macrina Wiederkehr.


LEANING INTO DARKNESS (M. Wiederkehr, V. Frye)

Draw me into the depths.
Take me down to the holy darkness to Love’s roots.
I lean into that darkness,
The darkness that surrounds me,
This nurturing room for my restless spirit.

Let me borrow your eyes, Beloved.
Then I shall see in the dark, though for answers I do not look.
It is enough to wait,
To wait in the holy darkness,
This nurturing womb for Love’s yearning.

Listening to the sound of silence,
And leaning into the song of darkness, I wait for You.
Waiting with purpose for who I will become,
Waiting without agenda for things I can not change,
I become one with the One I love,

For I have seen too many stars,
Too many stars to let the darkness overwhelm me.

I keep vigil:
with my heart’s eternal questions, and with my deep longings.
with those places in my being where the light has grown dim.
with those whose hearts are tired, & with those whose hope is lost.
for those who sleep and for those who can not rest.
for those with fearful hearts, and for those whose hearts are angry.
for those whose courage is waning and for those whose strength is growing.
for those who suffer, and for those who keep vigil.

I keep vigil. I keep vigil. I keep vigil. I keep vigil,

For I have seen too many stars,
Too many stars to let the darkness overwhelm me

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I am always so grateful for the gift of words or art that others offer, putting pain, blessing and healing into words or form that speak in a profound way. These gifts are often costly, self-sacrificial baring of souls. Someone who frequently does this for me is fellow priest, author and artist Jan Richardson  who blogs at The Painted Prayerbook. Her latest post, A Blessing when The World is Ending,  from her book Circle of Grace (which I can highly recommend along with her other work) seems to dovetail beautifully with the lyrics above.

Blessing When the World is Ending

Look, the world
is always ending
somewhere.

Somewhere
the sun has come
crashing down.

Somewhere
it has gone
completely dark.

Somewhere
it has ended
with the gun,
the knife,
the fist.

Somewhere
it has ended
with the slammed door,
the shattered hope.

Somewhere
it has ended
with the utter quiet
that follows the news
from the phone,
the television,
the hospital room.

Somewhere
it has ended
with a tenderness
that will break
your heart.

But, listen,
this blessing means
to be anything
but morose.
It has not come
to cause despair.

It is simply here
because there is nothing
a blessing
is better suited for
than an ending,
nothing that cries out more
for a blessing
than when a world
is falling apart.

This blessing
will not fix you,
will not mend you,
will not give you
false comfort;
it will not talk to you
about one door opening
when another one closes.

It will simply
sit itself beside you
among the shards
and gently turn your face
toward the direction
from which the light
will come,
gathering itself
about you
as the world begins
again.

—Jan Richardson
from Circle of Grace © Jan Richardson. janrichardson.com.

I think all I can add to these is a heartfelt AMEN.

Presence

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The heat shimmered and danced on the horizon.

Abraham closed his eyes to its glare, and let the deep silence of the desert enfold him. The soft sand in the shadow of his tent cradled his bones in its warmth, allowing him to sit. Others slumbered in the heat of the day, but despite his years, Abraham resisted the soporific lure. In the stillness he was intently present, the practice of decades.        Waiting, watching.

 

The day was ordinary, like the one before, and the ones before that. Fourteen long years had passed since God had promised to answer the deepest desire of his heart.

A son.

He only wanted a son, flesh of their flesh, bone of their bone, but God had promised him descendants like the panoply of stars above his head, the sand beneath his feet.

 

The years rolled by, and his body and spirit wilted in the waiting.

God said.

Abraham had held the promise in his heart. Turning it over, like a well worn stone.

Three months previously God had spoken again into the depths of his longing.

Underlined the promise with a change of names, of identity. Writing the H of the name of God into his and hers. A laughable promise of sons, of nations, of kings.

The covenant seared into the tenderness of heart and flesh.

 

The silence was fathomless.

 

The faintest breath of wind on his face. An infinitesimal change in the quality of the light. A feather touch of intuition across his skin. Abraham opened his eyes and lifted his gaze. Three silhouettes of strangers splintered the glare. His heart knew, even as his legs pulled him to his feet faster than they had for 30 years. He was running, heart pounding, awe pulsing through his veins.

 

Down. On his face before them. The only possible posture of greeting. Instinctive, and nstant as he stopped before the long reach of their shadow.

He daren’t look up.

Saw only dry and dusty feet. Still walking. Appearing to be going further.

Passing by.

Willing them to stay, heart in his mouth, he gestured to the deep shade of the ancient Terebinth Trees. Green-leaved even in the sapping drought, their deep roots reaching for artesian springs.

The words tumbled out, urgent, pleading.

 

Adoni, If I have found grace in your sight, please stay awhile. Rest yourselves against the tree and I will have water brought to wash your feet. Bread to sustain and refresh you and then I will not detain you further since you have come and honoured me with your Presence.”

 

He looked at his hands, the ground, anywhere but up. The three sets of feet were still. It could only have been moments, but it felt like hours. Hope thrumming in his ears as he waited,  Would God receive his hospitality?

The reply was gentle, grace-filled.

 

“Go and do as you have promised”

 

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Andrei Rublev Trinity /Hospitality of Abraham 

Walking in the dark

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Hildegarde of Bingen ‘A feather on the breath of God’

A feather on the breath of God

If ever a woman in history has captured my imagination it is Hildegarde. She defies all ‘boxes’ and perhaps that is significant in her attraction. This extraordinarily gifted woman born in 1100, in Bermersheim, Germany was given to the church at the age of eight. The tenth child of Hildebert of Bermersheim and Mechthild of Merxheim, she was promised as a tithe to the church from her birth. She was later to become an abbess. The book Hildegard of Bingen, The woman of her age, by Fiona Maddocks  speaks of the multiplicity of her gifts.

‘Today she is best known for her music. Yet her compositions form only a small part of her story. She was a polymath: a visionary, a theologian, a preacher; and early scientist and physician; a prodigious letter writer who numbered kings, emperors and popes among her correspondents. She an artist, not only in the musical and literary sense but in painting and, it would seem, architecture. She even invented her own coded language.’

She inspires and intrigues me. The name of the blog is taken from phrase she used to describe herself. See About & Ruach Yahweh

” Listen ; there was once a king sitting on his throne. Around him stood great and wonderfully beautiful columns ornamented with ivory, bearing the banners of the king with great honour. Then it pleased the king to raise a small feather from the ground and he commanded it to fly. The feather flew, not because of anything in itself, but because the air bore it along. Thus am I ‘a feather on the breath of God'”

She designed one of her monasteries- with plumbing- recommending her nuns to take hot baths… she purportedly invented dark beer; she wrote extensively on plants, animals, illnesses  and cures describing cancer and its development in great detail, even devoting a whole chapter to breast cancer. ‘According to Hildegarde, the key to successful cancer treatment therapy was early detection and treatment beginning in the pre-cancerous state.’ Hildegarde of Bingen’s Medicine Dr Wighard Strehlow & Gottfried Herzka M.D. 

She wrote about sex, female orgasm and in common with the Greek physician, Galen, believed that both men and women produced ‘seed’ necessary for conception. Her compassionate views on menstruation were that ‘the woman should be cherished in this time with a great and healing tenderness’. All astonishing insights from a chaste nun in the 12th century.

She had a wide ranging knowledge of the created world, and her entire theology is founded on the harmony of the created world and its relationship with God. She was a very early Green in her passion in this regard. Her cherished concept of viriditas, translated variously as greeness, vigour, youthful freshness runs through all of her writings, poetry and music.

Malcolm Guite, a poet priest has written the following poem about Hildegard of Bingen which appears in his book of poetry, The Singing Bowl which is due to be published on Oct 25th.

Hildegard of Bingen

A feather on the breath of God at play,

You saw the play of God in all creation.

You drew eternal light into each day,

And every living breath was inspiration.

You made a play with every virtue playing,

Made music for each sister-soul to sing,

Listened for what each herb and stone was saying,

And heard the Word of God in everything.

Mother from mother earth and Magistra,

Your song revealed God’s hidden gift to us;

The verdant fire, his holy harbinger

The greening glory of viriditas.

‘Cherish this earth that keeps us all alive’

Either we hear you, or we don’t survive.

I am still learning to be a feather on God’s breath. To float where and when He wills and only at His bidding. This feather tries too often to have energy of her own, and direct her own path/trajectory.. instead of resting on the loving breath of God and letting it all depend on Him. To let go and fly on Ruach Yahweh is my deepest joy, and my constant prayer.

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.)

Transfiguration

Transfiguration

Jesus wanted to pray.  This wasn’t unusual. He was always praying. He would often leave us mid evening and set off by himself, and we’d see him again sometime the next morning. This time he wanted company.  It had been a long, busy day and to be honest, I could have done with my bed, but there was something about the way he asked that made it hard to refuse. There were four of us. Peter and John, Jesus, and myself.

I wasn’t sure where we were going. Only that it was up, and up, and more up. There was very little light, and it took all my concentration to keep following. I could just about see where I was putting my next step.  There was no conversation. We didn’t have the breath for that. It seemed to go on forever. If I was tired before I started, I was exhausted now. This praying stuff was hard work, and no mistake. Finally he stopped. I guess we must have been somewhere near the top, but I couldn’t really see.  It had been warm enough as we were making the effort of climbing, but after a few minutes of pause, I could feel the chill air and drew my cloak around me. Peter, John and I had flopped down to the ground very soon after stopping. I guess we were all feeling pretty much the same.

We have never discussed that night. In fact this is the first time I have told this story. The details are burned into my memory, together with a host of swirling emotions. I have gone over them many times in my mind, but it is hard to find the words to describe quite what happened.

Jesus remained standing, a little way from us. He was praying silently. I am afraid I was shaking my head to stay awake. Too tired to pray.  Too tired to think. My body and my brain were trying to shut down and it was all I could do to fight it.  He had wanted us with him for some reason, and I was trying to do just that, but losing.  I tried to keep my eyes focused on him, and listening for anything he might say.

I thought I must have started dreaming.  Either that or the thin mountain air was playing tricks with my brain.  Jesus’ face began to radiate with light as did his clothes. It was like he lit up from within. Brighter and brighter, until I was completely dazzled. Frightening didn’t begin to cover it. It is strange how overwhelming light can feel.  I don’t have a word that describes it adequately.  I thought I knew this man I had worked alongside, but this being, radiant with glory beyond imagining, splintered all my preconceptions.

All at once there were three of them. Three shining figures talking together. It was Moses and Elijah. Don’t ask me how I knew that, I have never been able to explain that to myself – but I knew without a shadow of doubt, that is who they were, the instant I saw them. Moses was speaking to him of the ‘Exodus’ Jesus was about to accomplish in Jerusalem. A deliverance that would eclipse the rescue Moses led, by a million miles. (At the time, I barely understood what they were talking about. I heard the words, but I couldn’t take them in. I see so clearly now they were encouraging him for his journey to the cross as ‘the Lamb of God’.)  Their conversation came to a close, and Moses and Elijah appeared to be turning to leave him.

Peter’s voice made me jump. Speaking too fast and too loudly, he gabled something about making shelters for each of them. I think he wanted this extraordinary moment to last longer- I am not even sure if he knew what he was saying. The words had barely left his lips when we were all enveloped in a cloud. Weather can change very quickly in the mountains, but this was like no cloud I had ever seen. I find it hard to explain it to you. It was terrifying. Like the cloud that led the Israelites out of Egypt and across the desert- we were engulfed in God. The sense of being in the Presence of the Almighty God was electrifying. I could barely breathe. I have never felt such an intense awareness of holiness. It made me want to lie flat on my face, but I couldn’t move.  To be honest, I didn’t know if I was still alive.

Then God spoke. Spoke to me- to us.  It sounded like thunder and yet felt like a whisper. I know that doesn’t make sense, but you’ll have to believe me. “THIS IS MY SON” the words were charged with such love and power “ MY CHOSEN”

I trembled from head to foot. “LISTEN TO HIM!”  As the sound died away, the cloud melted and Jesus was simply standing there. Alone. The same man that had climbed the mountain with us, looking very human and vulnerable, and yet everything had changed.

We didn’t speak. Couldn’t speak. Even Peter, for once, was completely silent. Awestruck. I was still trembling. The command to listen was still echoing in my ears and I was listening with every fibre of my being.  Jesus didn’t say a word, but his face and his eyes spoke volumes. The light no longer blazed from his face, but my heart was aflame.

Some months later I heard him describe himself to those listening to him as “the Light of the world” and that “those who followed him would never walk in darkness” and I was instantly taken back to that mountain. How it felt as I walked back down. As if I was carrying the Light I had seen.  I understood him even less than before, and yet I would follow him wherever he led, even if I didn’t know where he was going.  I had to follow him even into the darkness, as how else would I see? How else would I hear?

And to think I almost fell asleep.