We must not forget the price young people paid

It has been a hundred years this year since Horace Arthur Thornton was killed in action in France. He died near Bullecourt on July 27th 1917 and was buried at Croisiles British cemetery, Pas de Calais, France.

Horace was my great-great uncle; his mother, Emily Watts, was my great-great grandmother. After the death of my great-great grandfather, Joseph William Wood Cave, she remarried Walter Harry Thornton, and Horace was the first child of their marriage.

I meant to honour Horace this year on the centenary of his death, but sadly it slipped my mind. A parable, perhaps; it’s so easy today for us to forget the terrible price paid by millions of young men for the foolishness of the power elites of Europe in 1914. Those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it. May we never forget.

I have no photograph of Horace, but thanks to the Commonwealth War Graves commission, I at least have a picture of his grave. Here it is.

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The Hope of the Kingdom (a sermon on Matthew 5:1-10 for the funeral of Win Rees)

We’re gathered together today on a day that is full of significance. In the Christian year, this is All Souls Day, a day when many Christians reflect on the lives of those who have gone before them, and give thanks for all the blessings they’ve received from them. And of course, as many of us here know, today would also have been Win’s 97th birthday. She is undoubtedly the oldest member of our congregation, and the newest member of the company of the saints in light. So we gather today to give thanks for her life and for all the blessings we received through our friendship with her, and to commit her into the hands of the loving God in whom she believed and put her trust.

There are many memories for us, and David has shared a few this morning already. It would be presumptuous of me to add to the list, but I will say that I always got a lot of enjoyment out of Win’s obvious delight in foods that were bad for her – whether it was fish and chips coated in batter, or Kentucky Fried Chicken, or her love of chocolate bars – one of the many things that she and Marci had in common! Also, as someone married to a person of Welsh descent, I enjoyed her enjoyment of being Welsh and the fact that every year she liked having St. David’s Day recognized in the church, and she liked the fact that we often sang ‘Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah’ on that day, using that great Welsh tune Cwm Rhonda.

But it’s not my role at the service this morning to offer a second eulogy, but rather to reflect on what God might want to say to us as we gather here this morning, thinking about Win’s life and death and our own life and death as well. We chose to read the Beatitudes as our gospel reading for today, and the message of the Beatitudes is a good one as we think about the future hope Christians share. So let me direct your attention for a few minutes to Matthew 5:1-10.

I think this passage is often misunderstood because it’s seen as a sort of checklist of Christian spirituality. What sort of person makes a good disciple of Jesus? What sort of person can be assured of eternal life? Well, it’s a person who’s ‘poor in spirit’, who’s a ‘mourner’, who’s ‘meek’, who’s ‘hungry and thirsty for righteousness’, who’s ‘merciful’, who’s ‘pure in heart’, who’s a ‘peacemaker’, and who’s ‘persecuted for righteousness’ sake’.

Does that strike you as a strange list? I know it does me. Some things make sense to me: ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness’ (v.6), or, in the much more helpful translation of the Revised English Bible, ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst to see right prevail’: yes, I can see that. It’s a good and blessed thing to work for a better, more just and righteous world, and those who do so deserve to be rewarded. Likewise, the merciful, and the pure in heart.

But ‘those who mourn’? Is Jesus saying that we have to be sad all the time in order to enter the kingdom of heaven? And what about ‘those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake’? We in the western world hardly ever experience persecution; do we need to move to the middle east in order to qualify?

I think it’s important to recognize that in all eight of these Beatitudes, the blessing is in the second half of the verse, not the first. Let me explain what I mean. We need to remember that ‘theirs is the kingdom of heaven’ does not mean ‘when they die, they’ll go to heaven’. That’s not what Jesus meant by ‘the kingdom of heaven’. Matthew uses that phrase in exactly the same way as Mark and Luke use ‘the kingdom of God’. In the Lord’s Prayer we pray ‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven’. This prayer looks forward to a time in the future when God will heal the world of evil and sin and restore it to his original intention for it: a place of justice and compassion and love. This work has already begun through the ministry of Jesus and his people, but it is a long, long way from being complete.

Our hope as Christians is that one day, just as God raised Jesus from the dead, so he will raise us too, into a new earth where justice and righteousness prevail. This will not be a purely ghostly experience; it will involve physicality as well. And truly this will be a time of joy.

But when Jesus spoke the Beatitudes it was not such a time of joy. I imagine him looking out over the crowd; maybe there were people in it he had known since he was a boy. Maybe he recognized a mother whose son had been murdered by Roman soldiers; she was mourning, but he knew that in the kingdom of God she would receive the comfort she needed. Maybe he saw some little people, some helpless people, some people who were always getting trampled on and were afraid to stand up for their own rights. They were the meek, and too often in this world they get excluded from the positions of power. ‘You see those people?’ Jesus is saying; ‘They will inherit the earth!’ Them, not the politicians or the dictators or the corrupt CEOs of multinational corporations, but the meek!

And so it goes on as Jesus looks around. Those who are pure in heart, who long for God’s kingdom above all else – those who are poor in spirit, who fall short of what they should be and know it, and who cry out to God for forgiveness and strength to do better – those who are merciful to others, not angry and judgemental – all these and many more are represented in the crowd in front of Jesus. They all have a longing of some kind in their heart. One day, Jesus is telling them, that longing will be fulfilled. “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well”.

So this is not a list that’s meant to intimidate us. It’s a list that’s meant to include us and comfort us. Whatever the condition of our hearts, whatever we are, whatever we hope for, whatever we suffer, we will find what we’re looking for – we will find true blessing – in the kingdom of heaven. The poor in spirit aren’t blessed because they’re poor in spirit – they’re blessed because ‘theirs is the kingdom of heaven’. The meek aren’t blessed because they’re meek – they’re blessed because ‘they will inherit the earth’. The mourners aren’t blessed because they’re mourning – they’re blessed because ‘they will be comforted’. And those who are persecuted aren’t blessed because of their sufferings, but because, again, ‘theirs is the kingdom of heaven’.

And this morning, as we gather together, we’re a group like that as well. We come from very different circumstances. Some of us are old and some are young, some are healthy and some are struggling with health issues. Some are full of faith, some are full of doubt. Some are full of joy, and some struggle with depression. Some are confident and bold, some are shy and fearful. Jesus welcomes us all, and assures us that whatever the deepest longings of our hearts, they will be fulfilled in the coming of the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Heaven. In that coming Reign of God, we will find the blessing we long for.

So today we rejoice because Win is a member of this company of the blessed. The last few years have not been easy for her, and it’s not been easy for us to watch as she struggled with the physical challenges of advancing age. But now we say to her – well, what do we say? The world says, ‘Rest in peace’, and certainly there’s truth in that. The New Testament talks about the faithful dead as having ‘fallen asleep in Jesus’, and there are weary days when I’m really looking forward to that sleep!

Nevertheless, there’s more to the Christian hope than that. Our wish for our sisters and brothers who have died is not just ‘Rest in Peace’, but ‘Rest in Peace and Rise in Glory!’ We believe that the God who made this earth has not abandoned it to suffering and despair, and that the God who made Win has not yet come to the end of his purposes for her. Paul talks in 1 Corinthians about ‘things beyond our seeing, things beyond our hearing, things beyond our imagination, all prepared by God for those who love him’ (1 Corinthians 2:9 REB). This is not just talking about floating around on clouds playing harps. This is a new heaven, and a new earth, and a restored creation, where ‘the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea’ (Habakkuk 2:14). This is what we look forward to, for Win and for ourselves. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift! Amen.

Death and the Poets

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 – Dylan Thomas (1914 – 1953)

Mighty Trucks of Midnight, verse 3

I believe it’s a sin to try to make things last forever
Everything that exists in time runs out of time some day
Got to let go of the things that keep you tethered
Take your place with grace and then be on your way

 – Bruce Cockburn (1945 – )

Dylan may be the better poet (though Cockburn is no mean wordsmith either), but I think Cockburn has the better thought here.

Why would I want to imagine there’s no heaven? (part one of a series, I think…)

 

2Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky

 – John Lennon, ‘Imagine’

 

 

No thank you, John. I don’t think I will.

You see, John, I’ve lived long enough to know that, although we human beings can have a good try at making the world a better place, our track record is, well, not all that great. People of good will have been trying to bring peace, love, and understanding to the world for centuries, but despite all their best efforts, the twentieth century was the most violent century in human history, and the twenty-first doesn’t seem like it’s going to lag behind, either. The inhumanity of people toward people seems to grow apace. A huge chunk of the world’s population lives in grinding poverty, and for many of them, all our efforts to make the world a better place aren’t going to come in time, because, well, they’re going to die of starvation tomorrow. Or tonight, even. And thousands of them will be little children.

You think it will make those children and their parents feel better to imagine that this life is all there is, John? Born in poverty, lived in starvation, died of an empty stomach. This is all the heaven you’re going to get, living for today. You think that’s good news, John? I mean, I know we can have a discussion about whether or not life after death is just wishful thinking, but thats not what you’re asking me to do, John. You’re asking me to imagine there’s no heaven, and then enjoy the thought. And when I look around me at all the suffering in the world, the only thing I can say in response, John, is “Are you out of your *%^*#@!! mind?”

Two years ago one of my best friends died of cancer at the age of forty-seven, leaving behind a young family. As a pastor, I know many people who deal with the scourge of cancer at a young age, and some of them die of it. I can tell you, John, from personal experience, that imagining there’s no heaven is not usually a great comfort to them. When a young family loses a father or a mother – when a husband loses a wife whose love he had hoped to enjoy for another thirty years – do you seriously think that imagining that they’ll never, ever see them again is something they’ll enjoy doing? All I can say, John, is that if you do, you need to get out a bit more and acquaint yourself with some real human suffering.

Come to think of it, you did, didn’t you? I wonder if it changed your mind?

Oh, and by the way, no intelligent religious person thinks that heaven is above us ‘in the sky’, and that hell is under the earth below us. People have known for a long time that this was metaphorical speech. Do you really think that old Dante thought that the devil was stuck head first in the ice at the centre of the earth, upside down, with his hairy shanks protruding? Come on, John – if you’re going to pick a quarrel with us, you could at least pay us the compliment of assuming that we can tell the difference between a metaphor and its meaning!

Let me tell you what ‘imagining there’s no heaven’ does for me, John. I think of a universe with no God, no objective standard of right and wrong, no morality and ethics except what the majority of human beings can agree on. I think of a universe where life happened by accident, where human beings are just highly developed animals, and where all the work we do to build loving marriages and lasting friendships comes to nothing in the end, because it’s all lost at the moment of death. I think of a world where the vast majority of human beings have been delusional, because they have believed that there’s more to it than that. I think of a world where the only sentiment that makes objective sense is ‘Let’s eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we’re going to die, and we won’t know a thing about it’. A world where one might admire unselfish people, but one can’t think of a single logical reason to be one of them, because this world is the only chance they’ve got for happiness, pleasure, and joy, and they’re giving it all up for others.

Well, John, every honest person of religious faith knows that there are no absolutely watertight arguments for the existence of God, of moral absolutes, or of life after death. I believe in all of those things, but my belief isn’t founded entirely on logic, and who knows? One day I might wake up to find out you were right after all (although how a dead person would find that out, if your view of the world is true, is perhaps a bit problematical – after all, after we die, we don’t know anything, because we’re gone, gone, gone!). But please don’t ask me to enjoy that thought, John! That makes no sense to me at all. I want to see my Dad again some day – and my grandparents – and dear friends like Joe and Ken who have gone before me. If I’m going to get joy out of ‘imagining’ anything, I’d much rather imagine what it will be like to see them again, and to enjoy their company in the presence of God forever. Now that’s something worth imagining!

(to be continued…)

 

 

Reflections inspired by mortality

So the day of my Dad’s funeral has come and gone. It seems strange, somehow; I’ve lived with the impending reality of this day for two or three years, since the day Dad asked me to preach at it, and now it is a past event. Somehow it seems as if it should be a permanent event, existing continually outside of time.

This morning I find myself remembering the words of an old Bruce Cockburn song from the 1980s:

I don’t mean to cling to you my friends
It’s just I hate the day to have to end
Never enough time to spend
I haven’t done enough for this to be the end

There must be more… more…
More songs more warmth
More love more life
Not more fear not more fame
Not more money not more games

That’s the way I felt yesterday. I was the preacher at the service, so I had the best view of who was there. Many, but not all, of the faces were familiar to me. Mum and Dad returned to England from Canada in 1978, and from that day on their circle of acquaintance diverged from mine; I know some of the friends they’ve made since then (especially over the past twenty or so years in Oakham and Ketton), but not all. Still, there were lots of extended family members there, and friends going all the way back to our Southminster days. We had the service at St. Mary’s, Ketton, which was Dad and Mum’s home church for the past few years, and the vicar, Andrew Rayment, did a fine job with the service and the prayers. We sang some fine hymns that Dad loved – ‘How Great Thou Art’, ‘To God be the Glory’, and my personal favourite, ‘Thine be the Glory’, with those great lines:

Make us more than conquerors through thy deathless love;
Bring us safe through Jordan to thy home above.

My brother Mike read the reading Dad had selected, 1 Peter 1:3-9, and my niece Ellie read the gospel, John 14:1-6. I preached, and people were kind enough to tell me that they had appreciated it afterwards. When the service was over we went to Grantham Crematorium for the cremation, and then back to Oakham for a reception.

That was when I had my Cockburn ‘It’s just I hate the day to have to end’ feeling. The love of people was palpable in that room – their affection for Dad, and their affection for Mum, and Mike and me. It’s funny, but I haven’t really felt of myself as being a ‘mourner’ yet. I’ve officiated at so many funerals and tried to provide support and comfort to the bereaved, but until yesterday it hadn’t really sunk in that I was in that category. I guess people seem to feel that clergy are somehow above all that; I don’t know why, but I know it’s true. But yesterday at the reception in Ketton I was in the midst of cousins and aunts and uncles and friends I’d known since long before I had any idea of being a clergy person, and they were united in love for Dad and Mum and in wanting to provide support for us. And it was all the more poignant in that some of them were the family of my Uncle John, who died three days after my Dad, and whose funeral is tomorrow.

‘Cling onto these relationships’, I found myself thinking. ‘Make no excuses for not keeping in touch with them. Do all you can to let them know you love them and appreciate them. These are the most important things in life. The gospel of Jesus Christ – which gives my life meaning and gives me hope for the future as well as strength for the present – and the love that human beings share with each other – in the end, this is what matters’.

I said to my old friend Steve Palmer afterwards that since Dad died I find that my patience with the bullshit that often happens in churchland has been at an all time low. That may not be a good thing – impatience is rarely a good thing – but I find myself thinking about things in the light of my Dad’s death and wondering why we’re bothering with so much that isn’t really important in the light of eternity. I’m not pointing fingers at my congregation or diocese, or even myself; I’m just making a general observation about the tendency of Christians to get worked up about the latest fad or fashion in ‘church health’ or ‘congregational development’ or whatever the latest trend is (I’ve been around long enough to be seeing most of them come around for the second time now), all the time doing our best to avoid the thought of actually asking someone how they are doing, and really wanting an answer, or actually talking about Jesus with a non-Christian friend.

My Dad’s life counted; that was obvious yesterday. There were people in that church who became Christians through his ministry, and at least two people who are in ordained ministry because of him. Dad was far from perfect, but he knew how to share the gospel, how to love people, and how to encourage people in their Christian calling. He and Mum also did a pretty good job of bringing up Christian sons, and that wasn’t just luck, it was also prayer and hard work and, at times, sheer cussedness!

I really hope that I will remember, from now on, to major on the things that will really count, and not to get caught up in fascinating side roads and the latest fads and fashions. This blog post is my reminder to myself: make your life count, and refuse to allow either other people’s opinions or your own laziness and inertia to cause you to settle for less than that.

Many years ago I was out walking one day beside the Peel River in Aklavik. I was pondering what it was that God wanted me to do, and I got an answer. It wasn’t an audible voice, but somehow three words impressed themselves firmly on my mind, and I have never doubted from that day to this that they were God’s guidance to me (and I very, very rarely experience what I believe to be clear, unambiguous guidance from God). The three words were ‘prayer’, ‘love’, and ‘evangelism’. Ever since then, I have felt most at peace with myself when I have made these three things the centre of my life and ministry. When I’ve gotten diverted from these things, I’ve felt that my life was off centre and everything was somehow out of place.

So, as old Thomas Ken put it,

Redeem thy misspent time that’s past
Live each day as if ’twere thy last.

This I will do, The Lord being my helper.