Yesterday I officiated at a funeral service for a wonderful gentleman. At any other time, this service would have been attended by a couple of hundred people. The chapel would have been full, standing room only as family and many friends gathered to honour his life, his achievements and acknowledge his legacy. However, we currently live in different times and the coronavirus crisis resulted in affecting the number of people who were allowed to be in the room, restricting this to be just a fraction of those who would have wanted to attend.
I stood at the lectern, leading the ceremony. The mourners sat spread across the entire chapel, socially distancing themselves as best they could from one another. I read a tribute on behalf of a close friend, who had intended to read the words himself, but he was unable to attend due to his need to self-isolate. Sat in the front row, alone and apart from her family was the widow. She was bereft having lost her life partner with whom she had shared nearly 40 years and as she sobbed, nobody felt able or allowed to simply hug her and comfort her in what is essentially such a vital and ordinary way. Amongst the eloquently spoken words, the need for a reassuring hug, handshake or pat on the shoulder is so very important, yet in these current days, touch and physical interaction needs to be entered into so much more sparingly.
I drove home from the crematorium very reflective, even sad at how this crisis was impacting how we honour and celebrate the lives of our departed. Yet today, as I continue to have the same feelings, I am increasingly thoughtful that what we were able to achieve yesterday as a small and intimate group of family and close friends was infinitely better than what might become the reality for thousands of families over the next couple of months.
Hospitals are no longer able to welcome the families of their patients in the same way as they have done so for many years. The need for the staff to afford all their efforts on caring for the sick and the potentially contagious environment that they are working in, means that generally, family visiting or accompanying their loved ones to hospital is no longer wise, welcomed or permitted.
Currently, gatherings of people, even in very small groups is banned, except for gathering for funeral ceremonies. Some chapels are limiting numbers to 25, many more are restricting the number of mourners to 10. Even with restricted numbers in the chapel, if there are 10, 12, 14 services each day that is upwards of 100 people attending that space every day. It will be no surprise to people to hear that chapel staff are self-isolating and managers are worried about being able to continue to carry out their tasks in the coming weeks as demand on them increases.
My heart breaks at how the coming weeks might significantly impact families who lose a loved one. There is increasing likelihood that, for a period of time, all crematoria will move to ‘direct cremations’ with no family or mourners being allowed to attend. There is a very real possibility, as I see it, that someone may be sick and taken from home in an ambulance to hospital without any family being able to go with them. Should that person pass away it is likely that no family member will be with them. The opportunity to allow family to view their loved one in a chapel of rest is not without serious problems, especially if in the immediate days following the death, the family are having to self-isolate themselves having been in contact with the now departed loved one. If direct cremations don’t afford the immediate family with an opportunity to hold a ‘meaningful goodbye’ ceremony or funeral service I worry what sort of lasting impact this might have on the mental health of grieving families.
Nobody, in the funeral industry wants to impose restrictions, but it seems that for at least a short period of time, this might become necessary.
Therefore, are there new ways of enabling an immediate family the opportunity to still pay respects and honour their wife, husband, mother, father, child during these days? I am very grateful to many colleagues with whom we talk, support one another and explore how best we can support families during this crisis. One option that I would very much like to explore that was suggested to me, is the idea of the hearse, en route to the chapel, stops outside the home of the next of kin and a minister/celebrant leads a brief committal ceremony in the street, prior to the hearse continuing the journey to the crematorium. The immediate family would be able to stand at their front door, like we did to applaud the NHS staff, and participate in a brief ‘farewell ceremony’. Alternatively, might I open up my church building or car park area and allow a chapel service to take place there, again with limits on numbers.
I know that it is far from what a family would dearly want, but in these challenging times, any opportunity to provide a grieving family the opportunity to honour their loved is what I would consider to be essential.
My complete admiration extends to everyone working in the funeral industry. To those who collect our loved ones and bring them into the care of the funeral home. Those who diligently prepare the deceased for their final journey, those who deal and make arrangements with the grieving families. Those who work within our crematoria and provide a first-class service to the community at a sad time in peoples lives. Finally, to all my colleagues who lead the chapel services, who speak words to and on behalf of mourning families and strive to pay tribute to their loved ones as they gather to remember. Might we all, together, continue to do the best that we can at all times.
Keep safe and keep well and keep caring!
The Apprentice 2016 starts tonight with a brand new crop of willing candidates all prepared to commit themselves to a series of tasks and business challenges hopeful of gaining the prize of setting up their new business alongside and under the tutorage of Lord Sugar.
Although, to be honest, we don’t watch to celebrate someone’s success do we? We all gather on our settees to watch and comment like Gogglebox commentators at their failures, errors, mistakes, back stabbing, blame deflections, excuses and wait expectantly for ultimately those immortal words ‘Your Fired!’
When did it become part of being truly British to see people strive to succeed only to participate in the ‘sport’ of knocking them down so that we might laugh at and even celebrate their failure?
Last week the popular media were filling their news feeds with comment on Sam Allardyce leaving the post of England Football Manager after just one game and 67 days in charge. The consensus is that he was at best naïve, some say inappropriate, that he displayed an error of judgement, and that he was greedy, corrupt, fraudulent… Dare I question whether people would say his actions were sinful?
Today’s news stories continue to look at the fallout from The Fake Sheikh, Mazher Mahmood and his impending custodial sentence. Falsifying evidence, entrapment, perverting the course of justice simply to create a story that wasn’t really there to be told. Something that seems to have crept into becoming accepted journalistic practise.
Did the Telegraph newspaper cover themselves in glory in setting up the Allardyce story? I don’t think so. Will anyone from the newspaper be held to account for their part in causing what could be viewed as unnecessary entrapment? Sam Allardyce didn’t carry himself well mind, but I must confess to having a sympathetic feeling towards him.
So, as I sit down later to watch The Apprentice, maybe I will do well to celebrate success and the achievements of the candidates rather than hurl comments like ‘Muppet’ at people who are striving to do their best.
Today I am mindful that within the Ten Commandments we might often forget No.9 – Do not testify falsely against my neighbour… In other words don’t lie and actually lets speak well of people and celebrate with them their successes instead of building someone up to then enjoy knocking them down.
‘Oh I think I landed in a world I hadn’t seen when I’m feeling ordinary when I don’t know what I mean
Oh I think I landed where there are miracles at work for the thirst and for the hunger come the conference of birds’
Have you ever felt that you want to express your feelings but uncertain how to turn them into words and prose. When you feel like who am I to verbalise such thoughts but when you feel that you have a headful of dreams of things you want to do and see happen and that basically your overwhelming worry is that you won’t see many of them come to fruition. That’s where I find myself, buckle up, let me try and explain what I am feeling, here we go…..
I find myself now, a week shy of my 49th birthday, as being someone whose eyes fill up with tears far more regularly than at any other stage of my life thus far. Anything and everything can do this, from watching an underdog achieve something unexpected, the loss of a life, loss of a potential or an opportunity, a regret, a sadness or often a success. A family moment, a word spoken in kindness, an action or gift. TV programmes such as DIY SOS, Long Lost Families, The Big C and Me …. The list can go on. I fill up with tears in my eyes a lot. I hope in no small way it’s because I have compassion, empathy, a pastoral heart. I hope it’s because – I care!
Having now officiated at over 2000 funerals locally in just a little over 6 years, having led many services for people who have died that were younger than I am now and countless who were younger than I would like to live to become, I have learned beyond any question that this life is precious, its significant and is also vulnerable and that all of us must grab this life we have been given and squeeze as much out of it as we are able to.
If we were to imagine that we are looking at a rose, each one of us would view of it differently depending upon our position, proximity, I guess even the thickness of our rose tinted spectacles. Also, our feelings, levels of enthusiasm, commitment, would affect and shape our viewpoint and appreciation too.
So as I sit staring into my parents in laws garden in Suffolk with the sun shining into a conservatory and reliving memories from just two nights earlier seeing Coldplay live at Wembley and them now playing in my headphones, my mind focuses upon the church communities of Watford and how I currently view the expression that together we are demonstrating to our town. From what I see and know, from my perspective and through my filter, is what I am seeing a cause for celebration or concern?
Regretfully, I am asking myself this – ‘Is the temperature within our town cooling and possibly cooling at an alarming rate?’ Go with me, let me explain what I am feeling.
It was on the 7th March this year that I commented on two agencies that were closing within the town. I based my comment around the names of these ministries asking were the town losing ‘Gods Presence’ and had ‘Gods Storehouse’ of blessings to the town now closed. Three months later, I revisit now the same subject but with an increasing amount of concern and seriousness – and I don’t normally do serious very well!
Watford is a premier league town. Premier league football club, shopping, night life, transport links, businesses and proximity to London. We are in a town that has so many amazing attributes. This town deserves, it needs and we should demand a town wide church that is Premier League to serve, minister to, love and connect with the people and offer those who live, work or play here to be able to make their peace with God.
I cast my mind back just a few years and recall feeling optimistic that the expression of God’s love within the town was strong, unified across the different expressions of church and the many agencies that were serving the town as well. I remember feeling that we were on the cusp of something significant. However, in just a few short years many of these have closed their doors and others appear to be cutting back rather than bursting into full bloom.
Presence shops, one in Intu shopping centre and one on the High Street along with the Spa have closed.
The Storehouse book shop has ceased trading and closed.
CML, a training course equipping people to be theologically trained to serve and be effective both in and outside of church settings has ceased and the number of interns that the town received has been lost.
Kingswood Baptist Church closed its doors in 2015 after serving that community for 64 years.
The Fathers House Trust was hugely effective for a few years before sadly coming to its end.
There are, I understand, developments and refocusing taking place within the Watford New Hope Trust, but am not well enough informed to comment on what these are.
I am though genuinely saddened about the moving on of two amazing staff members who have served the Watford Town Centre Chaplaincy. I pray Gods continued blessings upon them but am concerned as to whether the ministries that they have developed will continue or might this be another casualty about to beset our town’s Christian witness?
As we hurtle towards the year 2020, there should be a clear vision for our town. There is only ONE church in Watford. We just meet in numerous locations and express our faith and worship in individual and unique ways. But together we are ONE church.
You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth. Watford is our Jerusalem and our Judea, our home, our town, our community. We must be passionate, committed and united in making sure that every ward across our town is brimming with Good News stories of a community of faith-filled people who love God and serve the people in their numerous situations.
The Christians Across Watford website has 58 church communities listed as currently active in our town. That is an impressive collection of churches. Alongside these there are a host of fantastic faith centred agencies like Watford New Hope Trust, Alternatives, Watford Schools Trust, Foodbank, Town Centre Chaplaincy.
There are other opportunities to make a difference too within the town at different times of the calendar with other projects like Operation Rudolph, The Noise / Helping Hands, Bandstand Service, Good Friday Walk of Witness, Praise at The Palace, Flourish Womens Conference – and there are many more.
I want to be hearing far more Good News stories of what is happening within our town and be enthused and encouraged knowing how in so many ways the Christians in this town are being witnesses and offering people opportunities to make their peace with God.
So when back in March when I made a point of questioning whether Gods ‘Presence’ was leaving the town and asking who will be in charge of the ‘Storehouse’ and pass out the blessings to the town, I was then just using wordplay to recognise the ending of two town centred significant ministries. 3 months later, my emotions have changed and I find myself genuinely concerned about the current status of the town and watching a lot of pruning and not sensing or hearing that there is much growth. Maybe this is my proximity to things, my perspective, and my filter. However, if my perspective is how it is, then we need together, to step up and discuss how, under Gods guidance, this trend can be reversed.
Having been the Chaplain to Watford Football Club for in the region of 12 seasons, alongside now my ministry in supporting families through leading funeral services, I have a particular heart for connecting with people, who may not currently connect with a faith community, by offering gentle pastoral support and a positive expression of God’s love to them whilst seeking nothing in return. It is from this perspective that I find myself particularly worried for the future of many of the chaplaincy roles and Street Angels that come under the accountability of the Town Centre Chaplaincy.
I think I might stop here for this piece of writing. I have more thoughts, reflections and maybe even a suggestion or two. Initially, I would like to see what response this generates. Some of what I may have just said might need a few moments to reflect upon. I hope it stirs a reaction in us, I hope that you hear my heart is to build greater unity and responsibility regarding our town – these comments are certainly not criticisms of individuals, churches or agencies.
A couple of things in closing. One, if you have been personally offended by anything I have said then please don’t bother replying. Instead, please understand this, I am genuinely sorry if you are upset but this is in no way personal about anyone at all, so it wasn’t aimed at you in the first place therefore, don’t be offended. Two, if you have a beef about some aspect of the church in Watford this isn’t an invitation to air it here or to start a discussion about ‘Where do Dinosaurs fit into the story of creation’.
But if you share a passion to see the town of Watford increasingly served by a united, vibrant group of churches, agencies and individuals then I am keen to hear thoughts and opinions from you.
On Tuesday, my wife Julia had a total thryroidectomy operation carried out at hospital. General anaesthetic followed by a night in recovery with one to one nursing.
Discharged home on Wednesday to commence what will be a fairly long road towards full recovery.
Julia is intending to do some regular video updates showing how the recovery unfolds.
Not BAFTA quality but a snap shot of what this operation is like and hopefully an encouragement to others who are about to undertake this or similar surgery.
Here are first two videos taken post surgery… Day 2 (Wednesday) and Day 4 (Thursday)
Be blessed and be a blessing…..
In almost every crematorium that I have ministered in, there is a sort of welcome note present on or around the lectern for each visiting minister, officiant or celebrant regarding the time allowance for the funeral service within that chapel.
The message may read something like ‘Officiants are reminded that the service must NOT last any longer than 20 / 25 minutes’.
In one particular crematorium where I sometimes go there is a red light bulb that says it will light up when the service has 5 minutes left. I have never seen this bulb actually light up, but the impression that it gives me is that if I do not conform to their timings that a large trap door will open underneath me and the ceremony will immediately terminate with me falling into the bowels of the crematorium works.
Service time slots vary from venue to venue. Some crematoriums have services that are held every 40 minutes, some allow you 45 minutes, whilst others only offer ‘slots’ of 30 minutes in duration.
And in this time frame the mourners are required to enter the chapel, leave the chapel at the end of the service, allow a few minutes for ‘handover of the chapel’ allowing preparation for the next service and, oh yes, honour the full life of a much loved deceased member of a family.
As someone who has been leading funeral services as his full time ministry for in the region of 5 years, I still consider myself as something of a new kid on the block despite having officiated at somewhere near to 2000 funeral services. Yet from my humble perspective, I observe that the template for a typical funeral service has altered so much in recent years and it will, no doubt continue to do so in the short, medium and long term future.
Families are increasingly aware of how they wish the bespoke service should be in order to celebrate, honour and mourn their loved ones. A 20 minute time frame in order to achieve this is frequently hard to adhere to, for a host of valid reasons.
As families become sadly, increasingly disconnected with faith communities, there are fewer services that take place in churches where there can be often greater time for tributes and reflections, prior to the formal committal happening at the crematorium. This results in all the eulogies, tributes, hymns, poems, prayers, music, etc now taking place within the allotted 20 minute chapel service. The services are increasingly becoming more like memorial celebrations of the individual rather than a simpler, dignified and loving service of committal.
Even with a very real awareness of the need to manage the chapel time effectively, there are a host of factors that can present during a service that causes the clock to tick round all too fast.
A large congregation is never something that you are going to be able to move quickly.
There is an increasing desire from families to retire from the chapel with the curtains having stayed open. Generally, families no longer wish to see the coffin proceed and roll through away from their sight, neither do they wish to stand and watch the curtains close. Instead, the opportunity to have a procession passed the coffin, either pausing to touch the coffin, place a rose upon it, place a bingo dauber, packet of Jelly Babies or even drape themselves over it in grief is becoming more frequent and obviously, from a time point of view this adds considerable length to the time within the chapel.
Hymns, two hymns, poems read by grandchildren, prayers, and just as you are going into the chapel the emotional widow mentions to you that ‘Oh by the way the golf club captain is just going to say a few words’ can all add substantial time to a ceremony.
Then factor into the service the music. Especially the request that we listen to the entire length of his favourite song which turns out to be something like Shine On You Crazy Diamond (extended version) by Pink Floyd.
Anyone of these situations can result in you getting only about half way through your service when you see the next Funeral director standing outside the chapel door waiting to be able to bring his grieving family into the chapel for their service to commence.
Then consider the future….
With the increase in multimedia facilities more and more crematorium are already adorning their walls with large screens able to have rolling photographic images of family celebrations, holidays and other treasured memories being looped throughout the ceremony.
How soon will it be before video tributes from family members will be played, or You Tube clips replace the CD for a visual rendition of a song rather than simply reflective audio music?
Then, abhorrent as this may sound to many, with the technology being available, how long will it be before the deceased does a ‘piece to camera’ in their final days that is to be played to the family at the funeral.
The A5 folded card Order of Service Booklet can soon be made to be inadequate when a scrolling lifetime of memories can be screened throughout the chapel service.
Is the simple funeral service being replaced by a posthumous episode of ‘This Is Your Life’? For some families this may well be what they want to express their love, grief and affection for their family member.
Whether this is an over exaggeration of how things might develop is open to conversation. The truth is that the component parts that many families request for their service are increasing and perhaps the time available to accommodate this needs to expand to reflect this.
Yes a family can book a double slot but this requires the family being able to express to the funeral arranger all their hopes for the service when the ceremony is booked and often the family are too raw with emotion to know that at that point.
From a ministers perspective this can be understandably difficult at times. I may be asked if my diary permits me to officiate at a particular time, and then told that the family have already chosen 3 pieces of music, a hymn and that the family wish me to deliver the eulogy but an uncle wishes to add his own tribute with other members reading a poem. So even before the minister has met the family there can be a host of items with the expectation I will make it all flow and fit within just 20 minutes.
Yes, I can suggest that some of the tributes are held back to be given at the wake, but that is never a popular suggestion as not everyone will be going back afterwards. I am almost unable to suggest that we reschedule the service so that a longer time can be booked, as already by this point arrangements will be well in hand, hotels booked etc.
So when the service overruns and exceeds the time allocated, who is responsible? Is it the minister for bad time management of the service, the funeral directors for not booking a double slot, the family member for blatantly going on for well over the 3 minutes that the minister had stressed was his absolute limit? Or is nobody to blame and it is just something that happens and is a part of the culture of the industry?
I have on a few occasions stepped away from the lectern to allow the family tribute to be spoken when it starts with words like ‘well I have been told I must not speak for more than 3 minutes but as you know Johnny was such a great man that I will need longer so I will try and keep this to under 10 minutes’. What can the minister realistically do in this situation? Only once have I interrupted a tribute and brought it to a close and I felt dreadful doing it.
The great thing about the funeral industry is that overwhelmingly we work well together. We recognise that things happen and nobody sets out to cause the chapel to run late. Every funeral director, minister, officiant, chapel attendant, organist, crematorium staff member that I have worked with always takes immense pride in serving and supporting the families that we support and work alongside. We all at times assist, support, cover for each other when things don’t always go as we might wish. Thank you to all those colleagues who have in the past and will again in the future help me in my role.
So if the funeral continues to become a memorial celebration of someone, does greater time need to become the norm? Will services go in windows of 60 minutes rather than the 30 – 45 minute spread that currently is situation? Sadly, I appreciate that whatever time slot is available services will still on some occasions overrun, hopefully far less frequently.
My personal wish is that our services remain an opportunity for a family to celebrate and honour their loved family member. That services can be bespoke and reflect each individual whilst remaining tasteful and appropriate at all times.
I love my ministry and the opportunity it provides to support people in the early stages of their bereavement. I know that everyone in the industry shares that passion with me. Funeral Directors, Casual staff, Crematorium staff, organist, floral arrangers, ministers, officiants, and celebrants – you all do an amazing work… God Bless You.
Maybe over the coming weeks or months I could discuss this in more depth with other ministers and officiants. I would genuinely value your thoughts and insight into this whole area.
***Do not read this posting on an empty stomach… Actually, do not read on a full stomach either…. Perhaps the best advice is DO NOT READ THIS AT ALL…. You have been warned!!!!’
In life there are seasons. Some seasons last longer than others. Some seasons pass by without much happening whilst others can be at times quite turbulent.
For some people the seasons that they have to go through can be far more challenging, demanding and emotional than I may ever have to experience. They may have to face and deal with situations that go on for years.
This season that we find ourselves in as a family is only temporary. It will conclude sometime, maybe fairly soon, with one and then another sad day at West Herts Crematorium.
For many of us who are of a certain age, the issue of caring for elderly parents is a season that we now find ourselves managing our way through. I have frequently said that we are on a roller coaster ride, we will ride it to the end, but I wish I knew how long the ride was going to last.
My father in currently 91, suffering with Alzheimer’s, he spends his days between his hospital bed at home in his bedroom or sitting in his chair in the lounge. Sleeping the majority of the time, he no longer leaves home, rarely gets dressed and whilst the TV is on he is unaware of what is being shown.
Sadly, dad has lost so much weight over recent months that he looks like he could have recently been released from a concentration camp, he is frail and often unsteady on his feet.
Conversation with dad has never been a sport that he has excelled in and whilst he can still recall the Morse Code that he used when he served us as a nation during the wartime years, other conversation on the earlier parts of his current day will not engender a lengthy chat at all.
Personal care and toilet management can be a challenge and that is where this tale is centred.
What follows is just one episode, a snap shot of caring for elderly parents.
On this particular day, mum was staying at a local 5 star all-inclusive location called Watford General Hospital, I called in to see how dad was and as soon as I entered my old family home my nose told me that I was about to play the game that I have entitled as ‘hunt the poo’. Dad was actually in bed munching his Meals On Wheels and greeted me with his usual ‘Hello John’ and I was thinking either that dinner smells rank or there is a parcel somewhere needing to be found, addressed and tidied up.
Fortunately, the offensive area was located, the toilet area dealt with, bleached, floor cleaned and then I was starting to wash my hands in the bathroom when my father returned to the scene of the crime and entered the toilet for what I will call round 2.
Lets fast forward through the next few minutes to the point where I managed to walk my father into the bathroom as a fairly extensive clean up job was now required. Sometimes in caring for your elderly parents you just have to roll up your sleeves, take a deep breath and get on with it and this was most certainly one of those times.
I managed to get dad to stand at the sink to wash his hands and try and get his fingers clean after they had previously been very inquisitive as to what the contents of his pull up nappy were. This was basically what I will call distraction tactics whilst I knelt down behind him to assess the cleaning operation that was needed.
OMG! It was everywhere!
I lifted his pyjama top out of the way to start wiping his bottom when I realised that the task was greater than I first thought. For those whose nappy changing days revolve around a baby or toddler allow me to point out that a hairy backside brings a very different dynamic to the bottom cleaning experience. After I gave it a pretty good tidy up, my heart sank. There, right in front of me, staring straight at me was what appeared to be a large poo that was as I can best describe it, hanging there needing to be removed. Well, I was in for a penny, so I took another large breath and taking a firm grip attempted to remove the offensive object from its lodgings. It was at this point, accompanied by something of a yelp from my father that I discovered that the object was not at all what I had thought it to be, but instead I was pulling on my dads testicles.
Now you may laugh… Go on feel free… You may say your poor dad…. Listen, seconds later my father has no recollection of this experience at all – perhaps some small benefit of memory loss, instead feel sorry for me as I am left with this memory scarred on my memory for the rest of my days…
Anyway, maybe not as clean as I would have liked, I simply put a clean ‘Pull Up’ onto him, fresh pyjamas and had just managed to return him to bed when I received overwhelming proof that God is real. His carer arrived! Hallelujah! ‘Sorry I’m a bit late he shouted as he came up the stairs…’ ‘Sorry???, sorry???’ I replied ‘Don’t be sorry at all…. You are my Angel!’ Dad was then given the professional and dignified care that he deserved with a full shower and another change by a lovely man who deserves so much more than what I imagine may simply be close to minimum wage.
Caring for ageing parents is a season. A season full of challenges and experiences that we may wish we never had to face. But within these days, weeks, months or however long it lasts there are conversations, and in this case experiences that I am grateful to have had. Some make us laugh, others make us cry but we do them because they are Mum and Dad… Nuff said!
I’m 47. As I was growing up there would always be at this time of year the release of various songs and the annual scramble to become the Christmas Number 1 would commence. These days the Christmas number 1 seems to have become the domain of whoever the newly crowned X factor winner is and accordingly interest in this formally great prize has somewhat waned.
However, there is now another prize that has become the festive Holy Grail. Vast sums of money are ploughed into this pursuit. Corporate success for many retailers rests on the strength of their Christmas Television Advertisement.
John Lewis have always been the company that I have looked forward the most to seeing what their advert will be each year. Who can forget the little boy who couldn’t wait for Christmas to arrive so that he could give his present to his much loved parents?
This year’s advert is just as powerful. If you haven’t seen it, or even if you have, here is a link to watch it all over again…… Meet Monty!
So as the build up to the holiday season gathers pace, with presents to be bought, family arrangements to be made for meeting up, and maybe a school nativity performance to watch (if indeed they still exist at a school near you), is there a message that we the people of 2014 need to hear, understand and take strength from? What is the message that is being preached from the Gospel according to John (Lewis)?
To be honest, there are strong echoes from the Gospel of John that we read in the Bible….
A message that the world is ‘waiting for love’, that we ‘Don’t need to be alone’ and that there is something that can be described as ‘real love… Its real love’.
The Christmas story is a story of God’s Love.
The baby that was born that first Christmas was the supreme incarnation of love and just what the world was waiting for. God didn’t shout I love you from the big grandstand of heaven, instead through His Son Jesus, he came and pitched up on earth and made here his home. He then showed mankind through his life, his death and his resurrection what real love is.
So as we watch and listen to the Gospel according to John Lewis over these next few weeks, can I encourage a reading of the Gospel according to John as well…..
John 1 v14 says that ‘The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.’
John 3 v16 says ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.’
If you feel that in your life that you are waiting for love, feeling a little alone and keen to explore a faith that is authentic and real then this Christmas why not include a church service as a part of your festive celebrations – http://www.wellspring-church.org/
It was 30 years ago to this month that a 19 year old Julia was taken into Northwick Park Hospital having had a cancerous tumour grow the size of a tennis ball out from the side of her neck overnight.
She was taken that day to theatre, had the tumour and spleen removed, liver and bone marrow biopsies done at the same time and after two weeks recuperation from the surgery was taken, without having been home, to Hammersmith hospital where she commenced a 5 week long radiotherapy course of treatment. She was very poorly for many weeks, her hair was lost but then good health was restored.
This season in her life remains full of very vivid memories and whilst 30 years have passed, full recovery having been made and life being enjoyed, there are scars that remain far greater than the physical ones on her body.
Today was Julia’s first time back to Northwick Park Hospital since those days and understandably she was apprehensive of what the day had in store for us.
So why did she have to return?
It was almost a year ago that, having noticed a lump had developed on her neck that we were referred to Watford General Hospital for consultation. They noted that there were some nodules on Julia’s thyroid and tests were carried out to check that these were in no way sinister. Test results came back that stated the nodules were both benign. In former years, this would have meant that she would be discharged, but current practice is to repeat the tests in order to get a second series of the same results. Some weeks later they confirmed that whilst they had a second benign result on one side of her neck, the other side was showing as ‘inconclusive’. Further fine needle aspirations were carried out but again and again these were coming back inconclusive. Weeks have now passed to months. Following discussions within the medical team at Watford General and then subsequent discussions with us, we found ourselves being referred to a surgeon to talk through a suggested course of treatment. It seems that removal of either the entire thyroid or perhaps partial removal of the side with the inconclusive nodule is to be recommended. Watford don’t do this surgery, so they would pass Julia onto Northwick Park Hospital to take the treatment forward.
So it seemed that the path was set for us. Removal of the thyroid, followed by tests to confirm that it was and had been benign all along was the best result we could hope for. Even if it was cancerous, then the subsequent treatment that would take place seemed to carry a good prognosis. The prospect of death was never mentioned between us, though we were both acutely aware that at times these thoughts played out in our minds. Well, when you are dealing with cancer you think these thoughts sometimes don’t you.
However much we know that God is in control of our lives, we can get scared as we step into stormy situations – right? That’s where we have been there for the last 5 or so weeks since we knew that surgery was the suggested route. Mind you there have been some timely words of encouragement that we have taken on board during these days.
Last Sunday in church, Helen Roberts gave a powerful sermon about Gods power being in us and that when Jesus sent out the 12 disciples and when he later sent out the 72 he declared that they have power and authority over all demons and diseases. Helen emphasised that in Luke 10 v1, Jesus sent his followers, in pairs to places where Jesus himself planned to visit. The encouragement of her sermon was to invite us to live this week in that power and that there might be stories by next Sunday of how that has played out in our lives.
On the eve of the appointment, last night in fact, I posted a status on Facebook saying: ‘Tomorrow, Julia and I go to see a consultant surgeon at Northwick Park Hospital to discuss the best course of action for a nodule that is on Julia’s thyroid that might be sinister. 30 years on from when she was treated for cancer please pray that this next chapter for her and us will be a continuation of a life that points towards a God who healed her then and will continue to keep her well now.’ We have been genuinely overwhelmed that 40 people ‘liked’ the status and over 50 commented that they would pray for us.
So today, as Julia and I enter a consultancy room it is filled with people. The surgeon and about 6 others from his team are all present, the magnitude of the situation is not lost on either of us.
The surgeon speaks. He explains that the likelihood that Julia’s nodule is cancerous is only about 1-2%. If there is growth of the nodule it grows very slowly. Julia’s previous cancer treatment makes this nodule no greater a risk than any other. This nodule has been discussed widely by 3 highly experienced medics and they have graded it at a level that he would not recommend surgery. It does not cause him any concern and his considered suggestion is that we return home, carry on with living life to the full and that we reconvene in 6 months to review.
Tears fall down Julia’s cheek as this good news is taken in and understood. She had already planned to go shopping for pyjamas and slippers ready for her hospital stay, she had played a scenario out in her mind many times of what she expected to be happening and this was a very welcome and unexpected turn around.
As we got back to the car we sat for a few moments pleasantly amazed at what we had just been told. Last Sunday’s sermon is dominant in my mind as are the numerous people who have taken time to pray that this visit to the hospital would bring good news. Well it has – and above and beyond what we expected.
So whilst Julia still has a nodule that is behaving in a way that isn’t totally normal, there is no surgery now, but we will remain under this surgeons care and revisit him in a few months’ time.
Meanwhile, our heartfelt thanks to all who took a moment to hold us in your prayers. Please continue to do so. I hope that you might be as encouraged as we are that God is in control, that prayers do get heard and answered.
May this story in some small way act as an encouragement to others to include God in their life. Not just the major issues but include him in the everyday things that we face. Oh, and if you are around this Sunday morning then why not join us at The Wellspring Church, services are at 9.00am and 11.15am. I will be at the 11.15!
The funeral service is primarily an opportunity to honour the life of a family member or friend. It affords us a chance to celebrate all that they have contributed into this world and into our lives. Hopefully, we can give testimony to a life lived to the full, declare that they will be welcome in heaven and commend them into God’s merciful love and care.
In addition to all this it also provides people who may not have seen one another for a considerable time, maybe years, to be reunited with each other and catch up on what is happening in each other’s lives, even if that is for just a few short hours that afternoon.
Whilst many families are very close, live locally and spend time with each other often, not all families live near to each other. This can mean that there are some wonderful reunions for me to observe prior to us entering the chapel. The emotion of the day, the circumstances and the location can make these reunions all the more intense, sometimes genuinely touching and others, well edging towards the comedic.
At one service that I officiated at, the deceased was a part of a large and shall we say diverse family. At the time of the service one of his brothers was mid-way through a stay at Her Majesty’s pleasure. He came to the funeral accompanied by three burly prison officers, one of whom was handcuffed to the ‘prisoner’ with a significant 3 foot chain ensuring that, whilst chained, they both had at least some degree of independent movement. As the majority of the mourners started to enter the chapel they all had to pass the rear of the hearse and also pass those who were going to be pallbearers, one of whom was the brother attached to the prison guard. This became a form of impromptu visiting session for the ‘inmate’ as everyone wanted to hug, kiss or greet him as they went into chapel.
Then, once the mourners had all entered the chapel, one of the funeral staff talks through the mechanics of how family mourners can safely and with reverence carry a coffin into chapel. He instructs them how to walk and how to do take their loved one on their final journey with dignity. Whilst these instructions are being given another brother of the deceased, who is also about to carry the coffin, looks across at where his other ‘HMP couriered’ brother is standing and says ‘Hello! You remember me??? Yeah you must remember me, you do don’t you, you remember me?’ Before you think to yourself that would be a strange conversation between two brothers, even if one has been ‘staying away’ for a short while, it was not to his brother that these words were addressed. Instead this brother had recognised his own former prison guard who was now attached to his brother at his other brother’s funeral service. You may need to read that sentence (no pun intended) again to make sure you picture the scene. The prison guard seeking to keep an air of professionalism simply replied that he hoped that he was keeping well.
Then watching as the coffin was brought out of the hearse another almost comical moment presented itself. Whilst transferring the coffin from waist height up onto the pallbearers shoulders was done reasonably smoothly, it meant for the poor HMP prison guard, who remember is handcuffed to a pallbearer with a short 3 foot chain between them, had his arm pulled and jolted as his prisoner went through the various movements, almost hitting himself in his own face.
Whilst many families are very close, not all families get along with each other. Some families are very broken, damaged, hurting and estranged. This can mean that far from wonderful family reunions happening in front of me I can instead be an audience to my own personal viewing of a ‘Jeremy Kyle @ The Crematorium type show’.
One morning, standing to the side of the entrance as the mourners slowly file past me ready to take their seats in the chapel, the principle mourner gently leans in to have a word in my ear. ‘Tell the funeral guys to keep the engine on the limousine running, cos if this kicks off we are straight outta here!’ Thankfully it didn’t but I was very aware of the fact that one half of the family were sat one side of the chapel, with the other half of the family across the aisle from them on the other side. Sadly, the gulf between them that day was far far wider than the physical 5 feet gap that went down the centre of the chapel.
After the service the gentleman shook my hand and thanked me for a wonderful service. He then stood beside me and shook the hands of everyone who left the chapel. Again, sadly, but maybe not unsurprisingly, only 50% of the mourners left the chapel, the other half all remained standing still in their places. It was only when the gentleman moved away from me and down onto the flower terrace that the other half of the family all exited the chapel. Again they stopped to thank me individually for a beautiful service and then marched in a procession around the flower terrace with no conversation with the rest of the family towards their cars and away they went. Tragic to view!
It can be sad to observe how broken and damaged some families have become. Often I might be unaware as to why or at best only party to one side of whatever the family issue is. So my role as pastor is best one to listen and support individuals in a gentle way, rather than position myself as the great mediator for the whole family. A position that a colleague might have been well to have observed herself.
It was told to me that quite recently a fragmented family found themselves inside the chapel having lost a loved one. The family were very estranged from each other. A feud had been left unhealed for many years and now they all found themselves in each other’s presence inside the chapel together. A few short moments in the same room before no doubt all going their separate ways once again. This service was being led by a humanist minister who at the end of the service brought the immediate family up to the catafalque to stand around the coffin as the service concluded. The family reluctantly followed her lead and stood very much either side of the coffin clearly uncomfortable at the situation and the proximity of their feuding family. Clearly, the humanist minister hadn’t grasped the depth of the feelings within the room and suggested that the family, ‘for the sake of mum’ all held hands as a sign that they were willing to put their differences behind them. As the eyes of all the other mourners focused on the family, their friends and extended family looked on to see how this reconciliation might develop. The silence was broken by one of the family turning to the minister and saying ‘why don’t you just f*** off!’ The service finished and the people were certainly no nearer being reconciled with each other.
My observations are that when facing bereavement it can be a time when families are brought closer together, yet sadly it can be a time when families are ever more blown apart. As I seek to pastor those in mourning I am increasingly aware of the need for every individual and family to have, know and experience love, understanding, community and relationships in a deep and tangible way – a love that comes from functioning family, selfless friendships and especially from God who loves us more than we can ever imagine.