‘A Time to Mend’ Chapter 8

Link back to Chapter 7

******

Gypsy Lane School was on the west side of Headington, only a five minute drive from Owen and Becca’s medical clinic. It had a long history, but had only been at its current location since the early 1970s, so by Oxford standards the buildings were fairly new. It had about fifteen hundred students, more than twice as large as Meadowvale High School, and to compensate for its size it was divided into six ‘houses’ – smaller groupings that provided a stronger sense of community for the kids.

All students (or ‘pupils’ as the English called them) were also attached to a tutor group of about twelve, and they stayed with the same group all through their school years. The ideal was that they would also stay with the same tutor, but of course teachers leave or retire all the time and new teachers take over from them. My predecessor had been at the school for over twenty years and had been well-liked by the members of her tutor group, and I had the responsibility of trying to find a way to fill her shoes. The members of the group were now in Year Eleven, which put them between the ages of fifteen and sixteen. It was my job not only to take attendance for them and to act as their first resort in times of need but also to give a few minutes of individual tutoring to two or three of them at the end of the day. The idea was that each person in the group would get at least one personal tutorial period per week.

All pupils at my new school were required to wear a formal uniform – school ties and blazers, with skirts for the girls and trousers for the boys. I was expecting this, having gone to school in England myself, but my first sight of a class of kids in school uniform still seemed strange to me after years of teaching in Saskatchewan where jeans and tee-shirts were the order of the day.

“What about you?” Emma asked me as we were having our supper the evening before school began. “Do you have to dress up too?”

“There’s no shirt and tie requirement, but a lot of the men seem to be wearing them. I’ll probably go along with that, at least to start out with”.

“Cool!” she said with a grin; “I am now the daughter of a guy who wears a tie to work! How am I going to cope with this transformation of my hippy dad?”

“Smart ass!”

She laughed; “It’s going to be a different kind of place for you to work, isn’t it?”

“It is. And I don’t think I’m going to have quite the same sort of comfy relationship with the Head as I did with your grandpa or Don”.

“I guess your new Head’s got a bigger staff to work with”.

“Much bigger, and she doesn’t really seem to project an aura of friendliness. She does have the occasional friendly moment but most of the time she’s all business and efficiency. I can’t really imagine her wandering the halls in a baggy sweater chatting to students the way your grandpa used to”.

She grinned at me; “Grandpa had his own style”.

“He did, and I always enjoyed it”.

******

Colin Kingsley was a thin, athletic-looking boy of fifteen with an untidy mop of black hair. I met him on my first day of school when my new tutor group came to my classroom at the beginning of the day. After taking registration I talked with the students for a few minutes and gave them a schedule for their initial tutorial sessions with me, after which I sent them off for their first classes of the day.

I also had Colin in one of my Year Eleven English classes. It was a group of around twenty-five and like almost every class at Gypsy Lane it was quite ethnically diverse, with about half the pupils coming from Asian or African backgrounds. A couple of them were new immigrants, and I had a teaching assistant in the class, a very competent woman who had been born in Iran; her specific assignment was to work with people struggling with English as a second language.

For Colin, however, English was not a second language; it just wasn’t a subject he found either interesting or easy. I set some homework after our first class, and later in the week when we met for our first tutorial session I asked him about it. We were alone in the classroom and I invited him to bring a chair over to my desk; “How’s your English homework going?” I asked.

“Not bad”.

“What have you actually done so far?”

He took out his binder and we went over his work together. It was immediately obvious to me that he was having difficulty grasping some of the concepts I had presented in class, and for the next few minutes I talked him through them again, answering his questions and giving him what I hoped were clearer explanations.  We then passed on to some of his other subjects and for most of them I saw a similar problem.

After my tutorial sessions for the afternoon were over I looked up Colin’s file on my computer and read it carefully; I started with his academic subjects and I quickly saw a pattern. All his teachers gave him credit for trying but his marks were consistently in the fifties, and in some subjects he had struggled to get a pass mark. However, he was doing very well in design and technology, especially woodwork, and he was also an excellent athlete; he had won several medals in track competitions and he played regularly on one of the school football teams.

It was when I was glancing through the personal section of his file that I noticed for the first time whose son he was. The file listed a New Marston address and the parent was listed as Dr. Wendy Howard, with a work address, phone number and email at Merton College. I immediately realized two things: Colin was Mickey’s son, and Mickey and Wendy were no longer together. Mr. Michael Kingsley was listed as a non-resident parent and his home and work addresses were both in London.

Colin had been born in October 1987; he was soon going to turn sixteen. I thought back to that time period. I had left England for Canada in the summer of 1982; I knew Wendy had moved to London that same summer to work on her doctorate, although when I left for Canada she had still been planning to continue her studies in Oxford.

I took off my reading glasses, sat back in my chair and stared out into space. I had received one letter from Wendy after I moved to Canada but it had left many questions unanswered. Why had she suddenly left Oxford – a university she had loved – and gone to London to join Mickey? In their last few months at Oxford they had gone through a traumatic breakup, and when I had left England they had not even been talking to each other. What had happened to change things so dramatically?

I remembered the night of their breakup very clearly. It was a blustery evening in late March of 1982. I had not slept well the night before and I had struggled to stay awake through a full day of teaching at Peers School in Blackbird Leys, where I was doing a three-month practicum. By now, in my final year, I was living in a one-room bed-sitter at the Lincoln College graduate residence on Bear Lane. I had made myself a light supper in the kitchen I shared with two other students, and after cleaning up and reading for a while I had decided to call it a night. My room was small and cluttered, with a single bed, a chesterfield and chair, a packed bookcase, a desk under the window and a small side table where I kept a teapot and an electric kettle.

I was boiling the kettle for a last cup of tea when I heard a quiet knock on my door. When I opened it Wendy was standing there in her duffel coat, and I could see immediately that something was wrong; her long hair was unkempt, as if she had slept on it and forgotten to comb it afterwards, and her eyes were bloodshot from crying.“I’m sorry”, she whispered; “I know you’re probably busy, but…”.

I reached out, took her by the hand and drew her into the room. Closing the door, I turned and put my arms around her. “What is it?” I asked; “What’s wrong?”

I felt her shaking her head against my shoulder, and then after a moment I realized that she was starting to cry. “Oh, Tom”, she sobbed, “I’ve been such an idiot”.

“You’re not an idiot”, I replied as I felt her body beginning to shake.

“I am”, she cried; “I’ve been so blind”.

I held her close, not knowing what to say and wondering what this could possibly be about. We stood like that for a few minutes with her sobbing desperately and me holding her and trying to soothe her. Through the walls I could hear the sound of a radio playing quiet music, and down below on the street a group of students went by on their way home from the Bear Inn, talking loudly as they passed beneath my window.

Eventually Wendy’s crying eased and she slowly disengaged herself from me. “Thanks”, she whispered, digging in her pocket for a handkerchief and reaching up to wipe her eyes and blow her nose. She leaned forward and kissed me softly on the cheek; “Can I have a cup of tea?”

“Of course you can; I was just boiling the kettle. Sit down; sorry about the mess”. I turned back to the side table, plugged in the electric kettle again, let it come to the boil and poured the hot water into my old earthenware teapot. “Do you want me to make you some toast or something?” I asked with my back to her.

“No thanks –  just tea, please”.

I stirred the pot with a spoon and then poured milk into two cups and filled them with tea. I turned and passed her a cup and she smiled gratefully, cradling it in her hands for warmth. She was huddled in my easy chair, her legs pulled up under her chin; she was still wearing her coat and was making no move to take it off.

“Are you cold?” I asked as I took my seat on the chesterfield across from her.

“Perishing”.

“What’s this all about, Wendy?”

For a moment she said nothing; she only sipped cautiously at her tea, staring sightlessly at the floor. Then, tilting her head slightly, she looked at me and said in a desolate voice, “I’ve decided to break up with Mickey”.

If she had told me that she had been diagnosed with a deadly disease I could not have been more astonished. “My God”, I exclaimed; “you’ve been together for years!”

She nodded helplessly; “The thing is, he’s in hospital tonight”.

“In hospital? Why?”

“He took a drug overdose. He’s barely alive”.

I stared at her; “Was he trying to kill himself?”

“I don’t know. I was the one who found him. I went over to his flat just before lunch today and when I let myself in he was lying on his back on the bed. His mouth was open a bit and his arm was extended over the edge of the bed”. I could tell that she was reliving the scene in her mind. “I thought he was dead”, she whispered, her voice trembling slightly; “He looked exactly as if he were dead”.

She gulped down some of her tea. “I called 999 and when the ambulance came I rode to the hospital with him. I’ve been there ever since. I sat in the waiting room for four hours and then I sat beside his bed for two more, while all the time there were books I had to read and papers I had to write. I’ve missed a session with my tutor, and earlier tonight, for the first time, I asked myself why I’m putting myself through this”.

“Did you know about his drug use?”

“I’ve tried to pretend it wasn’t there, but deep down inside I knew I was fooling myself. I’ve been an absolute idiot, Tom”. She raised her mug again and slowly drained it, taking long gulps of the thick steaming tea. When she was finished she said “That tasted good; can I have another cup?”

“Yes of course, but Wendy – is Mickey alright?”

“He woke up about an hour and a half ago”.

“What did he say?”

“He didn’t want to talk to me about it. I don’t think he wanted to admit what he’d tried to do”.

“So what did you do?”

“I left him and walked the streets for a while and then I came here”.

“Let me make you something to eat”.

She shook her head, her eyes staring into space. “I don’t want anything to eat”, she whispered; “I just want another cup of tea”.

I got up, took her mug over to the side table and refilled it. When I turned back to her I saw that she was hanging her duffel coat on the peg on the back of my door. She turned to me, smiled weakly and took the mug from my hand. “Thanks”, she breathed softly. “And I’m sorry; I don’t mean to be ungrateful, but it’s just that my stomach feels a bit unsettled and I’m afraid I might…”

“You don’t have to explain yourself to me, Wendy”.

“Thanks”. She began to sit down again, then hesitated, put the mug down on the arm of the chair and said, “Tom, would you just hold me again for a minute, please? I know I’m not being fair to you, but…”

I raised my hand and covered her lips with my fingers. Then, stepping forward, I put my arms around her and held her close. Again, we stood there for a long time, and even though I had often dreamed about this kind of bodily contact with her – even though I could feel the soft swell of her breasts through her sweater – I somehow felt no sexual stirring in my body.

Eventually she pulled away from me gently, smiled gratefully and sat down again. “I expect you’ve often wondered about my relationship with Mickey”.

“It does seem strange sometimes”.

“I’m not sure I fully understand it myself, but I think I started going out with him as a way of rebelling against my mum and dad”.

“He does look a bit like every minister’s nightmare”.

“Yes – not that I had much to rebel against; my mum and dad couldn’t have been more supportive and understanding. But living in a vicarage was so conventional and when I got into my teens it just seemed stifling. It was safe and predictable and part of me liked that, but another part of me was longing for some danger or risk. And that was when Mickey asked me to go out with him”.

“How old were you?”

“Sixteen; I had just finished my O-Levels. I’d got ten, and Mickey had struggled through five. He’d moved to Halstead a year or two before; his dad had made a lot of money in the city and then moved out to Essex to live the life of the nouveau riche. He bought a big house on the edge of town and tried to play the part of a country gentleman”.

“I suppose that’s something like what my father did when he moved to Northwood”.

She nodded and drank some tea, staring down at the floor. “Honestly, Mickey and I were so different; I’m sure everyone who knew me thought I was out of my mind. But he was out of the ordinary and fun to be around, and he played loud rock music on an electric guitar. And of course he was rich, and I’d been raised in a vicarage where money was always tight. Mickey took me on dates on his motor bike and drove recklessly fast, and I was terrified but I loved it too. I knew my parents were worried but somehow that just made it even more of a thrill”.

“So you fell in love with him”.

“Totally”.

“But you didn’t become friends?”

She shook her head, staring out into space again. “We argued a lot; there are lots of things we’ve never seen eye to eye on. But that’s never changed the fact that we were in love with each other”.

She got up and walked over to my desk under the window; I had left the curtains open, and she stared out at the street below. “Why am I telling you this?” she asked with her back to me. “I don’t know; I’ll probably wish I hadn’t in the morning. I’m usually pretty shy about personal things but it’s almost like I’m drunk tonight, even though I haven’t had anything except tea”.

“Wendy, are you sure you’re okay?”

She shook her head, her back still toward me. “I’ve been sleeping with Mickey since I was seventeen. He wanted it sooner than that but I held out against him for a long time; I was determined not to get pregnant. The first time we didn’t use any birth control; I was fortunate but I decided not to try my luck again. I insisted he use protection after that. He’s a wild lover, just like he’s wild at everything else he does. Jesus Christ! Why am I telling you this? It’s as if I’ve become someone else; you must think I’ve really gone over the edge!”

She turned around to face me again, leaning back against the desk, her arms folded across her front. “Tom, have I made the right decision?” she asked in a small voice.

“I don’t know, but I’ve always thought it’s a bit risky to have a long-term relationship with someone with a serious drug problem”.

“But will my breaking up with him help him or will it make it worse? Will he just go even deeper into addiction as a result? I don’t think I’d be able to live with that”.

“But can you take responsibility for that? After a certain point doesn’t preserving your own sanity take priority?”

I saw her lip beginning to tremble, and a tear ran down her face. “I love him so much”, she whispered desperately. “I can’t imagine living without him”.

I stood up, stepped toward her and put my arms around her again. I felt her hands come around my back and her head coming down on my shoulder; her body was not shaking this time but I could feel her tears on my face.

“You’re such a gentleman”, she whispered into my shoulder after a while. “Thanks for being here for me”.

“Not at all”, I replied softly, drawing back and smiling at her. “Now you sit down and drink this tea, and I’m going out to the kitchen to make you some dry toast. You’ve had nothing to eat since breakfast and you’ve had a shock; your body needs some nourishment, whether you feel like it or not, and dry toast shouldn’t upset your stomach too much”.

She looked at me for a moment and then nodded. “Okay”, she whispered; “Thank you”.

******

I was brought back to the present by the sound of a knock on my classroom door, and I looked up to see my department head, Kathy McFarlane, standing there in the open doorway. She was in her mid fifties; her greying blond hair was cut just above her shoulders and she dressed with a sort of unstudied casualness that I found charmingly eccentric.

“Hello there”, I said; “Is this a social call, or…?”

“I just thought I’d pop in and make sure you’re all right. I know how overwhelming the first week at a new school can be”.

“True enough. Come on in and grab yourself a chair”.

She came into the room, found a chair and sat down beside my desk. “How have your classes been so far?”

“Pretty good, although it’s all a bit of a blur right now: so many names to try to attach to faces. And it’s been a while since I’ve had to really apply myself to learning a lot of names at once; this is the first time I’ve started at a new school since 1982”.

“Was that when you went to Canada?”

“Yes”.

“Right – you’ve only taught at the one school, haven’t you?”

“Yes – how about you?”

“I taught in Norwich for eleven years before I came here in 1988”.

“Is that where you’re from?”

“No, I’m actually from the West Country, from Plymouth”.

“You’re a long way from home”.

She grinned; “Not as far as you were in Canada”.

“I guess not”.

“Is it normal in Canada for a teacher to stay so long in one school?”

I shrugged; “It varies. There were a few of us at Meadowvale school who had been there for a long time; mind you, some of them had been born there”.

“They’d come back to teach in their home town?”

“Yes”.

“You wouldn’t find that very often here – at least, not in a small town”.

“No, probably not”.

“What kept you there for so long, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“I married a local girl, and she was kind of attached to Meadowvale. But it turned out to be a good fit for me too; I liked it there”.

She nodded at the small framed pictures of Kelly and Emma on the corner of my desk. “Is that your family?”

“Yes, but my wife died two and a half years ago so it’s just Emma and me now”.

“I’m very sorry to hear that”, she said quietly.

“Thanks”. I smiled at her; “What about you – do you have a family?”

“Yes; my husband is Jim, and we have two children, Matthew and Alanna. Matthew’s in his third year of a PPE degree at St. Edmund Hall, and Alanna’s about to start a music degree at Lincoln College”.

“I went to Lincoln; that’s where I did my English degree and my teaching certificate. But what’s ‘PPE’?”

“Politics, Philosophy and Economics”. She grinned; “My son wants to change the world”.

“Well, I’m in favour of that. Does it run in the family?”

“His dad’s a Baptist pastor, so I suppose you could say it does”.

“I guess. So your husband’s a pastor?”

“Yes. We met in my first school in Norwich; he was just starting out in his first church”.

“My daughter and I are churchgoers too. We’ve been attending Anglican churches for the past few weeks, but we’re actually Mennonites and we’d like to find something a little closer to what we’re used to”.

“Jim will be very interested to hear that. He’s been reading lots of American Mennonite writers over the past few years; he’s quite taken with them”.

“He’s Baptist, you say?”

“Yes – he’s the pastor of Banbury Road Baptist Church in Summertown. It’s not a big church; we get about ninety people at our Sunday morning service – maybe a bit more in term time. But there’s a good representation of different age groups, including some families with small children, and we always have a few students from year to year as well. It’s got a nice sense of community”. She smiled at me again; “You’d be more than welcome to try it out if you like”.

“We might just do that; our church in Saskatchewan isn’t much bigger than that. What time’s the service?”

“Ten-thirty”.

“Maybe we’ll come this Sunday”.

“We’ll look out for you, then”.

“Sounds good”. I frowned and said, “Kathy, on a completely different subject, do you know Colin Kingsley?”

“I had him in my classes when he was in years seven and eight; why do you ask?”

“He seems to be struggling a bit”.

“Yes, he’s not really academic. He’s very good at sports though, and he’s great with his hands; you should get Simon Bennett to show you some of the things he’s built in the woodwork shop”.

“He’s the design and technology teacher?”

“Yes”.

“That’s just about the only subject Colin gets good marks in, isn’t it?”

“Yes, that’s where he really shines. I wouldn’t be surprised if he makes a career out of it, actually; Simon told me he’s one of the best in his class”.

“I don’t know if I’ve met Simon yet”.

“I think you’d enjoy him. He’s got a soft spot for the kids who don’t fit the academic mould”.

“Sounds like someone I should get to know”.

“That might be a good idea”.

******

When I opened our front door just after six, the Dire Straits tune ‘Money for Nothing’ was blasting out of the stereo speakers at high volume. “Anyone home?” I shouted as I closed the door behind me and stepped into the living room. Emma appeared immediately from the kitchen with her sleeves pushed up to her elbows and a paring knife in her hand; “Sorry!” she said with a grin, dancing her way across the floor and reaching out to turn down the volume.

“Well, that felt just like old times!” I said.

She laughed; “Mom would get home from work and put her rock music on loud, and you’d come home and fall asleep in your chair!”

“Be nice now!”

“Did you have a good day?”

“Pretty good, thanks”. I sniffed at the air; “What’s that delicious smell?”

“It’s a new chicken curry recipe I got from Auntie Becca. Supper’s nearly ready; would you like a cup of tea?”

“Would I? I could murder a cup of tea right now! Are you sure you don’t want to stay home permanently and become my housekeeper?”

“Tempting, but I don’t think so”.

“Too bad. So what was your day like?”

“Really good actually; come into the kitchen and I’ll tell you all about it. I’ll pour your tea too; I made a pot about ten minutes ago”.

I followed her through to the kitchen-diner; she poured me a mug of tea and I sat down at the  dining table to drink it. The back of our house faced roughly northwest, and through the windows I could see that the early evening sun was painting the cloudy sky in multiple hues of red and orange.

Emma poured herself some tea and turned back to one of the work surfaces where she was cutting up raw vegetables. “I took resumés around to about ten nursing homes”, she said, “some in Marston, some in Headington”.

“What kind of reception did you get?”

“Well, some places weren’t interested at all and some were very nice but said they didn’t have any openings right now. But one place just round the corner here in Marston said they didn’t have any paid positions at the moment but they were always looking for volunteers, and would I be interested in a volunteer position?”

“And you said…?”

She turned to me with a smile on her face. “I said I’d be okay with that, so I’m going back tomorrow to meet their volunteer coordinator!”

I gave her a triumphant high-five; “Are you happy?”

“Yeah, I am”, she replied, turning back to the work surface. “It’s not nursing training but it’s a start, and as long as you don’t mind supporting me I don’t mind going slowly”.

“This is fairly close, you say?”

“It’s on Marston Road, a ten minute walk from here”.

“Nice! I hope it works out”. I drank some tea, feeling it warming me all the way down, and gave her what I hoped was a penetrating glance. “Are you sure you’re okay with this? Are you sad you’re not starting university this Fall?”

“Kind of, but it can’t be helped, so there’s no point in worrying about it”. She turned to face me again. “Well, I think this food is just about ready. There’s also a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, courtesy of Uncle Rick, if you’d like a glass with your supper?”

“Rick brought us some wine?”

“Yes – he was here about fifteen minutes ago. He seemed surprised that you weren’t home yet”, she continued with a mischievous twinkle in her eye, “but I told him that teachers have to work long hours sometimes!”

“Oh you can be wicked sometimes, Emma Dawn!”

“Thank you, thank you!” she replied, giving me a little bow. “Anyway, he wants you to call him tonight”.

“Wonder what that’s about?”

“He didn’t say”.

“Apparently he hasn’t noticed that you don’t care for wine”.

“That doesn’t mean you can’t have any, Dad”.

“I think I might just have a glass”.

******

Later that night while Emma was reading in her room I made three calls. The first was to my brother; I heard the phone ring twice and then he picked it up and said “Richard Masefield”.

“Hi, it’s Tom”.

“Hello there – how’s your first week going?”

“Pretty well, thank you, and we had some good wine with supper tonight too”.

“I’m glad you enjoyed it. It was meant to go with an invitation; Eric’s turning seventeen a week on Saturday and we’re having a party for him. He seems to have taken a shine to Emma so we were wondering if you two would like to come along?”

“I’m sure we would”.

“Good. He’s got a few friends coming and our family will be there too, including Auntie Brenda”.

“Sounds good; I’m sure Emma will be excited about it. What time?”

“Come any time after about four. Dinner will be about six”.

“Right; we’ll be there”.

“Good. Well, see you next weekend then”.

******

My second call was to Owen. It was answered after one ring, and I heard him say, “Fosters”.

“Hi, it’s me”.

“Hi you; what’s up?”

“Did you know that Wendy’s back in Oxford?”

“Wendy Howard?”

“Yes”.

“No, I didn’t know that. Have you seen her?”

“No, but in a manner of speaking I keep bumping into her”.

“Oh?”

“A couple of weeks ago I found a book she’d written in Blackwell’s – an introduction to George Eliot. Since then I’ve found out that it’s her third book; they’ve all been about George Eliot and they seem to be getting some attention”.

“What’s she doing in Oxford?”

“Teaching English at Merton”.

“That’s a nice coincidence, isn’t it? Have you tried to contact her?”

“Not yet, but I expect I’ll run into her sooner or later; she has a son in my tutor group at school”.

“I didn’t even know she had a son”.

“Neither did I. You and I haven’t talked much about Wendy for a long time; you weren’t really in touch with her after she went to London, were you?”

“No. To tell you the truth, I got the impression she was deliberately cutting herself off. You heard from her though, didn’t you?”

“Just one letter after I went to Canada, and then silence. Did she ever say anything to you about why she changed her mind about doing her doctorate here?”

“No. Mind you, I hardly saw her after you left. If you remember, she didn’t even tell me she was leaving; I heard it from Sue Morris. I was really surprised to hear that she and Mickey were a couple again”.

“Well, they aren’t a couple any more”.

“No?”

“No – Mickey’s listed on his son’s file as a non-resident parent. His home and work addresses are in London”.

“Does the file have contact information for Wendy?”

“Of course”.

“Why don’t you ring her or send her an e-mail?”

“I’m thinking about that”.

“Good. Give her my regards; it would be nice to see her again”.

“It would. Well, I’d better let you go; I’ve got some schoolwork to do”.

“Are you going to come over again and play some more tunes?”

“Definitely”.

“I’ll hold you to that”.

I laughed; “Okay. Goodnight Owen”.

“Goodnight Tom; don’t work too hard”.

“I’ll do my best”.

******

I sat in silence for a couple of minutes, and then I took out a piece of paper with Wendy’s contact information on it, picked up the cordless phone and keyed in her number. It rang a couple of times, and then it was answered and I heard her voice; “Hello?’”

“Wendy?”

“Yes”.

“This is Tom Masefield”.

There was silence for  moment and then, in a voice that sounded just a little bit too cheerful, she said, “Tom – how lovely to hear from you!”

“I got your number from Colin’s file; he’s in my tutor group”.

“Yes – he told me his new tutor group teacher was a Mr. Masefield who’d just moved back from Canada, but I wasn’t sure if it was you or not. What brings you back to England?”

“My dad, actually – he’s been diagnosed with lymphoma. He’s probably only got about eighteen months to live”.

“I’m very sorry, Tom; how are things between you and him?”

“That’s one of the reasons I came back – to try to work on that”.

“This must be a difficult time for you, then”.

“We have our good days and our bad days”.

“I’m sure”. She paused, and then said, “So you were in Canada for what, about twenty years?”

“Twenty-one. I got married there and had a daughter; she’s seventeen now, going on eighteen”.

“Congratulations! I was married to Mickey for a while, but unfortunately it didn’t work out. We’ve been apart for a few years now”.

“I saw in Colin’s file that you and Mickey were living separately. I’m sorry, Wendy”.

“Thank you”.

There was an awkward silence for a moment and then I said, “So you’re teaching at Merton?”

“I am – I’m an English tutor there. I came back to Oxford about six years ago, just after Mickey and I split up”.

“Is it going well?”

“Actually I love it; I love the teaching and I love the reading and studying I get to do as well. And of course Merton’s a fantastic place”.

“Familiar ground for you”.

“Yes”.

“Do you still sing?”

“I’m an occasional member of a couple of choirs. How about you?”

“I’ve kept it up over the years. I was part of a trio in Canada for a while; my sister-in-law played the fiddle and another teacher friend played mandolin and banjo. They were really bluegrass players but I taught them some traditional English songs too”.

“You were always such a good musician”.

“Thanks. Speaking of music – I was talking to Owen earlier. I told him I was thinking of calling you and he asked me to pass on his regards”.

She laughed softly; “So you’re both back in Oxford now?”

“He’s never left, actually; he’s a senior partner in a medical practice in Headington. He’s married to Lorraine and they have two children”.

“Have you been playing music together yet?”

“Once or twice. Of course, if you wanted to come and join us…”

She laughed softly; “It’s been a long time”.

“Yes, it has”.

“Do you still enjoy walking?”

“I do, when I get the time. I’ve actually done a lot of hiking in the Rocky Mountains over the years. How about you?”

“I walk every day. I actually like walking down to college if I can make it work with my morning commitments”.

“That’s a good distance”.

“It takes me about forty minutes”.

“I walk to school every day too, if I can. We live in New Marston, not far from you”.

“Whereabouts?”

“We’re on Croft Road”.

“That is close to us; we’re on Bowness Avenue”.

For a moment neither of us spoke, and then she said, “Well, it’s been lovely to hear from you, Tom”.

“You too; can I give you my number?”

“Of course; just let me get a pen”.

I gave her the numbers for my land line and my mobile, and then I said “Maybe we can get together some time; it would be lovely to see you after all these years”.

“That would be nice. I expect I’ll see you at school sooner or later, for parent-teacher interviews”.

“Yes – they’ll be coming up in a few weeks”.

“Well, thanks again for ringing, Tom. Good night”.

“Good night, Wendy”.

I put the phone down, sat in silence for a minute, and then got up and went out to the kitchen to make myself a cup of tea.

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A John Masefield poem for the Nativity

You who have known the darkness slowly yield,
And in the twilight the first blackbird’s cry
Come, with the dripping of the dew new-shaken
From twigs where yellowing leaves and reddening berries lie,
And seen the colour come upon the field,
And heard the cocks crow as the thorps awaken,

You know with what a holiness of light
The peace of morning comes, and how night goes –
Not goes, but, on a sudden, is not, even.
Now God Himself is Man and all the banded Night
Will perish and the Kingdom will unclose.
O man, praise God, praise Him, you host of heaven.

From the play ‘The Coming of Christ’ (words by John Masefield, music by Gustav Holst). (For more information about this play visit ‘A Clerk of Oxford’s blog here)

Coming Home (a sermon on Isaiah 40.1-11)

The word Isaiah speaks in our first reading for today is spoken to people who feel the situation they’re in is hopeless. I wonder how many of you have felt as if things are hopeless?

I think about the person who gets into debt so deeply they can’t see a way of ever getting their head above water again. Or the person in an abusive relationship in which they’re being hurt over and over again, and they can see no way out. I think about the parents who realise they’re in a negative rut in their relationship with their child and can’t see any way of changing it – or the teenager who wonders if his parents will ever understand him. These people are on the verge of giving up all hope – or maybe they’ve already done so.

Sometimes this is complicated by guilt; the situation’s hopeless and it’s my fault. Think of the alcoholic or drug addict who can’t see any way out, but he also knows all the suffering he and his family have gone through is his own fault. Think of the person who struggles unsuccessfully to control her temper and can’t see any hope of change, all the time being aware of the damage she’s caused to other people’s lives. “I’ve ruined it now and there’s no way it can ever be fixed”.

That’s the kind of situation God’s people were in when our Old Testament reading was written. They’d chased after other gods made of wood or stone and worshipped them. They’d abandoned God’s ways and oppressed the poor and needy. Over hundreds of years God had tried and tried again to call them back to him; he sent a long line of prophets to try to persuade them and warn them about what would happen if they didn’t repent. A few responded, but most ignored God’s call.

Eventually God allowed foreign armies to come against the land and defeat the Israelites; the leaders and educated classes were taken away as prisoners into exile in a foreign country and their land was given over to others. The temple in Jerusalem – which they saw as a sign that God was with them – was destroyed by the Babylonians. And the people who were taken away to Babylon thought God was so angry with them that he would never again accept them as his people.

Into this hopeless situation God sent a prophet to speak a word of comfort. We call him ‘Isaiah’, but he’s probably not the same prophet that wrote the first 39 chapters of the Book of Isaiah as we now have it; those chapters were likely written many years earlier. God gave this ‘Second Isaiah’ a word of hope for people who lived in hopelessness and despair. You can find it in our first reading for today, from Isaiah chapter 40. Let’s start by looking at verses 1-2:

‘Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins’.

The prophet brings the people an incredible message: despite all the sins they’ve committed, despite all the suffering they’ve been through, God still cares for them. And God is coming to them now with a message of comfort and hope.

That comfort and hope comes in the words of three ‘voices’ that the prophet mentions in verse 3, verse 6, and verse 9. We’re not told who the speakers are. Likely they’re just a poetic device the prophet uses; one of the things we know about Second Isaiah is that he’s a wonderful poet. Let’s explore what he has to say by listening to these three ‘voices’.

The first voice is a promise of homecoming. Look at verses 3-5:

‘A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”’

So this is a promise of a homecoming. For more than a generation the exiles had been living hundreds of miles away from their home. We can get a sense of how they felt in one of the most poignant psalms in the Bible, Psalm 137:

‘By the rivers of Babylon – there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How could we sing Yahweh’s song in a foreign land?’

I can only imagine what it felt like for them. When I was seventeen my family moved from the U.K. to Canada. At the time I wasn’t too pleased with the move; I had good friends back home and I had no desire to start over again at the age of seventeen in a completely unfamiliar country. Making friends wasn’t easy for me in those days, because I was a pretty shy guy. Eventually, of course, things brightened up, and now, forty-two years later, I’m very happy in this foreign land!

But let’s change the illustration; let’s think of the children of the residential schools, taken away forcibly from their homes and their families, forced to live in a completely unfamiliar boarding school system, forced to forget their own languages and customs and learn a completely alien way of life. I can’t begin to imagine how awful that must have been for them.

But for Israel it was even worse, because they had a very strong belief that Jerusalem was the city of God and the Temple was the place in Jerusalem where God’s presence was strongest. If you wanted to meet with God, you went to the Temple; you could be sure he’d be there! But how could you ‘sing Yahweh’s song in a foreign land’?

How does this translate into our experience today?

I would suggest to you that the truest and most secure home any human being can have is the presence of God. God is our Creator, our rock, our loving parent. To live in God is to be truly at home in the most complete sense of that word. Every other home will disappoint us eventually; only when we find our home in God will we be fully satisfied. “You have made us for yourself”, Saint Augustine prays, “and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you”.

So what does Jesus say to us?

“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:2-3).

I don’t think Jesus is especially talking about death here. We don’t have to wait until we die to find our home in God. Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Do we have to wait until we die to ‘come to the Father’? Of course not; we can come to the Father right now.

So that’s the first announcement of Advent for us Christians: our exile is over. Jesus has come to take us home to the Father. Advent is an invitation for us to find our true home in the presence of God.

Let’s go on to the second voice. The second voice is a promise about the dependability of God’s promise. Look at verses 6-8:

‘A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand for ever’.

The issue here is a simple one: Who can you count on? When the chips are down, who will come through for you? Is there such a thing as a human bring whose promise is utterly reliable? The prophet doesn’t think so.

We live in an age of great scepticism when it comes to the promises of politicians. Most of us suspect that they have no intention of keeping them. They want us to vote for them, so they say what they know we want to hear, but it’s all a con game. Of course, that’s an outrageous generalisation; there are good and sincere politicians who genuinely want to make a difference. But generally speaking, when political promises are broken very few people are surprised.

And even when people make promises with every intention to keep them, there’s still a problem: we human beings aren’t in total control of our lives. We’re not gods; we’re ordinary mortals. The prophet uses the illustration of blades of grass. A blade of grass isn’t in control of the hot desert wind that dries up the ground and causes all growing things to die of thirst. Neither is it in control of the man who comes striding across the field, flattening everything under his feet without even thinking about it.

We human beings are like that. I lost a good friend who died of cancer at the age of forty-six, leaving behind four children under the age of twelve, one of whom had Down Syndrome. It was his intention to be there for those kids into a ripe old age, but that wasn’t the way it turned out. No fault of his, but he was unable to keep those promises.

So who can we trust? In verse 8 the prophet says ‘The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever’. God’s promise is totally dependable. He promised to bring the Israelites home from exile, and he kept that promise. He promised to send a Saviour for all people, and he kept that promise. He has promised to bring us to his Kingdom, and he will keep that promise as well.

Of course, sometimes God’s promises seem a little slow in fulfilment to us poor mortals. The people were taken into exile in 586 B.C. and their return began about fifty years later. In those days a fifty-year lifespan was a long one for ordinary people; very few of the original exiles would have lived to see the journey home. I sometimes wonder what it means when we pray to God – who lives outside of time – and ask him to hurry up! One of the most common phrases in the Old Testament is ‘wait for the Lord’; apparently it was common knowledge that he takes his time, since he has plenty of it! My Dad used to say “God knows I’m impatient, so he’s made me wait for almost every important thing in my life!”

I think part of the call of Advent to us who live in an age of great materialism is this: be sceptical about the extravagant promises mammon makes to us. Advertisers promise us that if we just buy their product we’ll find true happiness and fulfilment, but in the end that’s a lie. What we’re looking for we can only find in God; only he can give us what Jesus calls ‘life in all its fullness’ (John 10:10). So the prophet calls us to believe the promise of God and to turn to him for what we’re looking for.

We’ve heard two voices: a promise of a homecoming, and an assurance of the dependability of the promises of God. The third voice is a promise of the presence of God himself with us. Look at verses 9-11:

‘Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’ See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep’.

Remember, the prophet is talking to people who assumed that God had abandoned them because of their sins. This was the only way they could make sense of the disaster that had happened to Jerusalem. ‘If God had truly been with us the Babylonians wouldn’t have been able to destroy us. So God must have left us’.

But now the prophet tells them ‘Here is your God’. And the image he uses emphasises the tender and loving nature of God: ‘He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep’ (v.11). Yes, God is coming to live among them again – and not as an angry judge, but as a tender shepherd caring for the weakest and most vulnerable members of his flock.

God is not far away from us; he is present with us and lives among us. This is what the coming of Jesus means. Matthew says that the birth of Jesus was in fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy: “‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him ‘Emmanuel’, which means ‘God is with us’” (Matt. 1:23-24). Never again will God be a stranger to human life; he has lived it to the bitter end just as we do. As Eugene Peterson paraphrases John 1:14: ‘The Word became a human being and moved into our neighbourhood’.

So the Advent word is a call to look to Jesus. As I said last week, he’s the human face of God. In him, God has come to us and he has never left us since then. And because of him God’s Spirit lives among us. When we gather here week by week, that’s what we’re celebrating: Emmanuel, God with us. That’s what Jesus means.

So this Advent message is full of comfort and hope for us. Jesus came among us to lead us home to God – the one place in the universe where we can be completely secure. The Bible uses the old word ‘abide’; to ‘abide’ somewhere is to make it your home. ‘Abide in me’, Jesus says. Where God is, there we are home, and we believe that God is in Jesus, so we are at home in Jesus.

Jesus came to us as the fulfilment of the promises of God. False gods make all kinds of false promises to us – perfect happiness, eternal youth and so on. But we know we can’t rely on those promises. Only in God can we find what we’re really looking for. So we’re called to be sceptical about the promises of the false gods, but to put our trust in the Word of God, who is Jesus.

And Jesus is ‘God with us’, our Good Shepherd. God has not abandoned us and he never will. We may not always feel his presence, but our feelings are not a reliable guide. They’re influenced by all kinds of factors; some we’re aware of, some we’re not.

But the presence of God with us is deeper than our feelings. I heard a phrase at a clergy conference a few years ago that really struck me. The speaker said, “We sometimes talk about asking God to come into our hearts, but we might just have it backwards. What the gospel tells us is that God holds us in his heart!”

‘Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God’ (v.1). I can’t think of anything more comforting than the thought that God holds us – you and me – in his heart. Our true home is the heart of God. We live there now, and we’ll live there forever. Ponder that one for a while, and ask God to help you experience it as a living reality.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

‘A Time to Mend’ Chapter 7

Link back to Chapter 6

******

On the last Saturday of August Emma and I moved into our new home in Marston, on the outskirts of northeast Oxford, just north of Headington. It was a small terraced house on a quiet pre-war cul-de-sac, with a living room, kitchen-diner and bathroom downstairs, and three bedrooms upstairs; a small windowed front porch was obviously a more recent addition. Behind the house was a lengthy yard backing onto a recreation ground, with an area of lawn, a shed, and a little stone patio by the back door. The previous tenants had created a small vegetable garden in one corner of the yard, and although they had cleaned out most of the produce before they left, there were still a few raspberry canes and some tomato plants for us to enjoy.

Owen and Lorraine and Becca came to help us move in, and to my surprise Eric and Sarah did too; Alyson dropped them off early that morning, and we were soon glad of their assistance. The removal truck arrived bright and early at eight o’clock with our shipment from Canada; we had not sent much in the way of furniture, so it only took a couple of hours to bring everything into the house, even though there were many boxes of books and personal effects. After the movers left, Owen and I drove around with a rental truck to his place, to Becca’s flat, and to my parents’ house out in Northwood, picking up the items they were giving us for our use while we were in England, and the second-hand pieces we had bought for ourselves.

It was a long day of moving and arranging furniture, unpacking boxes, and putting things away in cupboards and closets. We set up the living room with two armchairs facing each other on either side of the gas fire, a small sofa, and a couple of bookshelves on the inside walls. At the back of the room a cased opening led through to the kitchen and dining area, with a door out to the back yard.

“Garden!” said Owen with a smile on his face as he and Emma stood there in the open doorway with mugs of tea in their hands.

“Yard!” she replied with a grin.

“Yards are paved”, he insisted; “If it’s got grass, it’s a garden”.

“Gardens are where you grow vegetables; yards are where you run on the grass”.

“The Brits and the Canadians”, Owen observed; “Two peoples divided by a common language!”

By late afternoon we had assembled the beds and manhandled most of the other furniture to where we wanted it; our clothes were in the closets and dressers, the books were on the shelves upstairs and down, and the dishes and appliances were in their proper places in the kitchen. I had also set up my home office in the smallest bedroom upstairs, with my desk and laptop computer, a bulletin board on the wall, a couple more bookshelves, and a small armchair in the corner of the room.

“An armchair and books”, Owen said with a grin; “Looks like a good place to work!”

“It’s all about making people believe you’re busy!” I replied.

Emma and Becca were busy hanging our framed family photographs on the wall in the living room, and Sarah and Eric came over to watch. “Those are amazing pictures”, Sarah said, staring at an old black and white that was obviously a wedding photograph. “Who are these people?”

“The couple in the middle are my great-grandparents, Dieter and Erika Reimer”, Emma replied; “It was taken on their wedding day in 1921”.

“I thought it looked pretty old; was it taken in Canada?”

“No, it was taken in the Chortitza Mennonite Colony in Russia”.

“So your great-grandparents came from Russia?” Eric said; “I don’t think I knew that”.

“They were kind of like refugees, I guess. It was just after the Communists took over at the end of the First World War. There was a civil war, and starvation and typhus, and persecution. Mom told me our family lost about thirty-five members at that time”.

Sarah stared at her; “So your great-grandparents had a lucky escape?”

“Yeah. Altogether there were about twenty-one thousand Mennonites who came from Russia to Canada”.

Sarah looked at the photograph again. “Do you know who these other people are?”

“Not all of them”. Emma pointed to the two older couples on either side of the bride and groom; “These are my great-great grandparents, Peter and Anna Reimer and Franz and Helena Rempel”.

“You’ve got a lot more sense of your family history than we do”, Eric said to her.

“Well, on my mom’s side, anyway; Mom really worked at it and she told me a lot of the stories her grandparents had told her. With the Masefields and the Campions, not so much; Dad wasn’t able to tell me much about them”.

“It wasn’t something we talked about much when we were growing up”, I explained, “and I didn’t have the opportunity to ask my grandparents about it the way Kelly did. I never thought very much about it at the time, but I’m sorry now that I didn’t raise the subject with them while they were still alive”.

******

Emma made pizza for supper, along with a pot of strong tea, and we ate sitting around the living room. Owen had brought his guitar with him in case we had the opportunity for some music; Eric had noticed it, and after supper he asked us if we would play. So I ran upstairs to get my Larrivée and we played some traditional folk songs for about half an hour. At one point I asked Eric if he would like to play a tune for us, but he shook his head; “I’m nowhere near good enough to follow you”, he said.

So Owen and I sang a couple more songs, and then as Becca was getting up to make a fresh pot of tea we heard a car pulling up in front of the house. Emma turned and glanced out of the window; “Grandma and Grandpa are here”, she said.

I got up, went out to the front door and opened it to welcome my parents. My father was walking with a stick, and I noticed again how bent he was. My mother was wearing a light summer dress; she smiled at me and said, “Is it a good time for us to come and have a look at the establishment?”

“That would be fine”, I replied, standing aside to let them in the door. “If we’d known when you were coming we’d have made another pizza and waited supper for you”.

“Don’t worry about that”, she said, giving me a kiss on the cheek; “We had an early tea and then we thought we’d drive in for a little while”.

“How are you feeling, Dad?” I asked.

“Not bad”.

I watched as he stepped into the living room, straightened up slowly and surveyed the scene. The whole ground floor could have fit easily into the large piano room at the back of my parents’ house; looking at it through my father’s eyes I knew it must have seemed ridiculously cramped.

Emma went up to him and kissed him on the cheek; “Would you like the tour, Grandpa?”

“Certainly, my dear; lead the way!”

So she took them back and showed them the kitchen diner, and then took them out to the back yard, where she and my father had a lively discussion for a few minutes about plants and vegetables. After they had been upstairs for a quick look at the bedrooms and my home office Becca poured them tea, and we all sat in the living room and drank another cup with them. My father was sitting in the most comfortable armchair we possessed, beside the gas fireplace, and my mother had moved a wooden chair from the dining set over beside him. They were quiet, and I knew without a word being spoken that my father was not impressed with our little house and the way of life it represented.

“Uncle Tom and Owen were just playing some music for us, Grandma”, Sarah said.

“Well – I’m sorry I missed it!”

Eric smiled at Owen and me; “You could play a couple more”.

Owen glanced at Emma; “I think it’s time for you and your dad to play us a song from your side of the Atlantic”.

“Well, my guitar’s upstairs”.

He picked up his guitar by the neck and held it out to her; “Be my guest”.

I saw the surprise on her face; “Wow – you’re going to let me play your Oberon?”

“There aren’t many people I’d trust with it but you’re definitely one of them”.

She took it from him carefully, strummed a couple of chords and looked at me with a grin; “How about ‘The Blackest Crow?’”

“We’re going to miss your Auntie Ellie’s fiddle”.

“We’ll be okay”.

This was a song I had learned from Ellie Reimer in my early years in Meadowvale; like many old ballads it was about two lovers parted by circumstance. Ellie had originally taught me a faster version of it but in recent years I had slowed it down a little, bringing out the melancholy feel of the song. When we finished singing it there was silence in the room for a moment and then my mother sighed and said, “My goodness, that’s a sad one”.

“Beautifully sung, though”, Lorraine said; “Great harmonies, Emma”.

“Thanks”, she replied shyly.

“Do another one”, Owen said; “I don’t often get to hear you two play together”.

Emma grinned at me; “Something more cheerful?”

“What did you have in mind?”

“How about ‘Pretty Fair Maid in the Garden’?”

“Works for me”.

******

We sang a couple more songs and then sat and visited for another half hour or so before my parents excused themselves. My mother helped my father get out of his chair, the others in the room murmured their goodbyes, and Emma and I followed them slowly out of the front door into the warm early evening air. Just before we got to their car my father stopped, turned to me and said, “Tom, you surely can’t be serious about living in this house?”

“It’ll be fine for us, Dad”.

“It’s ridiculously small! Why didn’t you ask me to help you get something better?”

“As I keep telling you, I have money. If I wanted to rent a bigger house I could do it”.

“Then why don’t you? There’s absolutely no reason for you to be in a place like this; I’m very sorry to see you living at this level”.

I smiled at him. “There’s a living room and a kitchen, a bedroom for each of us with an extra room for a home office, and a good yard out back. What more do we need? Trust me – we’ll be okay”.

“I suppose you think you’ve got something to prove?”

“We like living simply – we always have. I understand that you see things differently and I’m not trying to be critical; you’ve made choices about the way you want to live and we’ve done the same”.

Emma had been standing at my side, listening quietly and watching our faces intently. Now she spoke up: “Last year when we were in Mexico we saw poor people living in one-room shacks, sometimes two or three families to a house. Mom and Dad used to talk about that kind of thing when I was a little girl – how it was our responsibility to live simply, so that we could help people who were worse off than us. I’m sure there are a lot of people living in poverty in England, too. This place would probably look pretty good to some of them”.

I could see my father was surprised by her intervention and the quiet conviction with which she spoke, but he was quick with his reply. “The last thing the poor need is handouts from you, Emma – they already get more than enough. People in this country know a good thing when they see it. There are lots of people who refuse to work because they can get more money living on government benefits. You don’t know this country; you don’t know how these people play the system. It doesn’t help them if people like you take a sentimental attitude to them. That only encourages their irresponsibility”.

“How many of them do you know?” she asked quietly.

“What do you mean?”

“Do you know any of them? Do you know their names?”

“Don’t be ridiculous – how would I know their names?”

“Then how do you know so much about how they work the system?”

I saw his face reddening; he was not accustomed to being contradicted by a seventeen-year old. He opened his mouth to reply but my mother intervened; “Well”, she said dryly, “you two aren’t going to resolve this issue in a five minute conversation standing by the car. Come and see us again soon, Emma, and you and your grandfather can debate poverty and social assistance to your hearts’ content. Frank, we should be getting home”.

“You’re probably right”, he admitted; “I am getting a bit tired”.

My mother gave me a hug, and then turned to Emma, put her hand on her arm and said, “It was so lovely to hear you play again”.

“Thanks, Grandma”.

They gave each other a hug and then Emma stepped up to her grandfather, kissed him on the cheek and said, “It was nice to see you, Grandpa; have a good night”.

“Thank you; good night to you too”.

He and my mother turned and got into the Jaguar. Emma and I watched as the car pulled away down the quiet street, waved as it disappeared around the corner and then turned back toward the house. I put my arm around her shoulders and kissed the top of her head.

“I shouldn’t have spoken like that, should I?” she said.

“Why not?”

“I don’t think he liked it when I spoke back to him”.

“Maybe not, but he’ll get over it. Just so you know – I was proud of you”.

“Thanks”, she replied softly as we went back into the house together.

******

The hour was late; Owen and Lorraine had taken Eric and Sarah home before driving back to their own place and Emma had decided to have an early night. But Becca had brought a bottle of red wine with her and she and I had decided to sit outside for a while. We were sitting in a pair of old lawn chairs with only the dim light from the back window providing illumination for us. The night air was warm, we were into our second glass, and the conversation had turned to my father’s health.

“He’s getting weaker, isn’t he?” I said.

“I’m afraid so. You know what chemo’s like”.

“Yeah – it seems to be really tiring him out”.

“They may have to adjust the dosage if it’s too much for him. That’s always a toss-up; if it’s not strong enough it doesn’t have any effect on the cancer cells, but if it’s too strong it’s too toxic for the patient”.

“Too bad he couldn’t get some energy from sheer bloody-mindedness!”

I saw the smile playing around her lips in the semi-darkness. “Was he giving you some grief?”

“He doesn’t approve of our tiny little house, but then I didn’t expect him to”.

“It is a bit small, Tommy; are you sure you and Emma are going to be okay here?”

“We’ll be fine”.

She drained her wine glass, put it down on the garden table between us and said, “Do you find yourself feeling torn?”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, I’m used to being on the defensive with Dad, and as you say, he’s still bloody-minded enough sometimes to warrant that. But then when you look at how frail he’s getting…”

“A little confusing, isn’t it?”

“Really confusing – I’m not sure how I’m supposed to feel”.

“How do you feel?”

“Helpless, angry, sad…”

I held out my hand to her; “Are you okay, Little Becs?”

She reached out and grasped my hand; “It’s been a long time since you called me that”.

******

Much later that night I found myself lying awake in my bed, thinking about my sister.

I was twelve years old when she was born and I very quickly took a liking to this new member of our household. I helped my mother care for her when she was still small; later, as she was growing up, I played with her and read to her and took her out for walks and generally enjoyed her company. During my university years, even though I stayed away from home as much as I could, there were times on the weekends when I simply took the bus to Northwood, arrived at the front door and explained that I wanted to spend some time with Becca. My mother was aware of the close relationship between my sister and me, and she sometimes drove her into Oxford on a Saturday so that she could spend the day with me.

She was nearly twelve when I moved to Canada. I had kept my plans a secret from everyone except Owen and Wendy, because I was afraid that if my father found out, he would find a way to stop me. So I had told my family I was going to be working in Reading; I had not told them the truth until a week before I left for Canada. Becca was devastated by the news and by my dishonesty toward her, and for two years she wouldn’t talk to me on the phone or read any of my letters. It was the only time in our lives when there was anything like a rift between us.

However, Kelly visited England with me a few weeks before our wedding, and in her own inimitable way she won my little sister over and brought the two of us back together. Two months later Becca came to Meadowvale with my mother; Kelly had invited her to be one of the bridesmaids at our wedding. She and my mother spent a week in Meadowvale along with Owen and Lorraine; they met Kelly’s extended family, and at my mother’s prompting Becca even made a little speech at our wedding reception.

When she was sixteen she went through a very difficult time; she had recently gone through a bad breakup and had spent the last few months of the school year in a deep depression. She called us in tears one day; Kelly talked to her for a while and then invited her to come and visit us, and in the end she spent almost the entire summer with us. The previous year, only six months after Emma was born, Kelly had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. After surgery she had gone through several months of chemotherapy, concluding in November, and in February she had been given a clean bill of health. However, she had taken a long time to get her energy back, and when the summer arrived she was still not as strong as she wanted to be.

Emma was nineteen months old that summer and Becca quickly warmed to her. The four of us did some traveling together; we went camping in the mountains in Alberta, swam in some of the prairie lakes, went to the Edmonton Folk Music Festival, and had lots of time to talk. Many nights that summer Kelly and Becca sat up talking till late; I would get up to use the bathroom at one or two in the morning and find them still talking quietly in the living room, or out on the deck with the citronella candles burning to keep the mosquitos away. My wife was twelve years older than my sister, but she was a patient and sympathetic listener and Becca was able to work through a lot of personal stuff with her. From that time on I knew that Becca saw Kelly as the older sister she had never had, and their relationship was always close.

After that summer we tried to see her once a year; if we were not going to England we would send her the air fare to come and visit us. She was in constant touch with us during her nine years of medical training, culminating in 1997 when she had joined Owen’s medical practice in Headington. She came to us just after Christmas during Kelly’s last illness, and again in April for a week. She came back yet again in June for Kelly’s funeral, staying afterwards for a month to help Emma and me, although I knew she was almost as stricken by grief as we were.

Despite our closeness there were still some things about her that were a mystery to me. It was true she had rejected some of the Masefield family stereotypes, but in many ways she was every bit as driven in her medical career as my father and my brother were in their lives as lawyers. I knew this was the main reason Mike Carey had left her; he had explained to her quite openly that he was looking for more than leftover minutes at the end of each week. That had been hard for Becca to hear; she and I had talked about it for hours by phone and e-mail. Since I had moved to Oxford I had been gratified to see the amount of time she had taken off work to spend with Emma and me, and I thought that perhaps she was learning to find a better balance in her life. Secretly I indulged the hope that Emma and I could have a good effect on her in this way.

******

I rolled over in bed and glanced at the clock; one-thirty in the morning. I smiled to myself; four cups of tea followed by two glasses of wine had obviously not been a good idea. I sat up in bed, clicked on my bedside lamp, waited for a minute for my eyes to adjust to the light and then put on my reading glasses and reached for the book on my bedside table.

A few minutes later I heard Emma’s bedroom door open, and then the creak of the stairs, and I guessed she had gone down to get a glass of water. After a moment I heard her coming back up again, and then the sound of a gentle knock on my door. “Come in”, I said quietly.

The door opened and she came into the room, her hair messy from sleep, a half empty glass of water in her hand. “I saw the light under your door”, she said.

“I probably had too much tea and wine”, I replied as she bent to kiss me and then sat down on the edge of my bed. “How about you? Have you been sleeping?”

“Oh yeah; I’m a little achy though”.

“We worked hard today”.

“We did. We might be a little sleepy in church in the morning”.

“Well, St. Clement’s ought to keep us awake”.

“That’s where we’re going, is it?”

“Is that okay?”

“That’s fine, Dad”.

She sipped quietly at her water, her eyes down, and for a minute neither of us spoke. Eventually I covered her hand with mine; “What’s up?”

She looked at me and I saw the sadness in her eyes; “Our first house without Mom”, she said softly.

“Ah”. I held out my arms to her and she moved closer to me, leaning forward and laying her head on my shoulder. “Most of the time I’m okay”, she whispered, “but I still really miss her; I sometimes think it’ll never go away”.

“I know”.

“Of course you do; I’m sorry”.

“No – no need to apologize”.

We were quiet for a few minutes, holding each other in silence in the stillness of the room. Eventually she straightened up, put her hand on mine and said, “Would you like me to make you a cup of herbal tea?”

I shook my head. “I’m fine, love; I really don’t need to drink anything more tonight”.

“Are you all right?”

 “Oh yeah – don’t worry about me, I’ll just sit here and read for a while and eventually I’ll fall asleep”.

“Okay”. She kissed me again, got to her feet and said, “Goodnight, Dad”.

“Goodnight, sweetheart”.

She smiled at me again and then turned and slipped out of the room, pulling the door closed behind her.

******

Link to Chapter 8

Tidings of Comfort and Joy

Here is my 2017 Christmas song, my version of the old traditional Christmas carol ‘God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen’. There are several versions of this carol. I found one I liked in an old edition of the ‘Oxford Book of Carols’; the notes say it came from a broadside ballad printed by J & C Evans, Long Lane, London in about 1797. I’ve changed the words very slightly, but what you get is mostly what I found in the book! There were two different tunes but I chose the familiar one. The guitar arrangement is my own.

So – this comes to you all with my best wishes for a joyful Christmas and lots of ‘Tidings of Comfort and Joy’.

P.S. This is a free download on my Reverbnation site, so if you like it, head over there and help yourself!

‘Restore Us, O God’ (a sermon for Advent Sunday on Psalm 80)

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the first day of the new church year. Happy new year, everyone! Advent isn’t just about preparing for Christmas, although of course in our culture that’s what December – and, increasingly, November too – is all about. Yes, in Advent we go back to the Old Testament prophecies of the coming of the Messiah and try to imagine ourselves waiting in expectation and longing for God to fulfil them. But in Advent we also look forward to what the New Testament writers called in their language the parousia – the appearing of Christ at the end of the age, the time when (as the creeds say) ‘he will come again in glory to judge both the living and the dead, and his kingdom will never end’.

It’s really appropriate that Psalm 80 is our psalm for today. Psalm 80 is a psalm of longing – or even a psalm of desperation. The second half of verse 17 in the BAS version says ‘Give us life, that we may call upon your name’. ‘Give us life’ is translated in many Bibles as ‘revive us’ and this verse became a great theme for revival movements – times of great spiritual power in the history of the church, when the Holy Spirit seemed to work in a special way among the people of God. Revivals often led Christian people to share their faith with their neighbours so that new people came to faith in Christ. But the revivals didn’t usually start there; they started with a reawakening of faith in the hearts and lives of Christian people. And that’s what Advent is meant to be all about, too.

If you’ll look at the psalm on page 812 of your BAS, the first thing I want you to notice is the refrain that’s repeated three times, in slightly different form each time. Verse three says, ‘Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved’. This is repeated in verse seven. Verse 19 adds the name ‘Lord’: ‘Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved’.

But I want you to look carefully at a different verse, 14: ‘Turn now, O God of hosts’. The word ‘turn’ here stands for a Hebrew word that we often translate ‘repent’. Normally in the Bible the word ‘repent’ is applied to human beings; we’re called to turn away from our sins and turn back to God. But occasionally in the Old Testament it’s used for God; God is said to change his mind and repent of his anger toward his people. That’s what the people of God are praying for here. “God, your face is turned away from us. Won’t you turn back to us?” This ties in with the phrase that’s used in the second half of the three refrains: ‘Show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved’. The ‘countenance’ is simply ‘the face’. We might paraphrase this as “God, won’t you smile on us again? It’s been so long since we’ve seen your smile!”

I suspect we all know what that feels like. Sometimes you might go to a close friend and ask “How are you?” and they reply, “Well, I’ve had better days”. We can all identify with that in one way or another. Small communities are having a hard time surviving in these days of urbanisation. Many churches are struggling and they look back nostalgically to the days when they had full pews and big Sunday Schools. And for us as individuals, too, there are times when God seems a long way away from us. We go through financial struggles and problems at work – maybe even loss of a job and a livelihood. Many of us are feeling the effects of advancing age. We go through debilitating illness. We lose people we love. We have worries about our kids and our grandchildren. We go through family conflict and heartache. Yes – ‘we’ve seen better days’.

In Psalm 80 the community reminds God of those better days in verses 8 to 11. Israel was like a grape vine that God brought up out of Egypt and planted in the good land of Canaan. The people filled the country and flourished, and for many years it seemed God was really blessing them.

But now what has happened? Verses 12-13 say ‘Why have you broken down its wall, so that all who pass by pluck off its grapes? The wild boar of the forest has ravaged it, and the beasts of the field have gazed on it’. This sounds like one of the invasions that took place in the eight and sixth centuries B.C., when God’s people were defeated in battle and many of them taken away into exile. We can imagine the writer of the psalm standing in the ruins of Samaria or Jerusalem, looking around and shaking his head. “God, why have you done this to us? Why have you abandoned us? We are your flock and you are our shepherd. We are your vine, and you are the owner of the vineyard. We are your firstborn son. How can this have happened to us?”

Other passages in the Old Testament give an explanation for this. They talk about how Israel turned away from God to worship false gods and practice injustice and oppression. But this psalm doesn’t go there. It doesn’t assign blame, or if it does, it throws the blame on God. We can hear the anger in the people’s voices. “God, where are you? How come you didn’t help us? Please, come now and rescue us from this desperate situation we’re in. How long are we going to have to wait?”

So what is the psalm calling us to today, as followers of Jesus? Three things.

First, the psalm is calling us to prayer. The psalms are the prayer book of the people of God. We use them as prayers, and also as models for prayer. Are you afraid to tell God how you really feel? The psalms encourage you not to be afraid. Are you wondering if your little troubles are important enough to pray about? The psalms encourage you to pray about everything. And the psalms speak for us when we can’t find the words to speak. I’m grateful to have been praying the psalms in church and outside church for as long as I can remember. The psalms are my school of prayer.

And we need to learn how to pray, don’t we? Every single one of us, at one time or another, has felt that life is just too much for us. And we know, deep down inside, that human planning and ingenuity can only go so far. Sometimes the changes we need are just beyond our power to achieve. We’re desperate for help. And that’s a good place to be. Ole Hallesby once said that the two essential conditions for prayer are faith and desperation. I’m sure most of us don’t have any difficulty supplying the ‘desperation’! But we might feel intimidated by our lack of faith, so Hallesby adds that if we have enough faith to turn to Jesus and ask for his help, that’s all we need!

So this psalm is calling us to prayer. Second, this psalm is calling us to turn. As we’ve seen, in verse 14 the people beg God to turn back to them: ‘Turn now, O God of hosts, look down from heaven; behold and tend this vine”. “Turn to us and let us see you smile on us again”. But the turning is a two-way street. In the refrain, the people ask three times “Restore us, O God of hosts”, but the Hebrew word translated ‘restore’ includes the little syllable ‘shub’ – repent. In fact, you could translate it ‘Make us to turn, O God’.

This might seem strange to us. After all, we’re familiar with the call to repent. We know we need to turn away from our sins and distractions and turn toward God and his will for us. But we usually see it as something we have to do. But here it’s a prayer we pray to God: ‘Make us to turn, O God’.

I would suggest to you that this is an honest and realistic prayer. Change is hard, whether it’s the change of trying to lose weight, the change of trying not to be so bad tempered, the change of learning patience, the change of being more careful about how we talk to other people. Those habits have created neural pathways in our brains, and they live there like deep ruts on a gravel road – the car tires just keep falling into them!

One of my favourite writers, Francis Spufford, describes sin as ‘our human propensity to mess things up’. Actually, he uses a much stronger word than ‘mess’ – one I won’t repeat in this pulpit! But when I first read that phrase I gave a grunt of recognition. That’s me! I have an incredible talent for messing things up, for hurting people, for spoiling relationships. And I find it incredibly difficult to change! So any hope that’s based on my ability to do things differently isn’t going to get me very far, because that ability is severely hampered by human weakness.

So the psalm acknowledges that we can’t do this alone; we need God’s help. “Make us to turn, O God”, isn’t a cop-out. It’s not asking God to do something that we should do ourselves. It’s a humble acknowledgement that if we want to change our lives, our human strength isn’t up to the job. We need to come to God in desperation and faith and cry out for God’s help.

So the psalm encourages us to pray, and the psalm encourages us to turn to God. Finally, the psalm encourages us to hope in Jesus. You need to look carefully to see this, but once you’ve seen it, it’s all over the psalm. It’s actually quite striking how Jesus takes up metaphors in this psalm and uses them for himself and his work.

‘Hear, O Shepherd of Israel, leading Joseph like a flock’ (v.1). ‘Shepherd’ in the Old Testament is a metaphor for ‘king’. But who is the Good Shepherd in the New Testament? It’s Jesus, of course. In John 10 he says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep”.  He talks about calling his sheep by name, leading them out, guiding them, feeding them. In Psalm 23 David prays ‘The Lord is my shepherd’; in the New Testament ‘the Lord’ is Jesus, the Good Shepherd. Jesus has been called ‘the human face of God’. So when the people pray, ‘Make your face shine on us, O God’, Jesus is the answer to that prayer.

And what about the ‘vine’ metaphor? The psalm talks about Israel as God’s vine, planted in the land to produce good fruit. But who is the true vine in the New Testament? Again, it’s Jesus. He says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener” (John 15:1). In the Old Testament the prophets talk about God looking for good fruit on his vine, but only finding bitter grapes – in other words, his people didn’t produce the fruit of good and holy living that he was looking for. But Jesus is the fruitful vine. And what does he say to us? “Abide in me as I abide in you”. To ‘abide’ somewhere means to make your home there. So we make Jesus our spiritual home. We live in fellowship with him. We listen to his words and put them into practice, and with his help – and only with his help – we can produce the fruit God is looking for.

The third metaphor is the ‘son of man’. Verse 16 says ‘Let your hand be upon the man of your right hand, the son of man you have made so strong for yourself’. In the original context this is a metaphor for Israel – Israel is God’s firstborn son – but in the gospels Jesus takes it and uses it for himself; it becomes his favourite way of talking about himself. In other words, Jesus is the true Israelite; he’s the chosen one of God. He’s the one who shows us what it means not just to be God, but also to be truly human. When we look at Jesus, we’re looking at God’s dream of what a human life is like. In him – as we make our home in him – it’s possible for us to truly repent, to truly love, to truly pray, to truly be faithful to God.

So let’s go round this one last time. This psalm calls us to pray – not just as individuals, but as a community. We pray as desperate people, people who realize that life is often too much for us, that we aren’t up to the task, that we need help. But we also pray as people of faith, people who know we’ve been invited to turn to Jesus and ask for help. Are you desperate? Have you got enough faith to simply turn to Jesus and ask for help? Then you can pray!

This psalm calls us to turn – or, to be more accurate, it calls us to ask God to help us turn. We know that often we get distracted by too many things, and sometimes our lives are consumed by stuff that’s got nothing to do with loving God and loving our neighbour. So we ask God to help us turn from that, and turn back to God.

Advent is a time to be more faithful in prayer and to be more intentional about turning to God. But lastly, it’s a time to look to Jesus. He’s the human face of God. In him God has shown the light of his countenance to us – he’s made his face shine on us – we’ve seen the smile of God in him. He’s our Good Shepherd. “My sheep hear my voice”, he says. So we take care to hear his voice, and where he leads, there we follow.

 

May it be so for us. In the name of God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.