Silent Joy in Grief

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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

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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!

Four by Four and Four by Sixteen

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Photography (a smartphone is all you need by the way) and writing, whether personal or for work, are two of the things that are currently helping me maintain my mental health and sanity in the coronavirus pandemic lockdown.

Partly by accident, but also by design, I’ve developed a way of posting them on social media and here. I take four square photos and then stitch them together with an Instagram app to make a four by four photo which I share then to Instagram (and automatically to Facebook and Twitter). I repeat this three more times, and then stitch the four stitched photos together into a four by sixteen photo. The above stitched photo is today’s offering from my afternoon walk in Richardson Dees Park in Wallsend.

I then add all the individual photos to a Google Photos album, and you can see the ones from today here. I’m particularly pleased how the dandelion shot turned out, I spotted it in a ray of sunshine that didn’t extend to the background, making it stand out dramatically.

I also took four photos of some fungi on a tree stump that I’ve stitched into a standalone four by four one. Again, you can see all the individual ones here.

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Oh, and even though I concentrated on nature, I was with my family. Here’s the one shot I did take of them (Naomi was taking photos of the children), and I immediately loved it.

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Richardson Dees Park in Wallsend

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Richardson Dees Park in Wallsend is a beautiful place to walk with some wonderful facilities, although these are not open in the current coronavirus pandemic. Indeed, it wasn’t possible for Wallsend Churches Working Together (WCWT) to hold their annual Good Friday commemoration and worship (with Wallsend Salvation Army band) in the bandstand this year.

Fortunately, we can still walk in the park and enjoy its beauty, and that’s just what we did as a family on the afternoon of Easter Sunday 2020. The northern end of the park is very close to where we live. Naomi concentrated on photos of our children, I focussed on nature. The above picture is a composite of the eight photos I took on a cloudy day.

Note: Many thanks to my friend and fellow Salvation Army officer Mark Kent for processing the photos for me.

22/03/20 Sunday Worship

Social distance with emotional and spiritual connection.

Welcome to our Sunday worship, it’s so good we can all share together in this way. Given the current situation, I think it’ll be good to start by watching this encouraging video by our Territorial Commander, Commissioner Anthony Cotterill.

Please note: the song links will take you to an online songbook, you’ll have to search for the song number manually in the 2015 Song Book (possibly by going back to the homepage). I’ll try and sort this out if possible, it’s all been put together in a hurry as you’ll appreciate. Also, apologies for any mistakes, but please let me know.

Our opening Song 948 is a reminder to stay strong in the grace of God, having confidence in him. The third verse says: Be strong in the grace of the Lord, Be armed with the power of His might; Be daring when dangers abound, Courageous and brave in the fight.

Bible ReadingRomans 8:31-39

As Paul, in that reading tells us, we are more than conquerors. Nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Our next Song 30 reinforces that theme.

Prayers: Use this time to make your own prayers and use the one below, which can be found in context here. Apologies if I’ve infringed copyright.

Christ, as a light
illumine and guide me.
Christ, as a shield
overshadow me.
Christ under me;
Christ over me;
Christ beside me
on my left and my right.
This day be within and without me,
lowly and meek, yet all-powerful.
Be in the heart of each to whom I speak;
in the mouth of each who speaks unto me.
This day be within and without me,
lowly and meek, yet all-powerful.
Christ as a light;
Christ as a shield;
Christ beside me
on my left and my right.

We’ll now take up the Offering and listen to the Announcements: For those of you who give a weekly (or other regular) offering to your church, please save these up as they will be much needed in due course. Additionally, there may be those of you who would like to make a donation to a charity of your choice. Please check your local church for arrangements during this bewildering time, and don’t forget to check back here. I’ll do my level best to have a Sunday worship service (meeting as we call them in the Salvation Army) online for you each week. You can download a modified handout (PDF format) for distribution to those not online here.

Let’s listen to the Band as they bring us a lively march with an uplifting message.

Bible Reading: Numbers 21:4-9

We turn to Song 48 for our Testimony Time. Please share your testimony with someone with you now in person, over the telephone or online.

Bible Reading: John 3:14-21

Before we listen to the Bible Message, let’s watch this beautiful video by Major David Chadwick. Selected verses from Psalm 91 with scenes of the Lake District and music from Chelmsford Salvation Army Band and Songsters. Words of encouragement as we enter a prolonged period of self-isolation.

Bible Message (Major John Ager)

Our main Bible reading contains one of the most well-known verses from the New Testament: 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.

But the short passage we shared is not the whole story, you might like to read the whole chapter for context. Our reading had no mention of Nicodemus who came to Jesus by night seeking answers to his questions and no mention of being born again.

Instead, the teaching of Jesus is linked to the story of Moses in the wilderness having to deal with a discontented people found in Numbers 21:4-9.

Life used to be better for them, but now they have left Egypt. Under the leadership of Moses they have achieved freedom. They are no longer slaves. This was what they longed for, the fulfilment of their hopes. But now they are hungry. What food they have is boring. It’s not like the good old days in Egypt when at least they had good, interesting food to eat. The memories of their hardships have faded and all they know is that their bellies are empty and life is tough.

They are and should be people who are journeying towards a high destiny. They’ve been called by God for his purposes. They must reach out to the future and not dwell in the past, particularly on unrealistic memories of the past.

Moses is told by God to make a bronze serpent and to put it on a pole. When anyone who had been bitten by a poisonous serpent looked at this bronze serpent they would live. For many centuries this symbol has been used by those involved in healing and health care as their sign. One of the explanations of this clearly links it to the story in Numbers.

The symbol is still used widely today and maybe part of what it’s intended to convey is that health and healing are gifts. It was God’s gift of healing to an undeserving people, a rebellious, complaining, petty-minded people. Here it was a gift that would help them to become what they were capable of being, God’s chosen people that now includes all who name Jesus as Saviour and Lord.

In the Gospel reading (John 3:14-21) Jesus refers to this passage from Numbers and sees it pointing to his own destiny. The Son of Man will be lifted up and whoever believes in him will have eternal life.

This is a recurring theme in the gospels, that believing is what brings about the change in people and in their situations. Believing is the gift of God, the grace of God, and with that gift of grace all sorts of things become possible in people’s lives.

God loved us so much that he gave his only son. But that’s in the past tense, it needs to be in the present tense, because the activities of God are always in the eternal now. God loves the world so much that he gives his only son. That love is from eternity to eternity and nothing can separate us from that love.

On this unusual Mother’s Day, what we experience in the best of parental relationships, we experience even more in our experience of God. In fact, it’s our experience of divine parenting that becomes the model, the benchmark for human parenting. God loves the world so much. We look to God and live. In God’s love is all our renewal and healing.

We turn to an old favourite now, Song 453. Words that I hope will reinforce my Bible message in your hearts.

In this time of Reflection, Response & Prayer, please spend some moments quietly in ways that you find helpful.

We finish with Song 959. The places we can go might be limited, but we can still ‘go in the strength of the Lord’, finding new ways to share God’s love.

Benediction:

Let nothing disturb thee,
Nothing affright thee;
All things are passing,
God never changeth!
Patient endurance attaineth to all things;
Who God possesseth in nothing is wanting;
Alone God sufficeth. Amen.

You can find a deeply personal post about Mother’s Day 2020 here.

God bless you all, Major John Ager.

Mother’s Day 2020

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I hadn’t been looking forward to leading two worship services on Mother’s Day this year, because it would have been my first after her death last year. In fact, I hadn’t really given my preparation much thought, possibly secretly hoping that it would go away. Not only did the thought of it awaken some powerful emotions that continue to lie barely below the surface of my day-to-day life, but there’s the ongoing emptiness of loss combined with the strange feeling of ‘lostness’ that occurs after the death of both parents, which may be magnified in me because I’m an only child of only children.

So there’s a sense of relief I’ll not have to minister to others in public on this sensitive occasion because of the coronavirus pandemic. But clearly, I’d rather have had my vulnerability and emotions laid bare than being in this current health crisis. Equally, I’ve discovered over the years that my ‘wearing my heart on my sleeve’ nature has been used by God in Christian ministry to bring comfort and strength to others, a very humbling experience. Central to my faith is the vulnerability of Jesus, demonstrated powerfully in his willingness to suffer and die. This reminds me that emotional openness and vulnerability must never be confused with weakness, for in our weakness we can be strong.

For this year, that’s all I’m going to say. I’ll leave others to share their thoughts, emotions and spiritual insights on Mother’s Day, and I’ll be pleased to read and share them.

Note: The photo of my mother and daughter Pollyanna was taken in 2018.

Coronavirus Disruption

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We found out this morning that the venue we’d booked for Freddy’s 5th birthday party had a confirmed case of coronavirus. What should we do?

The venue was very helpful on the telephone and understood our predicament, accepting that we may have to cancel and make alternative plans. They’ve been told they can continue as normal, but they’re doing a deep clean today to reassure staff and customers.

We don’t want to panic and add to the problem, but what if parents and grandparents don’t turn up with their children and grandchildren? The current government policy is to contain and delay the inevitable outbreak as long as possible, so should we plan for later in the year?

Given that I’m in a high-risk category (my age, asthma and prone to chest infections), as well as the fact that others in the same situation will be there, should we make alternative plans?

Update: I guess this is the type of dilemma we’re all going have to face in one way or another in the coming days. In the end, we decided to make alternative plans, and I’m so grateful that my wife Naomi is dealing with all of the arrangements.

See also here: Freddy’s 5th Birthday Party

 

On Being an Older Father

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Having two grown-up children and approaching sixty years of age, it never crossed my mind that I might become a father again; but that was until I met Naomi and a loving relationship developed, with the full knowledge that she wanted children (astute readers will have deduced she’s much younger than me).

Just over five years later, we are happily married with three wonderful children, and I’m the age in the title of a well-known Beatles’ song! Some might question the twenty-seven year age difference between us, but all I can say is that it works for us and we are a very happy and loving family.

When people find out I have three young children at my age, they say I’m either brave or stupid – possible even both, and I sometimes think that myself. Seriously though, I’m truly loving having the wonderful privilege and sacred responsibility of bringing up a family for the second time. Whilst having three children close together is not easy at times, I especially enjoy seeing the interactions between them (this is new for me as there are six years between my two older children).

It’s said that age is just a number and that you’re only as old as you feel, but clearly my age will increasingly be an issue as the years go by. Even though tomorrow is not guaranteed for anyone, statistically I won’t be around for as long as most parents could expect to be in the children’s future. On the other hand, people tell me I don’t look my age and I keep myself fit (mainly by healthy eating and running), and both my father and his father lived in relatively good health until their late 80s.

I remind myself regularly it’s the quality of the time I spend with my family that’s important for their personal development and formative years, and I’m making a special effort to live in the present and make the most of every moment; although I sometimes wonder how they will react when they’re old enough to realise I’m older than most other fathers. I’m certainly not going to have a ‘normal’ (if there is such a thing) retirement.

They say that inside every man is a nine-year-old boy constantly trying to get out, and that’s probably true, but I like to think my ‘advanced’ years have given me a measure of life experience and wisdom I didn’t have the first time around. Having said that, nothing really prepares you to be a parent, and so even second time around I’m realistic (and hopefully humble) enough to recognise I’m still learning and don’t have all the answers. Mind you, if you want an expert on wiping bums and changing nappies – I’m your man!

See also here (2020) Freddy’s 5th Birthday Party