Silent Joy in Grief

130824 Mum & Dad

It was one year ago (26 May 2019) that my 94-year-old mother (Jean) died in hospital in Northampton, my father (Fred) having died in 2013.

As I’ve written previously, special days and anniversaries awaken powerful emotions which lie barely below the surface of my day-to-day life, along with the ongoing emptiness of loss. Additionally, this is combined with the strange feeling of ‘lostness’ that occurs after the death of both parents, a feeling which may be magnified for me because I’m an only child of only children.

I had the following words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer printed on the back of the order of service for both their funerals as they expressed something my family wanted to articulate. These words have become even more meaningful to me with the passing of time, and I hope you find them helpful as well.

There is nothing that can replace the absence of someone dear to us, and one should not even attempt to do so. One must simply hold out and endure it. At first that sounds very hard, but at the same time it is also a great comfort. For to the extent the emptiness truly remains unfilled one remains connected to the other person through it. It is wrong to say that God fills the emptiness. God in no way fills it but much more leaves it precisely unfilled and thus helps us preserve, even in pain, the authentic relationship. Further more, the more beautiful and full the remembrances, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude transforms the torment of memory into silent joy. One bears what was lovely in the past not as a thorn but as a precious gift deep within, a hidden treasure of which one can always be certain.

Commissioning Day 1980

methode_times_prod_web_bin_66346898-d5c9-11e6-b069-6105840fb14c

Forty years ago (23 May 1980) I was ordained and commissioned as a Salvation Army Officer (Minister of Religion) in the Royal Albert Hall, London. This significant anniversary comes as I prepare for my retirement in a world that’s vastly different from the one in which I commenced my vocation, but one that continues beyond the end of my working life.

There’s so much I could write, but here’s just one memory of the day. My mother was chosen to come onto the stage to receive her Silver Star badge (presented then to mothers and now to both parents of officers) as a representative mother. Unfortunately, she couldn’t find her way through the tunnels in the bowels of the building in true This is Spinal Tap tradition. Fortunately, she had the presence of mind to come back up to the auditorium and make a grand entrance via the central stairs onto the stage!

24/05/20 Sunday Thoughts

ascension_by_eddiecalz-d678cy0

Greetings on this sixth Sunday after Easter as we journey towards Pentecost next Sunday. First of all, an opportunity to watch and listen to our Territorial Leader Commissioner Gillian Cotterill. Please note that I’m preparing to retire on Wednesday 1 July 2020 and during June I’ll be taking my remaining holiday entitlement at home.

I imagine not many reading this today will remember the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. It was the year before I was born, but I do remember my parents talking about it and seeing souvenir books and magazines from the time around the house.

Last Thursday was Ascension Day in the Christian calendar, and today is the Sunday between it and Pentecost next Sunday.

The Ascension is not easy for us to understand with our 21st Century mindset, but I think it helps if we see it as Christ’s Coronation. Two Bible readings can also help us, the first one is the story of the Ascension itself (Luke 24:44-53) and the other is an early Christian hymn found in one of Paul’s Letters (Philippians 2:5-11). Click on the links to read these passages.

The Ascension is a mystery, and that’s one of the reasons I’ve used abstract art to depict it rather than a traditional image (click on it or here for the source). Having said that, there had to be a point at which the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus came to an end, when his earthly ministry finished and the ministry of the Holy Spirit could begin.

The disciples were told to wait for what was promised, I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.

I guess they were impatient, as we often are, but they didn’t have to wait long. Before leaving them they were prepared for the task ahead, and the power came at Pentecost.

He said to them, ‘This is what I told you while I was still with you: everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.’ Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, ‘This is what is written: the Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.

Their minds were opened to fully understand the scriptures, and given the power to accomplish their work after ten days. They were just ordinary people empowered for God, and we can be like them in the same power of the Spirit. Pentecost is a week away but, unlike the disciples, the power can be ours now. Power to live like Christ and boldness to share his message of love and salvation, new life for all.

Silver (Walter de la Mare)

The_phase_of_Moon

Slowly, silently, now the moon
Walks the night in her silver shoon;
This way, and that, she peers, and sees
Silver fruit upon silver trees;
One by one the casements catch
Her beams beneath the silvery thatch;
Couched in his kennel, like a log,
With paws of silver sleeps the dog;
From their shadowy cote the white breasts peep
Of doves in a silver-feathered sleep;
A harvest mouse goes scampering by,
With silver claws, and silver eye;
And moveless fish in the water gleam,
By silver reeds in a silver stream.

Walter de la Mare (1873-1956)

Remembering Ian Curtis

joy-division-28-01-2009-02-05-2008-6-g

Forty years ago (18 May 1980) Joy Division lyricist and singer Ian Curtis took his own life, a tortured star whose influence both at the time and since has been immense. Actor Sam Riley brilliantly portrays Curtis in Control, Anton Corbijn‘s 2007 film of the Joy Division singer’s life and suicide.

Although there have been those who have sought to glamorise his death as a rock and roll suicide, in reality it was a consequence of his lack of control over many aspects of his personal life. The debilitating effects of epilepsy, the deception of having an affair, the almost inevitable breakdown of his marriage, and the prospect of separation from his year-old baby daughter. As he sang, “All the failures of the modern man”.

The classic and influential album Unknown Pleasures (released in 1979) revealed a profoundly dark poet and a starkly grim realist, a very different voice in music at the time, one who added deep insight and intelligence to the post-punk movement.

The clues were there though. In the track Shadowplay, Ian Curtis sings, “In the shadowplay, acting out your own death, knowing no more…” and in New Dawn Fades, there’s one in the very title as well as the words, “The strain is too much, can’t take much more”.

36539360_1597375767038708_8825086018551021568_n

Once the truly shocking news broke that Ian Curtis had taken his own life, there came the full realisation that his writhing and twisted dancing on stage wasn’t simply performance art, he was genuinely wrestling with his emotional and physical demons, as well as reflecting how hopeless, meaningless and inhuman he felt our world had become.

Tragic as any death is, we’re often drawn to those in public life who take their own lives, and there are many examples. Listening to the album Closer (released soon after his death) was uncanny and slightly unnerving, a feeling that persists even now.

joy_division_closer_png

So this is permanence, love’s shattered pride
What once was innocence turned on it’s side
A cloud hangs over me, marks every move
Deep in the memory of what once was love

Oh, how I realized I wanted time
Put into perspective, tried so hard to find
Just for one moment I thought I’d got my way
Destiny unfolded, watched it slip away

Excessive flash points beyond all reach
Solitary demands for all I’d like to keep
Let’s take a ride out, see what we can find
Valueless collection of hopes and past desires

I never realized the lengths I’d have to go
All the darkest corners of a sense I didn’t know
Just for one moment, hearing someone call
Looked beyond the day in hand, there’s nothing there at all

Now that I’ve realized how it’s all gone wrong
Got to find some therapy, treatment takes too long
Deep in the heart of where sympathy held sway
Got to find my destiny before it gets too late

Twenty Four Hours (from Closer)

I remember a survey from a few years back revealing that more people take their own lives in May than in any other month. Apparently, “the juxtaposition between a literally blooming world and the barren inner life of the clinically depressed is often too much for them to bear”.

We remember Ian Curtis because of his musical influence and legacy, but there’s also many thousands of young men who take their own lives each year, and I particularly remember one whose funeral I conducted a few years ago. A reminder to do all we can to reduce the stigma of mental illness in society, and to support those who are suffering. On this tragic anniversary, a fitting way to remember Ian Curtis.

See also: Transmission (Joy Division)

17/05/20 Sunday Questions

three brown gondolas on body of water
Photo by Thiago Matos on Pexels.com

Greetings on this fifth Sunday after Easter as we journey towards Pentecost at the end of this month. First of all, an opportunity to watch and listen to our Territorial Commander Commissioner Anthony Cotterill, and then some questions based on two Bible passages: Genesis 22:1-18 & John 21:15-25.

Imagine receiving something that you’ve always wanted. Imagine achieving your lifetime ambition. Imagine winning a million pounds. And then imagine losing it or willingly giving it away. I’m sure we can all picture in our mind’s eye what our emotions and feelings would be.

So I guess we can all begin to put ourselves in the mind of Abraham as he was put into the position of being asked to sacrifice his son Isaac. This was the son he had longed for, this was the son through whom God had promised many blessings, and this was the son he was now called to sacrifice. A difficult story from the Old Testament, but let’s put our thoughts of the emotional harm to a young child to one side for now.

Abraham had, of course, already learned many lessons of faith, of stepping out into the unknown in complete obedience to God. But surely nothing could have prepared him for this.

Being a Christian and being part of a faith community is not an easy option, because obeying God is often a struggle when we’re challenged to give up something we truly want. As I move towards retirement after forty years as a Salvation Army Corps Officer, I look back on those things I’ve had to sacrifice. Not that I would have made a different decision to follow this calling, even though at times it’s been difficult and especially so now in coronavirus pandemic lockdown.

You see, we mustn’t make the mistake of thinking that obedience to God will be easy or come naturally, we all like our comfort too much, but sometimes God calls us out of our comfort zone.

It was through Abraham’s difficult experience that his commitment to obey God was strengthened, and he learnt great lessons about God’s ability and willingness to provide.

But let’s move to the New Testament, and the disciple Peter:
As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” At once they left their nets and followed him. Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him. Matthew 4:18-22

When Peter followed Jesus, did he realise the cost of following him? Peter was the one who, at Caesarea Philippi declared Jesus to be the ‘Messiah, the Son of the Living God’. He was the one who boldly, if rather impulsively, proclaimed that he above all the others would not fall away.

Peter was always the one who opened his mouth first, and the one who opens their mouth first usually puts their foot in it. He made a number of confessions of faith, but when he was put to the test in the High Priest’s courtyard he denied Jesus three times, just as Jesus had predicted.

But let’s not to too ready to criticise Peter, as all the other disciples had left long ago. At least Peter stayed with Jesus the longest, even if he ‘followed at a distance’, at least he placed himself in a position where he might be challenged about Jesus.

Nevertheless, when Abraham faced his test of faith he passed with flying colours, but when Peter faced a similar test he failed miserably. Can we begin to imagine how he must have felt?

That then, is the background, for the meeting of Peter with the Risen Jesus in the Bible reading. The scene is a solemn one; the disciples had gone back to their everyday jobs, only to find that the risen, glorified Lord could meet them even there.

Jesus begins a searching enquiry of Peter:
[Peter] son of John, do you truly love me more than these?

Now this can mean one of two things, but most probably both. It could mean ‘do you love me more than all else?’ or ‘do you love me more than they do?’ Both would go right to the heart of how Peter must have been feeling, realising that he had not loved Jesus more than everything else, realising that his bold claims had been empty promises. He was a broken man, just the kind of person that God wants to be his follower. In the harsh light of reality Peter has to face his failure, the self-confidence has gone.

So what are we to make of these three questions of Jesus to Peter? There is actually something going on here that is not immediately obvious, because there is a subtle difference in meaning between the word for ‘love’ that Jesus uses, and the word for ‘love’ that Peter uses in reply.

It’s a difference that’s not easily communicated in English; the NIV attempts it by using ‘truly love’ and ‘love’ on its own.

Jesus asks Peter, ‘Do you truly love me….?’ And he uses the word for love that means total self-sacrifice and self-giving. Peter replies, ‘you know that I love you’ but he uses the word for love that simply means brotherly affection or care.

He naturally shrinks from using the stronger word that Jesus used, the word for ‘love’ that implied deep and total commitment. Peter realised that he was far from perfect, that his commitment was less than total, yet Jesus still gave him a task to do, ‘Feed my lambs’.

Christ doesn’t wait for us to be perfect before he will use us in His service, he’d wait forever. No, he uses ordinary men and women who will admit their need for forgiveness and recognise that their confidence and strength comes, not from themselves, but from Christ. It’s no longer I that liveth, but Christ that liveth in me.

The second time Jesus asks Peter, ‘Do you truly love me?’ and again he uses the word for the highest form of love, and again Peter replies with the lesser word, he can’t bring himself to use the word Jesus uses.

Then comes the crucial third question, and we are told that Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time. We might assume that he was hurt because Jesus asked him three times, but we would be wrong.

Peter was hurt by this question, not because it was the third question, but because of the word Jesus used. Jesus uses the word for ‘love’ that Peter had used for his replies to the previous two questions. In the third question Jesus is challenging even the small amount of commitment Peter has admitted to.

Peter had been brought to his knees, to his point of need, to the place we all need to come to before God, to the place where he could use him. He’d been gently brought to the point of admitting his need, he could never be the same again, and in that moment he receives the commission, ‘Feed my sheep’.

‘It is a broken and a contrite heart’ that the Lord requires, and when we come to him like that he fills us with his Spirit. We come empty, we leave filled.

Jesus gets to the heart of the matter; Peter had to face up to his true motives and feelings. Jesus then goes on to tell Peter that he will die as a result of his faith, and issues the challenge he issued on that first lakeside encounter, ‘Follow me’.

Peter is now less self-confident, more Christ-confident and, ultimately, did lay down his life for his risen Lord. And what a spiritual giant Peter became in the early church, but even then he was a fallible human being, just like you and me.

In conclusion, Jesus is still calling men and women today. He calls those who in their own estimation and in the eyes of their contemporaries are unworthy and he makes them worthy. He knows what is best for each individual, for our Army and for his Kingdom. He demands devotion and loyalty from those who choose to follow his call. He recognises our weaknesses and still loves us when we disappoint him. He welcomes back those who have failed him, and offers them another chance. Please use this song, well-known to Salvationists, as a final prayer.

Knowing my failings, knowing my fears,
Seeing my sorrow, drying my tears.
Jesus recall me, me re-ordain;
You know I love you, use me again.
You know I love you, use me again.

I have no secrets unknown to you,
No special graces, talents are few;
Yet your intention I would fulfil;
You know I love you, ask what you will.
You know I love you, ask what you will.

For the far future I cannot see,
Promise your presence, travel with me;
Sunshine or shadows? I cannot tell;
You know I love you, all will be well.
You know I love you, all will be well.

See also: 03/05/20 Candidates Sunday