The Story of Deliverance (a sermon on Psalm 111)

I think we often don’t realize how powerfully our stories shape us as people and as nations.

For example, in British military history the idea of the brave few who win a glorious victory over the many has been a recurrent theme. I think it goes back to Shakespeare, to Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt, where the King says ‘We few – we happy few – we band of brothers’. Admiral Nelson took this up during the Napoleonic Wars, talking about his ship captains as a ‘band of brothers’ fighting against the superior numbers of the Spanish and French. And Churchill tapped into it in his famous Battle of Britain speech: “Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few”. These stories reinforced in the British psyche the idea that it doesn’t matter if British forces are outnumbered, because they have a history of coming from behind to win.

I think in the Church we have to be very careful that we don’t get coopted by stories in the culture that are antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus. Two of the most powerful are the myth of redemptive violence and the myth of the American dream. Redemptive violence tells us that violence is usually the answer: the way to defeat an enormous evil empire is for Luke Skywalker to wield his light sabre or fly his X-wing fighter to destroy the Death Star. The American Dream tells us that the key to success in life is ever-increasing wealth; to get richer means making progress and getting ahead, but not to do that is failure. These are powerful stories in our culture and they shape us in ways we often don’t notice. Unless we challenge them – and then the culture pours down scorn on our heads.

Psalm 111 reminds Israel of its founding story – the story of how God rescued a slave people from Egypt, led them safely through the desert, fed them with manna, gave them laws to shape their life together as God’s people, and then led them into their home, the promised land. Year by year by year, this story was told in the liturgy of Israel, especially at Passover time, and as the people heard it they understood once again who they were as a people, why God had called them, what God had called them to be. This story shaped their lives, which is why it was so important for them to come back to it again and again.

As Christians, as we read this psalm, we’re going to ask ourselves the question: What is our equivalent of the Exodus story? How does the Jesus story shape us like the Exodus story shaped Israel? What practices do we follow to allow it to shape us? And are we being faithful in those practices, or are we neglecting them?

The heart of the psalm is verses 5-9. Let me read them to you again from the NRSV:

‘He provides food for those who fear him; he is ever mindful of his covenant. He has shown his people the power of his works, in giving them the heritage of the nations. The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy. They are established forever and ever, to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness. He sent redemption to his people; he has commanded his covenant forever. Holy and awesome is his name’.

Three incidents in the Old Testament story of the Exodus from Egypt are recalled here. First, in verse 5 the people remember how God fed them in the desert: ‘He provides food for those who fear him; he is ever mindful of his covenant’. Exodus tells the story of how the people came to Moses grumbling that there was no food for them to eat, and there were many thousands of them, all in danger of starvation. So God sent them ‘manna from heaven’, little flakes of a bread-like substance that fell on the camp every morning. The tradition in Exodus is that this food came to them every day for the forty years of their desert wanderings, until the day they crossed the River Jordan and entered the Promised Land: then it stopped. So God in his power and mercy kept them alive through the desert, and all through the years they celebrated this memory.

Second, in verse 6 the people remember how God led their armies into Canaan, drove out the Canaanites before them and gave them the land for themselves. ‘He has shown his people the power of his works, in giving them the heritage of the nations’. The biblical story is a little unclear as to how this happened; Joshua gives the impression that it was sudden and decisive, while Judges seems to suggest it was longer and messier. But it was the universal belief of Israel that it wasn’t their own military prowess that had won this victory for them; rather, God had provided them with a safe home to live in.

Third, in verses 7-8 the people remember how God gave them his ‘Torah’, his laws or instruction, on Mount Sinai. ‘The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy. They are established for ever and ever, to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness’. God didn’t give the Torah to Moses as a way of earning his love; he had already poured his love out on them freely when he rescued them from Egypt. But he wanted to shape them into a people who would shine his light for all the world around them, and the Torah was going to help them do that.

This psalm doesn’t specifically mention the coming out of Egypt itself, of course, or the crossing of the Red Sea; it assumes that story, which is retold poetically three psalms later, in Psalm 114. But if we take these four incidents in order, here is the story that shaped Israel: First, God rescue them from slavery in Egypt. Second, God provided supernatural food for them to eat in the desert so they wouldn’t starve (he also made water flow supernaturally for them). Third, God gave them the Torah to shape their lives as obedient people. Fourth, God led them into Canaan and gave it to them as their Promised Land.

I want to make two more comments before applying this story to us today as Christians. First, for Israel this story spelled out to them the character of their God: verse 4 says ‘the Lord is gracious and merciful’, or as another, more literal translation has it, ‘showing favour and merciful is the Lord’. In other words, the God of Israel is a loving and generous God. The book of Deuteronomy underlines several times that this love wasn’t something they had done anything to deserve: it was the free choice of God to make them his people and shower his love on them. The New Testament word is ‘grace’: love you don’t have to earn or deserve – it comes to you from God as a free gift, not because you are lovable but because God is love.

My second comment is to remind you that Israel reminded themselves of this story year after year. Where is this psalm recited? Verse 1 says ‘I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation’. In other words, the people of God are gathered together to worship God, and in that gathering this story is retold, to remind the people of who God is and who they are.

Verse 4 in our NRSV says ‘He has gained renown by his powerful deeds’, but many other translations say something like ‘He has caused his wondrous deeds to be remembered’, or ‘a memorial he has made of his wondrous acts’. The book of Exodus tells the story of how God commanded that year by year the people celebrate the Passover Festival as a memorial of their deliverance from Egypt. For thousands of years now Jewish people have been doing just that.

What about us as Christians? What story shapes us, and how do we celebrate it? Our story, of course, is the story of Jesus. If we were using the same categories as the Old Testament people, we might tell the story in four acts:

What is our deliverance from slavery? It’s Easter weekend: the cross and the resurrection, the story of how Jesus reconciled us to God by his death and gave us victory over evil by his resurrection. By Jesus’ death and resurrection we’re set free from guilt and fear. We find a new connection with God a new strength to do God’s will, and a new hope for the future. Easter weekend is Jesus’ great victory over the armies of Pharaoh. No wonder we celebrate it year by year.

What is our story of being sustained in the desert by manna from heaven and water from the rock? In 1 Corinthians Paul applies these stories to Christ, who is our nourishment on our desert journey through life. The Eucharist, of course, is a graphic picture of this: we ‘feed on him in our hearts by faith, with thanksgiving’. Jesus says, “I am the bread of life; those who come to me will never be hungry, and those who believe in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35). So we celebrate the continuing presence of Jesus with us to sustain us on our journey, and especially his presence in the Eucharist.

What is our story of God giving us his Torah, his instruction, to shape our life as an obedient people? Surely this is Jesus coming among us as our teacher, by his actions and his words. Jesus gives us our clearest picture of what God is like and what God wants for us. His Sermon on the Mount and his other teachings spell out for us what it looks like to be a people who love God with all their heart and soul and mind and strength and love their neighbour as themselves. The New Testament letter to the Hebrews says, ‘Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son…He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being’ (Hebrews 1:1-3). In other words, the word God has spoken to us in Jesus is the highest and clearest word we have ever received, and it’s meant to shape us as a people.

What is our story of God leading his people into the promised land? We need to be careful about this one, because one of the discontinuities between Old and New Testaments is the place of violence. Jesus never commands his followers to carry out their mission by war and conquest. And we don’t have an earthly ‘promised land’; if we have such a place, it’s in the life to come. But where he is leading us is out into the world in mission for him. Jesus doesn’t send his soldiers out to conquer; he sends his missionaries out, armed with nothing but the gospel on their lips and the love of God in their hearts. As we share the Gospel and call others to follow Jesus, the whole world in a sense becomes God’s promised land.

How do we Christians respond to this story? Two final things: we retell it over and over again, and we live in awe of the God it reveals to us.

We Christians understand that it’s hard for us humans to concentrate on the whole story all the time. We need to go through it stage by stage, over and over again, giving our attention to different parts of it. As we tell it and retell it, it sinks into our subconscious and shapes us as God’s special people.

We’ve just gone through one of those special times – the story of Christmas. Once again we heard the story of how God came to live among us as one of us in Jesus. Luke told us of the manger in Bethlehem and the shepherds telling the story of peace on earth, good will to all. Matthew told us of the wise men and their star. John told us what it all means for us: the Word became flesh and lived among us.

Ahead for us soon is the other major festival in our story: Holy Week and Easter. We’ll focus again on the story of Jesus’ Cross and Resurrection. We’ll enter into Jerusalem with him on Palm Sunday. We’ll sit in the Upper Room as he washes his disciples’ feet and gives them bread and wine to proclaim his death until he comes again. We’ll go with him to Golgotha on Good Friday and watch the nails pounded into his body and hear him cry out: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and we’ll go to the empty tomb on Easter Sunday morning, and join in the amazement of those first witnesses in the Upper Room as the Risen Lord appears to them.

But there’s a problem. Years ago, working people only got one day off at these high and holy days. Travel was difficult and no one went away. Nowadays, not so much. Many Christian people skip these central celebrations of our faith altogether. They go away to the sun, and the last thing they think about when they’re enjoying their holiday is going to church.

What does this mean? It means that year by year we miss out on focussing on these central stories that shape us as a community. Some people say, “But I can read them in the Bible any time I like”. To which I respond, “Yes, but do you?” It’s easier to get Bibles at this point in time than it has ever been, but I suspect that the Bible is actually read less and less. And anyway, it’s not the same as coming together as a community and focussing together on these central stories of our faith. So please don’t cheat yourself of this vital discipline. Even if you go away for the holidays, make sure your holiday time includes joining in worship with other Christians to celebrate the story of our salvation.

Lastly, we walk in ‘the fear of the Lord’. ‘Fear’ is perhaps not such a good translation these days; the idea of fear is usually connected in our minds with the basic human instincts to run, defend, or retaliate. The Hebrew word includes a larger range of meanings: ‘awe, reverent respect, honour’. The writer of the psalm sees no contradiction between talking about the grace and mercy of God in verse 4 and the fear of the Lord in verse 10, so the ‘fear of the Lord’ obviously doesn’t mean terror; rather, he says, it’s ‘the beginning of wisdom’.

In other words, if we have a proper attitude of awe and wonder and respect toward God, we will be in a better position to know how to live. Day by day, as life presents us with difficult situations, we’ll find that we know how to respond to them. Knowing this story – the story of God, of God’s love and God’s power – will give us a proper view of what life is all about.

I find this to be profoundly true: the light of the gospel doesn’t just illuminate God for us – it illuminates everything else as well. Things that were dark and murky become clearer and brighter. We see God as God is; we see ourselves as God sees us, and we see the world as God sees it. And seeing those things, we know what our next step on the journey ought to be. In the end, that’s what wisdom is all about.

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‘A Time to Mend’ Chapter 14

Link back to Chapter 13

Emma and I went out to Northwood on the evening of the 22nd, and Becca came out to join us as soon as the clinic closed on the afternoon of Christmas Eve. The three of us went to the village church that night at seven; the pews were almost full, and Claire Lucas preached a thoughtful sermon which seemed to hold even my sister’s attention. Becca had usually accompanied us to our church on her visits to Meadowvale, but I knew that she rarely attended when she was home in England.

After the service was over we walked back to my parents’ house through the cold night air. Becca grinned at us; “That was a bit different from your usual service at Meadowvale Mennonite Church”.

“A little”, I replied, “but we like it alright. The people here are getting to know us, and we get to see George and Eleanor”.

“And Claire’s started to recognize us, too”, Emma added; “I had a nice conversation with her last time we were here”.

“You two are so easy to get along with! Surely you must miss your own church just a little bit on Christmas Eve?”

“Oh yeah”, Emma replied softly; “I miss a lot of things about home”.

“Who’s going to be at Will and Sally’s for dinner tomorrow?”

“Uncle Joe and Auntie Krista and their families for sure, and I think David and Anna will probably be there too”.

“How many’s that?”

“Twelve, I think”.

Becca grinned at me; “I think that for once we might have a bigger group here!”

“Uncle Arthur and Uncle Bill are coming, aren’t they?”

“Yes – and their wives, and Ann and Mark and their family, and Auntie Brenda, and all of us: that makes nineteen”.

“Do you know why Auntie Sarah’s not coming?”

“I think Uncle Graham’s pretty frail; they don’t stray too far away from home these days”.

“Auntie Sarah’s Grandpa’s sister, right?” asked Emma.

“Yes”, I replied. “Grandpa’s the oldest, and the others are Arthur, Sarah, and Bill”.

“Which family does Ann come from?”

“She’s the oldest daughter of Uncle Bill and Auntie Joan. Her husband is Mark Fogerty, and Caitlin and Molly are their kids; they’re seven and four”.

“They’re the ones that live in Oxford?”

“Yes. Ann’s actually the only one of my cousins who’s kept in touch with me through the years”.

“Have I ever met her?”

“Last time we were here she and Mark and Caitlin drove over from Cambridge to see us; Caitlin would have been a baby at the time. You probably wouldn’t remember it, though”.

“Actually I think I do; she was kind of tall, with long blond hair. Her husband was a little shorter than her, and his hair was really black and curly”.

“Yes, that’s them”.

Becca took my arm. “It’s a long time since anyone from Dad’s family came for dinner on Christmas Day”.

“Well, there’s a bit more of a sense of urgency this year, isn’t there?”

“I would think so”.

******

I was up early as usual on Christmas morning, and I went for my walk while it was still dark; there was a sharp frost in the air, and I knew that when the daylight came the bare fields would look spectacular with their thin white covering, different and somehow colder than the snow I was used to from my prairie home. Praying while walking had been a habit for me for many years, but on this, my third Christmas without Kelly, I found that there wasn’t a great deal that I wanted to say. It seemed to be enough just to walk quietly, breathing a few prayers of thanksgiving for Christmases past, and asking God to watch over the many loved ones who were far away from us this year.

When I got back to the house my mother was already up and working in the kitchen in her bathrobe and slippers, stuffing the Christmas turkey. We chatted for a few minutes while I made tea; I promised to come down and give her a hand, but she shook her head and said, “Becca’s just getting up, and we’ve got a good system between us. You take Emma her tea and then the two of you just enjoy yourselves for a while; we’ll be alright”.

“Are you sure?”

“Oh yes”.

“Okay then; thanks, Mum”.

I poured two mugs of tea, kissed her on the cheek and went up to Emma’s room. She was already awake, with the debris from her stocking spread over her bed; she greeted me with a smile and a hug and held up the paperback I had wrapped for her a couple of days before. “Adam Bede”, she said; “I’d been thinking about getting this one for myself”.

“Aren’t you glad you didn’t?”

“I know the rules about December shopping. Did you look at your stocking yet?”

“Not yet; I’m going to drink my tea and grab a quick shower, and I’ll probably do it after that”.

“Are you going to play us some carols today?”

“Would you like me to?”

“I love it when you play carols; it brings back lots of happy memories. I heard you and Grandma practising on Saturday”.

“You could even join us if you wanted”.

“I don’t play them as well as you do”.

“Your voice is lovely, though”.

“Thanks. Is Grandma already up?”

“Yes – she’s stuffing the turkey”.

“I’d better get up and give her a hand”.

“I already offered, and she told me she and Becca have a pretty good system”.

“What time are the guests arriving?”

“I think dinner’s at one-thirty. I expect Rick and the family will be here before noon; I’m not sure about everyone else”.

“Is it a ‘dress for dinner’ kind of day?”

“It was when we were here back in ‘94”.

“Oh yeah – I remember Mom coming down in her jeans and then running back up to put a dress on!”

“Did you bring a dress?”

“I brought a skirt and a nice sweater; I hope that’s okay”.

“I’m sure Grandma would be happy for you to come in jeans if you wanted to”.

“Well, it’s a denim skirt, you see!”

I laughed; “Very nice!”

“Thanks; it’s the warmest skirt I own, too!”

******

Auntie Brenda arrived at around eleven-thirty; she greeted us with smiles and hugs, went into the living room to put a few gifts under the tree, and then joined my mother and Becca in the kitchen to help put the finishing touches on Christmas dinner.

Rick and his family made their appearance just before noon; we met them in the hallway, exchanging hugs and handshakes and wishing each other ‘Merry Christmas’. Emma had been hanging a few extra decorations in the dining room when they arrived, and Sarah and Anna immediately joined her there, while Rick talked cheerfully with me as I helped him bring in a few presents and place them under the Christmas tree. Afterwards my mother served coffee from a silver coffee pot in the living room; I knew she only brought this pot out on special occasions, and Emma had helped her polish it the previous afternoon.

A few minutes later my father’s two younger brothers, Arthur and Bill, arrived with their wives; they had come together in Uncle Bill’s car. They were all dressed formally, my uncles in jackets and ties and my aunts in elegant dresses, pearls, and brooches. Emma sat down with them almost immediately and began to ask them questions about their homes and their families in her usual quiet way. By now she had changed into her denim skirt and sweater, and I had put on my jacket and tie in deference to the unspoken dress code.

My cousin Ann and her family were the last to arrive, and she apologized profusely to my mother for their lateness. “The girls were enjoying their Christmas presents”, she said; “They weren’t very impressed when we told them it was time to leave them behind to come to Northwood!”.

“Did you bring a few of the presents with you?” I asked, pointing to the backpack she was carrying over her shoulder.

“I did actually!” she replied with a smile; “How are you, Tom? It’s lovely to see you!”

We greeted each other with a hug and a kiss, and I bent over to introduce myself to Caitlin and Molly, but they were obviously wary of strangers, and four-year old Molly hid behind her mother’s leg. Emma laughed and said “Way to go, Dad!”

“Do you remember me, Emma?” asked Ann.

“I do – I remember you coming over to visit us last time we were here. I also remember you sending us a lovely card and note after my mom died; Dad and I really appreciated that”.

“Yes, we did”, I agreed.

“Do you want me to take that backpack?” Emma asked Ann. “Maybe if I have the toys I might be able to interest the children in playing with me”.

Ann smiled at her; “You are your mother’s daughter, aren’t you? I remember her taking Caitlin from me almost as soon as I walked in the door”.

******

As Becca had said there were nineteen of us sitting down for Christmas dinner. We had put two long dining tables together end to end and dressed them with festive tablecloths and decorative candlesticks, and the meal was served on my mother’s best china with silver cutlery and crystal glassware. The turkey had been cooking since early morning; it came with all the trimmings, along with the appropriate vegetables, and afterwards we had Christmas pudding and a selection of pies and cakes to choose from.

“When was the last time you had this many people around your table for Christmas dinner, Grandma?” Emma asked.

“I honestly don’t remember”, my mother replied with a smile. “There would have been eleven of us last time you were here for Christmas; that’s probably the most we’ve ever had until today”.

“Wasn’t there a time when Tom and I were little when we had all the aunts and uncles at once?” Rick asked.

“I’d forgotten about that”, my mother replied.

“We set up the tables in the music room, didn’t we?” I said.

“Yes, we did”.

“How long ago was that?” Emma asked.

“Before my time”, Becca replied.

“Maybe not”, I said; “I think you were a baby. You were born about the same time we moved here, and I definitely remember us eating in the music room, in this house”.

My mother nodded; “I think Tom’s right”.

“Thirty-three years ago, then”, said Rick; “It’s hard to believe we’re all that old”.

Rick was wearing a jacket and tie like the other men, but I noticed that for once he was not continually checking his Blackberry. I grinned at Becca; “I think there’s something missing from our brother’s personal accessories today”.

“Something small and noisy, maybe?”

“We’re not hearing any chimes or alert sounds. I wonder where that cheeky little Blackberry  is today?”

Alyson laughed; “I insisted he leave it at home; if anyone rings him on Christmas Day they deserve to be ignored!”

“I’ll check my messages when I get home!” said Rick.

“You are definitely an addict!”, I replied.

He shook his head; “It’s the world of modern business, I’m afraid”.

Emma tactfully changed the subject; “Grandma, are you going to play some music for us a little later?”

My mother smiled; “We’ll see how the afternoon goes”.

“Don’t let her get away with that excuse!” Auntie Brenda said with a smile; “I’m her sister but you’d be amazed how rarely I get to hear her play!”

“We’ve got lots of other musicians here, too”, my mother said; “Tom, Emma, Eric…”

“Do you play Christmas songs, Tom?” asked Ann.

“Does he play Christmas songs?” Becca exclaimed with a laugh.

Emma grinned at me; “Dad loves playing Christmas songs! I know for a fact that he and Grandma were practising on Saturday”.

I grinned at my mother; “I think we’ve just been smoked out of hiding!”

Emma looked across the table at Eric; “Did you bring your guitar?”

“I did, but I don’t really know any Christmas songs. I’ll be happy to play along, though”.

******

When the meal was over and the Christmas crackers had all been pulled, we took our coffee into the living room, where we spent a while retrieving gifts from under the tree and opening them. When we were done, Emma smiled at my mother and said, “Well, is it music time, Grandma?”

“If you insist”. She glanced at my Masefield relatives and said, “I know you’ll be wanting to get on the road soon; don’t feel you have to stay for this unless you really want to”.

“We’ll need to be getting these two home before too long”, Ann said apologetically, “but we’ll stay and listen to a couple of tunes if you don’t mind?”

“No, of course not”.

“We should get going before too long as well”, my Uncle Bill said, glancing at his watch; “We don’t want to be driving in the dark for too long”.

“Perhaps we could stay until Ann leaves”, my Auntie Joan suggested.

“If that’s what you want, dear”.

So we went back to the music room, carrying a few hard-backed chairs with us; my father apologized for taking the only armchair in there, but his brother Arthur said, “Don’t you worry, Frank – you make yourself comfortable”. My mother went over to a bookshelf in the corner where she kept a few music books; she selected an old red hardback with a faded cover, smiled at me, and said, “The Oxford Book of Carols?

“Sure. Why don’t you play some of the least guitar-friendly ones first, and then I’ll go get our guitars and we can play along with a few of the others?”

******

My Masefield relatives said their farewells at around four o’clock but the rest of us stayed in the music room for another half hour or so. My mother had played three carols and then insisted that we join in, so Emma and I accompanied her for a few of the old traditional carols I liked and Eric did his best to play along with us. Later on Emma and her cousins went out for a walk, and Becca and I told my mother to sit tight while we cleared up from dinner and washed the dishes.

Rick and Alyson ended up staying into the early evening; their children were obviously enjoying spending time with Emma, and when Alyson announced at about five o’clock that it was time for them to think about heading for home, all three of them protested. “Can’t we stay a bit longer, Mum?” asked Sarah.

“I don’t think Grandma was anticipating feeding us again today”, Alyson replied.

“Oh, nonsense!” said my mother; “The house is full of food, and anyway I’ll be surprised if anyone’s really all that hungry”.

“I’m certainly not!” I said.

“Nor me”, Becca agreed.

So my mother put some cheese and crackers out, with a few cakes and a bit of Christmas baking, and we continued nibbling in the living room while the children played board games and the adults carried on their quiet conversations. After a while Emma smiled at me and asked my mother if she had a Scrabble set anywhere; my mother quickly produced one from the sideboard, and Emma, Alyson, Sarah and I played a game for a while with a few of the others watching. I wasn’t surprised when my daughter won, although in the end the scores were quite close.

“Staying out here for a few days, then?” Rick asked me as Emma and Sarah were putting the game away.

“We don’t really have a time frame; I expect we’ll be here ’til Sunday morning anyway. Owen and his family are coming out tomorrow to spend a few days with his parents; I expect we’ll get together at some point”.

“I foresee more music in your future”.

“Maybe. How about you – straight back to work?”

“The office is closed ’til Monday but I’ll be working at home for a few hours tomorrow”.

“That’s too bad”

“Can’t be helped; we’ve got a big trial coming up in the new year and I’m a long way from being ready for it”.

“What sort of trial?”

“It’s a tax case; I can’t say much about it apart from that”.

“Corporate law then?”

He nodded; “That’s almost all I do. I used to do criminal law but now I leave that to a couple of the other partners who’ve made a specialty of it”.

“Are you going to see Alyson’s family over the holidays?”

“We’re going to make a quick trip to Edinburgh over New Year’s”.

“Do you have any commitments this Sunday evening?”

He shook his head; “I don’t think so”.

“Come for supper, if you like?”

He grinned; “You think you can squeeze us all in?”

“We’ll squeeze you in just fine. Do you like Indian food?”

“We do actually”.

“We’ll cook a nice hot curry, shall we?” I said to Emma.

“For sure”, she replied with a smile.

Rick glanced at Alyson; “What do you think?”

“Sounds lovely; can we bring anything, Tom?”

“How about if you bring the wine? Your husband seems to have a pretty discerning palate for it”.

“Yes, he does!” she agreed.

******

Rick and his family left at about nine o’clock, and a few minutes later Auntie Brenda said her goodbyes. As we stood on the front step waving to her, I could feel the damp chill in the air. “It’s going to be a cool one tonight”, I said to Becca.

She glanced up at the darkened sky. “I think we might get some rain; I can’t see any stars up there, and I can feel the moisture”.

“Maybe even snow”, Emma said with a smile; “I don’t think I’ve ever seen snow in England!”

“The children love it but the adults don’t; we’re not set up for it the way you are in Canada. The roads get slick and the trains get cancelled and everything gets chaotic”.

“Well, it’s a holiday, so it’s a good day for it”.

“Except that there’ll be thousands of holidaymakers on the roads tomorrow”.

“I guess; I didn’t think of that”.

My father was pale with exhaustion by then, and my mother and Emma helped him up to bed while Becca and I cleared up the debris from the living room, put the leftover food away, and washed and dried the dishes. My mother came back downstairs after about half an hour; she came into the kitchen, kissed me on the cheek and said “Thank you”.

I smiled at her; “You’re welcome”, I replied. “That was a wonderful dinner today. Is Dad okay?”

“He’s fine; he’s just very tired. Apparently Emma is too; she asked me to tell you she’s going to go to bed with her new book and she was wondering if you’d bring her up a mug of hot chocolate?”

“I’ll do that. Are you going to stay up for a while?”

“Do you mind if I don’t? I’m rather tired too”.

“You’re entitled, Mum”, Becca replied; “You did an amazing job today; you’re a wonderful hostess”.

“Yes, you are”, I agreed.

“Thank you both”, she said; “Are you two going to carry on your hot-chocolate-by-the-Christmas-tree tradition tonight?”

I glanced at Becca; “What do you think?”

“I wouldn’t miss it!”

“I’ll put the kettle on”, I said to my mother. “Shall I bring you up a mug when it’s ready?”

“That would be lovely”.

“How about Dad; shall I bring one for him too?”

She shook her head. “He was barely able to stay awake to change into his pyjamas; I’m sure he’s already fast asleep”.

So while my mother went upstairs again to get ready for bed I boiled a kettle and made the hot chocolate. I took a cup up to my mother, dropped another one off with Emma, and then came back down the stairs to join my sister in the darkened living room. I turned on the Christmas tree lights and stoked up the fire, and we sat side by side on the chesterfield. Becca kicked off her shoes, drew her legs up underneath her and cradled her mug in her hands. “You didn’t get any calls from Meadowvale today”, she said.

“No; we told them we’d be tied up with a family gathering this afternoon and evening. We talked to Joe and Ellie and the kids yesterday, and Will and Sally. We’ll probably call Krista and Steve tomorrow, and Beth”.

She took a sip of her hot chocolate. “Our brother did rather well at being present in the present today, didn’t he?”

“He did; I can’t believe he went for a whole day without his Blackberry”.

“Well, he didn’t have much of a choice, did he? Alyson made him leave it at home”.

“One day out of three hundred and sixty-five”.

“What do you want to bet he’s on it right now, furiously checking messages and answering emails?”

I laughed; “Probably! His kids were sure having a good time with Emma today, weren’t they?”

“She’s good for them”.

“They’re good for her, too”.

“It was nice to see Ann and Mark”.

“It was, and Dad didn’t do too badly with their kids either”.

“No, he didn’t. It helped that they were at the other end of the table from him”.

We lapsed into silence, and for a few minutes the only sounds were the crackle of the wood fire and the ticking of the old clock on the mantlepiece. Eventually she sighed and said, “You and I haven’t had too many Christmases together in the past twenty years”.

“No”.

“The last one would have been here, nine years ago”.

“Three years ago you missed it by one day, when you came out to us on Boxing Day”.

She nodded slowly; “The Christmas before Kelly died. I was so frantic, and she was so serene”.

“She was”.

“How are you and Emma doing this year, Tommy? Really, I mean?”.

“Okay for the most part”. I took a long drink of my hot chocolate and then set it down on the coffee table in front of us. “It’s been a different sort of Christmas for us so far, but mostly good”.

“How’s Emma feeling now about being in England? She doesn’t talk about it much with me”.

“She doesn’t talk about it much with me either. I know she still really misses home; she and Jenna talk a lot, and Jake too of course”.

“Jenna must really miss her”.

“I think so”.

“She’s been making some new friends here, though”.

“She has, and she’s really enjoying her cousins and grandparents”.

“Has Dad said any more about paying her fees?”

“No – I think he’s dropped the subject”.

“So telling him about the life insurance was a good idea?”

“Yes, but I should have done it a lot sooner”.

She was quiet for a moment, staring thoughtfully into the fire, and then she looked at me with a smile; “Do you remember the first year we came down here during the night?”

“You were eight, and I was home from university”.

“I couldn’t sleep with excitement about Christmas, and I came to your room and woke you up…”.

“I seem to remember I wasn’t very happy about being woken up”.

“But you were so nice about it! We talked for a while and then we snuck down here, and you turned on the Christmas tree lights just like this, and we sat and watched them for a while”.

“Actually we sat and watched them ’til you fell asleep, Small One, and I carried you back up to your bed”.

“Did you? I don’t remember that!”

We both laughed softly, and she drained her mug and set it down on the coffee table. “It was always such a comfort to me when you came home from university for Christmas. That’s how it feels this year too; just having you and Emma here makes it so much better for me”.

I smiled at her; “You’re in a pensive mood tonight”.

“I am, aren’t I? Maybe it was the churchgoing last night; it’s been a few years since I’ve gone to the Christmas Eve service”.

“You used to go with Mum sometimes”.

“Yes I did, and I was glad to go with you last night. Whenever I came home from visiting you and Kelly and Emma I always resolved to go more, but then my life seemed to swallow me up again and my resolutions seemed to evaporate into thin air”.

“The busy life of a doctor”.

“It’s crazy, isn’t it? You’d have thought losing Mike would be a wake-up call for me but I don’t seem to have learned much from the experience”.

“You’ve been slowing down a bit since we came back”.

“I’ve been trying to, but I still can’t escape that sense of being driven”.

“It’s a Masefield family disease”.

“You’ve found the cure for it somehow, though”. She stifled a yawn; “Well, I think it’s about time for me to find my bed”.

“Yes, I think I’ll find mine too”. As she got to her feet I took her hand and said “Listen, Becs – about church”.

“Yes?”

“If you’d like to go from time to time, you’d be very welcome to come with Emma and me”.

“To Banbury Road, you mean? Is it like your church in Meadowvale?”

“In some ways it is, but there are some differences; there are more university students, and there’s more of an ethnic mix”.

“Well, I’ll think about it; you know I still have lots of questions. I know you found faith but it still seems to be really difficult for me”.

I got to my feet, and we made our way quietly up the spiral staircase. At the door of my room, she kissed me on the cheek and said, “Goodnight, Tommy”.

“Goodnight, Becs; see you in the morning”.

******

Link to Chapter 15

Happy birthday, John Donne (1572-1631)

A Hymn to God the Father

Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun,
         Which was my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt thou forgive that sin, through which I run,
         And do run still, though still I do deplore?
                When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
                        For I have more.


Wilt thou forgive that sin which I have won
         Others to sin, and made my sin their door?
Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun
         A year or two, but wallow’d in, a score?
                When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
                        For I have more.


I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
         My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by thyself, that at my death thy Son
         Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;
                And, having done that, thou hast done;
                        I fear no more.

God our Refuge (a sermon on Psalm 62)

I wonder what you think about when you hear the word ‘refuge’?

A few years ago, Marci and I were up in Jasper and we decided to ride the tramway up Whistler’s Mountain. For those of you who haven’t been there, the tramway takes you about 80% of the way to the top. There are great views from the upper tramway station and if all you’re looking for is a good photo opportunity and a chance for a coffee in a restaurant near the top of a mountain, you’ll probably be happy with that!

But if you want to, you can also hike up from the station to the actual summit of the mountain; it takes me about an hour, although of course some people are faster than me. On this particular occasion the weather up there was a little iffy; the clouds kept coming down and then lifting again, and those clouds had snow in them. At one point the snow began to fly furiously and the wind was wickedly cold, and Marci and I decided to take shelter until the weather blew over. We found a nice big rock and hunkered down on the lee side of it, where we sat and munched on granola bars for a few minutes until the clouds lifted and the sun came out again!

‘Refuge’. That rock was a place of refuge for us. Move away from the rock, and we were subject to the battering of the wind and the cold. Move into the shelter of the rock, and we experienced protection. In the words of today’s psalm, it was ‘our mighty rock, our refuge’ (see Psalm 62:7b).

The theme of Psalm 62 is trust in God. And not just ‘trust in God’ in general – trust in God when the wind blows and the snow flies and life gets hard. Trust in God when you need shelter, when you need protection. In other words, this wasn’t just an academic exercise for the psalmist. When he wrote these words, he wasn’t just taking part in a poetry exercise. He was going through a battering of some kind, and he had discovered from his own personal experience that God was a place of refuge for him in times of trouble.

Before we go any further, let me remind you of a couple of things about the psalms.

First – and I say this because some of us here are very new to church and may not know this – the psalms that we read together each week as part of our service are very old. They were originally written in Hebrew and are included in what we call the Old Testament or Hebrew scriptures. We don’t know for sure who wrote them or when they were written, although some of them may go back to the time of King David, about a thousand years before Christ. Many of them are probably not be that old, but all of them come from well before the time of Christ. They were collected and used as the prayer book and hymn book of the Jewish people, and Jesus would have been very familiar with them – indeed, he probably had many of them memorized, just like some of you have favourite hymns and songs memorized. So when we pray the psalms together, we’re actually joining in the prayers of the Old Testament people and of Jesus himself.

Second, the psalms are different from the rest of the Bible. In the rest of the Bible what we often get is God speaking to his people – and through them, to us today. But the psalms don’t speak to us – they speak for us. First and foremost, they’re prayers, and very honest prayers too. So we don’t read them in the same way we would read a letter of Paul or a prophecy of Isaiah. The best way to use the psalms is to pray them – and as we pray them, we’ll learn to understand them better.

Third, the psalms are poetry. Poetry isn’t meant to be understood literally – it uses imagery and metaphor to draw us into its world of feeling and experience. When philosophy tries to describe God, it uses words like ‘omniscient’ (he knows everything), or ‘omnipresent’ (he’s present everywhere), or ‘almighty’ (he can do anything). But the psalms don’t tend to use philosophical language for God; they call God ‘my shepherd’, ‘my rock’, ‘my fortress’, ‘my refuge’. These aren’t literal statements – they’re powerful metaphors to help us enter into an experience of God.

So let’s look for a few minutes at Psalm 62. As I said the psalms were written in ancient Hebrew, and sometimes it’s a tricky language to translate into modern English. Archeologists have discovered quite a lot of ancient manuscripts, and sometimes there are differences between them. If you look at different English translations like the New Revised Standard Version or the New International Version, you’re going to see some differences. I’m going to base my thoughts today on the NRSV, which is a little different from the version we read a few minutes ago in our Book of Alternative Services.

As I said, the theme of this psalm is trusting in God in the time of trouble. The first thing I want you to notice is the structure of the psalm; it jumps back and forth from God, to people, to God, to people, and finally to God again. Turn to it in your pew Bible and look at it on the page. Notice that there are basically five sections. Verses 1-2 are about trusting God. Verses 3-4 are about the actions of the enemies. Verses 5-8 are about trusting God again. Verses 9-10 are about the attributes of humans. And finally, verses 11-12 return to the theme of trusting God. Neat, isn’t it?

So why does the psalmist write this prayer? Apparently, because he was being assailed in some way by people who were out to get him. Look at verses 3-4:

‘How long will you assail a person, will you batter your victim, all of you, as you would a leaning wall, a tottering fence? Their only plan is to bring down a person of prominence. They take pleasure in falsehood; they bless with their mouths, but inwardly they curse’.

I love that image of the wall: ‘How long will you assail a person, will you batter a victim, all of you, as you would a leaning wall, a tottering fence?’ We can imagine a rickety old wall, in such poor shape that a little gust of wind could bring it down! And we get the point right away: the writer of the psalm is feeling fragile, because he’s being persecuted.

It doesn’t sound to me as if the persecution is imprisonment or torture or danger of death – at least, not yet. What seems to be happening is that people are spreading lies about him. To his face, they’re being nice to him: “Well, hello there, my friend! How are you doing these days! It’s so good to see you!” But he’s not deceived by these greetings, because he’s heard rumours about what they’re saying behind his back. ‘Their only plan is to bring down a person of prominence. They take pleasure in falsehood’ (v.4) – or, as the B.A.S. version says, ‘lies are their chief delight’.

I’ve got a couple of things to say about this. First of all, this is a form of persecution most of us can identify with. Most of us here haven’t been imprisoned or tortured for our faith. Most of us haven’t had to flee our homes as refugees. But all of us, from time to time, have been the victims of gossip campaigns. We’ve all experienced those who greeted us warmly but whose greetings made our skin crawl, because we knew what they were saying about us behind our backs.

Second, let’s not minimize this form of persecution as if it wasn’t serious. Sometimes it can be devastating. A person’s reputation – and their entire life – can be destroyed by a false story. Sometimes it doesn’t even have to be a story; sometimes it can just be a question raised about their character or their history. It doesn’t matter – the damage is done. A lie once told can’t be recalled. Even if it’s later disproved, the victim will still be affected by it.

So what do we do about this situation? What does the psalmist recommend?

Negatively, we’re not to be surprised by it. People are not saints. People are complicated. We’re a bag of contradictions: joys and fears, loves and resentments, strengths and weaknesses. Good people do bad things sometimes; none of us is completely without our skeletons in the closet. The psalmist has a lovely poetic way of describing the human condition: look at verse 9:

‘Those of low estate are but a breath, those of high estate are a delusion; in the balances they go up; they are together lighter than a breath’.

I love the way the New Living Translation puts this verse:

‘Common people are as worthless as a puff of wind, and the powerful are not what they appear to be. If you weigh them on the scales, together they are lighter than a breath of air’.

So human beings might be able to give us a little help, the writer says, but in the end they’re strictly limited. Even the powerful, the rich, the movers and shakers, are ‘a delusion’. All their grandeur and their wealth and their fine clothes can’t change the fact that underneath, they’re just fallible human brings with the same weaknesses and frailties as the rest of us. They make mistakes, their projects fail, and one day – like everyone else – they die.

No, the psalmist tells us – trust in God. In the long run, God is the one who can be trusted.

Look at these poetic images the psalmist uses for God: ‘He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall never be shaken’ (v.2) – ‘My mighty rock, my refuge is in God’ (v.7) – ‘God is a refuge for us’ (v.8) – ‘Once God has spoken, twice have I heard this: that power belongs to God, and steadfast love belongs to you, O Lord’ (vv.11-12a). We get the message: when the wind is blowing on the top of the mountain, threatening to freeze your bones, God is the rock you can get behind for shelter. “Rock of ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee”.

How does that work? What do we actually do to take refuge in God? The psalmist offers us two insights that seem at first to be contradicting each other.

First, he seems to counsel silence. Verse 1 says ‘For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation’. Verse 5 returns to the theme: ‘For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him’. The idea seems to be ‘Wait for God to help you, and while you’re waiting, keep your mouth shut!’

But this can’t be what the verse means, because verse 8 goes on to counsel speaking! ‘Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us’. This makes sense to us; as someone once said, ‘A problem shared is a problem halved’ How many of us have had the experience of carrying around a heavy load on our hearts, and then finally being able to tell someone about it. The load was lifted! The problem hadn’t gone away, but just the fact that we could pour out our hearts to someone else made us feel better! We weren’t alone any more!

How do we resolve this contradiction?

As I mentioned at the beginning, the psalms were written in ancient Hebrew, and it isn’t always easy to translate into English. Many words don’t have exact English equivalents. With some words, scholars aren’t completely sure what they mean. And sometimes archeologists have found many manuscript copies of a particular passage, and they aren’t exactly the same – a copyist has made an error and transmitted it to others.

So ‘waiting on God in silence’ might not be the best translation of what the author originally wrote in verses 1 and 7. One of the commentaries I read suggests this translation: ‘Truly my soul is at rest in God; from him is my salvation’. I love that! I get the picture of someone who has cultivated a close relationship with God: they’ve spent time with God in prayer, speaking and listening. They’ve learned from God’s commandments and God’s teachings and tried to shape their lives by what God says. And the result is this feeling of restfulness. Couples with good marriages know what this is about! It’s not that you don’t try to please each other; of course you do! But you’re not anxious about it; you’ve been together for a long time and you feel totally secure in each other’s love. That’s the way the psalmist is in his relationship with God. ‘Truly my soul is at rest in God; from him is my salvation’.

Our NRSV translates verse 7 in exactly the same way, but some other ancient versions put it slightly differently: ‘Truly, my soul, take rest in God’. In verse 1 his soul is at rest in God, but in verse 7 he’s encouraging himself to stay there. He’s just had this huge shock of discovering this awful gossip campaign that his friend has started against him; he feels like a leaning wall, a tottering fence, as if his life is shaken to the foundations. But then he stops, takes a deep breath, remembers his experience of the love of God, and says to himself, ‘Truly, my soul take rest in God’.

When we understand the verses in this way, verse 8 flows right along: ‘Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us’. This is part of resting in God: sharing with him what’s on our hearts. Sometimes that’s an experience of joy, sometimes it’s an experience of anguish. Whatever is on our hearts, we’re encouraged to ‘pour it out to God’.

I experienced this for myself in a powerful way a few years ago when my friend Joe Walker died. Some of you knew Joe; he was forty-seven when he died of cancer; he left behind a wife and four children under the age of twelve. He was a great priest, a great evangelist, a thoughtful and genuine Christian. And I was mightily annoyed at God when he died.

I found it difficult to pray. I couldn’t make all the usual affirmations about God’s goodness and love. They rang hollow for me. I would go for my morning walk around Blue Quill park, and the only thing I could do was yell at God. I told him that if he’d wanted a list of people to snuff out, I could have given him one, but Joe definitely wouldn’t have been on it. I asked him what sort of loving care it was for Joe’s kids to do this to them. It wasn’t rational; it was visceral. But it was honest; it was how I felt.

The funny thing was: it helped. When I came back from those walks, I felt better. More than better: I had the sense that God was with me much more than when I tried to mouth platitudes I couldn’t bring myself to believe. I was pouring out my heart to God, and God heard my prayer. I didn’t get answers, but I did get God.

So this is the experience the psalmist is inviting us into this morning. Have you experienced it?

We all go through blizzards of one kind or another. Relationships are tough and sometimes people let us down; sometimes they hurt us badly. The good news is: God can be a place of refuge for us. God can be a fortress, a mighty rock.

But it doesn’t happen instantly; it takes time to cultivate that sort of relationship with God. ‘Truly my soul is at rest in God…Truly, my soul, take rest in God’. This is a daily decision: to turn to God, to listen to God, to be quiet in God’s presence, to listen for God’s word, to trust in God. This is a lifetime’s journey, but it begins tonight, or tomorrow morning, when you make the decision to open your Bible and read, and to say your prayers.

And say your prayers honestly. ‘Pour out your heart before him’. There’s no point in trying to deceive God; he knows what’s in your heart! So be the real ‘you’ when you pray. Tell God the truth, warts and all. He can take it! Martin Luther apparently once said ‘It’s better to shake your fist at God than turn your back on God’. So let’s turn to God, pour out our hearts to him, and find rest in him, so that we can learn to say from our own experience, ‘Truly my soul is at rest in God; from him is my salvation’.

‘A Time to Mend’ Chapter 13

Link back to Chapter 12

I talked to Emma about the concert at Merton Chapel, and as I had expected she was quite interested. The following evening, when we came home from her birthday party and drank our late night hot chocolate in front of the gas fireplace, she said, “I was talking to Alanna tonight about that concert with the Radcliffe Singers; she thinks she’d like to come along with us. Do you think that would be okay?”

“I’m sure it would. I don’t think I can ask Wendy to cover the cost of another ticket though”.

“Oh no, of course not – Alanna’s going to get her own ticket. She says she knows the pianist who plays for that choir”.

“A friend of hers?”

“A fellow-student; she says she’s really good. And Alanna really likes choral music”.

“Why don’t you ask her to come over here for a light supper that night? We could go down together afterwards”.

“That would be great – thanks, Dad”.

******

On the weekend before Christmas the weather turned cold and clear. We went out to Northwood on Friday night; Rick and the family joined us for dinner on Saturday, along with Becca and Auntie Brenda, and that afternoon while my father was sleeping Emma and Becca and I went for a long walk in the country. My father was looking quite well; he and Emma had enjoyed a long conversation in the living room that morning while my mother and I were playing Christmas carols in the music room.

“What were you talking about?” I asked her later.

“Lots of things. He asked me about some of my favourite books, and then we started talking about school in Meadowvale, and then we got onto family. That one kind of kept us busy for a while!”

“I guess”.

“He has a good sense of humour, you know”.

“My dad?”

“Yeah”.

I shook my head. “No”, I said quietly; “I didn’t know”.

******

On the Sunday morning we drove home early in order to attend the service at Banbury Road Church. Alanna McFarlane came back to our place afterwards, and she and Emma went out together for a couple of hours while I had a nap, read for a while, and got a few things ready for a light supper.

“Is this a dress up kind of thing tonight?” Emma asked as we were eating.

“I don’t know”, I replied. I smiled at Alanna, who was wearing jeans and a brightly coloured sweater; “You don’t seem too worried about that!”

She laughed; “The choir will be dressed up, but I’ll be surprised if the audience is. Although, if there’s a reception in the hall afterwards…”

“I wondered about that, but Wendy didn’t mention anything. You guys are still skipping the reception, right?”

“Yeah, we are”; Emma replied, “we’ve got that thing with Matthew and his friend. I’ll probably be home around eleven or eleven-thirty; I’ll call you if that changes, Dad”.

“Okay”.

We cleared up and did the dishes and then I went up and changed for the evening, putting on a tweed jacket and open-necked shirt. Emma nodded her approval when I came down; “Very posh”, she said in her best imitation of an Oxford accent.

“I’ll do, will I?”

“Oh yeah”.

“Okay; let’s go”.

******

We had decided to take the bus rather than try to negotiate parking in the centre of Oxford; we got off on the High not far from St. Mary the Virgin church, and then cut through Magpie Lane to Merton College. The ancient buildings of Oriel College loomed high on our right; straight ahead was Merton Chapel with its high square tower. A few people were standing in a loose cluster around the chapel door and I recognized Wendy among them, bundled up in a grey duffel coat and scarf against the cool air. She waved and smiled when she saw us. “You’re just in time; the pews are already starting to fill up in there. My friends Bev and David are saving places for us”.

“It’s rush seating, then?” Emma asked with a grin.

Wendy laughed; “I’ve never heard that phrase used to describe an event at Merton Chapel before, but yes – it’s rush seating!”

“Is Colin here?” I asked her.

“No; Lisa’s choir’s not really his sort of thing. It’s mutual; she doesn’t often go to his football matches either”.

She led us into the chapel; we stopped for a moment at the back of the nave to hand in our tickets and get our programs, and as our eyes adjusted to the light I remembered that – as in most of the college chapels in Oxford – the pews here faced each other across the centre aisle, rather than the usual orientation toward the front of the church. We passed under the carved wooden screen; the ceiling above was high and ornate, and on each side of us tall pointed windows were recessed into the plastered stone walls. As Wendy had said, the pews were already beginning to fill up, and there was a low buzz of conversation in the building.

Emma took my arm and whispered “This place is enormous! Are you sure it’s just a college chapel?”

“Yes, and it’s not the biggest one in Oxford either”.

“How do they get the money to keep these places up?”

“They’re all paid for by rich dead people”.

She laughed; “I guess it’s useful to have the dead on your side!”

Wendy led us to a pew about half way up the length of the chapel, where she introduced us to an elegant-looking woman and a jovial man with curly grey hair and a thick beard. “Tom, can I introduce you to some good friends of mine?” she said. “This is Bev Copeland; she teaches Classics here at Merton. We’ve known each other since we were students in London in the seventies. This is her husband David Wiseman; he’s an archeologist across the road at Oriel”.

Bev Copeland took my hand with a smile. “It’s a pleasure to meet you; Wendy’s told us quite a lot about you”.

“Not that I really know all that much!” Wendy added, glancing at me with an embarrassed look on her face. “Most of my knowledge about you ends in 1982!”

We took our seats with the Wisemans; Wendy had removed her coat and I saw that she was wearing a grey skirt and a thick woollen roll-neck sweater. “I’m relieved to see you’re not in formal evening dress”, I said; “I wasn’t quite sure what I should be wearing”.

“You look fine; most of us are just trying to keep warm!”

At about seven-thirty a young clergyman in a black suit and clerical collar walked up to the front; Wendy whispered in my ear that he was the college chaplain. He welcomed us all to Merton Chapel and said a few words about the Radcliffe Singers, and then as he sat down the choir made a formal entrance from the back, the men in black suits and bow ties, the women in black dresses and red scarves. They took their places at the front, each one carrying a music folder; off to one side a young woman with long red hair took her seat at a grand piano. A thick-set man who was obviously the music director took his place out front, facing the choir, and as he was getting ready I leaned over and whispered to Wendy, “Which one is Lisa?”

“First from the left, on the front row”.

She was strikingly beautiful, standing there in her black dress with her long dark hair hanging loose down her back. I saw the resemblance to her mother immediately, and to Colin, although she was noticeably taller than him. I opened my mouth to speak again, but at that moment the music director raised his hands, the choir members opened their folders, and the pianist began to play the introduction to the first carol.

The concert lasted for about ninety minutes; it included familiar pieces as well as some I had never heard before. I recognized some of my favourites: the Wexford Carol, ‘Adam Lay Y-Bounden’, ‘Jesus Christ the Apple Tree’, ‘Gaudete’, and a wonderfully light and fluid arrangement of ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’. Most of the songs were accompanied by the pianist, but a few of them were performed a cappella, and these I found particularly enjoyable.

The last carol of the evening was ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’, sung in full four-part harmony with piano accompaniment on all but one verse. When it was finished, the audience rose to their feet in an enthusiastic standing ovation. The choir members bowed a couple of times and then, as the applause continued, they processed out to the back of the chapel.

“That was awesome!” Emma exclaimed, taking my arm as the people around us began to put their coats on and the low buzz of conversation began.

“You enjoyed it?”

“I really did; I’ve never heard anything quite like it before. Especially the a cappella ones; they were my favourites”.

“Mine too”.

As people began to make their way out of the chapel Alanna slipped out of the pew and went over to talk to the young woman at the piano. Wendy had been talking to the Wisemans but now she turned back to us with a smile. “Well, what did you think?”

“It was totally amazing!” Emma said; “Thank you so much for inviting us!”

“I’m really glad you liked it”. Wendy hesitated and then said “Emma, would you mind if I introduced you to Lisa? I asked her to wait for us outside the hall because I knew you wouldn’t be going in for the reception”.

“Sure; that would be fine”.

At that moment the young clergyman came over to us with a smile on his face; “I’m Stephen Jeffreys”, he said in a high-pitched voice.

“Tom Masefield”, I replied as we shook hands.

“Stephen, these are the friends I told you about”, said Wendy. “Tom and I were students together; this is his daughter Emma”.

“Ah yes – the Mennonites; how fascinating! Wendy mentioned to me that you were coming; I don’t expect you get this sort of thing very much in your churches, do you?”

“Not very often”, I replied, “although at one time there was a real tradition of unaccompanied four-part singing in Mennonite churches. It’s not as common these days as it used to be”.

He shook Emma’s hand; “Are you going to be staying for the reception?”

“I’m afraid not, but my dad is”.

“Have you ever seen Merton Hall?”

“No I haven’t”.

“You must come in for a minute and have a look, even if you’re not staying; it’s really worth seeing. Wouldn’t you agree, Wendy?”

“It is rather lovely”, Wendy agreed with a smile, “but perhaps Emma’s got another commitment she needs to get to?”

“I’ve got a minute”, replied Emma. “Matthew’s not going anywhere fast”.

******

Not everyone in the audience stayed for the reception but there were still a good many who made their way across the front quad to the old thirteenth-century hall. Lisa was waiting for us outside the entrance, and I saw she had put on a coat and scarf against the frigid night air.  There was a young man of her own age standing beside her; he was a little taller than her, with very short blond hair, and I recognised him as one of the tenors from the choir. Wendy went up to them with a smile and kissed Lisa on the cheek; “You were excellent of course!” she said.

“Thank you”.

Wendy introduced us; “This is my daughter Lisa and her boyfriend, Mark Robarts”.

Lisa took my outstretched hand with a dazzling smile. “I’ve heard quite a lot about you, Mr. Masefield; it actually feels rather intimidating to meet you!”

Emma grinned mischievously; “Yeah, my dad can be intimidating sometimes!”

We all laughed, and Emma continued “Your mom’s right, Lisa – you guys were outstanding”.

“Thank you”.

“Dad plays a few of those songs, but of course they sound quite different on guitar”.

“You play Christmas music on guitar?” she asked me.

“I do”.

“Shall we go in?” Wendy suggested; “I want Emma to have a chance to see the hall before she and Alanna have to leave”.

******

I had been in Merton Hall two or three times in my student days when Wendy had invited Owen and me to eat there as her guests. As we entered from the back I took in at a glance the high beamed ceiling, the wooden floor, the tall pointed windows in the plaster walls, and the old portraits hanging in various places around the room. Three dining tables ran the length of the hall, with the high table at the front, but for the reception the chairs had been removed so that people could stand around. There were trays of finger food on the tables, and servers were already moving around the room with drinks.

Emma spoke in hushed tones. “This looks like an old church. Who are all the people in the paintings?”

“College dignitaries from a long time ago”, Wendy replied.

“How old is this college?”

“It was founded in 1264. The hall dates back to not long after that, although there isn’t much of the original structure left”.

“And this is just the dining hall?”

“Yes”.

“Are there classrooms too?”

Wendy smiled. “There are lecture rooms all over Oxford, and science labs and things like that, but in the English school we do most of our teaching in small group tutorials in the fellows’ rooms”.

“How small is small?”

“Years ago they were one on one but these days they’re usually in groups of three or four; your dad must have told you about it?”

“Actually”, I said apologetically, “I don’t think I’ve told Emma very much about how we did our studying”.

“That’s something you’re going to have to make up for real soon, Dad”, Emma said with a grin.

“Absolutely”.

Emma glanced at Alanna and then smiled at me; “Well, I guess we need to be making tracks”.

“Do I have time to walk with them to the gate?” I asked Wendy.

“Of course – all we’re going to be doing here is standing around for an hour talking and drinking wine!”

Emma and I followed Alanna out of the hall and across the quad to the porter’s lodge; I put my arm around her and said “There’s going to be a designated driver, right?”

She grinned at me; “Have you been worrying about that all night?”

“A little”.

She reached up and kissed my cheek. “Don’t worry – I may be eighteen now but I still don’t care for drinking. And anyway, Alanna and Matthew aren’t into that kind of thing; it’s true we’re going to a pub but it’ll be about the conversation, not the beer”.

“Sorry – just being a dad, I guess”.

“That’s fine”, she replied softly as we walked through the alley onto Merton Street; “You keep right on with that”.

“Okay. Ah – there’s Matthew waiting for you”.

******

Back in the hall I found Lisa standing with her boyfriend beside one of the tables, a glass of wine in her hand. She smiled when she saw me; “Would you like a drink?”

“Sure, but don’t worry – I’ll snag a server next time they come by”.

“Do you really play Christmas music on guitar?”

“I actually rather like Christmas music – the spiritual sort, that is. I’ve been arranging old carols for guitar and voice for years”.

“Arranging for performance, you mean?”

“Occasionally. I was one of the music leaders at our church back home, and sometimes I played in coffee shops and house concerts and that sort of thing”.

“Do you still do that?”

“Not so much; we’ve been pretty busy since the summer”.

“Mum said she had a wonderful time singing with you the other week. She used to sing with my dad when I was little but she hasn’t done anything like that for a long time now”.

“She hasn’t lost her gorgeous voice, though. When I first heard her sing I thought it was the most beautiful voice I’d ever heard in my life; I still think it comes pretty close”.

“She is a really good singer. Oh, here comes a server – let’s get you a drink”.

I helped myself to a glass of red wine from the server’s tray and then turned back to Lisa and Mark. “I was actually a little surprised to hear that you were into choral music”, I said to her; “I assumed you’d pick up your musical tastes from your mum or your dad”.

“Not from my dad; I picked up as little from him as possible”.

I heard the hard note in her voice and I decided to steer clear of it. “So I know you’re at Christ Church and I know you’re reading Modern Languages, but I don’t know much beyond that. Do you have plans?”

“Actually I do – I want to be a translator. I’m not sure at the moment whether that would mean written work, or actual oral translation for governments or the UN or that sort of thing. But I enjoy languages and I’ve always had an ear for them”.

“I expect good translators are always in demand”.

“It depends on the languages” she replied, taking a sip of her wine. “I’m studying Russian and German – I like them both and they give me good opportunities to work in Eastern Europe. I’d actually like to go on and do a postgraduate degree but I might feel differently after I’ve finished four years here”.

“So you’re in your third year now?”

“Yes. I spent eight months last year studying at Yaroslavl in Russia; it’s northeast of Moscow”.

“On your own initiative, or is it required for the course?”

“It’s required for the course; all beginners in Russian have to go to Yaroslavl State University for their second year. I didn’t do Russian in high school so that was the program I had to take”.

“Did you get to go with her?” I asked Mark.

“I’m afraid not”, he replied with a grin. “I’m in biochemistry, not modern languages, so I was rather busy around here. I did fly out to spend a few weekends with her, though. It was certainly very interesting”.

“How’s your Russian?”

“Totally non-existent!”

“That must have been quite an experience then”.

He grinned at her; “Well, I always had my own private translator with me, so I was alright”.

“It was nice to see him of course”, Lisa said with a mischievous grin, “but he was a bit distracting”.

“Glad to see me come and glad to see me go?” he said.

“Something like that”.

“So you had a good time, all in all?” I asked her.

“It was outstanding. I was able to do some travelling to places like Moscow and St. Petersburg, I made some good friends, and I got a really good working knowledge of the language and culture”.

While she was speaking Wendy appeared at her elbow, a half-empty wine glass in her hand. “Her mother, of course, got a few more grey hairs!” she said with a smile.

I helped myself to a piece of shortbread from the table. “I actually have a family connection with Yaroslavl”.

“How so?” asked Lisa.

“Well, Emma and I have relatives in Russia”.

I saw the surprise on her face; “Really?”

“Yes. My wife was a Mennonite; the Mennonites are originally from western Europe but some of them migrated to Russia in the late eighteenth century. Kelly’s ancestors lived for over a century in a big Mennonite colony just north of the Crimean peninsula; her grandparents fled from Russia after the First World War and moved to Canada”.

“Fled from persecution, you mean?”

“That was part of it, but there were other factors too; it’s a long and complicated story. Not everyone was able to get out; lots of people got left behind and some of them died in the Gulag. Some just disappeared and we don’t really know what happened to them. But some survived, so we have living relatives over there today. Kelly got interested in the family roots back in the nineteen-eighties; over the years she made contact with some of the folks in Russia and found out about their stories”.

“Do they live in Yaroslavl?”

“One of them, Stepan Konrad, but the person Kelly was mainly in touch with was a woman called Justina Wiebe. She and her husband live in Zaporizhia. Justina and Kelly were third cousins, although there was quite an age difference between them – I think Justina’s sixty-five this year”.

“Zaporizhia’s in Ukraine, isn’t it?”

“Yes – just across the river from where the Mennonites lived before the First World War”.

“That’s a long way from Yaroslavl”.

“Yes”. I grinned at her apologetically; “It would take a long time to tell the story of the travels of all our relatives! But getting back to the Konrads, they’re descended from one of Kelly’s great-aunts, Gertrude Reimer; she married Heinrich Konrad in the early nineteen-hundreds. Their great-grandson Stepan teaches at the university in Yaroslavl”.

She shook her head; “I don’t think I’ve heard of him. Do you know what he teaches?”

“Something scientific, I think”.

“That makes sense – all my classes were in the faculty of communications and philology, so I wouldn’t have had any reason to know him”.

I smiled at her; “Emma will be very interested to hear you’ve been to Russia and you speak Russian”.

“Has she picked up on her mum’s interest in the family history?”

“Yes, especially since Kelly died”.

“I’ll have to have a talk with her. What are her plans in Oxford?”

“She’s taking a gap year at the moment, spending time with family and volunteering at a nursing home not far from where we live. She wants to be a nurse; she’s got her application in to Oxford Brookes for the autumn term”.

“Rather her than me; I don’t think I’d have the patience for nursing”.

******

After a few minutes Lisa and Mark excused themselves momentarily; in their absence I turned to Wendy and said, “Well, I’m impressed with your girl”.

“I’m glad. Of course, she’s turning on the charm for you right now”.

“You’re telling me there’s a non-charming side?”

She shrugged; “I shouldn’t really be talking about her. Things between us are – well, we don’t always have an easy relationship, let’s put it that way”.

“I’m sorry, Wendy”.

She shook her head. “Just normal parent-child issues; you must have your share of them with Emma, too?”

“Actually I’ve been very, very lucky with Emma; her mum did a good job of passing on her basic stability and common sense”.

Wendy laughed; “I’m sure you had something to do with it as well”.

I shrugged; “Maybe a little, but I’m pretty sure it was mainly Kelly”.

******

I stayed at the reception longer than I had expected. Wendy introduced me to a couple of her colleagues, the Wisemans asked me about Canada, and for a while the young chaplain quizzed me about Mennonite Christianity. I found some of his mannerisms a little odd, but there was no mistaking his genuine interest in the spiritual journeys of others and I could see why Wendy got along well with him.

It was after ten o’clock by the time Wendy and I emerged onto the quad with Mark and Lisa; the darkened sky overhead seemed to be overcast and I thought I caught a hint of snow in the frigid air. Lisa turned to her mother; “Well, I’ll see you later”.

“I’ll probably be in bed and asleep. Still, come in and let me know you’re home, alright?”

“It’ll probably be very late”.

“I don’t mind – I’d rather know you’re home”.

The girl smiled indulgently; “If you insist”, she said, leaning forward and kissing her mother on the cheek. “It was lovely to meet you, Mr. Masefield”, she said to me; “I hope we see you again soon”.

“Nice to meet you, too, Lisa”, I replied. She flashed me a brilliant smile and then turned and slipped out of the main gate.

“They’ve got another engagement tonight?” I asked.

“I think they’re going out to a club for a little while. Mark’s a very nice young man and he’s always very polite to me, but for some reason I’m wary about him; I really don’t know why”.

“Has she being going out with him for long?”

“They’ve known each other since their high school days but I think they started dating in their first year at university”. She smiled apologetically at me; “I’m probably just being a typical paranoid mother. How about Emma; what are she and Alanna doing tonight?”

“They’ll probably be home in a couple of hours; they went out to a pub with Alanna’s brother Matthew and one of his friends. Emma assures me they’ll be behaving themselves”.

“Is she taking advantage of her newfound freedom to buy drinks in public?”

“Actually Emma’s never liked alcohol, not even wine, and certainly not beer or hard liquor. She’ll probably be the one drinking tea tonight”.

Wendy laughed; “Have you got any idea how lucky you are?”

“Yeah, I know. Well, I’d better be going”. I leaned forward, kissed her lightly on the cheek, and said “Thanks for inviting me, Wendy; I enjoyed myself”.

“I’m glad to hear it. Would you like to get together again some time in the not-too-distant future?”

I nodded; “I would. Shall I give you a phone call in a week or so? We’re going out to Northwood tomorrow night to spend Christmas with my parents and we won’t be back for a few days. Maybe we can do coffee or something during the holidays”.

“I’d like that very much but it’ll have to closer to New Year’s. We’ll be visiting with my brother and my parents down in Essex over Christmas; we’ll probably be back around the 29th or 30th”.

“Alright; I’ll talk to you soon, then”.

“Good night, Tom; thanks for coming”.

******

I was able to catch a bus quickly and I got home around ten-thirty. I knew it would likely be a while before Emma came in and I didn’t want to go to bed without knowing she was alright, so I made myself a cup of herbal tea and went up to my den; I had a couple of little jobs I needed to finish off to put the term to rest, and I needed to access the school website to be able to complete them. I worked quickly, sipping at my tea from time to time, and by about eleven fifteen I was done. I thought of texting Emma to see what time she thought she would be home, but decide against it; the last thing she needed, I told myself, was a father who gave the impression of not trusting her.

I don’t remember exactly what led me to search for Lisa’s school records; I suppose I was curious, having enjoyed our conversation earlier in the evening. I used my password to access the school’s central filing system and then typed in the name ‘Lisa Kingsley’. The search came up blank, so I tried again with ‘Lisa Howard’. The machine stirred and the information appeared on the screen in front of me: Lisa Elizabeth Howard, date of birth February 25th 1983, Acton, London.

It was a moment before I realized the significance of the date in front of me. Wendy had told Owen and me that Lisa had been born about a year after she and Mickey moved in together, which would put her birth some time in the summer of 1983; February 25th was definitely not in the summer. And immediately I began counting back in my mind; nine months of pregnancy meant that Lisa had been conceived toward the end of May 1982, after Mickey and Wendy had broken up, but before I left for Canada.

At that moment I heard the front door open, and Emma’s cheerful voice calling out “I’m home; are you still awake?”

I quickly quit the program and shut down my computer, my mind still reeling. “I’m up in my den”, I called.

I heard her bounding up the stairs two at a time, and a moment later her head appeared around the doorway. “Did you have your hot chocolate?” she asked.

“I was waiting for you”.

She came over and kissed me on the top of my head; “Where you working?”

“Just finishing off a few things; I was just shutting down when you came in”.

“I’ll go down and make the hot chocolate then”.

“Alright – I’ll be down in a minute”.

******

A few minutes later the two of us were sitting on either side of the gas fire, our mugs in our hands. “So – how was it?” I asked.

“Interesting”, she replied with a grin; “We went to the Eagle and Child”.

“Ah – the Bird and Baby!”

She laughed; “Matthew reminded me about the history of the place. Did we go there once last time we were here?”

“Yes; we had lunch there with Becca”.

“I was pretty sure I remembered that. You talked to me about Lewis and Tolkien and all those guys writing their books there, didn’t you?”

“I don’t think they actually wrote there, but they used to meet there to read to each other”.

“Right – that’s what Matthew was saying”.

“Is he interested in that kind of thing?”

She shrugged; “He seems to know a lot about it, anyway. He’s read a few of their books”.

“You guys had a good time?”

“We did”, she replied, smiling mischievously at me, “and in case you’re wondering, Matthew and Alanna and Neil had one pint each, and I had a whole pot of tea to myself”.

I smiled apologetically; “I wasn’t really worried”.

“Yeah – you were!” she replied mischievously.

“Alright – maybe just a little!”

We both laughed, and then she said, “How about the reception?”

I told her about my conversation with Lisa, and as I had expected, she was very interested to hear about her time in Russia and her interest in the Russian language. “Maybe I can get together with her some time”, she said; “I’d love to find out more about what it’s actually like to live there”.

“I’m sure she’d be glad to talk to you”.

“You know, I’d love to go there some day”.

I nodded; “Somehow I’m not surprised to hear you say that”.

“It’s interesting to think about our roots, isn’t it?”

“It was really important to your mom”.

“I remember”.

“She’d be glad to know you were interested”.

“Well, I’ve spent a lot of time with all those notes she wrote”.

“I know”. I took a sip of my hot chocolate; “Tell me about Matthew’s friend Neil – what was he like?”

She laughed; “He was the strange one!”

“Oh?”

“He’s very ‘theological’”, she said, making air quotes with her fingers.

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah. I think someone needs to tell him that Jesus didn’t say ‘Follow me, and I will teach you to be weird!’”

“A little other-worldly?”

She laughed again; “More than a little!” she replied.

******

We went to bed around midnight, but it would be a long time before I went to sleep. I tossed and turned in the darkened bedroom, my mind going over the events of those spring days back in 1982.

After that first time she had come to my bed-sitter Wendy and I had gradually started to spend more time together. Mickey was not taking his dismissal from her life lying down and he began to come to her room in the evenings, knocking on her door and refusing to go away unless she let him in. In order to avoid him Wendy began to come over to my place to study, and from time to time the two of us would go out to see a movie or share a late drink in a pub. Owen, Wendy and I were still playing music together occasionally, but as our final exams drew closer we found it more and more difficult to make time for it.

A number of people assumed that Wendy and I had begun to date; Owen in his straightforward way once asked me about it directly. We were out walking together on a fine Saturday morning in late April and he said, “Sorry if I’m prying, but are you and Wendy a couple now?”

“No – we’re just friends. She seems to be turning to me to help her get over Mickey but I’m not about to fall into one of those rebound love affairs. Anyway, she knows about my plans for Canada”.

“Told your mum and dad yet?”

“There’s nothing to tell, since I haven’t definitely got the position”.

“But you’ll tell them when you get it?”

I shrugged and looked away. “I think I’d prefer to leave it as long as I can, to cut down on the amount of time I have to listen to my father doing his volcano act”.

“Up to you, but I think the longer you put it off, the more violent the eruption’s going to be”.

I had told him the truth about Wendy and me; we were not dating, and we were certainly not sharing a sexual relationship. There had been times, when she was feeling particularly low, that she had asked me to hold her as I had on that first night, but that was as far as it had gone.

******

The digital clock on my bedside table showed 1.15 a.m.; tired of lying there sleepless, I got out of bed quietly, slipped out of my room and made my way as noiselessly as I could down to the kitchen. I boiled the kettle, made myself another cup of herbal tea and went to sit in the darkened living room. The mantelpiece above the hearth was full of Christmas cards from Canada and our tiny Christmas tree stood in the corner of the room by the front window, a few gifts clustered underneath it waiting to be taken out to Northwood for the holidays. I was looking but not seeing, while my mind was reliving the vivid memories of twenty-one years ago.

******

One night in late May Wendy appeared at my door as usual after supper. “Hello there”, I said; “I just made the tea”.

“Getting predictable, aren’t I?” She followed me into the room, dropped her canvas backpack on the floor and started to take out her books; “Did you have a busy day?”.

“Yes, but a good one”.

I gave her a mug of tea, and we sat at my table in near silence for the next couple of hours, both of us studying our respective books and notes. From time to time we would make comments about what we were reading, and occasionally those comments led to longer discussions. At around nine o’clock I made a fresh pot of tea and put some quiet music on my record player. At this point I moved over to the couch; a few minutes later she joined me there, her back against the other arm of the couch and her feet tucked under my left leg. We sipped our tea for a few minutes without saying anything, listening to the music and easy in each other’s company.

Eventually I drained my cup, put it down on the coffee table in front of us and said, “Well, I’ve got some news”.

“Oh?”

“I’ve got the job”.

“The one you applied for in Canada?”

“Yes”.

“Wow – congratulations!”

“Thank you”.

“Are you pleased?”

I nodded slowly. “It’s not that I won’t miss a few people – yourself included of course”.

“And Owen; you’ve been friends for a long time”.

“Yes”.

“What’s the name of the place again?”

“Meadowvale; it’s a small town in Saskatchewan, on the prairies. I’ll be teaching English at the local high school”.

“Do you know much about the town?”

“It’s pretty small; the school’s got about six hundred pupils, I think”.

She smiled at me. “Mr. Tom Masefield, high school English teacher. Well – I’m proud of you!”

“Thanks; to tell you the truth I feel a bit nervous about it. Studying is one thing, but actually doing it – in a foreign country, in a place I’ve never seen – that’s completely different”.

“You’ve done alright with your student teaching, though”.

“Yeah – for the most part it’s gone well”.

She looked at me in silence for a moment, a thoughtful expression on her face. Eventually I smiled awkwardly; “What is it?”

“I’ll miss you”, she said softly.

“I know, Wendy; I’ll miss you, too”.

She reached over and put her hand on mine; “You’ve been a big help to me over the past couple of months”.

I shrugged; “All I’ve done is given you a chair at my table for studying”.

“No, you’ve done more than that, and you know it”. She leaned forward and kissed me gently on the cheek, and then shifted around beside me on the couch, laying her head on my left shoulder, her face against my neck. I put my arm around her, and we sat there in silence for a few minutes; I was breathing the intoxicating fragrance of her hair, and I could feel my body beginning to stir in response to her proximity.

“Do you mind me cuddling with you like this?” she whispered.

“Of course not”.

“I know I’m not really being fair to you, but…”

“Hush, Wendy; you say that every time”.

We lapsed into silence again, listening to the music in the background, our senses full of each other. Time in the room seemed to be standing still. Eventually I touched her cheek with the fingers of my right hand, prompting her to turn a little on the chesterfield and lift her face to mine. Our lips were only inches apart. I hesitated, and then slowly crossed the distance, leaning forward and kissing her, tentatively at first, but then with greater confidence as I felt her lips open to mine.

When we drew back, I searched her eyes and asked, “Do you mind me kissing you like this?”

“I don’t think so”, she replied in a barely audible voice.

“Do you mind if I do it again?”

“I want you to do it again”.

******

I had finished my cup of herbal tea, but my body felt no closer to sleep. I was surprised at the vividness of my memories of that night. Part of me – the part that still felt like a married man – even felt a little guilty as I remembered the warmth of Wendy’s body as we made love together on the bed in my one-room flat. I got up from the chair and walked around the room for a few minutes, trying to get warm. It was after two o’clock now, and even the street outside was silent and still.

******

Wendy and I woke up when my alarm went off at seven o’clock. It had not been a good night for sleep; my bed was not really big enough for two people, and we were forced into continual contact with each other’s bodies. In the first part of the night, when our hunger was strong, this had just led to more sex, but later, when we were exhausted and sated with each other, it had simply become uncomfortable. At about four o’clock I had moved over to the couch, where I was curled uncomfortably when the unwelcome morning came.

I got up painfully, shut off the alarm and looked at Wendy lying on my bed with the blankets and sheets wrapped crazily around her. Her long dark hair was messy and her eyes were red from lack of sleep. I crouched beside the bed and put my hand on her shoulder. “Would you like some tea?” I asked.

“Yeah”, she replied with a yawn, “and then I’d better get out of here”.

“I could make you some toast if you want”.

She pulled herself into an upright position, the sheets and blankets falling away from her naked body, and pushed her hair out of her face. “I don’t think so”, she said. “I’d better get back to Manor Place before things get too busy around here”.

She pulled on her clothes, washed her face and brushed her teeth in my sink, tried to bring some order to her hair, and then accepted a cup of tea from me gratefully. As we stood there, drinking our tea and looking at each other, she said, “Tom…”

“I know”.

“It’s not that I don’t care for you…”

I raised my hand and touched her lips; her hand came up and held my fingers to her cheek. “You’re such a good friend…” she whispered.

“…but friends and lovers are not the same”.

“You understand”; the relief was plain in her voice.

“I understand what you think about the subject; I might not agree, but I know you feel strongly about it”.

“It’s not that I don’t care about you, or that I didn’t enjoy myself last night…”

“I think it was this morning, actually!”

We both laughed awkwardly, standing there facing each other, our tea mugs in our hands, knowing instinctively that no matter how much we tried to minimize its impact, what we had done could not be undone, and it had changed everything between us. A few moments later she left my room with her backpack slung over her shoulder.

********

I climbed the stairs back up to my solitary room at around two thirty. I was not hopeful that I would fall asleep any time soon, but at least I could lie down and rest my weary body. Suddenly, as I sat on my bed, I felt an overwhelming sense of desolation. My mind was moving to the conclusion of the story of me and Wendy, but at a different level my heart and my body were aching for Kelly; it was always at these times of sleeplessness that my bed seemed far too big and empty without her. I shook my head and offered a silent prayer for a sense of God’s companionship. Then I lay down on my side and pulled the comforter up around my neck.

******

That night was the only time Wendy and I ever had sex with each other. I knew in my heart that I would have been happy for our relationship to continue to grow, but Wendy’s views about mixing friendship and love were firmly and stubbornly held. And in a sense it turned out that she was right. After that night she never came around to my room again. It was as if she knew instinctively that I would want to make love with her again, while what she needed most from our relationship was my friendship and support. We met a few times to study in cafés and pubs, but our conversation was awkward; our night together loomed too large in our thoughts, but we knew we couldn’t talk about it without risking our friendship even further.

The only person I told about it at the time was Owen. One evening at the beginning of July he and I went out to the ‘Plough and Lantern’ for a quiet drink; the pub was only half full that night, and we found a secluded table in a corner and chatted quietly about our future. My move to Canada was only four weeks away and for both of us it was casting a dark shadow over everything. After a while he gave me a significant glance. “I notice you and Wendy aren’t spending so much time together; is everything all right?”

I had thought long and hard about whether I would tell him what had happened, but now that the opportunity had arisen it seemed natural to talk about it. “Well, we spoilt our platonic relationship”, I said. “We spent a night together at the end of May”.

“I had a hunch that might happen sooner or later”.

“You don’t approve, of course”.

“The more important issue is if you approve. Has it been good for your relationship with her?”

I shook my head. “She’s so stubborn about not combining friendship and love. If I wasn’t leaving for Canada, I’d have a stab at changing her mind, but I think it would be really selfish of me to try to force the issue, given the circumstances”.

“So all in all it hasn’t been a good thing?”

“No; in fact, we’ve probably spoiled our friendship without gaining anything in its place”.

“I’m sorry to hear that; you two were pretty good friends”.

“We were, but now I don’t know where we stand”.

******

Emma had to go out early to Marston Court; unusually, I didn’t wake up until I heard her closing the front door behind her. I took a hot shower, drank a cup of strong coffee, and then turned on my computer and went back to the school records. There was the information again, staring at me from the screen: Lisa Elizabeth Howard, date of birth February 25th 1983, Acton, London.

The truth was staring me in the face: Wendy had lied to me, wanting to continue to hide the truth about her daughter’s parentage. I knew beyond a shadow of doubt that Mickey and Wendy had not been sharing a sexual relationship in May of 1982, and it was inconceivable that Wendy could have been sleeping with anyone else. The only possible explanation was that Lisa was my daughter.

I sat there for a long time, thinking about the implications of this fundamental shift in my universe. Emma was not my only child. For nearly twenty-one years I had been the father of another daughter, and the secret had been kept from me. I found myself thinking back to the years when Kelly was struggling so hard to accept the fact that she would not be able to have any more children; a big family had always been her dream, and it had taken a long time for her to come to terms with the hard reality that Emma would be her only child. It had not been such a huge issue for me – I had been relieved that she had survived ovarian cancer at all – but there had been a few times over the years when I had found myself wondering what it would have been like to have another daughter, or perhaps a son. And all that time, unknown to me, my older daughter had been growing up in England. For all I knew, perhaps she had always called Mickey her dad and assumed he was her biological father.

After a few minutes I picked up the phone and called Owen’s clinic. When his receptionist answered I said, “Hi, Janet, it’s Tom Masefield here. Could you ask Dr. Foster to call me at home when he has a free minute?”

“I think he’s free right now, Mr. Masefield; shall I put him on the line?”

“Please do”.

A moment later I heard Owen’s voice. “Tom – what’s up?”

“I need to talk to you about something, preferably face to face. Do you have any free time this morning, or early afternoon?”

“Actually, I’m free now; I just came in to check a few things, but I’m not really working”.

“I really need to bend your ear if you’ve got a minute”.

“Of course – would a coffee shop be okay, or do you want to come in here and have me charge it to the National Health Service?”

I chuckled; “No, let’s meet at that café round the corner from the clinic. I don’t want Becca to know we’ve talked”.

“Well, now I’m curious! See you there in about fifteen minutes?”

“Right”.

******

We sat in the corner of the dimly lit café, sipping our coffee while I tried to get my thoughts into order. Owen was dressed formally in suit and tie, but he had loosened his tie and undone the top button of his shirt. “So”, he said, “what’s this about?”

“It’s about Wendy’s daughter Lisa. Tell me if I’m remembering this right: the day before Emma’s party Wendy told us she moved to London in the summer of 1982 and moved in with Mickey, and Lisa was born about a year later”.

“That’s what she said”.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes – why?”

“She was lying to us. I checked the school files last night and the dates don’t match. Lisa isn’t Mickey’s daughter at all; she’s mine”.

He stared at me; “You can’t be serious!”

“I’m very serious”.

He put his cup down on its saucer, his eyes searching my face. “And how are you doing with this piece of information?”

I shook my head; “I hardly know how to answer that”.

“Royally pissed off with Wendy?”

“Really pissed off! How could she do this to me? How could she keep this from me for over twenty years? What sort of an act of friendship is that?”

“I suspect there’s only one person who can answer that question and I strongly advise you not to ask her about it while you’re angry with her”. He frowned; “How did you begin to suspect?”

“I didn’t; it was totally accidental. I met Lisa at that concert at Merton last night and we had a good conversation afterwards. I happened to be on the school website after I got home and I just got curious and looked up her records. It’s there in black and white: Lisa Elizabeth Howard, born February 25th 1983”.

“Damn”, he swore softly; “Then there’s no question about it”.

“None at all”.

“I take it you haven’t talked to her yet?”

“No; I decided to talk to you instead”.

“Good plan”.

“That’s what I thought”.

We drank our coffee in silence for a moment, and then he looked across at me again; “You’re worried about Emma, aren’t you?”

“I sure am – she’s an only child, and since her mother died we’ve been even closer to each other. This is going to break her heart”.

“I don’t think so”.

“Why not?”

“You and Kelly have done a great job of raising that girl; she’s an unusually secure teenager. Yes of course, it’s going to be a shock to her at first, but I think she’ll work her way through it and she’ll be fine”.

“I wish I could be sure about that”.

“I understand, but I don’t think you should be too worried. She’ll probably have a quiet talk about it with Becca or Ellie, but that’s nothing new, is it? And it surely won’t come as a surprise to her that you had relationships with other women before you met her mother?”

“The conception of a child puts this in a rather different category, don’t you think?”

He grinned; “Well, that’s true, I suppose”.

“I’m just having a hard time picturing how I’m going to tell her that I had a one-night stand with Wendy six weeks before I left England”.

He sat back and looked me in the eye; “Well, for a start I would encourage you not to use the phrase ‘one-night stand’”.

“Why not?”

“You yourself admitted to me years ago that you would have liked your relationship with Wendy to go further. I think you’d started to fall in love with her”.

I shook my head vehemently; “That’s too strong a word; it was…”

He leaned forward and put his hand on my arm. “Tom, this isn’t about loyalty to Kelly; she wasn’t anywhere on your radar screen at the time. This is about honesty about the past. Let’s tell the truth to each other here; Wendy was fundamentally wrong about friendship and love, and you know it. In 1982 your friendship with her was beginning to turn into love, whether or not either of you wanted to admit it. So I don’t think it does you any good to describe that event as a ‘one night stand’. You weren’t strangers; you had been talking with each other at a deeper level for some time. Of course the sexual element came into your relationship too soon, but I know you pretty well and I’m sure in my own mind that the night you spent together wasn’t only about sex. Tell me – am I wrong?”

For a long time I didn’t answer; I avoided his eyes, drinking my coffee and staring out of the window. Eventually I shook my head slowly; “No, I don’t think you’re wrong”.

“So then – why not admit that, and frame the picture a little differently?”

“So you think I should tell Emma the whole story, including the fact that I’d started to fall in love with Wendy?”

“I do. You and Emma aren’t in the habit of keeping secrets from each other”.

“No, but as I said…”

“I understand that this is a big one, but she’s a big girl with a heart full of love for her dad”.

I nodded slowly; “You’re right about that”.

He finished his coffee and set the cup down on the saucer. Pointing at my own cup, he said, “Want a refill?”

“Why not?”

He picked up both cups, got to his feet and went over to the counter. A few minutes later he returned with fresh coffee, sat down and said, “So what do you want to do about this?”

I shrugged. “There are all kinds of things I’d like to know, but there’s a basic problem, isn’t there?”

“You’re talking about the fact that Wendy still doesn’t want you to know the truth”.

“Right”.

“That’s a tough one. Are you going to try to talk to her?”

“I think I have to – otherwise it just becomes the big elephant in the room, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah. You’re not going to rush into this though, right?”

“Well, I’m not going to see her until after Christmas; she’s going down to Essex to spend time with her family. I told her I’d give her a call closer to New Year’s”.

“Good. And while you’re out in Northwood, go for some of your long morning walks and try to think this thing through. I’m on call Christmas Day but we’ll probably be out to see Dad and Mum on Boxing Day, and you and I can go for a walk and a talk if you want”.

“That would be good”.

“Meanwhile, I’ll keep it to myself”.

“I’d appreciate that”.

“Are you going to talk to Becca about it?”

“Probably not until after I talk to Wendy, and then Emma”.

“When you talk to Wendy, be gentle with her, okay?”

“What do you mean?”

He frowned; “I’m trying to work out how she might have arrived at the decision not to tell you she was pregnant. She must have been really torn; she must have at least considered the possibility of telling you what was happening and asking you to stay in England and help. After all, you and she had become very close. Granted, you weren’t in a good space with your own family, but she knew you were basically a good guy and you’d been giving her a lot of support since she and Mickey broke up. Surely she would have at least considered asking you to change your plans”. He paused, thought for a minute and then went on, “But then, maybe you were already in Canada when she found out she was pregnant. And she knew the two of you had moved into a sexual relationship prematurely without really being sure that you wanted to be a couple; with you being already in Canada she probably didn’t want to put any pressure on you to come back to England and marry her just because she was pregnant”.

“Okay, but…”

“No, let me finish. It probably didn’t take her long to realize that she had another option – she knew Mickey was in London, gainfully employed, and she was still at least a little bit in love with him. She also knew that in London she could go to university and work on her doctorate”. He nodded; “Yes, it’s all coming clear to me now. And I understand why she cut me out of her life so decisively: once she’d chosen to conceal the child from you she couldn’t risk any contact with me because she knew that once I found out about it I would figure out the dates, and she knew I couldn’t possibly conceal such a thing from you. But she’s got to have paid a price, hasn’t she?”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, you know what Mickey was like, even when we knew him. What do you think his reaction would have been when she went to him in London and said, “Mickey, I’m pregnant, Tom’s the father and he’s gone to Canada without knowing about it. Will you please take me back, help me raise Tom’s child and support me through my doctoral study?”

I stared at him; “He must have gone ballistic”.

“Exactly. So that’s why I’m saying, be gentle with her. Think about what came of this decision she made. She married Mickey, and their marriage was so abusive that eventually she charged him with assault and he went to prison. If she hadn’t done that – if she’d called you in Canada and told you she was pregnant – you might well have come back and married her. I mean, Wendy’s a great person, but I don’t think you seriously want not to have been married to Kelly, do you?”

I shook my head emphatically; “Kelly was the best thing that ever happened to me”.

“Right. So Wendy did you a good turn twenty years ago, but she didn’t do herself any favours at all”.

“I see what you mean”.

“So – when you talk with her, be gentle, all right?”

“I’ll do my best”, I replied.

******

Link to Chapter 14

Sermon at the Commissioning of Lay Evangelists at All Saints’ Cathedral, Edmonton – January 14th 2018

Tonight our Lord Jesus Christ has given a wonderful gift to his church. He has given us the gift of Alison Hurlburt, Corinna Kubos, and Jenny Stuart to be sent out as evangelists, to spread the good news and to help make new disciples for Jesus. These are the three lay evangelists we are commissioning tonight. But I want to say right from the start that there are more people involved than just these three. Sandra Arbeau has been with us through the whole process of formation; she has recently been ordained as a deacon so will not be licensed as a ‘lay’ evangelist, but she is very much a part of our community of evangelists in this diocese. Also in that community – and here tonight with us – are Richard King and Steve London who have been with us as participants, teachers and learners together with the others.

So these evangelists are the wonderful gift God is giving to his church tonight. I’m using this language of ‘gift’ intentionally, and I use it knowing very well that not everyone would see an evangelist as a gift! Some people see evangelists as a nuisance, or an embarrassment, or a theological anachronism. Some people would see them as fitting in more easily in a Pentecostal or Evangelical setting, and wonder why we’re doing this tonight in an Anglican cathedral!

But we’re here tonight because we don’t see it that way. We’re here because we’re enormously grateful to our Lord Jesus Christ for giving us the gift of these evangelists. We’re here to receive that gift with joy and celebrate it together, and to pray for them, and to ask God to bless them and guide them as they continue in the ministries to which God has called them.

Why am I using this language of ‘gift’? Because it’s the language used in our reading from Ephesians tonight. Look at Ephesians 4:11-13:

‘The gifts he (that is, Christ) gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ’ (NRSV).

In the NIV it’s even more clear:

‘So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ’.

The fullness of Christ – that’s what this is all about. The job God has given to the Church is to live out the fullness of Christ before the world. But it’s not possible for each of us to do that as individuals. I by myself am not the Body of Christ, and neither are you. The Church – the whole Christian community together – is the Body of Christ, and together we live out the fullness of Christ in the sight of the world.

What is the fullness of Christ? Paul doesn’t use the word ‘love’ here, because he’s already rung the changes on that word many times in the first three chapters of Ephesians. But we really can’t start with anything else but love. What do the most famous verses in the Bible tell us?

‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him’ (John 3:16-17).

Behind the coming of the Son – behind his ministry to people in his own time and down to the present through the Church – behind all of that is the mighty ocean of the love of God – God’s steadfast, unconditional, stubborn love.

And how does God demonstrate that love? Some modern translations say “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son” – which is not a wrong idea, but leaves out an important nuance in the original. “God so loved” doesn’t just mean “God loved the world so much”; it also means “God loved the world in this way”. In other words, the specific act of love the author has in mind is the gift of the Son. God loved the world by giving the gift of his Son, who would leave his place of safety and take the risk of coming among us as one of us, to save us from all that binds us and destroys us, and to give us the gift of eternal life.

So the central fact of the character of Jesus is this outgoing, risk-taking love of God. How does the Church live out the fullness of this love? Paul says that we do it by receiving the gifts he gives us – the gifts of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. We can’t live out the fullness of his character if one of those gifts is missing, or (even worse) if we refuse one of those gifts. All of those gifts are necessary to build up the Church so that we live out the fullness of Christ before the world God loves.

In the Anglican Church in recent years we’ve been a little hesitant to receive Christ’s gift of ‘evangelists’. We’ve been happy to receive the gifts that express love and pastoral care for those inside the church. We’ve been happy to receive the gifts of service and practical care for those on the outside. But the evangelist – the one who announces the good news of Jesus – the one who shares it with others and invites them to become followers of Jesus – we haven’t always received that gift quite as enthusiastically! But tonight, we’re redressing that balance. Tonight we’re celebrating this gift, and the way it helps us live out the fullness of Christ.

And I want to underline for you – going back for a moment to those verses from the Gospel of John – that evangelism is all about love. If it’s not all about love, then it really isn’t evangelism! We Christians believe that God’s gift of Jesus to the world is the greatest expression of the love of God the world has ever seen. The fact that God would come among us himself in the person of his Son, to live and die and rise again to reconcile us to himself – if that’s true, it’s the most important event in the history of this planet. It can’t be just an incidental detail. It can’t be just one item among many in the smorgasbord of religious resources.

No – the news that the God of all creation loved us in this way –  by coming among us as one of us, and by calling people to follow him – is news that needs to be shared with others. Because if it’s true, then – as the Archbishop of Canterbury’s evangelism adviser said a few years ago – the best decision a human being can ever make is to follow Jesus. ‘No one has ever seen God’, says John; ‘It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known’ (John 1:18). So with love and joy in our hearts we’re called to share the good news of God’s Son with the world he came to save.

And that’s what Alison and Corinna and Jenny are going to help us to do. That’s why we’re commissioning them tonight as lay evangelists in the Church of Jesus Christ.

I can tell you, because I’ve had the privilege of getting to know them very well, that each of them – along with the others who have been part of our learning community – each of them has a wonderful story to tell of how God has been at work in their lives, helping them know Christ and follow him. God isn’t just a theory to them; God is a living reality, and for each of them, the great passion of their lives is to know God better and live out his love for others. And especially to – as my daughter likes to say to her little kids – ‘Use your words!’ These three people are not afraid to ‘use their words’ to share the love of God! In fact, when they get together, we often have the opposite problem! They have so much to say that we have a hard time getting through the agenda for the day!

I can also tell you that these three evangelists are not ashamed of living as Christians outside the walls of the church. It’s important to say this, because I think a lot of Christians are shy about that. They don’t mind being identified with Christ on Sunday mornings when they gather together with other Christians, but during the week they’d rather keep quiet about it. Sometimes that’s understandable; we know that not everyone who names the name of Christ right now is necessarily bringing credit to that name, and it would be easier for us not to be associated with those folks. I know these three feel that way sometimes too. But I also know that out in the working world, and in their daily lives with their families and friends, each of them has taken the step of somehow – not aggressively, but firmly – identifying themselves as followers of Jesus. And each of them is finding ways of effectively engaging the world they live in every day, for the sake of Jesus and his gospel.

So what do we hope our evangelists will do?

First, we hope they’ll carry on doing what they’re already doing – following Jesus and sharing his love with the people around them, by action and also by word. We hope they’ll keep growing in the skills they’ve been learning to help them do that. We hope that through their witness people who are not yet followers of Jesus will fall in love with him and begin to follow him.

Second, we hope they’ll teach and mentor others to be effective witnesses too. I find it interesting that in the reading from Ephesians the evangelists are included among the list of gifts Christ has given to the Church, to build up the Church’s life. That’s because all Christians, not just evangelists, are called to be faithful witnesses for Christ. But most of us are scared to do this.

And this is where lay evangelists can help us. I think most of us have had the experience of going to an expert for help and then finding that he or she is so far advanced that they can’t remember what it was like to be as confused as we are! I’m conscious of the fact that some clergy are like that – we use words like ‘ecclesiastical’ and ‘soteriology’ and ‘salvation history’ and ‘epistemology’, to which a lot of people respond with a blank stare and a ‘huh?’ And most clergy don’t have to live their faith in the context of a largely unbelieving or apathetic community, so it’s hard for them to relate to the struggles ordinary people have as they try to be faithful witnesses for Jesus.

But these three lay evangelists know all about those struggles! Jenny’s a property manager, and Corinna works in a penitentiary, and Ali works in student services at a university. So they are well placed to help us learn to be effective witnesses in our daily lives in the world, because that’s where they live day by day.

So we hope our evangelists will continue to share their faith and make new disciples for Jesus, and we hope they’ll teach and mentor others in their churches to do the same thing. Thirdly, we hope they’ll be leaders in helping their churches connect with the world around them. Years ago, all kinds of people used to wander into churches in times of crisis, or family occasions like baptism and weddings and funerals. Nowadays, a lot less people do that. We can’t wait for people to connect with us any more; we have to find new and creative ways of connecting with them.

This is nothing new, of course! After all, in the great commission Jesus did not say “Wait for people to come to you and then make them my disciples”! He said “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). It’s up to us to make those connections, and I know these three lay evangelists will be helping their parishes find creative ways of doing that.

I want to close by saying that it’s been an enormous privilege and joy for me to work with these three, along with Sandra and Richard and Steve, as we’ve gone through the formation process together. I’m not exaggerating when I say that sometimes I’ve gone to our Saturday sessions stressed out and discouraged by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, but I’ve always – always – come away encouraged and revived and renewed in my joy in the Gospel, because of their enthusiasm and their joy. This is the gift they’ve given me, and it’s a gift I look forward to continuing to receive and share with them in the years ahead as we work to spread the Gospel together.

‘A Time to Mend’ Chapter 12

Link back to Chapter 11

Wendy and Owen and I got together to play music at our house on the first Saturday in December.

After we had met Wendy at my school back in October, Emma had checked her other books out of the library and read them both. She had been hoping for an opportunity to meet her again soon; in this respect, however, she was to be disappointed. A couple of weeks after our first meeting I emailed Wendy, asking if she would like to come over to play some music with Owen and me. She replied immediately, saying that she would be interested at some point but she was especially busy right then and would get back to me later. After that I heard nothing from her, and gradually I came to the conclusion that even though our meeting at the school had been enjoyable, she was not really interested in renewing our old friendship.

It was Owen who pointed out to me that there might be another explanation. “She might just be genuinely busy, you know”, he said.

“You think so?”

“Well, it’s term time right now, isn’t it?”

“I suppose so”.

He grinned at me. “You’ve forgotten when Oxford university terms run, haven’t you?”

I smiled sheepishly at him; “I guess I have”.

“Michaelmas term lasts from mid October to the end of the first week in December, and if you remember, it’s rather intense. And Wendy’s a single mother with a teenage boy still at home”.

I nodded; “She takes him to a lot of sports events, too”.

“Give her a chance; she probably hasn’t got a minute to call her own”.

“I never thought of that”.

******

Wendy called me after supper on the last Sunday in November; I was working at my desk up in my den when the phone rang. “Tom?” she said; “It’s me – Wendy”.

“Hello there – I was wondering when I would hear from you!”

“Yes, I’m sorry – I don’t get many moments to call my own once term starts. What about you – have I caught you at a bad time?”

“No, not at all; I’m just doing a bit of prep work for tomorrow”.

“Do you want me to ring you back in an hour or so?”

“No – this is fine. So how’s your term been?”

“It’s always busy – tutorials and lectures and individual conferences with students, and I do some curriculum work too”.

“Are you doing any more writing?”

“I’ve been exploring some ideas but I haven’t got anything in process at the moment”.

“Will you write about George Eliot again?”

“I don’t think so; I think I’ve said everything I’ve got to say about her. No – I’ve been doing some lectures on 18th and 19th century poetry and I’m toying with the idea of working them up into a book”.

“That would be excellent!”

“Yes, you always were a lover of poetry, weren’t you?”

“I still am”.

“I think you might enjoy some of my lectures. One of them concentrates on George Crabbe and John Clare; you were a big fan of Clare, weren’t you?”

“I still really like him”.

“You were the one who first got me interested in him; I’d never really paid much attention to him before you and I met”.

“I didn’t know that”.

“You thought I spent a lot of time ignoring you, didn’t you?”

I laughed softly; “You had pretty strong opinions. Wendy”.

“I know – I’m sorry about that”.

“I wasn’t complaining; I always enjoyed our conversations”.

“Me too. How’s Emma?”

“She’s well. She’s been reading your earlier books, actually; I think she’d love to ask you about them”.

“I would enjoy that”.

“Apart from that, she’s still busy volunteering at Marston Court, and spending time with family and friends”.

“She’s made some friends, then?”

“We’ve started going to a little Baptist church in north Oxford; she’s gotten to know some of the young people there”.

“I didn’t know you were a churchgoer”.

“Yeah, that’s something that happened since I moved to Canada. I married into a Mennonite family and it kind of rubbed off”.

“I’ve gone back to church over the last few years too”.

“Oh yeah?”

“Yes – it happened after we moved back to Oxford”.

“It would be fun to compare notes”.

“I’d like that”.

“So are you interested in a visit with Owen and me?”

“Yes I am, but I want to make sure you both understand that I haven’t sung any of our old songs for a long time”.

“That’s fine, Wendy. Like I said the other week – singing or not, it would be good just to have a visit”.

“Yes, it would”.

“So when were you thinking?”

“Would next weekend work for you?”

“Saturday would work. Sunday we’re kind of tied up – it’s Emma’s eighteenth birthday”.

“Well I certainly don’t want to interrupt that! We can wait a bit longer if you want?”

“No, I think it would be fine. We’re having a family party at Owen and Lorraine’s place on Sunday evening. My sister and Emma are cooking jambalaya and I’m baking the cake, and that’s about the limit of my responsibilities”.

“Did you tell me Owen and his wife had children?”

“Yes – Andrew and Katie. They’re quite a bit younger than Emma but they get on really well with her”.

“Is that why the party’s over there?”

“No – it’s because there are going to be sixteen of us, and their house is bigger”.

“Are you sure you don’t want to wait a few more days for our visit?”

“Let me talk to Owen – I think he might enjoy a couple of hours on Saturday”.

******

She came over to my house on Saturday afternoon, dressed casually in faded jeans and an Aran sweater, her hair hanging loose to her shoulders. Owen and his family had come for lunch earlier, and then Lorraine had taken the children and Emma out for the afternoon; I had told Emma I thought Wendy would be less self-conscious about singing with us if there was no one else around.

Owen and Wendy greeted each other warmly; I made tea, and then we sat around the living room for a couple of hours, singing our old songs. Wendy asked Owen and me to sing a few by ourselves at first, but eventually she began to join in, and it quickly became clear that even though she hadn’t sung the songs for a long time she still remembered them very well.

“Nothing wrong with your memory!” Owen said mischievously after we finished one of our old favourites.

“I’ve always liked ‘Reynardine’”, she replied with a grin.

“I remember”.

“What about some newer stuff? Surely you boys haven’t stopped learning songs since we last saw each other. Do you still play in public, Owen?”

He nodded. “I’ve got a band, actually; we call ourselves ‘The Oxford Ferrymen’”.

“Is that your band?” she exclaimed with a smile; “I’ve seen posters around town from time to time”.

“Yes, we do gigs at the ‘Plough’ and a few other places; occasionally we go a bit further afield”.

“What sort of music do you play?”

“Mainly Celtic stuff; I’ve learned to play bouzouki and cittern since the last time you and I saw each other”.

“You didn’t bring them with you today, though?”

He shook his head; “Hopefully there’ll be another chance”.

We sang a few more songs, including some that Owen and I had learned in the years after we had lost touch with Wendy, and then I made another pot of tea and we talked. Wendy was sitting in Emma’s easy chair by the hearth with her feet up on a footstool; “This has been really good”, she said softly. “Thank you both”.

“It’s really great to see you”, Owen replied.

“You too, Owen. Have you always worked in Oxford?”

“Yeah – I joined a little practice after I finished my training and eventually I became one of the senior partners. Tom’s sister Becca works at our practice”.

“As a doctor?”

“Yes”.

“I didn’t know she was a doctor. Actually, I didn’t really know much about her at all; the last time I saw her I think she was about eleven. Didn’t she come to that concert we did for your mum’s music society, Tom?”

“Yes, I think she did”.

She glanced at Owen again. “You’ve got a family too, I hear?”

“Yes – I’m married to Lorraine and we’ve got two children; Andrew’s twelve and Katie’s nine. It took us a while to get going on the reproduction business”.

Wendy laughed again. “Did you already know Lorraine when we were here together?”

“No, I met her not long after you two left – in church, actually; she showed up there one Sunday in September of ’82”.

“Are you still a churchgoing family?”

“We are”.

“I’ve gone back to church myself in the last few years”.

“Tom told me that”.

“My dad’s pleased, of course”.

“Where do you go?”

“When I first started I just went to Merton Chapel, which is where I was confirmed, but it only has regular Sunday services during term time and they’re in the evenings, which isn’t very convenient for family meals. So after a couple of years I started going to St. Michael and All Angels here in New Marston; I sometimes sing in the choir and I get on pretty well with the vicar. I’m still involved in some Merton Chapel activities though, and now and again during the week I sing in their choir too, so I suppose you could say my church life is a bit schizophrenic. What about you?”

“We go to St. Clement’s; I was going there through most of my student years”.

“I went there once or twice but it was a bit too charismatic for me; I like something more traditional”.

“We three have really got the Christian spectrum covered!” Owen observed.

Wendy nodded, looking across at me; “You said you’d started going to a Baptist church?”

“Yes, but Emma and I are actually Mennonites”.

“Right – you told me your wife’s family were Mennonite”.

“Yeah – I guess I sort of married into it”.

“I expect there was a bit more to it than that”.

I nodded; “There was”.

“Do you mind me asking about it?”

“Not at all. Kelly’s dad Will Reimer was the principal of my school in Meadowvale and he and his wife were very helpful to me in my first few months there. They were pretty strong in their faith, but Kelly had strayed away from it for a while as a teenager. When I got to know her she was just finding her way back. She and I talked about it, and I also had some really good conversations with her brother Joe; he and I became really good friends. And of course I’d been getting interested in spirituality for a while; Owen and I had been talking about it before I left England”.

Owen nodded; “We exchanged a few letters about it after you moved, too”.

“We did”.

“Kelly came back to her faith, then?” said Wendy.

“She did; we made that journey together, and eventually we were both baptized on the same day”.

“An adult believer’s baptism, you mean?”

“Yes; that’s the Mennonite tradition”.

“Mennonites are pacifists, aren’t they?”

“They are”.

“So you’re not cheering for Bush and Blair and their war with Iraq?”

“No we’re not; peace and justice are a very important part of our faith for Emma and me”.

“Emma’s a practising Christian too?”

“Yes – it’s very real and personal for her”.

“That’s brilliant; I wish I could find a way to help my two make that connection”. She frowned thoughtfully; “What was it you found attractive about the Mennonite faith? I mean, I came back to the church I was raised in, but you moved to something completely different”.

I shrugged; “I didn’t really know very much about different denominations; it wasn’t as if I was evaluating all the local churches to see which one I liked the best. Kelly and her family were all Mennonites and their pastor, Rob Neufeld, had been one of the people who guided me on my way into Christian faith. So it just seemed natural that after I became a Christian I would stay with the people who had helped me find faith”. I grinned; “Rob was sneaky, actually; he invited me to play music in their church before I became a Christian. Kelly’s dad played guitar and Joe’s wife Ellie played the fiddle, and we worked up some gospel songs together, and before we knew it the people liked us and they wouldn’t let us stop!”

Wendy laughed, and Owen said, “They’re wonderful people, all of them”.

“You’ve been out there, then?” Wendy asked him.

“Oh yes – several times. Lorraine and I really loved Kelly, and of course we were kind of fond of this bloke too”.

“It was mutual”, I replied softly.

“Lorraine had difficulty conceiving when we first got married”, said Owen; “We tried for a few years and nothing seemed to work. She got really upset and angry about it, and then one time when we were out at Tom and Kelly’s on holiday Kelly spent a lot of time with her, just listening to her and loving her. She was a remarkable human being; I don’t know if I’ve ever met anyone else with such a gift for sympathy and love”.

“She’d had struggles of her own, of course”, I said.

“With her cancer, you mean?” asked Wendy.

“Yes. After her first go around with it she lost both her ovaries, which meant she couldn’t have any more children. That was a real heartbreaker for her”.

“I can imagine”.

We were quiet for a moment, sipping thoughtfully at our tea, and then Owen smiled and said “So what about you, Wendy Howard; what have you been doing all these years?”

“Oh, well, my life’s not exactly been a smooth ride, I’m afraid!” She looked down at the floor, gathering her thoughts, and then said “I went to London, as you know. Mickey and I were able to work things out and we moved in together”.

“That was a big surprise for me”, I said; “You seemed so keen on staying in Oxford for your doctorate, and I was pretty sure you and Mickey were past history”.

“It might have been better if we had been. Anyway, my daughter Lisa was born about a year after we moved in together, and we got married not long after that. I worked on my doctorate at UCL, and Mickey did well in photo-journalism and set up his own business. He got to travel to all kinds of exotic locations to take photographs for magazines, and later on he got a name for going to dangerous places on assignment”.

“That must have been stressful”, I said.

“Yes. Anyway, by the time Colin was born I had my doctorate, and a couple of years later I got a job teaching at UCL. The rest you know. I wrote some books, and I got a chance about six years ago to move back to Oxford and get a fellowship at Merton. The time was right because Mickey and I had just broken up”. She paused, and then said, “He got quite violent, and the children and I were just too afraid to stay with him any more. I actually had him charged when I left; he was convicted, and he spent some time in jail. He’s out now, but he’s supposed to stay away from us. Most of the time, he does”.

Owen and I were both suddenly silent; I was amazed by the matter-of-factness with which she had summed up what had obviously been a horrific experience for her. I was just opening my mouth to speak when we heard the front door open, and after a moment Emma came into the living room with Becca behind her, both of them still wearing their coats, with shopping bags over their shoulders. “Look who we found in the covered market!” she said with a triumphant smile.

“I was shopping for ingredients for jambalaya”, said Becca, “because someone told me she’d like to have it for her birthday”. She glanced at the three of us; “Sorry – I didn’t mean to interrupt”.

“Not at all”, I replied, getting to my feet. “Becs, you probably don’t remember Wendy Howard? Wendy, this is my sister Becca”.

“Actually, I do remember you”, said Becca as Wendy got up to greet her; “I think I must have been about ten or eleven the last time I heard the three of you play together”.

“Did you hear us more than once?” asked Wendy; “I thought perhaps it had only been that one time we played for your mum’s music society”.

“You came to the house to practice a couple of times; I remember you using Mum’s music room”.

“So we did!” Wendy held out her hand, and Becca took it with a smile. “Are you going to sing some more?” she asked.

“Oh, I don’t know; I should be going soon”.

“Do one song for us, at least”, Emma asked eagerly; “I’ve heard so much about the three of you and I’d love to hear you play together”.

I glanced quizzically at my two partners; Wendy shrugged, and Owen grinned and said, “Take your coats off, then, while we try to think of something that won’t embarrass us too badly!”

“Is there tea in the pot?” Emma asked.

“I think there is”.

So Becca and Emma hung up their coats, Emma poured tea for them both and then they sat down with us. Owen glanced at Wendy; “What do you think?”

“What about ‘The Recruited Collier?’”

“Good choice!” Owen looked across at me; “Key of E Flat?”

“I’m on it”.

The song was not one of the pieces we had played earlier, but it had been one of our favourites years ago. Owen and I began to play a slow introduction, and after a moment Wendy took a deep breath, closed her eyes and began to sing:

“What’s the matter with you my lass, and where’s your dashing Jimmy?
Them soldier boys have picked him up, and taken him far from me.
Last pay day he went into town, and them red-coated fellows
Enticed him in and made him drunk, and he’d better have gone to the gallows”.

For the second verse of the song, I sang harmony with her:

“The very sight of his cockade it sets us all a-crying,
And me I nearly fainted twice; I thought that I was dying.
My father would have paid the smart and he ran for the golden guinea,
But the sergeant swore he’d kissed the book so now they’ve got young Jimmy”.

“When Jimmy talks about the wars, it’s worse than death to hear him.
I must go out and hide my tears, because I cannot bear him.
A brigadier or a grenadier he says they’re sure to make him,
and still he jibes and cracks his jokes, and bids me not forsake him”.

Emma was sitting on the floor, her legs stretched out in front of her and her back resting against the front of the sofa, a smile of pure pleasure on her face; Becca was sitting forward in her chair, her legs crossed, obviously captivated by the music. Wendy and Owen and I sang the last verse together:

“As I walk o’er yon stubble field, below where runs the seam;
I think on Jimmy hewing there, but it was all a dream.
He hewed the very coals we burn and when the fire I’m lighting,
To think the lumps were in his hands, it sets my heart a-beating.
So break my heart and then it’s o’er, oh break my heart my dearie;
And I lie in this cold, green ground, for of single life I’m weary”.

When the last chord died down there was a brief silence in the room, and then Becca shook her head and said, “My God – that was absolutely gorgeous!”

Emma nodded; “Beautiful!” she said softly. “I had no idea…”

Wendy coloured slightly; “You’re both very kind”.

“Will you do another one?” Emma asked.

“Oh, I don’t know”, Wendy replied; “I should be going soon. My daughter’s joining us for supper tonight, and I need to get something ready”.

“Speaking of families”, said Owen, “Did you lose mine somewhere along the way, Em?”

Emma laughed; “Lorraine told me she had a couple of other things she needed to get, so she sent me home with Becca”.

Owen gave her a knowing grin; “I see how it is!”

“That’s what I thought!”

“Are they coming back here to get me, then?”

“I think that’s the plan; Lorraine told me to tell you if there was any change you should call her on her mobile”.

“Right”.

Wendy smiled at Owen and me; “I really should be going”, she said.

We all got to our feet, and the next thing we knew, the three of us were gripping each other tight in a three-way hug. For a long moment we held each other, and when we stepped back, Wendy’s eyes were shining. “Thank you both”, she said quietly; “I really enjoyed myself”.

“So did we”, Owen replied; “Let’s do it again soon”.

“Absolutely”. Wendy turned to Emma; “Happy birthday tomorrow”, she said.

“Thanks!”

“I hear you’d like to talk about my books some time”.

Emma gave her a delighted smile; “I really would!”

“Well, we can make that happen. Get my e-mail address from your dad”.

“Thank you – I would love that!”

I followed Wendy out into the narrow hallway, took her coat down from the peg and helped her on with it. “That was very thoughtful of you”, I said; “You must be really busy”.

“Term’s over now; I’ve got a bit more free time”. She wound her scarf around her neck, zipped up her coat, and turned to face me. “Tom, I wonder if you and Emma would like to come over to Merton for a special Christmas event?”

“What sort of event?”

“I mentioned my daughter Lisa; she’s up at Christchurch reading Modern Languages, but she also sings in a chamber choir called the Radcliffe Singers, and they’re doing a Christmas carol concert at Merton Chapel on the Sunday before Christmas. It’ll be an evening event, of course”.

“A Christmas carol concert?”

“Yes. The university’s down so there aren’t many people around, but they usually get a good turnout for their concerts; if you want to come I should get tickets for you fairly soon. They’ve arranged to have a reception in hall afterwards, if you’d like to stay”.

I smiled; “I’m actually rather fond of Christmas carols”.

“They’ll probably do a few of the less well-known ones”.

“All the more interesting. Put me down for sure, and I’ll talk to Emma and see if she’s interested, too. How much are the tickets?”

She shook her head; “Come as my guests”.

“Are you sure?”

“Of course”.

“All right, then; I’ll talk to Emma and get back to you as quickly as possible”.

“Good”. She held out her hand, and I shook it rather formally. Then, a little impulsively, she leaned forward and kissed me lightly on the cheek. “This was a really good afternoon”, she said; “Thank you”.

“I’m glad you could come, and I know Owen is too”.

“I hope you have a wonderful party with Emma tomorrow”.

“I’m sure we will”.

******

Link to Chapter 13