Sunday, 25 August 2013

To have and to hold

We're in the midst of the wedding season and I have conducted four weddings in the past month.

Three of the weddings took place at St James (pictured is Elizabeth & Adam's wedding) and one of them took place in a house in St Anne's parish.

Richard and Denise's wedding was my first house wedding in 24 years of ordained ministry. It was made possible by a special license and it was a great occasion.

All the weddings have been very different, reflecting the diversity of Bermondsey as a place, but have had at their heart the central truth of the marriage service that 'this is the way of life created and hallowed by God.' The crucial truth is that marriage is not a man-made institution, but a God-ordained one.

That's why Jesus answered a question about marriage by referring to how things were in the beginning, and, by quoting Genesis 2.24 ('For the reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife and they will become one flesh')

Thursday, 22 August 2013

The last battle

To my old parish of Holy Trinity, Redhill for the funeral of John, my former church manager, colleague, friend and brother in Christ - and a full church which had gathered to give thanks for John's life and say farewell to him after his long and arduous battle with a cruel disease.

John had chosen all the component parts of today's service and he particularly wanted the sermon to focus on the words of Revelation 21.4: ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

It was an apt choice and it focussed our thoughts - as John's thoughts had increasingly focussed - on the life of the world to come, on the new heaven and the new earth, and God's own ultimate antidote to the sufferings of this life.

On the last page of the last book of the Narnia series, The Last Battle, CS Lewis writes as follows, in an echo of Revelation 21,words which I shared it with the congregation today:
“There was  a real railway accident,” said Aslan softly. “Your father and mother and all of you are–as you used to call it in the Shadowlands–dead.  The term is over:  the holidays have begun.  The dream is ended:  this is the morning.”

And as He spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them.  And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after.  But for them it was only the beginning of the real story.  All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page:  now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read:  which goes on forever:  in which every chapter is better than the one before.”
In Tom Wright's phrase, Christians believe in life after life after death - not eternity spent floating on a heavenly cloud- but life in newly re-created universe: 'Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and......  I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.'

That was John's hope and that is our Christian hope.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Northern journey

The blog has been on holiday to North Yorkshire and your blogger has returned suitably refreshed  after a relaxing week in God's Own County that included visits to some favourite haunts such as Whitby (left), Scarborough and York, country walks, a ride on the North York Moors Railway, a few good books, and the world premiere of a new Ayckbourn play, premiered, like all his plays, in his home town of  Scarborough.

I'm pretty much a dyed-in-the-wool Londoner, but we met in the fair city of York, and we have often returned to that city and county over the years. 

And for the third time we stayed at Rivendell, run by York Uni friend, Ange, and her friend - Janet - a quiet woodland oasis, just outside Pickering right - highly recommended - just google 'Rivendell breaks'

But our thoughts kept returning to Redhill where a dear friend was coming to the end of his earthly pilgrimmage.

Tomorrow I take his funeral service at Holy Trinity.

It will be a hard service to take, one of the hardest I have ever taken, but it will also be an honour and a privilege - what we Christians call a gift of God's grace.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Farewell to Ickford

When Ickford, a long standing member of St James's congregation thought about his funeral he told his family he would really like a New Orleans-style jazz band - and so through the streets of Bermondsey today came Ickford's funeral procession to St James Church, headed up by a horse-drawn hearse, led by the Dixie jazz band, that had local people tapping their feet in time to the music, waving, and filming the joyful spectacle on their phones.

The band led us in and out of church, they played at the graveside, and they gave an impromptu street concert for the members of Age Concern Southwark - Ickford was a regular member of the day centre in Southwark Park Road - who came out to pay their respects to Ickford as the procession stopped there on its way to Camberwell Old Cemetery.

They made a fantastic sound, brilliantly capturing the mood of joy and solemnity that is at the heart of a truly Christian funeral service.

Ickford came to England from the West Indies in 1955 and as such was something of a pioneer, making that big move across the ocean, to a new nation where he was to marry, bring up his children, and live until the age of 87.

For me, it was an opportunity to enjoy and appreciate the distinctive funeral customs that those first migrants brought from the West Indies and, thank God, persist here. I first experienced them as a curate in West Norwood where we had many West Indian funerals, and it was good to be reminded of them today.

At a time when white middle class Christians seem increasingly to be hiding from death - renaming their funeral services 'thanksgiving services' and having that strange thing, a funeral without a body - Carribean funerals face up to the reality of death in the most striking way.

First, not only is the coffin present in church; it is open. Everyone files past, to view the deceased person and pay their respects.

Then at the graveside, after the commital, in a ceremony that never fails to move me deeply, the men closest to the deceased - if it is the death of a parent, the eldest son goes first - take off the jackets pick up shovels and slowly and carefully fill in the grave.

It takes a long time to fill in a grave by hand, but as the men work, the women sing hymns unaccompanied, filling the cemetery with the praise of God.

From my curacy, the song I always remember which seemed always to be sung, was Shall we gather by the river?, a  beautiful meditation on Revelation 22.1-2:

Shall we gather at the river,
Where bright angel feet have trod,
With its crystal tide forever
Flowing by the throne of God?

Yes, we’ll gather at the river,
The beautiful, the beautiful river;
Gather with the saints at the river
That flows by the throne of God.

On the margin of the river,
Washing up its silver spray,
We will talk and worship ever,
All the happy golden day.

Ere we reach the shining river,
Lay we every burden down;
Grace our spirits will deliver,
And provide a robe and crown.

At the smiling of the river,
Mirror of the Savior’s face,
Saints, whom death will never sever,
Lift their songs of saving grace.

Soon we’ll reach the silver river,
Soon our pilgrimage will cease;
Soon our happy hearts will quiver
With the melody of peace.

You can hear it here