‘My eyes fail with watching for your promise…’

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I sat through that funeral earlier this week.

I must have conducted around 500 funerals: each one is different and it is never an act- it is impossible not to be touched by any of them (and if you are not, perhaps you should consider giving up conducting them), but this one really got to me; my first contemporary to go and a lovely chap; so full of life.

It was when his oldest son got up to speak and talked with the kind of raw honesty that his dad had about how his dad had told him how two friends had prayed that one day he would see him again (a relationship breakdown had led to no contact) that I lost my equilibrium. I remembered those days- 2 years- when 3 of us met for an hour a week to be vulnerable, pray, swear and try and be honest. I remembered prayers prayed for us and the possibility of children that at that time seemed so unlikely and prayers for my other friend’s child in difficulty.

I struggle with prayer- always have. I struggle with the simplistic ideas of ‘God has answered this’ or ‘God hasn’t answered that’. I think of people that have died (my friend, whose funeral it was), people who haven’t got better, relationships that have broken down etc etc etc….oh and that whole issue about a suffering world. I struggle with some of the triteness in Christian culture that can’t be honest or lament. I get the silence, the stillness and the openness to God and sitting with the Big Questions and knowing that somehow, although things will fade and die, that somehow you are held.

…and yet… in this service. lamenting a life that had faded and gone too soon, I was aware that I was unexpectedly in the presence of answered prayer: in my family’s life and in the life of a young man who was talking honestly and showing the broken beauty of redemption.

I don’t understand- I really don’t. Sometimes-often- as the psalmist says, my eyes fail watching for the promise. I could dismiss it, or walk away, but just at that moment, I glimpsed a shaft of light and the grace to live in the light of the big and beautiful questions.

My friend: Rev Peter Knight 1965- 2018

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I’m travelling to Oldham today, but the funeral of a friend: my first funeral for a contemporary.  Others have put it better than I can, but this is an edited version of something I wrote to him when I last saw him, 2 months before he died. If it was a fuller address, I’d have dwelt more on Felicity, his wife and his children and grandchild.

I miss him so much: one reason why this is a good deal longer than I usually post.

Pete: my friend.

I think I first met Pete in 1991; I bumped into him on a cricket field for a scratch team that we were both playing in. Funnily enough, I still use that kit and think of him every time I wear it and still will.

We trained as local preachers in the same circuit, although not at the same time. What I remember about him then was something that marked him all of the time that I knew him; his enthusiasm and zeal. ‘Zeal’ is a strange word and it conjures up images of wild-swivelled eyed loons who have no connection with reality. Nothing could be further from the truth with him: he was always well earthed- even earthy.

It was at Hartley Victoria College, Manchester that I really got to know him. Three of us shared a study: ‘The Room 69 Experience’. I learnt many things from this time. Most of that came out of the desire that if we were to be formed as ministers, we had to learn to be vulnerable and accountable; we’d seen too many who weren’t. I appreciated his part in that and especially the sense that if we were Christians and male we’d have to learn to bring the two together. I think I’d imbibed the idea that somehow ‘maleness’ was separate from your Christianity. Those times together were amazingly vulnerable and honest but also, at times, extremely crude. That is something that I’ve carried from that time into any strong friendship; honesty, lack of pretence and extreme crudity: he was formative for me.

We talked a lot, but we also managed to pray- sometimes as long as we talked! I can remember in particular about families; estranged children, health issues and the desire for a family. It was quite emotional a few months back, talking with my sons about him and these prayers and them allowing me to photograph them and send the picture to him.

I recall many things from lectures that we shared. The one I remember most was when he agreed to get the phrase ‘When I was a bedhumper at Slumberland’ into a seminar on ‘Basic Christian Believing’ (which we called ‘Barely Credible Bumbling’). He managed it, completely poker-faced and neither the butt of the humour got it nor the lecturer, but everyone did.

We saw each other a few times after college and he was always the same Pete: honest, encouraging and not frightened of asking the direct question or issuing a challenge, but always in a way that made me feel built up and not torn down. After that life, geographical distance and family life meant that most of our recent contacts were through social media, but through them, I saw the same person, albeit one who had grown in stature and maturity. Our paths were now very different, but in the ministry I now have, I need to see people like him who have remained within The Methodist Church system as a reminder of our shared calling. I also need to have a questioning of what I’m doing (I don’t believe an unquestioned life is worth living). He showed me in what he did, both grace and dignity in bucketloads.

His ‘sitting down’ celebration was deeply moving for everyone there (even though ‘band led evangelical worship’ has not been my thing for many years…). Aside from the love for him that filled the room what got to me was what I’d missed: he was still so much ‘Pete’ but with a deeper and richer authority in the way that he led worship and preached. Also, the things that I’d appreciated about him were still there but amplified by the years and the relationships that he’d made along the way. He did not make it all about him and chose to spend individual time with everyone there; even taking time to needle me gently.

It was Sartre who talked about individuals who act in ‘bad faith’; people who play a role, adopt false values and live inauthentically. If I was to pick individuals who did not do that whom I have known, I would pick Pete.

At that service he said ‘I’m about to take one of the most amazing journeys that a human being can take’. He did and is doing and one day I hope to see him again.

‘Today I’m not a vegan’

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It was another funeral.

(A lot of my posts are about funerals; it is often there when the reality of life and death hits us with a stark reality that the most profound comments occur).

The buffet was laid out and the person who had laid it on said to one of the deceased’s relations ‘Sorry; I forgot that you were vegan’. The person smiled and said ‘Today it is about her, so it is ok- today I’m not a vegan’. A few minutes later, the host rustled up some vegan food, but to me that wasn’t the point; the grace and dignity of the person who was prepared to set aside a belief in that instant to honour someone else was.

A few years back I heard a story- which may have become apocryphal in the telling- of 3 Methodist ministers, all teetotal,  walking down a street when a someone rushed out of a house and noticing the minister of his church amongst the 3 said ‘My wife has just had our first child; come and see him and have a drink to celebrate’. The ministers entered the house to see the child and share the joy.

As the householder disappeared to get drinks, two of the ministers turned on the third and said ‘I thought you were teetotal’.

‘I am’- he said ‘ ‘But one of us has to be Christian’.

When you become aware of the Grace and compassion given to you; ‘standing on ceremony’ seems to be an act of weakness than strength. I think I’d like the courage to be different.

Typo

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It was a funeral; a strange one in the sense that a church had been found 40 or so miles from where the person had lived for large parts of their life and some way from where they spent their last few months. The funeral director had also come from 40 miles away.

We gathered to celebrate her life: someone sang who had sang to them in the rest home, a poem was read and a hymn was sung.

That’s when I noticed it: the typo. Every last verse of the hymn had a typo on the same word. Initially, I was distracted but then I began to smile; this was life being celebrated- broken, imperfect, affected by ill health but life.

Life has typos, imperfections, glitches, catastrophes and things that don’t connect. Often there is a temptation to airbrush it out: ‘living my best life: now’ , #perfectmoments etc and that temptation can be strong at the end: ‘they were perfect- would do anything for anyone’ etc.

I believe that this temptation has to be resisted; keep the typos centre stage.

Funerals: if you really listen…

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It’s your funeral…

Listening, really listening is very hard. Most of us just hear enough in order to respond.

I’ve heard some ministers becoming sniffy about the ‘dumbing down’ of funerals. I think underneath that is a fear-almost at times an anger- of loss of control when ‘we’ did everything. I’ve also heard some funeral directors be too directive- ‘they are non religious’, when underneath if you took a moment or two you’d find a richer, more complex story.

Really listening though is hard…when people say they don’t want anything ‘religious’ usually they mean they don’t want that control that those same ministers thought was good. They don’t want coldness, impenetrable ritual, a feeling of being ‘got at’ or something that feels remote. In practice, many of those who don’t want ‘religious’ want the 23rd Psalm, or The Lord’s Prayer, or a prayer or sometimes a combination of the 3.

They might not be sure as to why, part from it feels ‘proper’ or somehow comfortable. Some people are prepared to listen; to take the fragments of faith/hope/superstition/wishful thinking/whatever is offered and to honour them- not to look down or disparage them.

…and out of these fragments make something unique that honours the person and whatever faith (or non faith) they bring.

It’s not hard to listen: you just have to remember it is not their funeral, but yours…it was never about you in the first place.

The third in an occasional series about funerals.

Funerals: a journey continues

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There’s a book in the New Testament called ‘Philippians’. This part of the Bible has letters to churches; advice to help them negotiate the story of the culture that they live in. Part of this book has a lovely hymn in about Jesus and at the centre are the words ‘…he emptied himself’. Unpacking that whole passage is complex (I once spend a happy couple of hours in a library reading 50 plus pages of commentary on the Greek text and didn’t get bored...). In theology, they have the idea pf ‘kenosis’, which in simple terms is the study of this idea.

One way I take it is that if you are sure of your own identity, you’ll do anything to reach someone else; you don’t compromise, but you don’t stand on false ceremony. The human temptation is when you are unsure, you just get more strident and stop being servant like; in the context of a death the effects of that on a family are catastrophic. Occasionally ministers fall; they become too insistent on things being done ‘their way’- those stories are remembered by families and by funeral directors for years and are spun out of all proportion.

The way I’ve gone with funerals therefore is that if you don’t have a faith, but you want me to take a funeral, I’m not going to at the point of great need insist that you become ‘religious’. The way my journey has worked out, that seems akin to ’emptying out’ and serving people. Besides which, I figure; God’s bigger than any form of words. What I’ve noticed is that paradoxically, people who don’t want ‘religion’ often end up talking about faith more on a funeral visit than those who do want ‘religion’ (I’ve also noticed that I’ve prayed more...)

I could talk here about a humanist funeral that I once led with a Church of England Bishop in a church, but I’ve run out of time…

 

Funerals: a journey

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That is the kind of title that would turn most people off: we don’t talk about death in polite society- mostly we ignore it until it knocks on the door of those we know and our world is devastated; we never expected this.

I’d never encountered a humanist funeral until the very staid and traditional local vicar led one in his Parish Church.

It was several years ago: the village doctor had died- the vicar knew him and had been visiting him as his cancer journey drew to a close. The vicar had suggested that as the funeral was going to be large, the parish church was the only place big enough to hold the funeral. Knowing that the doctor was atheist, it was the only appropriate response. The dying doctor spoiled the purity of the humanist ceremony by insisting that The Lord’s Prayer be said as he said to the vicar: ‘It is your church’.

That was an eye opener for me. I’d been fairly ‘orthodox’ before that moment. I could understand the idea that people might want something different, but that seemed ‘wrong’; we provide something and if you don’t like it, you can go elsewhere. If someone ‘edgy’ had have done what the vicar did, it would have meant something. Someone staid and traditional and so comfortable with that that his God was bigger got through to me.

I have a confession to make; my name is the Reverend Graham Peacock and I sometimes lead humanist funerals.

Another thought about funerals…

I posted on something similar to this a few weeks ago…

It happened again.

I was contacted by an undertaker. A family for whom I had done a funeral for only weeks ago had suddenly and tragically lost another member. They wanted me.

They were very clear- ‘You know where we came from before, and now this- we find ‘God’ very difficult, so we want non religious’.

Of course, I could have said ‘no’, but I know I am in a minority. I have no issue with leading a non religious ‘service’:-

-It is not a ‘service’, it is a ‘memorial’ (And that is important- it is not splitting hairs: it cannot be a ‘service’ if God is not invoked imho).

-Big word ‘ontological’ (being and nature)- my being and nature as an ordained minister does not alter. Indeed: paradoxically, the family often refer to me as ‘vicar’ or even ‘our vicar’. I still dress as I would for a ‘religious’ funeral. Ditto my being and nature as a representative person is not altered were I to speak at a Rotary Club as a minister, about, say, rock music.

-From comments afterwards, many there believe that a ‘vicar’ being there, makes it somehow ‘special’. Some believe that a service has happened. I guess it has- I believe God is there and I still pray for the families. Many more so- I can see the hurt.

-If all I do is do a memorial, show respect and value the person/family and some people leave it thinking ‘We saw a Rev and he was nice’, they begin to think ‘religion’ is not bad after all. Indeed, I have found many people’s desire initially for ‘non religious’ stems from the perceived or actual experience of religious figures being controlling or dominating. Once they realise that that may not necessarily be the case, many ask for some Christian content. Another ‘no’ just confirms their prejudices.

Plus….

As the Black Eyed Peas intoned ‘Where is the love?’, of saying ‘no’ or being over fussy faced with pain and needing someone?

I guess I am lucky- I work with good, independent firms who care, who neither ‘use’ families or ‘use’ ministers. I can honestly say, that I have learned much about chaplaincy etc from my experiences of working with them and being ‘open’ where previously my theology was more ‘closed’

There are no easy answers

I spoke with someone this week who I had not met with before. He asked me what I did for a living and I told him.

‘That sounds interesting…and difficult’.

A day or so before I got a call: a local undertaker wanted me to do a funeral for the daughter of someone whose funeral I had done less that 4 weeks ago.

It seems a world away from some who post on my Facebook stream.

 

There are no easy answers.

 

I can hear that cry,

And I want it to stop,

Offer comfort to it

(or ignore it).

 

Another life finding out,

That ‘security’ goes so fast,

And,

It doesn’t take much,

To fall,

Spinning out of control.

———————————————-

Tissues offered,

A comforting arm,

The tears stop,

(for now),

The sun shines,

The embarrasment;

‘I’m sorry’.

 

This is how we live,

I guess the point is,

To acknowledge it,

And not pretend it never happens,

Or shuffle, full of embarrassment,

When it happens near to us.

 

Alive and yet dying..

I met this person at a funeral.

‘I am dying and this funeral has made me think about how I want to be celebrated’.

They were upset (I have no time for retrospectively told preachers’ stories that smooth out all of the wrinkles), but on this occasion, calm.

They talked about how, when they first received their diagnosis, they were very sad, but also angry: how could they go ‘before their time’. They may have even said they were angry at ‘God’ or their idea of ‘god’- I don’t fully remember all the contours of the conversation; just the integrity and honesty.

Initially- very unwillingly, they joined a group at the local hospice. For a lot of activities they were asked to be part of, they just could not see the point. However, gradually things ‘clicked’ and they talked about the relief they felt being around people who were living with (yet dying from) terminal illness; no one avoided them, stuck for words or adopted a concerned expression and awkwardly said ‘how are you’.

They said something like ‘I felt normal once again’.

Although this person had a faith background, they were just not sure about where they were now.

Several things struck me:

-The person’s total honesty: there was no pretence.

-Their integrity

-The stage  where they were at had led to an absence of self pity.

-The ‘vicar’, was somehow considered ‘safe’- someone who listened and was accepting. Sometimes I wonder what ‘use’ I am- encounters like this help me to see it.

Deo Gratias