The Patron Saint of Relational Evangelists

Reblogged from 2012.

In the church’s calendar we often celebrate special feast days to remember ‘saints’ – people from Bible times or afterwards whose lives have been especially Christlike. We do this not to worship them in any sense, but simply to thank God for their good examples and to learn from their faithful discipleship.

Today, November 30th, is the feast day of one of my all-time favourite biblical ‘saints’ – Andrew. Andrew is known today as the patron saint of Scotland, because of a dubious legend about his bones being taken there in the 8th century. I’m a bit doubtful about the whole idea of ‘patron saints’ myself – I really don’t hold with the idea of a saint giving particular care to one country or group of people – but we won’t get into that here.

However, if Andrew is the patron saint of any group of people, it is surely evangelists. This idea might come as a surprise to some, as he isn’t remembered in the church as a great preacher or as a missionary who pioneered whole new areas for the gospel. In fact, I get the impression from reading the stories of Andrew that he was the sort of guy who was quite happy to play second fiddle and fade into the background without drawing attention to himself. But Andrew had this great characteristic: he loved to introduce people to Jesus.

What do we know about Andrew? Well, he was the brother of Simon Peter who became the leader of the apostles, and the two of them were fishermen. We also know that Andrew had been a disciple of John the Baptist before he met Jesus; presumably he had heard John’s message about the kingdom of God and had been baptized by him. The first time we meet him he is standing with another disciple of John, a man called Philip. It’s the day after Jesus was baptized, and, as the crowd is milling around at the Jordan River, Jesus walks by. John the Baptist points him out, and he says to Andrew and Philip, ‘“Look, here is the lamb of God”. The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see”. They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day’ (John 1:36-39).

So John the Baptist points Andrew and Philip to Jesus, and they spend the rest of the day with him. What happens next? Well, John the gospel writer tells us that Andrew ‘first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah!” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter)’ (vv.41-42).

It’s interesting to me that John the gospel writer tells us that this was the first thing that Andrew did after he left Jesus’ company. Obviously what he had seen and heard in that day he spent with Jesus had really excited him: he had found a faith worth sharing! And he also had someone he loved who he thought was worth sharing that faith with – his dear brother Simon. Two of the most important questions we can ask ourselves as Christians are ‘Do I have a faith worth sharing?’ and ‘Do I have a friend worth sharing it with?’ For Andrew, the answer was obviously a resounding ‘Yes!’

Andrew goes on to become one of the inner circle around Jesus – the twelve who he chose to be his ‘apostles’ – the word means ‘ones who are sent’. They would spend the next three years with Jesus, watching and learning from him, and then he would send them out as his missionaries to spread the Gospel all over the world. But before that happens, there are a couple of other stories of Andrew bringing people to Jesus.

In John chapter six, Jesus is teaching a large crowd of people and they have nothing to eat. Jesus decides to test the disciples, so he says to Philip, Andrew’s friend, “Where are we to buy bread for all these people to eat?” Philip replies, “Six months’ wages would not be enough to buy food for each of them to get a little”. But then Andrew chimes in: “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” You know the rest of the story: Andrew brings the boy to Jesus, and Jesus takes the five loaves and two fish and uses them to feed a crowd of five thousand people.

Do you see how Andrew brings Jesus’ ‘raw material’ to him? Andrew’s brother Simon Peter went on to become the great leader of the early church, but it would never have happened if his brother –whose name is not so well-known – had not first brought him to Jesus. And Jesus did a great miracle when he used the five loaves and two fish to feed five thousand people, but Andrew was the one who gave him the materials to make that miracle happen, by introducing the boy to him.

I get the idea that Andrew was the sort of guy who would know who was in a crowd. I get the sense that he enjoyed being with people and was an approachable sort of guy. I remember a few years ago, when I used to lead services once a month at the Edmonton Young Offender Centre, that we had a girl on our team like Andrew. We would wait in the room we were using for services while the staff brought the kids down from the various units, but this girl would always be moving among the kids as they came down, asking them questions and chatting with them. She was really approachable, and afterwards, when the team went out for coffee on our way home, she would always be the one who would tell us that we needed to be praying for so and so, because they were getting out of jail this week, and so on.

I get the idea that Andrew was like that. It would be natural for him to be aware of the boy with the loaves and fishes, because he’d been moving through the crowd chatting with people. He loved people, and he loved Jesus, and most of all he loved bringing them together.

There’s one more story about Andrew in John’s Gospel. In John chapter twelve, Jesus and his disciples are going up to Jerusalem for a Jewish religious festival. We read that ‘among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks’ (v.20): we assume that they were what were known as ‘God-fearers’ – Greeks who had accepted the God of Israel and his laws, although they had not gone the whole way and been circumcised.

Anyway, these Greeks have heard of Jesus and they want to meet him, but they are a bit nervous about it so they approach Andrew’s friend Philip first – perhaps because he has a Greek name? They say to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus” (v.21). So Philip tells Andrew, and then Andrew and Philip together introduce the Greeks to Jesus.

That’s the end of the story – we don’t know how the conversation went – but I’d suggest to you that those words of the Greeks could well be the text of Andrew’s life: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus”. All that we know of Andrew suggests that he dedicated his life to helping others see – and meet – Jesus. Andrew has not gone down in history as a strong leader or a powerful preacher. Rather, we remember him for his personal witness; he is the one who speaks to people one at a time, the one who introduces a friend to Jesus. And so, as we think about what it means to be one of God’s saints – God’s people, the ones he is using to spread his love in the world – I want to suggest to you that Andrew is a good model for us.

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus”. How is that prayer going to be answered today? How are people who have not met Jesus, and perhaps don’t know anything about him, going to have the opportunity to see him and meet him? I think the answer to that question has two parts to it.

First, people are going to see Jesus when the Christian church, and the individuals like you and me who are its members, look more like Jesus. In other words, when we get really serious about putting the teaching and example of Jesus into practice in our everyday life, then people will see Jesus for themselves. When they see us loving our enemies and praying for those who hate us, caring for the poor and not dedicating our lives to getting richer and richer, seeking first God’s Kingdom and not worrying so much about material things or titles or fame or recognition in the sight of the world – when they see all this, then they’ll be able to see the face of Christ in his people. A tall order? Yes – but it’s always been part of our Christian calling, hasn’t it?

Second, people are going to see Jesus when we, the people of Jesus, introduce them to him, so that they can come to know him for themselves. I am a Christian today because of someone who did that – my Dad. My family went to church every week, of course, but my Dad was the one who lent me Christian books and who, at the crucial point in my life, challenged me to give my life to Jesus. I first met Jesus for myself because of that challenge.

At our Edmonton diocesan synod a few years ago Bishop Jane Alexander ended her charge to the synod with this challenge: that before our diocesan centenary in 2013, every Anglican in our diocese would lead one other person to Christ. Doubtless Jane knew that this would be a daunting prospect to many people in the church, and so she continued, ‘And if you don’t know how to do that, will you agree to work together with other people to learn how to do it?”

I’ve had the joy, throughout my life, of helping people who were not Christians come to know Christ for themselves, and I have to tell you that there’s no joy like it. All of us are all called to be witnesses, as Andrew was. We’re not all great preachers or healers or miracle workers or church leaders, but I hope that we all have a faith worth sharing, and that we all have a friend worth sharing it with.

In the 1920s an Anglican priest called Sam Shoemaker wrote a poem about this ministry of introducing people to Jesus, and I want to close with it:

I stand by the door.

I stand by the door.
I neither go too far in, nor stay too far out,
The door is the most important door in the world-
It is the door through which people walk when they find God.
There’s no use my going way inside, and staying there,
When so many are still outside and they, as much as I,
Crave to know where the door is.
And all that so many ever find
Is only the wall where a door ought to be.
They creep along the wall like blind people,
With outstretched, groping hands.
Feeling for a door, knowing there must be a door,
Yet they never find it …
So I stand by the door.

The most tremendous thing in the world
Is for people to find that door – the door to God.
The most important thing any person can do
Is to take hold of one of those blind, groping hands,
And put it on the latch – the latch that only clicks
And opens to the person’s own touch.
People die outside that door, as starving beggars die
On cold nights in cruel cities in the dead of winter—
Die for want of what is within their grasp.
They live on the other side of it – live because they have not found it.
Nothing else matters compared to helping them find it,
And open it, and walk in, and find Him …
So I stand by the door.

Go in, great saints, go all the way in–
Go way down into the cavernous cellars,
And way up into the spacious attics–
It is a vast roomy house, this house where God is.
Go into the deepest of hidden casements,
Of withdrawal, of silence, of sainthood.
Some must inhabit those inner rooms.
And know the depths and heights of God,
And call outside to the rest of us how wonderful it is.
Sometimes I take a deeper look in,
Sometimes venture in a little farther;
But my place seems closer to the opening …
So I stand by the door.

There is another reason why I stand there.
Some people get part way in and become afraid
Lest God and the zeal of His house devour them
For God is so very great, and asks all of us.
And these people feel a cosmic claustrophobia,
And want to get out. “Let me out!” they cry,
And the people way inside only terrify them more.
Somebody must be by the door to tell them that they are spoiled
For the old life, they have seen too much:
Once taste God, and nothing but God will do any more.
Somebody must be watching for the frightened
Who seek to sneak out just where they came in,
To tell them how much better it is inside.
The people too far in do not see how near these are
To leaving – preoccupied with the wonder of it all.
Somebody must watch for those who have entered the door,
But would like to run away. So for them, too,
I stand by the door.

I admire the people who go way in.
But I wish they would not forget how it was
Before they got in. Then they would be able to help
The people who have not yet even found the door,
Or the people who want to run away again from God,
You can go in too deeply, and stay in too long,
And forget the people outside the door.
As for me, I shall take my old accustomed place,
Near enough to God to hear Him, and know He is there,
But not so far from people as not to hear them,
And remember they are there, too.
Where? Outside the door–
Thousands of them, millions of them.
But – more important for me –
One of them, two of them, ten of them,
Whose hands I am intended to put on the latch.
So I shall stand by the door and wait
For those who seek it.
“I had rather be a door-keeper …”
So I stand by the door.

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‘A Time to Mend’ – Chapter 5

Link back to Chapter 4

When I finished ‘Meadowvale’ it turned out that there were some inconsistencies with ‘A Time to Mend’ (which I wrote first, over ten years ago, even though chronologically it comes after ‘Meadowvale’). So – I’m having another go at ‘A Time to Mend’ to bring it back in sync with ‘Meadowvale’. Here’s the fourth chapter.

On our past visits to England we had always attended church on Sundays, either at the village church in Northwood or in Headington with Owen and Lorraine. My father had been an atheist for as long as I could remember and he found our continued church attendance puzzling, although he rarely said anything about it unless he happened to catch me by myself. Emma and I had agreed that we would continue our usual practice on the Sunday after our arrival; we would go down to the village church for the morning service, even though it would be very different from the style of worship at our Mennonite church back home. “When we get settled we can look around for something a little closer to what we’re used to”, I said, “but for now, the village church is fine with me, if you’re okay with it?”

“I’m good”, she replied with a smile; “I remember it from the last time we were here. It was kind of like a Catholic service, wasn’t it? I remember the pastor and the choir members wore robes”.

“That’s right”.

“Do you think we’ll see Uncle Owen’s mom and dad there?”

“No, they’re staying with Owen’s brother and his family up in Lancashire right now; Owen says they’ll be back in a week or so”.

“What time is the service?”

“The church sign says nine”.

“That’s kind of early”.

“Yeah; I seem to remember the vicar has two or three different churches to look after so they’re probably all competing for prime time”.

“Right”.

******

We mentioned to my parents on Saturday night that we would be going to church the next morning. Becca had gone back to Oxford late in the afternoon, so it was just the four of us sitting around one end of the long table in the dining room. My mother smiled as she and I were setting the table together; “We should probably just go back to eating our evening meals in the kitchen”, she said. “That’s what your dad and I usually do, but I wanted to keep it special for you and Emma for a day or two yet”.

“And we appreciate that”.

After we had finished our supper and were sipping our tea, I glanced at Emma and then turned to my mother; “We’re going to get up and go to church tomorrow morning”, I said. “The service is at nine, so if you don’t want to get up that early on a Sunday we’ll be happy to look after ourselves for breakfast”.

“I don’t mind getting up and making something for you; I’ll be awake anyway”.

My father looked at me for a moment and then shook his head reproachfully; “Still participating in that foolishness, then?”

“It’s not foolishness to me; it’s one of the ways I make sense of my life”.

He glanced at his granddaughter, looked back at me for a moment and then shrugged his shoulders. “Suit yourself; Sunday dinner’s at one”.

Emma gave a cheerful laugh. “I don’t think the service will last quite that long, Grandpa!”

******

The sky the next morning was a clear blue and the day was already pleasantly warm as we made our way down to the church. We walked in silence for a few minutes, and then Emma took my arm and said, “I’ve never really talked to Grandpa about Christianity”.

“That’s a conversation he’s not very interested in”.

“He’s an atheist, isn’t he?”

“Yes – and also a very good debater”.

“So there’s not much point in arguing with him then?”

“Not unless you want to learn how his opponents feel in court”.

“I guess it would have been hard to be a practising Christian when you were growing up”.

“Well, I wasn’t a practising Christian at the time, but yeah, I’m sure he would have taken every opportunity to make an issue out of it”.

“I noticed he wasn’t very respectful last night”.

“That was mild for him. If you hadn’t been there he’d have been a lot more aggressive.”

“Really?”

“Perhaps I’m being unfair; maybe he’s not feeling quite so belligerent now he’s dying of cancer”.

“Did you ever go to church when you were growing up?”

“I’m told I went when Rick was christened as a baby but I don’t remember that; I do remember Becca’s christening. Apart from that we only went on Christmas Eve and I stopped going when I was about thirteen; my dad didn’t care and my mum didn’t force the issue”.

“Grandma came from a churchgoing family, didn’t she?”

“She did – her dad was a church organist and he and his wife were both very devout. And do you remember my Uncle Roy?”

“Of course; he was one of Grandma’s relatives, wasn’t he?”

“Yes – he was married to my Auntie Brenda. He died about six years ago, not long after the last time we were here”.

“I remember that; he had a heart attack”.

“Yes. He and Auntie Brenda always went to church; I think she still does”.

“It must be hard for Grandma not to be able to go”.

“I’m not sure my dad would actually try to stop her, although he’s never been backward about trying to control other people’s lives. To be honest with you, I’m a little shy about asking her about it”.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. We’ve talked about lots of things through the years, but faith isn’t one of them”.

“How come? You and Grandma are pretty close”.

“My family tends to be more reserved about some things, I guess”.

“But you and I talk about almost everything”.

“But if I knew there was something you didn’t want to talk about, I wouldn’t push you; I’d let you decide when you were ready”.

“Right – I guess that’s true”. She smiled at me and laid her head momentarily on my shoulder; “That’s because you’re such a great dad!”

“Thank you; you’re pretty special yourself, too”.

******

In the centre of the village there was a small grass-covered square with a cross-shaped war memorial; the old stone church stood on the west side of the square, and the primary school on the east. The church was a solid-looking building with a tower at one end, set in a churchyard dotted with old gravestones, with a stand of trees behind. There were a few cars parked on the road in front, and a couple of people were going into the church through a porch on the north side of the building.

Inside, the air was pleasantly cool. The walls were plastered white, with stained glass windows higher up, and at the front the altar and choir stalls stood behind a wooden rood screen with the morning sun pouring in through another colourful window. There were already some people in the pews, including a couple of families with small children. An elderly lady with a big smile greeted us and handed us our books and bulletins and we took our seats near the back, just across from the porch where we had come in. Emma was looking up at the carved wooden ceiling. “I remember this now”, she whispered; “It’s fifteenth century, right?”

“Yes”.

“I remember the pastor showed me around last time we were here. Was that after a service or something?”

“No – we wandered in here on the first day of our holiday, when we were out for a walk. It was just you and me, remember? Your mum couldn’t get the whole five weeks off work, so she came a couple of weeks later”.

“Right”.

“We’d been sitting down for a long time and we wanted to take a walk so we came out for an hour or so. The minister just happened to be here when we stopped in to have a look; I think he said he was tidying up after a funeral”.

“I wonder if he’s still here?”

I glanced down at the bulletin I had been given. “Not unless he’s changed not only his name but also his gender”.

She looked at her own bulletin and then laughed softly; “The Reverend Claire Lucas”, she said. “Right – definitely not the same person!”

A few minutes later the service began. The choir entered from the back during the singing of the first hymn, followed by the minister; she appeared to be in her mid-forties, with greying blond hair cut just above her shoulders, dressed in the customary robes worn by Church of England clergy. The singing seemed a little timid compared to our Mennonite church back home, but the congregation participated well in the various prayers and responses throughout the service. Some of the rituals were strange to us but the minister did well in giving directions as to what was expected of us, and I speculated that she had probably noticed the presence of newcomers in church that day. She preached a fine, practical sermon with plenty of food for thought, and I quickly found myself warming to her.

At the end of the service, during the announcement time, the minister gave an invitation for everyone to stay afterwards for a cup of coffee. However, when the time came Emma glanced at me hesitantly and said, “Do you mind if we don’t stay?”

“Of course not”. I looked at her curiously; “Are you okay?”

“Just missing home”, she said quietly.

“I understand”.

******

The sun was riding high in the sky as we left the church, and people were already out enjoying it; couples were walking with their children and the road was busy with cars and bicycles. I smiled at Emma; “Shall we walk down to the river before we go back to Grandma and Grandpa’s?”

“Sure; lead the way”.

So we strolled south on the main street and then took the old wharf road down to the river. There were several boats moving on the water, and I pointed out to her the little wooden jetty that Owen’s family had used for their canoeing during our teenage years. Emma and I both enjoyed canoeing, and we agreed together that we would beg or borrow the use of a canoe as soon as possible. “I won’t be surprised if Becca has one stored somewhere”, I said; “I don’t know for sure, though”.

We wandered along the footpath beside the river, heading east toward the Kingfisher Inn and the bridge over the Thames. After a few minutes I spoke hesitantly; “Are you missing our own church?”

She nodded. “It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with this one; it just made me think of home and all the people going to our church today”.

“Right”.

“It reminded me of Mom, too; she was with us last time we came to church here”.

“That’s right – she was”.

“I liked the service okay though”.

“So did I”.

“The minister preached a good sermon, didn’t she?”

“Yes she did”.

“Of course, I’m not used to all the written prayers and ceremonies – that always feels a little strange to me”.

“I know what you mean”.

“I like the sense of history here, though. And the building’s not too fancy, is it? I don’t think I’d feel good about going to a really fancy church, like some of those cathedrals we saw in London last time we were here. I’m not quite sure how they make that fit with what Jesus says about not storing up for yourself treasures on earth”.

“I know what you mean”.

“It must be hard for the minister to have three churches to look after; she must do a lot of driving”.

“The communities are closer together here, though. That’s one of the first things I noticed when I moved to Saskatchewan: how spread out the towns are. Here it’s an easy four mile walk from Northwood to Wallingford. Owen and I even used to walk home from Oxford sometimes when we were up at university”.

“How far is that?”

“About ten miles if you go direct, but we used to like to make a day of it and take the Thames path; that’s about seventeen miles”.

“That’s a long walk”.

“Not as far as Saskatoon to Meadowvale, though”.

She laughed softly; “I guess not”.

******

That afternoon Emma and my mother were both busy in other parts of the house, and I found myself alone with my father. He looked tired and pale after Sunday dinner and the afternoon was warm and muggy, but to my surprise instead of lying down for a nap he suggested we take a walk around the garden. He was wearing a white shirt and a pair of old grey trousers, and I had changed after church into shorts, tee shirt and sandals.

Gardening was my father’s only real relaxation, but since his illness he had been too tired to look after the grounds and he had reluctantly agreed to my mother’s suggestion to have a professional gardener come in once a week. I strolled along beside him for a while, listening as he pointed out the various plants in their beds and told me how they had been grown. Afterwards we went back to his greenhouse and sat down together on a wooden bench outside the door. He took off his glasses, wiped them with his handkerchief, and dabbed at his sweating brow. “The heat’s a bit too much for me”, he said.

“How have you been feeling?”

“Oh fine, fine. A bit tired of course, but that’s only to be expected”.

“You’re having another chemo treatment this week?”

“Supposed to be”, he replied, putting his glasses back on. “I’ll be seeing the doctor on Tuesday to make sure I’m ready for it”.

“The white blood cells don’t always build back up the way they should?”

He gave me a sideways glance. “Kelly had chemotherapy too, didn’t she?”

“Yes. It wasn’t enough of course, but I’m sure it gave us a little longer before she died”.

“Well I’m not going to let this thing get the better of me; I’m sure I’ll be fine once the treatments are over”.

“What’s your oncologist saying?”

He looked up at me sharply; “What have you heard from your sister?”

“Actually it was Mum, way back in January; she told me they’d said two years. A few weeks ago Becca told me they were still saying the same thing”.

“Then why are you asking me?”

“Because I’d like us to be able to talk openly and honestly about these things”.

“Are you accusing me of dishonesty? This from the man who told us he had a teaching job in Reading and then went off to Canada instead?”

I shook my head. “I’m not accusing you of anything, Dad. It’s just that I’d like to think we could talk about these things between ourselves rather than having to use other people as go-betweens”.

He looked at me suspiciously. “This is a new line for you. Why this sudden desire to talk to me? You’ve never been especially interested before”.

“I would think that would be kind of obvious”.

“Perhaps – although I can’t help being a bit suspicious that it’s got something to do with my money”.

“I don’t care about your money, Dad; I have all the money I need”.

He laughed; “I find that rather hard to believe!”

I didn’t reply, hoping my silence would ease the sudden confrontational tone the conversation had taken. But he had another issue he wanted to raise with me, and after a moment he said, “You know, I’m surprised that an educated man like you still carries on with churchgoing. I know Kelly and her family introduced you to religion but I’d hoped by now you’d have been able to see through all that”.

I smiled; “It didn’t start with Kelly and her family”.

“The Fosters, then?”

“They didn’t push it. I was questioning myself, long before I said anything to Owen”.

“Questioning what?”

I hesitated. “Dad, do we have to do this today? I can’t see that argument between us is going to do any good; can we just accept that I see things differently? Like I said last night, my faith is one of the ways I make sense of my life”.

“So you actually believe all that stuff about God and Christ and miracles, and Noah’s ark and the snake in the garden and all that?”

“I believe in God and Christ and miracles; I’m not especially tied to Noah’s ark or the snake in the garden”.

“So you pick and choose what you believe and what you don’t? A little inconsistent, aren’t you?”

“I take the Bible seriously as literature, which means I don’t treat all its various genres the same way”.

“How very convenient for you!”

I frowned; “I’m not quite sure why you feel the need to have this conversation”.

“What’s the matter – are you afraid I’ll talk you out of your faith?”

“No – I’m not afraid of that at all”.

“Then why don’t you want to talk about it?”

“Because I don’t have your faith in the power of a good argument. A friend of mine used to say that when an argument starts it’s no longer two people seeking the truth; it’s two egos trying to win. And we both know you have a lot of experience at winning”.

“That’s ridiculous!”

I shook my head. “I don’t think so. When I came to faith I certainly didn’t leave my brains behind, but no one argued me into it. When it came right down to it, it was an experience of God that got me over the last hurdle”.

“That’s pure wish-fulfilment; we both know you’ve adopted religion as a crutch for your weakness”.

“Sometimes when you’ve got a broken leg a crutch can be a good thing”.

“So you admit you’ve only adopted religion out of weakness?”

“Would it make you feel better if I did admit it?”

“Of course not; I’ve always known you preferred to follow sentiment over reason but I don’t have to like the fact. You’ve allowed sentiment to twist your logic, just like you did when you decided to become a teacher because of your sentimental attachment to George Foster. Sentiment’s all very well but you need reason and common sense if you’re going to be able to deal with the real world and not spend your time living in some make-believe fantasy”.

I smiled at him; “Make-believe fantasy?” I said softly.

“Yes. I’m sure it’s a comfort of sorts to think there’s a god looking after you and you’re going to go to heaven when you die, but intelligent people deal with reality as it is, not as they wish it was”.

“So I’m the one who’s deluding myself here?”

“Of course you are, and I understand completely why you continue to do so”.

“You do?”

“Yes; to abandon your faith would feel like disloyalty to Kelly”.

“Or maybe it would feel like disloyalty to the God I met after Kelly and I got engaged”.

“Don’t be ridiculous; no one can meet God, for the simple reason that God doesn’t exist. People can persuade themselves to believe they’ve had all kinds of supernatural experiences, but modern, rational human beings know it’s all self-delusion”.

“So the spiritual experiences of millions of human beings around the world and throughout history are ruled out of court, just like that?”

“It’s not verifiable evidence”.

“Neither is the fact that you love Mum”.

“What an absurd comparison!”

“I don’t think so”, I replied softly.

We looked at each other in silence for a moment, and then he said, “You know how to hit below the belt, don’t you?”

“Bringing in Kelly wasn’t hitting below the belt?”

He looked away, shaking his head. “I’m probably wasting my breath trying to talk some sense into you”, he said dismissively.

“I don’t mind changing the subject”, I replied. “I don’t especially feel the need to set you straight about your atheism, and I don’t understand why you feel you have to set me straight about my faith in God”.

He got to his feet. “I’m tired”, he said; “I’m going to go and lie down for a while”.

“Fair enough; I think I’ll go inside and find out what Emma’s doing”.

******

My body had still not adjusted to the time change, and later in the afternoon I went up to my room to have a nap of my own. When I woke up after an hour’s sleep I could hear the sound of guitar music somewhere in the house. There was a small sink by the window in my bedroom; I went over to it, splashed some water on my face, combed my hair, and slipped quietly downstairs.

The music was coming from the living room. I put my head around the door and saw Emma and Eric sitting on easy chairs across the empty fireplace from each other, playing their guitars, with Sarah and Anna sitting with them, listening to the music. Eric was playing and singing an old delta blues song, his accent imitating the old black blues performers like Robert Johnson and Mississippi John Hurt; Emma was filling in some tasteful lead guitar licks as well as singing along with him on the chorus. I stood at the door listening until they were finished, then applauded quietly as I slipped into the room and sat down opposite them.

Emma smiled at me; “How long have you been standing there?”

“Just since the beginning of the song. How long have you been playing, Eric?”

“A couple of years. I’m not very good yet; Emma’s a lot better than me”.

“Sounds pretty good to me; you’ve got that delta blues style pretty well nailed”.

“Thanks!”

“Dad’s a really good player”, said Emma; “Do you want to play with us, Dad?”

“Not right now; I’m happy to listen. Are your mum and dad here, kids?”

“Mum’s here”, Sarah replied; “She’s out on the patio having lemonade with Grandma and Grandpa. Dad’s working”.

I glanced at Emma. “Are you guys going to play something else? I’m not really awake yet, so I’ll just sit here and listen to the music while I wake up”.

Emma laughed; “Isn’t it supposed to be the other way around? Aren’t we supposed to play you to sleep?”

“What do you like to play?” Eric asked her.

“I like a lot of bluegrass tunes, and I like Dad’s old folk songs, too”.

“You mean like Bob Dylan and those guys from the sixties?”

She laughed; “Actually, Dad’s songs are a lot older than that. No one knows who wrote them – they were handed down from long ago, and most of them have been changed and adapted over the years. They’re kind of like old blues tunes in that way”.

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything like that”.

“Yeah, you have; you just don’t know what they are. Do you know that old Simon and Garfunkel song ‘Scarborough Fair’?”

“I think so”.

“It was an old folk song they arranged”.

“Do you know it?”

“Yeah; would you like to play along with me?”

“What’s the key?”

“I play it in E minor, but Dad plays it a little lower”.

She showed him the chords, and then sang the song for him; he watched, and by the third verse he was playing along with her, as well as singing along with the ‘then she’ll be a true love of mine’ lines. When the song was over he smiled; “I think I’ve heard that one before but I barely remember it”. He gestured toward her guitar; “That guitar sounds so awesome!”

“Yeah – I’m really lucky to have it. It’s got a solid spruce top and mahogany back and sides; like Dad said the other night, it was built in 1970, so it’s thirty-three years old now”.

“Wow”. He glanced at me; “I can’t believe you gave away a beautiful guitar like that. What are you playing now?”

“A Larrivée; it’s the same kind of style but the construction’s a little different, so it’s got a slightly different voice. Emma and her mum and a whole bunch of other people got together to buy it for me for my fortieth birthday”.

“Mine’s just a cheap guitar; perhaps one day…”

“Sure – but don’t forget that Robert Johnson recorded all his songs on a much cheaper guitar than that!”

He nodded; “True!” he said with a smile.

******

I sat with them for about half an hour, listening to their music and joining in their conversation between songs. Eventually I got to my feet; “Sounding good, guys. Keep it up; I’m going to go find the others”.

I slipped out of the living room and crossed the hallway toward the back of the house. There was a large room there with a bare wooden floor, which at one time had been used for formal dances; it was almost empty now, with only my mother’s upright piano sitting in one corner, and a couple of armchairs scattered around the room. At the back, French windows opened onto an enclosed garden surrounded by a brick wall; beyond the wall was the orchard. My parents were sitting out there on the stone patio with Alyson, a jug of lemonade and some glasses on the table in front of them. Alyson was dressed for the heat of the afternoon in a loose sleeveless dress and a white sun hat. She was the first to see me, and she gave me a warm smile as I slipped out onto the patio and dropped into a lawn chair across from her. “Still getting over your jet lag, Tom?” she asked.

“Apparently. I hear my brother’s at work?”

“Yes; he had to go in for a while this afternoon”.

“Did you pass the musicians on your way out?” my mother asked.

“I did”.

“Emma plays very well”, said Alyson; “Did you teach her?”

“Some; her old babysitter Beth Robinson helped her a lot too”.

“What sort of music does she like to play?”

“She likes my old folk songs, but she and Jake play bluegrass and country music too; her tastes are actually quite eclectic”.

“Does she ever perform in front of people?”

“She’s done that once in a while with Jake when we’ve had family reunions, but most of the time she just plays for her own enjoyment”.

My father had been listening quietly; he was wearing a Panama hat to shade his head from the bright sunlight, and I noticed again how pale and tired he looked. “What are her plans?” he asked.

“She’s planning to look for work once the summer’s over. If she can’t find paying employment, she’ll try to find a volunteer position in a seniors’ home; she’s done that sort of thing before”.

“Are you going to look for a house?” asked Alyson.

“Yes. I’d prefer to be in walking distance of the school, although I know that might not be possible”.

My father shook his head; “Headington’s expensive; you won’t find much in your price range”.

“Are you going to buy or rent?” asked Alyson.

“Rent. We haven’t sold our house back in Meadowvale, and I really don’t want to get tied up in another mortgage”.

“Buying is always a better idea”, said my father. “When you rent, you’re just pouring money down the drain with nothing to show for it at the end of the day”.

My mother gave me a sympathetic glance; “Are you and Emma going to get any sightseeing in before the school year starts?”

“We’ve been talking about it. We’ll go into Oxford, of course, and maybe London, and she’d like to go down and see Stonehenge again; we did that trip last time we were here and she really enjoyed it”. I leaned forward and poured myself a glass of lemonade. “What about you?” I asked Alyson; “Are your kids doing anything for the summer?”

“No definite plans; we’ll probably do some day trips. Eric’s just started working at a garden centre since school ended; it’s the first time he’s had a summer job. And Rick’s having trouble getting out of the office at the moment. Not that that’s an unusual situation, of course – there are very few times when he doesn’t have trouble getting out of the office”.

“Occupational hazard for a barrister”, said my father.

“It makes family holidays a bit difficult, though”, Alyson replied. “I get a month off in the summer but we rarely manage to get away for more than a week together. What about you and Emma, Tom? Do you often take family holidays together?”

“Ah well, I’m a teacher, you know, so I’m used to long lazy summers. When Kelly was alive we used to take family camping holidays a lot; we’d pack a tent and a canoe and take off for a few weeks. We’d go up to Jasper, or when Steve and Krista lived near Prince Albert National Park we’d stay with them. Emma and I still like to do things like that, and we’ve got a folk music festival and a Shakespeare festival we like to go to as well”.

At that moment Emma appeared in the doorway with her cousins. I smiled at her; “Come to join the old folks?”

“We’re getting thirsty”, she replied with a grin.

“Come and sit down”, said my mother; “The lemonade’s almost finished but I can easily go in and make some more”.

“I’ll do that, Irene”, Alyson said, getting to her feet and reaching for the pitcher; “You stay right where you are”.

“Are you sure?”

“Of course; I’ll be back in a minute”. She gave us a smile and then turned and slipped into the house.

My mother reach up and took Emma’s hand. “You were sounding very nice in there, my dear”.

“Thanks”, Emma replied as she and the other kids sat down with us. “Am I going to get to hear you play at all this afternoon?”

“Oh, I don’t know; I’m a bit out of practice”.

“We’re a friendly audience, aren’t we, Dad?”

“Of course we are!” I replied; “You should play for us, Mum”.

She shrugged; “Alright, if you insist – but I want another glass of lemonade first!”

“Fair enough”.

She smiled sheepishly at me; “And as for you, I want you to forget all the critical things I said about your playing when I was teaching you!”

Emma laughed; “Were you a tough teacher, Grandma?”

“Your dad definitely thought I was!”

“It’s okay”, I replied playfully; “I seem to have survived the trauma well enough. And you did succeed in teaching at least two of us to play”, I added, smiling at my mother.

“I did, didn’t I? And Becca still plays occasionally, so it’s not all been lost”.

“I haven’t heard Auntie Becca play piano in a long time”, said Emma.

“Well then, you’ll need to get after her too, won’t you?” my mother replied.

“I guess I will!”

******
Link to Chapter 6

Clive Staples Lewis, November 29th 1898 – November 22nd 1963

(Repost from previous years, slightly adapted)

On this day fifty-four years ago, the great C.S. Lewis died.

Because of the assassination of President Kennedy on the same day, the death of Lewis has always been somewhat overshadowed. Far be it from me to downplay Kennedy and what he stood for, but for me, Lewis was by far the more influential man.

In the early 1990s I lent a United Church minister friend a copy of Lewis’ Mere Christianity; when he gave it back to me, he said, “Do you have any idea how much this man has influenced you?” Mere Christianity came along at just the right time for me; I was seventeen and had begun to feel the lack of a rigorous intellectual basis for my faith. In this book, Lewis gave me just that. I went on to read pretty well everything he had written, including the various editions of his letters which seem to me to contain some of the best common-sense spiritual direction I’ve ever read. I’ve parted company with Lewis on a few issues (pacifism, Conservative politics, the ordination of women), but for the most part I still consider him to be one of the most reliable guides available to a rigorous, full-orbed, common-sense Christianity.

Lewis was a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, and, later, of Magdalene College, Cambridge, and in his professional career he taught English literature. Brought up in Ireland in a conventionally religious home, he became an atheist in his teens. Later, in his late twenties and early thirties, he gradually came back to Christianity (he told the story himself in his book Surprised by Joy) and went on to become a popular writer and speaker on Christian faith. He claimed for himself Richard Baxter’s phrase ‘Mere Christianity’; although he lived and died entirely content to be a member of the Church of England (‘neither especially high, nor especially low, nor especially anything else’, as he said in his introduction to Mere Christianity), he had no interest in interdenominational controversy, preferring to serve as an apologist for the things that most Christians have in common.

Nowadays evangelicals (especially in the United States) have claimed Lewis as a defender of a rigorous Christian orthodoxy (despite the fact that he did not believe in the inerrancy of the Bible and was an enthusiastic smoker and imbiber of alcoholic beverages). Likewise, Roman Catholics have sometimes pointed out that many fans of Lewis have gone on to convert to Roman Catholicism (something he himself never did, because he believed that Roman Catholicism itself had parted company on some issues with the faith of the primitive church), and have resorted to blaming his Irish Protestant background as somehow giving him a phobia about Catholicism that made it psychologically impossible for him to convert to Rome. Lewis himself, I believe, would not have approved of these attempts to press him into the service of advancing a particular Christian tradition or denomination. I believe we should take him at his word: he was an Anglican by conviction, but was most comfortable with the label ‘Christian’.

What about his books? Well, there are many of them! In his professional discipline of literary criticism he wrote several influential books, including The Allegory of Love (on the medieval allegorical love poem), The Discarded Image (an introduction to the world view of medieval and renaissance writers), An Experiment in Criticism (in which he examines what exactly it means to take pleasure from reading a book), A Preface to Paradise Lost (in which he introduces us to one of his favourite works of literature, John Milton’s famous poem Paradise Lost), and English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama (this is only a selection of his works of literary criticism).

Turning to his more specifically ‘Christian’ works, in The Screwtape Letters Lewis gave us an imaginary series of letters from a senior to a junior demon on the art of temptation; along the way, as Lewis intended, we get some penetrating insights into practical, unpretentious, daily holiness. Miracles and The Problem of Pain are intellectual defences of Christian truth (the first examining the question of whether miracles are possible, the second dealing with the issue of evil and the goodness of God). Reflections on the Psalms is a series of meditations on the issues raised by the psalms (including an excellent chapter on the ‘cursing’ psalms), while Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer gives us accurate guidance on what a life of prayer is really all about. In the ‘Narnia’ stories and the Space Trilogy, Lewis baptizes our imagination, using the genre of fairy story and science fiction to present Christian truth in a fresh and compelling way. And in Mere Christianity he presents his case for the truth of Christianity and a good explanation of its central ideas.

These are just a few of his books; there are many websites that give exhaustive lists.

This website by Lewis’ publishers is of course focussed on trying to sell books – Lewis’ own books, collections of his writings published since his death, and many of the books that have been since written about him. Personally, I like Into the Wardrobe better; it isn’t trying to sell me anything, but includes a biography, a collection of papers, articles, and archives, and some excellent links.

Since his death Lewis has become almost a cult figure, especially in the U.S., and the number of books and articles about him continues to grow. He himself was uncomfortable with the trappings of fame, and I believe he would have been horrified with the growth of the C.S. Lewis ‘industry’ today. It seems to me that the best way to observe the  anniversary of his death is to go back to his books, read them again (or perhaps for the first time), ponder what he had to say, and pray that his work will lead us closer to Christ, as he would have wanted.

Rest in peace and rise in glory, Jack. And once again, thank you.

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Finding the Rhythms

As a much younger minister I spent seven years in two different parishes in the Diocese of the Arctic: All Saints’, Aklavik (1984-88) and Church of the Resurrection, Holman (now Ulukhaktok) (1988-91).

One of the things I learned there was to find and take advantage of the natural rhythms of the life of the community and the parish. For instance, in both those communities a lot of people went out on the land for the summer – to fish camps, mainly. And those who stayed in town were busy. The Arctic summer is short, and if you need to get some outdoor work done, the window for that is short too. People don’t want to be bothered by the minister at those times.

So I learned to slow down in the summer, but I also learned to do what everyone else was doing – build a new skidoo shed, or fix some broken windows, or repair a damaged roof. Summer was a good time for fixing buildings and other practical projects. That was the rhythm of life.

Now I live in Edmonton and there’s a rhythm here too. Many of my friends assume that Christmas is my busiest time of year, and they’re surprised when I tell them Easter is a lot busier! But they also don’t get the basic structure of church life in Alberta: really busy (with short lulls) from mid-September until the end of April, then mainly quiet for the four months of May to August. Our winters are long, and once the weather warms up people don’t want to be bothered with meetings and study groups – they want to get out and enjoy God’s creation.

So I run with that, and I enjoy it. Early May to mid-September is time to take a bit of holiday, to read more, to visit and spend time with individuals and to do a bit of planning. The rest of my year goes better if I do those things in the four months of Spring and Summer.

There are little lulls in the winter, too. For instance, things kick into high gear in mid-September: we start small groups and courses and study activities, and these generally run until the end of November. But we don’t do much in December; people are cruising into Christmas and their lives are taken up with that. So I’ve discovered that late November/early December is a wonderful time for me to take a week’s holiday. I get back in time to start the run-up to Christmas, but I’m refreshed from a week of rest. Christmas goes better for me if I do that.

That’s what I’m up to this week. My day off is Monday so I’m actually taking eight days’ holiday, from Monday to Monday. Tomorrow (Wednesday) we’re taking off to see old friends in Saskatchewan for a few days. Looks like the weather will be fairly mild (always a factor at this time of year), so driving will be okay. I’m looking forward to some good friend times, and I know I’ll come back in a better frame of mind.

Things will then get busy again: Our Christmas variety concert – planning for special events – home communions – Christmas services in nursing homes – a ‘When Christmas Hurts’ service – a ‘Lessons and Carols’ and ‘Bring a Friend’ service – and then the special services on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

After Christmas there’s a slow down (unless there’s a pastoral emergency; I say that because for the past four years I’ve had deaths in the parish during or just after Christmas). January is steady but not frantic. What many people don’t know is that in church offices this is ‘Annual Meeting season’; we’re busy getting reports prepared and doing other preparation work for the Annual General Meeting (which in our parish takes place in mid-February).

And then comes Lent. Usually we do some extra programming, so things kick into high gear again. Holy Week (between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday) is extremely busy. But by the time Easter comes we’re near the end of April, and people give a great collective sigh of relief and start going out to the lake on weekends. Church life slows down to a leisurely crawl. If clergy and leaders are wise, they don’t try to fight that. We need that time of rest and renewal.

Rhythms of life. It’s good to find them and good to take advantage of them. Life goes better if we do.

What Happens To Us After We Die? (a sermon on 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)

What’s going to happen to me after I die? This is one of the questions human beings have pondered throughout history. We go through life, we work hard to achieve something, we find someone to love and if we’re fortunate we build a family and experience good and positive and lasting relationships. But what does it all mean if it all ends in death? What’s the point of learning, if my brain’s just going to go demented and then die out? What’s the point of love, if sooner or later you’re going to lose the one you love? Is it really possible that all these years of laughing and working, eating and sleeping, learning and loving are going to end up in nothing more than the decay of my body in the grave? Human beings have always pondered that question.

The Christian faith is firmly on record as teaching that there is life after death. In the Nicene Creed – which goes back in its earliest form to the fourth century A.D. – we say, ‘We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come’. But what does this mean? What do we actually believe about life after death?

Not surprisingly, the early Christians asked these questions just like we do. One of the earliest books of the New Testament to be written was Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians; many scholars think it was written around 50 A.D., about twenty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. The Christians in Thessalonica were worried about what had happened to their fellow-believers who had died: were they all right? Yes, says, Paul; there’s no need for you to grieve as if you had no hope. We believe that just as Jesus died and rose again, so God will raise the dead with Jesus. We who are alive when the Lord comes again, he says, won’t precede those who have died; when the last trumpet sounds, they will be raised, and we’ll all meet the Lord, and we’ll live with him forever. So encourage each other with these words.

Now that’s an odd answer, isn’t it? Nowadays if Christians were feeling doubtful about life after death, we’d expect their pastors to talk to them about going to heaven. But Paul doesn’t mention heaven at all; he talks about being raised from the dead at the sound of the last trumpet. What’s that all about?

I find it helpful to try to figure out what question the Thessalonian Christians were asking Paul. When you read Paul’s answer, it doesn’t seem as if the question was, ‘Is there life after death?’ Rather, it seems to have been something like this: ‘Paul, you taught us that even though Jesus’ rule over all things is hidden right now, one day it’s going to be plain to everyone; every knee will bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord, and his kingdom will come in all its fullness. But some of our brother and sister Christians have died without seeing this. What’s going to happen to them? Are they going to miss out on seeing the Kingdom of God?’

Let’s look a little more closely at how Paul deals with that issue. What about these Thessalonian Christians who have died? Where are they now? And what’s going to happen to them in the future?

Where are they now? 1 Thessalonians 4:13 says, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope”. Or at least, that’s how the New Revised Standard Version puts it. But there’s a little footnote that tells us that the NRSV has made a little change in the translation, presumably to make Paul’s meaning clear. Apparently Paul didn’t actually say ‘died’ – he said ‘fallen asleep’: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have fallen asleep”. This is a very common New Testament metaphor for death: falling asleep in Christ.

Why do the biblical authors use this ‘sleep’ metaphor? For a couple of reasons. Firstly, from the point of view of the observer there are some similarities. The sleeper is usually lying down; their eyes are often closed; there’s no activity going on. And the same is true of the dead.

But the second reason is more important: sleep is temporary. The sleepers are going to wake up! And that’s what’s going to happen to those who sleep in death, too: one day they are going to wake up. They are going to be raised from the dead.

From the perspective of the observer it looks as if the dead are asleep; what does it look like from the perspective of the ‘sleeper’? Do they experience ‘dying and going to heaven?’ Do they see a great light and go through a tunnel and all that?

A lot of people are surprised to hear that the New Testament doesn’t actually have a lot to say about ‘dying and going to heaven’ – if by ‘heaven’ you mean ‘a non-physical existence far away from this earth where we will live a life forever as disembodied spirits’. That idea actually comes more from Greek philosophy, not Jesus and his apostles. Christian teaching about life after death is different; we stand up week by week and say “I believe in the resurrection of the body” – our bodies, that is, not just Jesus’ body.

But what about heaven? Well, you can make strong arguments from the New Testament for two different points of view. One would be a variation on the ‘heaven’ idea: we die, we go to be with Jesus in Paradise, and we wait there with him until the day of resurrection when we will resume our physical existence in a renewed heaven and earth. The other idea would be that when we die, we fall asleep. And you know how it is when you’ve had a really good sleep: you don’t remember a thing about it! The next thing you know, you’re waking up and it seems as if no time has passed at all, except that you feel refreshed. That will be us: we will fall asleep in Jesus, and it will seem to us that the next thing we know is resurrection day!

To tell you the truth, I don’t really know for sure which of these views is the right one, and I don’t worry about it, because the thing they both have in common is that what happens immediately after death is only temporary. The really important thing – the life after life after death – is the coming resurrection.

So let’s go back to 1 Thessalonians 4, where Paul says,

For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will be with the Lord forever (4:16-17).

Now I need to say at this point how easy it is for modern people like us to get distracted by the strange mythical language of these verses: the trumpet sound, being caught up in the clouds, meeting the Lord in the air and so on. Some Christians have taken them literally, but I don’t think the earliest readers would have done that. Paul was using the symbolic language of Jewish apocalyptic literature – literature that was designed to bring hope to people who were oppressed and were looking for God’s intervention for a better future.

Apocalyptic literature had well-known codes. For instance, if you were an early Christian and you were listening as someone read from the book of Revelation or the book of Daniel, you’d hear a lot of talk about ferocious beasts. You’d know right away that they weren’t literal beasts; they were symbols for evil empires. That’s how apocalyptic literature worked. In the same way, back in the early 1980s, if you saw a political cartoon in the newspaper with a bear in it, you knew it wasn’t meant to be a literal bear: it was a symbol for the Soviet Union. A man with a top hat with the stars and stripes was ‘Uncle Sam’, the U.S.A. If you didn’t know the code you’d be confused, but if you did, you’d understand.

The problem nowadays is that when we read this kind of thing in the Bible we don’t know the code. So in today’s passage we don’t realize that when Paul talked about the sounding of the trumpet and going to meet the Lord in the air, he was using the symbolism of a royal visit, or even a coronation. If the Roman emperor came to visit Thessalonica, the leading citizens of the city would go out to meet him with great pomp and ceremony, with fanfares and the sound of trumpets. But they wouldn’t stay out there with him – they’d lead him back into the city to meet his other subjects there.

This is what Paul is talking about. Jesus is Lord of all, Lord of heaven and earth. At the moment his reign is hidden, but one day it will be revealed. Paul uses the symbolism of clouds and sky because it was the most exalted symbolism available to him, and also because it was used in the Old Testament for the same thing. But the idea isn’t that the true believers are snatched up to be with the Lord so they can spend the rest of eternity floating around with him in the sky. In the Book of Revelation, when the last day comes the City of God descends from heaven to earth. We’re not escaping from the world; we’re welcoming our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of love, as God’s anointed King of all creation! And when he comes, or when he appears, he will bring others with him: those who have ‘fallen asleep in Jesus’, and are now awakened to share with him in his eternal kingdom.

In other words, our Christian hope isn’t a selfish one: it’s not just about ‘what will happen to me after I die’. It’s about the future of God’s entire creation. And that future will involve bodies and matter, not just souls and spirits. When the last day comes God isn’t going to abandon matter as a bad idea and opt for a purely ‘spiritual’ world. No: the Bible tells us God is going to ‘make all things new’; God is going to heal the wounds of creation and restore it to his original dream. And he’s going to raise his people from the dead so they can enjoy life as he originally conceived it, before evil entered his world.

Of course, this raises many questions that we haven’t been given answers to. For instance, I’ve sometimes been asked ‘Where are we going to put everyone?’ After all, a lot of people – billions, presumably – have died and gone before us. If they’re all going to be raised, where are we going to find room for them all on this little earth? I don’t have an answer for that question, except to say that there are a lot of things God hasn’t told us about his future plans, and it would be foolish of us to speculate.

What we do know is that the Christian hope is about the renewal of this world.  It tells us that the future of this world is in the hands of God and not of the forces of evil and destruction; the last word will be God’s word, not the words of tyrants or mass murderers. The symbolic language of the book of Revelation tells us that when the new Jerusalem comes down from heaven to earth God will make his home among us and live with us forever. God will wipe away every tear from our eyes, death and mourning and crying and pain will be no more; and God will say, “See, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:2-5).

That’s our hope, and so we can face death with a different attitude. We don’t pretend death isn’t a huge blow; Paul doesn’t tell his friends in Thessalonica not to grieve for those who have died. What he says is that they don’t need to grieve ‘as others do who have no hope’ (4:13). People who don’t have the hope of resurrection grieve because they see death as the final separation. But we Christians are encouraged to trust that beyond that separation there will be a great reunion, on that bright morning when God renews his whole creation, when Jesus is acknowledged by all as Lord of heaven and earth, and when the human family finally finds the peace and justice we’ve been longing for, for as long as we can remember.

You and I, and our loved ones who have died in the peace of Christ, have been promised that we will see that day. We’ve got reserved seats at the coronation. Thanks be to God!

‘A Time to Mend’, Chapter 3

Link back to Chapter 2

When I finished ‘Meadowvale’ it turned out that there were some inconsistencies with ‘A Time to Mend’ (which I wrote first, over ten years ago, even though chronologically it comes after ‘Meadowvale’). So – I’m having another go at ‘A Time to Mend’ to bring it back in sync with ‘Meadowvale’. Here’s the third chapter.

I landed at Heathrow Airport on Easter Sunday in the early afternoon. Becca was waiting for me in the arrivals lounge, standing on the edge of the crowd and waving furiously in my direction; twelve years my junior and slightly shorter than me, she was dressed casually in jeans and a light spring jacket, her dark hair hanging loose to her shoulders. I walked over to her, and she greeted me with a warm hug and a kiss; “Hello, you!” she said.

“Happy Easter, Becs”.

“Same to you. You look tired; here, give me your bag. How’s Emma?”

“She’s fine; she drove me to the airport yesterday”.

“Oh right – I keep forgetting she’s got a driving license now!”

“I know; doesn’t seem that long since she was a baby, does it?”

“No”. She looked up at me with a sympathetic grin; “You really do look wiped out there, Tommy! Do you want to pick up a coffee for the road?”

“That would be great”.

“Come on, then – there’s a coffee shop in the corner over there”.

We lined up for a few minutes to get our coffees, and then made our way out of the terminal building into the spring sunshine and across to the multi-story car park. We took an elevator to the top level, where we found Becca’s little Renault squeezed between two bigger cars; she opened the doors, threw my bag in the back and said, “In you get, then”.

I slipped into the car beside her, and she leaned over and gave me another kiss on the cheek. “Oh”, she said, “before I forget – Owen told me to remind you to ring him some time this evening; they’re not leaving until first thing in the morning”.

“Right – he mentioned that”. My old friend Owen Foster, who had been a doctor in Headington for many years, was a senior partner at the medical practice where Becca worked. I had hoped to get a chance to see him while I was in England, but it had turned out that he and his family were going to France for a few days during the Easter holidays.

Becca started the car, backed out of her parking spot, and drove down toward the exit ramp. I took a sip of my coffee; “Any news about dad?”

She shrugged; “He’s lost a lot of weight and he gets tired quickly, but none of that’s especially new”.

“When’s his next chemo treatment?”

“Tuesday; this will be his third”.

“How’s it going?”

“I think he’s finding it harder than he expected – especially the nausea”.

“I expect he just takes himself off to his room when he’s feeling sick, doesn’t he?”

“Yeah; he lets Mum help him, but I’m not allowed anywhere near him when he’s like that, and I’m sure no one else is either”.

“No trouble with infections so far?”

“No, but they’re going to have to be very careful about that; it’s harder on older people. And there’s another problem too – he’s in denial”. She pulled the car up to the ticket machine, paid for her parking and then pulled out onto Cromer Road. “He’s still trying to downplay it all”, she continued; “I’ve heard him say several times that he’s just got to get through the chemo and then he’ll be fine”. She shrugged; “I don’t know if he really believes that, but it’s the line he takes when he’s talking to anyone”.

“Including Mum?”

“Yes”.

“That’s got to be hard for her”.

“I would think so”. Out of the corner of my eye I saw her frown thoughtfully. “Did you and Kelly talk honestly about her cancer, Tommy? Right from the start?”

“We did the second time. The first time she ignored the symptoms for a while”.

“Right – I remember that”.

“She was worried, but she didn’t want to tell me or anyone else for fear she’d have to leave Emma and go into hospital. But the second time around we’d learned our lesson; we were honest with each other from day one”.

“It just took you a bit longer to tell everyone else”.

I nodded; it had been a sore point between us at the time. “She didn’t want to tell a lot of other people until she was sure of the diagnosis”.

“I get it, Tommy, I really do. I didn’t at the time, but I do now”. She reached across suddenly and squeezed my hand. “I’m sorry; let’s change the subject, shall we?”

I glanced at her; “You okay?”

She nodded; “I am. It’s just that every now and again…”

“I know”.

For a moment neither of us spoke; I sipped at my coffee, and she steered the car down through the tunnel under the runway and out the other side, heading north toward the M4. I watched as the cars sped by in both directions, and then I said, “I guess Dad doesn’t go into the office anymore?”

“No, and Rick’s glad about that; ever since Dad retired Rick’s been wishing he would leave him alone”. My younger brother had followed the career path my father had wanted for me; he was now a senior partner at my father’s old law firm.

“Dad’s never found it easy to let other people run their own lives, has he?” I said.

“I’m afraid not; that’s one of the constants you can rely on! But on a happier subject – two interviews this week?”

“Yes – Headington and Cowley. I’ve already done phone interviews for Reading and High Wycombe”.

“That one in Headington – isn’t that where you did your first student placement?”

“Yes. It seems like a long time ago now”.

“You’re such an old man, Tommy!”

“I know; I get regular reminders of the fact from Emma!”.

“It must be a bit strange to think about going back there”.

“A little. It was a reasonably good experience, but of course a lot will have changed in twenty-two years”.

“I’ll be hoping for that one or Cowley; it would be nice if you were close by”. She reached over and put her hand on mine. “How are you feeling about this move? Are you sad?”

“I am. I don’t think I really believed it until I started getting involved in the interview process, but now it’s starting to sink in. I know nothing’s certain yet, and I know if I’m successful there’ll be lots of good things about living in the U.K. again, but to be honest, at the moment I’m strongly tempted to intentionally mess up the interviews”.

“I know”, she said quietly, “and I understand”.

“It’s not that I wouldn’t be glad to be closer to you and Mum, of course”.

“I know. What about Emma; how’s she feeling?”

“She’s excited about being here for a longer period of time. She likes the idea of getting a closer look at her English roots, and she wants to be able to spend some time with Mum and Dad too. But there’s another part of her that’s dreading the thought of leaving Meadowvale”.

“Of course”.

“She’s relieved that we’re not planning to sell the house; it gives us a tangible link with home”.

“Right. And then there’s her nursing training”.

“She still wants to do that, whether it’s here or back home”.

“I was talking to her about that last week. She really likes volunteering at the special care home, doesn’t she?”.

“She does; I could easily see her making a career in geriatric nursing. But to be honest I think she could do any kind of nursing she wanted”.

“Well, there’ll always be a need for nurses in England. Even if the move here turned out to be permanent, she’d probably never be short of a job”.

“We haven’t talked about making a permanent move, Becs”.

“I understand; one day at a time”.

  • * * * * *

I thought of Northwood as my childhood home, but in fact we had moved there when I was eleven. My earlier years had been spent in the Oxford suburb of Summertown, but I had actually preserved few links with the place of my birth and early childhood. It was in Northwood that I had formed my friendship with Owen; it was Northwood and the surrounding countryside that he and I had explored as teenagers; it was in Northwood that we had learned to play guitar together and had shared some of the most formative conversations of my early life. It was true that the emotional dynamics of my home life there had been complicated, but I still had a deep sense of connection with the village itself and the countryside around it.

It was a community of about two thousand people, situated in the Thames Valley just north of the town of Wallingford. It was strangely elongated; the southern area was built beside the river, but the village narrowed around the main street as it ran north-east, and then widened out again into a northern part which was almost a second community. The northern part, where my parents lived, was actually the original village of Northwood; it had expanded toward the river in the eighteenth century when the bridge across the Thames was built, with the Kingfisher Inn beside it.

We crossed the bridge at around three-thirty, driving north on the high street and passing the old 15th century church on the west side of the village green. We turned east at the church, and I looked around at the street I had once known so well, noticing the absence of a few familiar buildings and the addition of some new ones. About half a mile further on, we turned right onto a long private driveway running down past a copse of ancient elm trees; at the end of the driveway loomed the familiar bulk of my parents’ home. Built in the late eighteenth century, it was a large two-storey grey stone house with an old courtyard and stable complex off to one side, most of it now converted into garage space. Behind the house there was an apple orchard, a wood, and a small lake.

Becca pulled the car up by the front door and turned off the engine. “Well, here we are”, she said, “and here’s Mum; she must have been watching at the window”.

I looked up and saw my mother emerging from the front door; she had put on a wool cardigan before coming outside to greet us, and I noticed immediately how tired she looked, and how white her hair had turned since I had last seen her at Kelly’s funeral. I opened the car door and got out to meet her; “Hello, Mum”, I said.

“Hello, Tom; welcome home”.

I put my arms around her to give her a hug; “Happy Easter”.

“Happy Easter to you, too”.

Becca was already lifting my bag out of the trunk of the car; she kissed my mother on the cheek and asked, “How’s Dad today?”

“Alright this afternoon; he had a good nap earlier on. Shall we go inside?”

We followed her up the steps and through the doorway into the hall. The well-remembered spiral staircase swept up on our left; I took in at a glance the polished wood floor, the antique telephone table, the ornate wallpaper. My mother was already leading the way into the large living room; it was built on the southwest corner of the house, with bay windows on the two outside walls providing plenty of light. As we entered, my father rose slowly out of one of the armchairs by the fireplace, and as I crossed the room toward him he held out his hand. “So you finally came home again”, he said; “It took you long enough”.

His voice was not as strong as I remembered. He had always been tall and wiry, but now he seemed gaunt and skeletal, his back a little bent, his face narrow and pale, his few remaining wisps of grey hair combed straight back from his high forehead. The ravages of the deadly disease he was fighting were plain.

“How are you, Dad?” I asked.

“Not dead yet, at any rate”. He greeted Becca, smiling at her as she kissed him on the cheek, and then moved over to the sideboard, asking “What will you have to drink, Tom?”

“Oh, I don’t know – Scotch, I guess”.

He looked at me over his shoulder with a quizzical expression on his face. “Well? Do you want it or not?”

“Sure – yes please”.

“Becca? Dry sherry?”

“Yes please, Dad”.

He poured drinks for everyone and passed them around; “Sit down”, he said. We found our seats, he and my mother on each side of the hearth, Becca and I side by side on the chesterfield. “So”, my mother asked, “How’s Emma? Did you bring us some new pictures?”

“I did”. I reached into the inside pocket of my jacket, brought out my photographs and passed them to my mother.

“Her hair’s getting long again”, my mother observed as she looked over the pictures one by one and passed them to my father.

“Well, it’s been over two years now”. Emma had shaved her head along with her mother when Kelly’s hair had started to fall out from chemotherapy. Kelly had protested, but Emma had insisted and I had sided with her, knowing how badly she needed to feel she was doing something to show solidarity with her mum.

“Are these recent?” my mother asked.

“Just a month ago”.

“She looks more like Kelly all the time”.

“That’s what I always think”, Becca replied softly.

“Good heavens!” my mother exclaimed, pointing at one of the photographs; “Is that Jenna?”

“Yes it is”.

“She’s certainly shot up in the last couple of years, hasn’t she? Look at this, Frank”.

My father glanced at the photographs as she handed them to him. “She takes after her mother too, doesn’t she?” he said.

“She does”, I agreed, “and Jake’s more like his dad”.

“A month ago, you say? Plenty of snow still, at that time”.

“You never can tell how long it’ll stay”.

He looked at me with a bemused expression on his face; “You’ve certainly picked up the accent over the years”.

“It comes and goes; in Meadowvale they still think I sound English”.

He handed the pictures back to my mother; “Two interviews this week, then?” he asked.

“Yes, one at Gypsy Lane School in Headington, and one in Cowley; I’ve already done two by phone”.

“Headington or Cowley would be nice”, said my mother.

“You could live here”, my father suggested.

“I could, or I could start out here and then look for a place of my own once I get my feet on the ground”.

“Don’t be ridiculous – prices are far too high around here; on your salary you’d never be able to afford it. With what you could get from selling a house in Saskatchewan you’d be in no position to buy; living here would be the only reasonable thing to do”.

“I’m not thinking of selling or buying; I’d be making enough on a teacher’s salary to be able to afford to rent a small house, and I can supplement that with the money I make on renting out our place back home”.

He shook his head. “Renting is never a good idea; you’re paying out money and getting nothing in return. If you’re not going to buy, you’d be far better to stay here”.

“If I get a job nearby, I’ll certainly think about it”.

There was an awkward silence for a moment, and then Becca spoke. “Are Rick and his family still coming for supper?”

My mother nodded; “I hope you don’t mind, Tom? I thought it would be nice for us to have a family gathering, with it being a holiday today”.

“Of course not. I wouldn’t mind catching a nap before they come, though; it was a long trip, and as you know I’m not especially good at sleeping on planes”.

“That would be fine; I’ve got your old room made up for you”.

“Maybe after I’m done this drink I’ll go up and get settled in”.

  • * * * * *

A few minutes later I excused myself, picked up my bag in the hall and climbed wearily up the spiral staircase. As I pushed open the door to my old room I was confronted with a world of memory, not so much from my childhood years as from the times that Kelly and I had stayed in this room together; we had come to Northwood three times over the years as a married couple, twice in summer and once for a shorter period at Christmas. I put my bag down on the bed and walked over to the window, looking out over the lawn with the brick wall of the orchard off to the left; she and I had stood side by side at this same window many times during our last visit in the summer of 1997, and for a brief moment the sense of her presence was so strong that I almost felt I could reach out and put my arm around her.

I heard a quiet knock on the door, and as I turned Becca slipped into the room. She came over and put her hand on my arm; “I just came up to make sure you were okay”.

“Thank you; I’m fine”.

She kissed me gently on the cheek, smiled at me, and said, “Are you sure?”

“Yes. But you’re a good woman, Becca Masefield”.

She shook her head; “I don’t know about that”.

I went over to the bed and began to unpack my bag; “Are you working tomorrow?”

“No, I don’t start again until Tuesday, and I’m not on call either; I did my bit Good Friday and yesterday”.

“Are you staying out here, then?”

“Just tonight; I’m going home tomorrow after supper”.

“Maybe some time tomorrow we could wander down to the Kingfisher for a pint?”

“I’d like that”. She smiled at me; “Okay, I’m going to leave you to rest now”.

“I just need half an hour with my head down on my pillow; after that I’ll come down and help you and Mum with supper, or do whatever you like”.

“Alright, then, sleepyhead”, she said with a mischievous grin; “See you in a bit”.

  • * * * * *

My brother and his family arrived just before six; we were sitting in the living room again when we heard the sound of the car pulling up to the front of the house. My mother went out to greet them, and a moment later we all stood up as they entered the room. Rick had let his hair grow a little since the last time I had seen him; it was beginning to turn grey, and his face seemed pale and thin, but he gave me a warm smile as he shook my hand; “Welcome home”, he said.

“Thanks; it’s good to see you”.

I turned to greet his family. His wife Alyson was petite, with dark hair and a pleasant Scottish accent, dressed quietly in jeans and a sweater; she worked as a researcher for a wildlife conservation unit in Oxford. They had brought their three children with them; Eric was sixteen, Sarah fourteen, and Anna eleven. None of the children knew me well; they had never visited us in Canada, and even on our last trip to England we had not seen very much of them. Eric was tall and thin like his father, while the girls tended to take after Alyson.

My mother and Becca moved some extra chairs into the semi-circle around the hearth, and my father handed drinks around. When we were all sitting down my mother glanced at me with a smile; “Tom’s got some lovely photographs of Emma”, she said.

So my pictures made the rounds again. Anna, glancing at one that had been taken at the old Reimer farm a couple of weeks ago, said, “I didn’t know she rode horses”.

“She’s been riding since she was a little girl”, I replied.

“Was this taken at a riding school?”

“No, it’s the old farm where Emma’s grandpa grew up. We still have relatives out there”.

“So this is one of their horses she’s riding?”

“Yes”.

Sarah spoke in a quiet voice; “How old is she now?”

“She turned seventeen in December”.

“Is she doing A-levels or something?”

“She’ll be finishing Grade Twelve in June, which is like getting A-levels where we live”.

“Will she be going to uni?”

“Yes”.

“What does she want to do?”

“She wants to be a nurse”.

“What else does she like to do?” Anna asked.

“She likes outdoor things – hiking and canoeing and cross-country skiing. She reads a lot too, and she plays guitar”.

My brother gave me a wry grin; “Chip off the old block”.

Alyson glanced at her son; “Eric started to play guitar a couple of years ago”.

“I’m not very good yet”, Eric replied with a shrug of his shoulders.

“Uncle Tom’s been playing since he was a teenager”, said Rick; “I expect he’s got a guitar hiding around here somewhere”.

“Actually, no”, I replied; “I’m only here for a week, so I left it behind”.

“You surprise me, bro – I thought you were inseparable from that thing!”

“I must admit I don’t often part with it, but it seemed easier not to bring it this time”.

“Do you and Emma play the same kind of music?” asked Sarah.

“Some, but she’s got likes and dislikes of her own too”.

“I should email her; it’s weird that she’s my cousin and I hardly know her”.

“She’d like that; I’ll give you her email address”.

My mother got to her feet; “Well, the food’s almost ready, so Becca and I will go and put it on the table”.

  • * * * * *

After supper my brother surprised me by suggesting that we take a walk in the garden together. The evening sun was close to the horizon; the sky had cleared and the temperature was dropping. We skirted the flowerbeds in silence; at the bottom of the garden Rick glanced at me and said, “So you’re really thinking of moving back, then?”

“I am”.

“Not thinking of going into the Law at long last, though?” I saw the mischievous grin on his face.

“No, I’ll leave that to you. How’s it going, by the way?”

“Very well. We’ve got about twenty-five people now, partners and solicitors and so on, and we’ve started to build a rather good name for ourselves nationally”.

“You must be squeezed tight in that office”.

“We actually bought the place next door a couple of years ago so that we could expand, but we really need to move out of the city centre. We could lease a much more functional property down at the Oxford business park, but of course the old man won’t hear of it”.

“I thought Dad was retired?”

“Yes, but until a few months ago he was still coming in two or three times a week; he was constantly interfering with the day-to-day running of the place, not to mention long-term decision-making. We’ve had several opportunities to merge with national firms – which would have been really good for our business – but in his mind Masefield and Marlowe is still an old Oxford chamber and he wants to keep it that way”.

“Does he actually have a say in the matter, though? Surely, if he’s retired…?”

“There are ten partners; all he needs to be able to do is influence six, and of course the majority of them go back to his time. If he wants to make an issue of something it’s not hard for him to get his own way”.

“That must be frustrating”.

“You could say that”.

“I suppose Jack Marlowe’s retired now too?”

“He is, and he’s a lot better at it than the old man; I honestly believe there are days when Dad thinks I haven’t got a clue”.

“He has an enduring habit of trying to control our lives”.

My brother gave a short laugh; “Well put! We’ve got that much in common, haven’t we?”

“I’m afraid so”.

We ambled along in silence for a moment in the fading light, our hands in our pockets, and then he said, “If you move back here we’ll have to invite you over to the house for a meal some time”.

“That would be nice. How long is it now that you’ve been in the new place?”

“A couple of years”.

“I vaguely remember hearing about it after the fact, but of course I was a little preoccupied at the time”.

“I know”.

“I remember last time we were here you were having renovations done on your old place so you could sell it and make some money on it”.

“God, yes! That was a bit of a nightmare, but eventually we got it done. We’ve got a nice property now out at Cumnor Hill: newish house, six bedrooms and a couple of reception rooms, big garden, lots of trees. Good neighbourhood, too”.

“Pretty swanky out there, as I recall”.

He shrugged; “I suppose so. You’ve got to have money to live there but it’s comfortable and the children like it, and I’m not worried about crime or gangs or drugs or student parties or anything like that”.

“I’ll look forward to seeing it”.

He was quiet for a moment as we skirted a line of rose bushes, and then he said, “So what’s made you think of coming back after all these years? I always got the impression you saw the move to Meadowvale as permanent?”

“I did”.

“What’s changed?”

“I’d like have another try at making things right with Dad while I still can”.

He looked at me incredulously; “You want to make up with him? The old man’s not the reconciling sort, you know”.

“I know. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that if there’s even the slightest chance I want to give it a try”.

“You’re serious about this?”

“I am”.

He shook his head in disbelief; “Well, that’s put me in my place. I was sure you were thinking about the will”.

I was astonished; “The will?”

“Yes; Dad’s got a considerable sum of money stashed away, you know”.

“I assumed he’d leave everything to Mum”.

“I’m sure most of it will go to her, but I won’t be surprised if there’s a smaller amount for each of us, too”.

“I can honestly say I hadn’t even thought of that; until you mentioned it, it never even occurred to me”.

“No, I believe you”, he said apologetically, “and now that we’re talking about it I can’t for the life of me imagine how I could have thought such a thing”. He glanced at me with a sheepish grin; “Sorry, bro – I spend far too much time with millionaires and lawyers. Everyone I know thinks money’s what makes the world go around – the more of it the better”.

“Well, I’ve always known that’s the way Dad thinks, so I can’t really hold it against you”.

“But I should have remembered that you don’t think like that; you’re the least worldly person I know”. He laughed softly again. “I think you’re a romantic dreamer, of course; you always have been, but greedy you’re not”.

“Well, I was lucky that my romantic dreams came true – at least for a while”.

He gave me a sideways glance, his face suddenly serious; “I’m really sorry about Kelly”. He shook his head again; “I know I should have written or called or something, but to tell you the honest truth I never know what to say in that sort of situation. What on earth does one say?”

“There’s really nothing to say”.

We strolled along in silence for a couple of minutes, listening to the sound of the birds in the treetops as the sun got close to the horizon. Eventually he spoke again; “So is there a plan?”

“A plan?”

“For fixing things with Dad”.

“Not really. Hopefully I can move back here, get a job, visit Mum and Dad and try to be as helpful as I can”.

“Is Emma looking forward to it?”

“I think so; she likes England and she wants to help Mum and Dad if she can. Of course, she’s going to miss Meadowvale”.

“Totally understandable. She’s a good kid, Becca tells me”.

“Yes she is. And your three? They were quiet at the table tonight”.

“They like Mum, but Dad can be a bit intimidating”.

“Of course”.

“They’re doing well though, for the most part”.

“Sarah’s growing up fast”.

“Yes she is; turning a few heads already, so I’m told, although of course she’s still only fourteen”.

“She’s got a birthday coming up soon, right?”

“She has”. He grinned at me; “I’m impressed – I’m not much for remembering those kinds of things myself, as you know”.

“Well, I was married to a girl who thought family was really important”.

“Emma must have her admirers too?”

“She had a boyfriend for a while but he broke up with her just after Christmas. She’s known him since she was eleven and they were dating for over a year, so she was pretty sad about it”.

“What happened?”

“He was a year ahead of her, and he went away to university”.

“Someone else caught his eye?”

“That’s what I hear. It’s too bad actually; his mum’s a teaching colleague of mine, Mary Stonechild, so it’s been a little awkward”.

“Small town”.

“Yeah”.

We lapsed into silence again for a few minutes, walking slowly along the path. Eventually I said, “Dad doesn’t look well, does he?”

“No. I didn’t notice it right away of course; it came on gradually”. He frowned; “The truth is, I don’t really understand all of it. I don’t understand how he could have had the disease for two or three years without it being noticed”.

“You’ve heard them talk about the difference between indolent and aggressive lymphoma?”

“Yes”.

“Indolent lymphoma isn’t especially dangerous because it doesn’t show many symptoms, but that means that it tends not to be detected until it’s well established. And of course it can turn into aggressive lymphoma, which is what’s happened to Dad”.

He frowned at me; “That’s not what Kelly had, though?”

“No, she had breast cancer. Eventually it moved into her lymph nodes and from there to the bones and the liver, but it wasn’t true lymphoma”.

“Right”.

We ambled along in silence for a couple of minutes, each of us occupied with our own thoughts. Eventually he said, “Well, shall we walk back up to the house? I think I’m ready for another drink”.

“Okay”.

  • * * * * *

I spent a quiet few days at my parents’ home, visiting with my mother and father, going for walks in the village and the old familiar countryside around, and making occasional trips into Oxford with Becca. The atmosphere when my father was awake was as tense as ever, but he usually slept each day for at least an hour in the early afternoon, and then my mother and I had some long, quiet conversations. In the middle of the week Becca drove me to Cowley for a morning interview, and afterwards we went out for lunch at a nearby pub.

My father went into the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford on Tuesday for his third chemo injection. As I expected he was fine on Wednesday, but the next day he began to feel seriously nauseous and by the middle of the day he was keeping to his room. My mother spent a lot of time with him, but when I asked her if there was anything I could do, she shook her head and said, “He doesn’t like to be seen like this, Tom”.

“I understand”.

  • * * * * *

On the Friday afternoon I had my interview at Gypsy Lane School in Headington. The head teacher, Siobhan Macnamara, was a dark-haired Irishwoman, a little older than me; she was brisk and businesslike, and in her questions she wasted no time in getting to the point. I saw the head of English, Kathy MacFarlane, smiling furtively at a couple of her head teacher’s comments; she herself took the lead when it came to specific questions about my teaching skills and experience, and I could tell she had read my resumé carefully and been impressed with it. The third person in the room was one of the school governors, but he took very little part in the interview and seemed to be there mainly to listen. I left at the end of the afternoon with a sense that things had gone well and that there was a good possibility I might be successful.

  • * * * * *

My mother had invited the whole family to dinner again on Saturday night; I had spent the afternoon in Oxford with Becca, and it was already about five-thirty by the time we arrived at my parents’ place. Rick and Alyson and their children got there about half an hour later; it had been a working Saturday for my brother, and he was still wearing a dark suit and maroon tie when they came into the living room.

My father was getting over his nausea by now but he was still looking tired and pale. Nevertheless, he insisted on getting up and pouring drinks for everyone; Alyson accepted a glass of sherry from him and then took her seat beside me on the chesterfield. “How did your interviews go?” she asked.

“Alright, I think”.

“I hear you were back on familiar ground yesterday?”

“Yeah; there’ve been a few changes since the last time I was there”.

“How soon will you hear anything?”

“A couple of weeks”.

“Any sense of which way things might go?”

“I thought both interviews went quite well, but of course I’m unfamiliar with the protocol here so I can’t know for sure”.

“Did it feel different, being back in English schools?”

“Well, it’s the Easter holidays so I didn’t actually get to see either school in action. They’re definitely bigger than I’m used to; our school in Meadowvale has about six hundred students, and the one in Headington has fifteen hundred. I know the school culture’s going to be very different, and so is the curriculum; I have to admit that I find that a little daunting”.

“You can’t let them know that, though”, my father said. “They’ll read it as a sign of weakness. You can’t appear to be weak or they’ll take advantage of it”.

“Who are ‘they’, Dad?”

“Your pupils, of course”.

I shrugged. “I’ve never viewed teaching as a battleground”.

“You might find things a bit different here”.

“Of course; I’m sure the learning curve will be steep”. I glanced at my brother, who was sitting across from us in a wing chair, nursing a glass of scotch. “You were obviously working today”.

“Yes – I’ve got a client with a very important trial coming up in the next couple of weeks. We’re burning the midnight oil getting ready for it”.

“A criminal trial?”

He shook his head. “Commercial”, he replied; “There’s rather a lot of money involved”.

“Are you working on this alone?”

“God, no!” he exclaimed; “There are about five of us on the team. The files already fill dozens of boxes”.

“Do you have to read them all?”

“If I’m going to do a good job for my client”.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Eric shaking his head a couple of times, his eyes on the ground. He had refused my mother’s offer of a cup of tea, and was sitting in the corner of the room, obviously rather bored with the proceedings. Sarah was sitting beside him on a hard-backed chair, and I could tell by the expression on her face that she was waiting to catch my eye. I smiled at her; “How are you doing?”

“I’m alright. I emailed Emma”.

“That’s what I hear”.

“She’s read Harry Potter”.

“She has; she’s a big fan. You are too, are you?”

“I’ve read all of them; they’re fantastic!”

“I think there’s another one coming out soon, isn’t there?”

“In July; I can’t wait!”

“Are these those boy wizard books?” my brother asked with a smile.

“‘Boy wizard books!’” Becca quoted with a bemused grin; “Is it possible my brother hasn’t quite registered the biggest phenomenon in recent publishing history?”

“Are they really that big? I don’t know anything about them other than the name and that there are wizards and witches in them”.

“They’re well on their way to becoming the best-selling fiction series of all time”, I replied. “Kids have been lining up in bookstores for hours when new titles are released”.

“And there are films”, Becca added; “Highly successful films, grossing hundreds of millions of dollars”.

“Money, Dad”, Eric said sarcastically; “Surely you’ve noticed that?”

Rick glanced at him darkly; “Watch your tongue, Eric Masefield”.

Eric tossed his head dismissively and looked away again. Sarah glanced at him for a moment with a little frown, and then turned back to me. “Anyway”, she said, “I’ve emailed back and forth a couple of times with Emma; she seems really nice”.

“I knew she’d be glad to hear from you”.

“We mainly talked about books”.

“Do you like Ursula Le Guin too?”

“I love A Wizard of Earthsea; it’s my favourite book!”

“Oh yeah? It was one of my favourites when I was a teenager, too. I read it when it first came out; I think I was ten or eleven at the time”.

“Have you read her other books?”

“I think I’ve got almost every book she’s written; I think she’s brilliant. Emma really likes her, too”.

“That’s what she told me. But she said she’s reading George Eliot right now; I don’t really know anything about him”.

“‘Her’, actually; ‘George Eliot’ was her pen name, but her real name was Mary Ann Evans. Her stuff is really different from Ursula Le Guin’s”.

“Emma says her books are fantastic”.

Alyson smiled at her daughter; “You’ve found a kindred spirit”.

“I’m looking forward to meeting her; she’s really interesting to talk to”.

  • * * * * *

The following morning, as Becca and I were finishing our coffee at a crowded café outside the departure lounge at Terminal Three, I said, “Rick seems to have inherited Dad’s work ethic in a big way”.

“Well, I can’t really talk there, can I? I’m just as much of a workaholic as either of them”.

“Can I ask you a personal question?”

“You know you can”.

“Do you ever see Mike?”

Immediately she looked away. Mike Carey was a paramedic; he had been her boyfriend for about eighteen months and they had lived together for almost a year, but he had ended their relationship just after Christmas. The previous summer, while they were still together, they had come to Meadowvale to visit Emma and me; while they were with us we had taken them camping for a week in Jasper National Park.

“I know where he’s staying”, she said, “and we know each other’s phone numbers, but we haven’t really talked since we broke up”.

“Sorry; it’s not really my business”.

“Don’t be silly; you and I don’t keep things from each other. To be honest I’m still finding it hard; the hardest part is knowing it was my fault”.

“You can’t be sure of that”.

“Tommy, spare me the sympathy; you and I have talked about this enough times to know I’m the one who’s got to learn to get my compulsive work habits under control. He was tired of being short-changed when it came to time together, and who can blame him? I certainly can’t”. She shook her head slowly; “It’s just that I don’t seem to be able to do anything about it”.

“You’re good at what you do, and you enjoy it”.

“Owen’s good at what he does, and he enjoys it, but he’s not driven like I am”.

“You’re still in touch with some of your high school friends, right?”

“I swim once a week with Stevie Fredericks, and we always have coffee afterwards”.

“You don’t do gymnastics any more, though?”

She laughed; “Not for a long time!”

“You two did pretty well in gymnastics competitions in high school”.

“We did”. She smiled at me; “Those were good days”.

“Kelly and I had our struggles with being over-busy, you know”.

“She told me that. I found it hard to believe; you always seemed so relaxed when I was with you”.

“That was because you almost always came in the summer time. During the school year it was a lot harder”.

“I know teachers are busy”.

“Yeah, and there were other things too. Kelly was working full time, and we were running the Sunday night group a couple of times a month, and attending a midweek study group at the church, and Ellie and Darren and I were driving down to Saskatoon regularly to play gigs. For a couple of years there we were running so fast that we barely connected with each other from morning to night”.

“But you worked it out?”

“Eventually – I gave up gigging with Ellie and Darren, and Kelly went down to half-time at the special care home. It wasn’t easy though; she loved her work and I loved my music. We had to decide what came first, but it wasn’t black and white; that’s what makes it hard, sometimes”.

She frowned thoughtfully, opened her mouth to speak, and then closed it again.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Are you telling me that you and Kelly were really in trouble for a while?”

“I’m telling you that we were an ordinary married couple and we had our struggles. Fortunately for us we were able to work through them; if we hadn’t, then yes, we could have been in trouble”.

She drank the rest of her coffee in silence, put the cup down on the saucer and said, “I suppose I always knew you were an ordinary married couple, but…”

“You enjoyed putting us on a pedestal”.

“I suppose I did. Life was pretty chaotic for me here, and coming to Meadowvale was always such a wonderfully restful thing. And of course, Kelly was always so good to me”.

“I have to say, our struggles were more my fault than hers”.

“Why are you telling me this, Tommy?”

“Because I don’t believe in all those neat personality classifications between Type A and Type B people. I think people are people; we all struggle with getting our priorities right and we all fail sometimes”.

She smiled sheepishly at me. “That’s your gentle brotherly way of telling me to quit blaming my Masefield genes and work harder at getting my life under control?”

“No, that’s my gentle brotherly way of saying we’re in this together”. I glanced at my watch. “And speaking of time…”.

“It’s that time, is it?”

“I’m afraid so”.

We got to our feet reluctantly; “Give my love to Owen and Lorraine”, I said.

“I will – and you give Emma love and hugs from me. Tell her I’ll see her in a couple of months”.

“I will. You don’t have to stand and watch me go through security, you know?”

She grinned at me mischievously; “But if I leave and then they turn you away at the gate, who’s going to drive you back to Northwood?”

“Well, I guess you have a point there, Doctor Masefield; they might even arrest me and throw me in jail”.

“Exactly! So you’ll let me stand and watch while you go through the line, then?”

“Oh well – if you insist”.

“I do”, she said defiantly, “So let’s go down to the gate, shall we?”

Link to Chapter 4

What I Will Remember on Remembrance Day (annual post)

There are some pieces I repost every year, because I really can’t improve on them and still want to say what they say. This is one of them.

386302_10150434245270400_1399354246_nRemembrance Day is often promoted these days as a day to remember the sacrifices of military personnel who served our country in time of war.

In fact, the original Armistice Day, after World War One (the ‘Great War’ which was also called, optimistically, ‘the War to end all Wars’), had a wider focus; it was a thanksgiving that the guns had fallen silent after four years of butchery and carnage on a scale the world had never seen before, and a silent remembrance of all who had lost their lives, military or civilian. It was also a day to pray fervently for peace and to commit oneself to a simple message: ‘Never Again!’

So on Remembrance Day this year there will be many things I will remember.

First and foremost, of course, I will remember family members who were impacted by the ravages of war.

I will remember my grandfather, George Edgar Chesterton (1895-1963), who served with the Leicestershire Tigers from 1914-18. He was eventually captured and spent eighteen months as a P.O.W. before returning home after the armistice.

I will remember my Dad’s uncle, Charles Hodkinson (1912-1941), shot down and killed in a bomber over the Netherlands in 1941.

I will remember my great grand uncle, Horace Arthur Thornton (1896-1917), killed in action in France July 27th 1917.

I will remember Brian Edgar Fogerty (1924-1941), related to me through my grandfather’s sister, who served in the merchant navy during WW2 and died at sea Feb. 22nd 1941; he was just 17.

I will remember Brian’s uncles, Harold Edgar Fogerty (1892-1919) and Edward Ernest Vernon Fogerty (1901-1920), both of whom served in the Great War. They died of illnesses after the war ended, but are remembered on the war memorial in Cheltenham because it is felt that war injuries contributed to their deaths.

I will remember the many other relatives who served in the military in the two great world wars of the twentieth century, many of whom would never speak of their experiences when they returned, and lived with the trauma for the rest of their lives.

I will also remember the brave men and women who served in the enemy armies, many of whom were conscripted and had no choice unless they were willing to be shot. I will remember the people who died because of the bombs my Dad’s uncle Charles dropped. I will remember the U-Boat men who fired the torpedoes that killed Brian Fogerty; the U-Boat arm had the highest casualty incidence of any unit of the German military in WW2, and I expect that most of them died in terror as they heard the explosions of depth charges getting closer and closer; no doubt those who were religious prayed that God would save them, just as my relatives prayed to be saved.

I will remember the civilians whose lives were lost in carpet bombing: in the Blitz in London and other cities in Britain, in the fire-bombing of Dresden, in the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I will remember the residents of the towns and cities of Europe, Africa, and Asia, whose homes became battlegrounds and who lost everything they had, including (in millions of cases) their lives. I will remember the millions of children who became orphans, many of whom were institutionalized for the rest of their lives.

I will remember the ridiculous sibling rivalry between King Edward VII and Kaiser Wilhelm I, which was a primary cause of the arms race between their two countries in the lead up to World War I, and thus arguably contributed to the outbreak of the war. Britain and Germany had no history of aggression, but the Kaiser wanted battleships like his cousin King Edward, and the only excuse he could offer was to create the illusion that Britain was a threat to him. On such stupidity hung the lives of millions of young men.

I will remember the millions of people in eastern Europe who were condemned to forty years of communist tyranny because Britain and the U.S.A. needed the support of Russia to win the Second World War. Our victory was thus won on the backs of the freedom of millions; who were the ‘winners’ here?

I will remember the lies that have been told to justify war, from the lie that Polish soldiers had invaded Germany and killed men at a border post in 1939 (told by Hitler to justify his invasion of Poland) to the lie that Iran had weapons of mass destruction. I will also remember the appalling arrogance of western nations who assume that we have the right to impose our ideas of government on people who obviously do not want them.

I will remember how the words of my Lord Jesus Christ, ”greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”, have been taken out of the context in which he spoke them – in which he was about to lay down his life without resisting, loving his enemies and praying for those who hated him – and have been used to honour and glorify the deaths of those who were killed while they were fighting and killing others.

I will remember all of this on Remembrance Day. I will pray that this madness will end, that human beings may find better ways to resolve their conflicts than sending young people out to butcher each other, and that those who profit from war will have their eyes opened to their own wickedness, and repent. And I will pray that the Christian Church throughout the world may be alive to the call it has received from its master, to love our enemies and pray for those who hate us.

And, as always, I will find Wilfred Owen’s immortal poem ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ to be a penetrating aid to true remembrance of what war is all about:

Dulce Et Decorum Est
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;

Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

– Wilfred Owen, 1917