Category Archives: Christian Bloggers
‘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!
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.
Do you remember watching ‘It’ll Be Alright On The Night’? A TV show showing all the times when people said the wrong thing, fluffed their lines or said something that they didn’t mean to that just came out funny. Well the church or funeral service is in no way exempt of the occasional faux pas, double entendre or down right ‘oops moments’. Here are some that I have witnessed or even said myself…
I recall an old school assembly that I delivered many many times over the years where I encouraged the children to realise that the tongue is a very, maybe the most powerful part of our body. Using a banana and once it was peeled getting a student to try to seal it up again, and then squeezing a tube of toothpaste out before trying to see if they could put the toothpaste back into the tube. I used these visual illustrations to point out that words once said cannot be unsaid and therefore, whatever we say ought to be thought through and carefully constructed before they pass our lips….
However well we might know this lesson to be true, still there are countless times when, whether in church or in the crematorium chapel, things get said that were not meant to sound the way they did.
If you are easily offended please stop reading this week’s blog about… NOW!
Many years ago when I was Youth Minister at Bushey Baptist Church we took a number of the teenage young people out one weekend, to serve in the local community expecting nothing in return. We went to tidy up peoples gardens, communal areas, pathways etc in West Watford. Skips were filled, rubbish was disposed of, and people’s lives were blessed. Some of these houses had alley ways that ran down the sides of some properties and along the rear of their gardens. Speaking to a full church the following morning, enthusing them of what the youth had done, I said that the youth had cleaned out many people’s ‘back passages’ and how appreciative the residents had been… I saw some of the congregation sniggering, I knew what I meant and was blissfully oblivious to the faux pas that I was making.
I have similar memories of the time when I was speaking in church retelling the story of when some of Jesus’ disciples were arguing amongst themselves as to who would be the greatest amongst them when in the kingdom of heaven. Explaining that the response that Jesus gave to his disciples was so incisive and clear, what I meant to say was that ‘the disciples jaws dropped’, instead what I actually said was that ‘the disciples drawers dropped’. The image of Jesus’ followers saying I’m greater than you, no, I’m greater than you and to prove it they dropped their drawers creates a wholly different interpretation and dynamic to this Bible account.
Now a faux pas in church on a Sunday, amongst your congregation can bring a funny and comedic moment within a service. Yet when the faux pas comes within a funeral service it can be that much sharper and if noted by the mourners you could expect someone to quietly whisper ‘awkward!’
I recall standing in the vestry at a crematorium as the service ahead of the one I was leading was taking place. Listening to the vicar deliver the eulogy for his church organist. Now maybe the problem here is me and my mind, but had I been paying tribute to the gentleman I hope that I would not have kept on saying how much he enjoyed to and how he was never happier than when playing with his organ. Schoolboy humour lives on well within me even though I am in my mid 40’s.
The longest tribute that I have ever listened to lasted 35 minutes from start to finish, most of those minutes excruciatingly painful. A man was speaking at his ex-wife’s funeral, an interesting dynamic in itself. He said to their emotional daughter sat on the front row that he recalled a beautiful dress that her mother owned and had worn when they had dated and asked if she still had it. The daughter nodded. He asked if he could have it. As she said yes I recall thinking that it is often jewellery that people keep or photographs or something but if he wanted her dress then I guess that if it reminds him of happy memories then that’s fine. Sadly for the congregation the eulogy didn’t stop there. He continued by saying that he wasn’t sure what that dress would look like on him, but he would like to give it a go. It was very soon after this line that I had to step in and ask him to cease his eulogy, still the only time I have ever had to step in and stop someone from speaking.
Thankfully the medical condition ‘Tourette’s’ is not all that common. So the number of times that I have had a principal mourner who struggled with the condition can be counted on just one hand, in fact just one finger to be accurate. Still, this one occasion is an experience that remains with me. The funeral had reached a point of quiet reflection where we all had an opportunity to be still and give thanks silently for the life of our friend and family member. When the silence was broken by the deceased’s partner shouting out ‘Tough Titties’ at the top of his voice the whole congregation almost jumped out of their seats with shock.
Then there was the occasion that I heard of very recently, where a vicar explained to the congregation that the deceased gentleman had been married three times and had outlived all of his wives, only to be somewhat abruptly put in his place by the grieving widow who was sat on the front row immediately in front of him. Big Oops!
So there is no real moral to this weeks blog, just a few stories of things that got said where maybe with a bit of thought, or a better word selection things might have passed off a little better.
Have a great week…. And if you know a funny double entendre I’d very much like you to give me one!
On this particular day the sky was full of grey clouds. Rain fell heavily as the mourners gathered, many of them openly displaying their emotions. As I stood outside the front door to the crematorium chapel a man who I hadn’t previously met edged up to the side of me, leant in and said quietly, ‘I’m only here for my inheritance!’ Somewhat taken aback by his comment and stalling for time I replied saying ‘I beg your pardon…’ He replied with the same words ‘I’m only here for my inheritance.’
3 years on from that encounter, his words remain with me as vividly as the day he spoke them. Why did he feel that he wanted to impart that information to me, was it some kind of act of confession to the ‘Priest’ prior to a religious ceremony???
What I remember feeling and this feeling continues today, is that if he felt that his inheritance was found solely in the death of this gentleman, a member of his family then he had sadly missed out on so very much and had failed to grasp truly what his inheritance was. For our inheritance is not simply within any money that we may benefit from following the death of a person but much more so in the person’s life. The times that we spent together, the experiences we shared, the memories that we treasure, the example that they have shown us, the wisdom that they have invested into our lives; it is these things that contribute to what is our inheritance not simply what they leave once they pass away.
Within the Christian calendar, much is focused on Christmas – (the birth of Jesus) and then Easter – (Jesus’ death and resurrection). For many people though, they fail to appreciate and celebrate the life that he led between these times and understand how much there is to inherit in the life of Jesus Christ.
I often reflect upon what it must have been like to have been one of Jesus’ disciples. To have been one of his circle of closest friends and followed him throughout his earthly ministry and witnessed first-hand all that he did and said during what was somewhere in the region of just 3 years. How incredible it would have been to have seen his miracles happen in front of me, feeding 5000, walking on water, blind people restored with sight, seen demons cast out of people and to have shared in his life and he in mine. I imagine getting back to wherever we would have spent the evening and over a meal laughing about the day… ‘Did you see his face when you said that to him Jesus’… ‘Wasn’t that amazing when that happened’… ‘Did you see the tears in the eyes of the crowd when they witnessed such an act of compassion and love’… ‘Those religious leaders tried to back you into a corner Jesus but what you said was fantastic, you smashed it Jesus – you knocked them right out of the park!’
Jesus invested into the lives of these men, some of whom went on to write their accounts of what they saw, what was said, what they experienced, did and felt. They passed on their experiences to us so that these good news stories are now recorded in the Bible, these are the gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Consequently, we get to inherit so much about Jesus and his life – not simply his birth, death and resurrection.
When Lord of the Rings was being released in the cinemas, there was this trailer that included the following words… ‘History became legend, legend became myth, much was lost, no one lived who could remember’…
How thankful I am that people who witnessed and lived those days with Jesus wrote their experiences down for us to share in that rich inheritance. Otherwise, might these historical experiences have diluted over the centuries to the point where they ended up being forgotten. Thankfully not – we would all do well to read them and read them often.
So, back to the chapel on that grey and wet morning. We honoured that gentleman for a life well lived, his service to our nation during the wartime years, the way he had selflessly cared for his spouse during her final season of life and mentioned much more beside. As for the man who had spoken to me prior to the service, I drove away from the service feeling sad for him. He had been in the company and presence of a wonderful man and yet he had failed to understand just how amazing and life changing he was, if only he had properly got to know him a much greater inheritance had been available to him.
So what about us? May I suggest three things for each of us to consider…
- Be Thankful – for the people within our families and friendship groups, for the input and investment they have placed into our lives. Get to know them and listen to the stories of their life.
- Be Intentional – that as we have been blessed, might we be a blessing to others with whom we share our lives. Choose to bless people each day.
- Give presents at Christmas and eat chocolate at Easter, but above that, get to know and understand who Jesus is – his life, his teachings, his example and how enjoy the inheritance that he offers to us..
Jesus said – ‘I have come that you may have life and live it to the full’ – John 10 v10…. I like the sound of that!
The sun shines over the crematorium and all of the mourners who have gathered for the funeral. Family members have carried the coffin into the chapel. The message to wear a particular colour of tie or item of clothing has been widely acknowledged by the large congregation. The eulogy was well received with the appropriate amount of tears and some laughter. The curtains were left open at the end of the service, allowing some of the mourners to place a rose on the coffin before leaving the chapel. Then, passing the minister at the door to shake hands and say ‘what a wonderful service’, everyone makes their way down onto the flower terrace. The ceremony has gone really well but before the tears have dried on people’s cheeks and they move on to the golf club, community centre or wherever they are heading to, there is one last symbolic gesture that the family have arranged. The dreaded white dove release.
A basket stands at the side of the terrace with a tall man in a dark suit with one, two or maybe three white doves inside. Now if it’s possible, this has become a cue to me to try and stay as far away from what is about to unfold as possible.
The release of the doves is meant as a comfort to the family to help them reflect on how their loved one has left earth and their spirit has ascended into heaven. A release, a letting go of their loved one as they pass into their eternal future. Sometimes the minister might be asked to lead a prayer or say some further words to accompany this aspect of the funeral ceremony.
So why would I take steps to avoid being involved in these moments? It certainly isn’t a lack of desire to commend people into heaven. Far from it. But the truth is that there are some unseen dangers that surround these times…
Thankfully these true stories that I am about to recount are not my first hand experiences but those of a colleague.
Picture this scene…
Conversations on the flower terrace hush as the dove is gently brought out of the box and held safely as the vicar speaks these comforting words. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, as we release this dove it is a symbolic reminder that our dear loved one has left us and has ascended into heaven, into that glorious eternity, to a place that she will be very welcome….’ As the dove is released the family watch as the bird starts to fly ‘heavenward’. Unfortunately, no sooner than it reaches tree level when a Sparrow Hawk shoots out from its vantage point and hits the dove sending it immediately spiralling downward and lands back on the ground not too far from the watching mourners. As silence engulfs the shocked onlookers one of the mourners, in a rather louder voice than perhaps he meant pipes up saying ‘well it looks like she didn’t make it then!’
Then there was another occasion, same vicar, same location, where following the funeral of a gentleman, his grieving widow is handed the dove to release. How touching that his life partner, his soul mate should be the one to set the bird free. Whether it was the emotion of the day, the focus of all eyes being on her as she carried out this symbolic final act or maybe she was simply scared of holding the bird, that as the vicar leads a simple and loving prayer, the widow holds the bird far too tightly, accidently squeezing all life out of it. So as she opens her hands and gently helps throw the bird upwards it plunges like a stone and lay motionless at her feet.
Thankfully, our eternal welcome into heaven is not centred on any white dove making it off the chapels flower terrace. However, what is abundantly clear to me as I sit in hundreds of living rooms each year is the very real desire to know that their loved one will be welcome in heaven and a genuine and sincere belief that that is where they now reside.
Being able to offer words of comfort in this way to grieving families and speak words of faith, hope and comfort is of overwhelming importance to me and I want to do that with genuinely heartfelt words. So the question I grapple with constantly is this… How do I make it into heaven when I die?
Sometimes I think that the church going community can present heaven as being a place where only a ‘select crowd’ gather. Where the chosen minority are ‘in’ and the majority of Gods created human race spend an eternity away from the amazing place that we call heaven. I don’t see this as being the case. I think heaven will a far more populated location than that. I passionately want that to be the reality. This is so important to me.
In the Bible, Romans 10 v9 says that ‘If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and if you believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.’ And we know the words ‘Lord, Remember me’ were spoken by one of the guys crucified alongside Jesus and that prompted the response ‘Today you will be with me in paradise’ – these passages encourage me.
Whilst church attendance on Sundays may be declining across the UK, faith in God is prevalent and remains within the majority of those who I meet and get alongside. This week I spoke with an 86 year old lady who doesn’t attend a local church. However, she said that she prays every day, often starting her prayer with ‘Hello, me again, hope you’re not getting fed up with me, and then asking God to bless, reach out to and look after those that she then lists. She says that she doesn’t understand why God allows bad things to happen to good people, especially the children and that maybe one day she hopes that she will be able to ask him why?’ She said some other things too that she might mention in her prayers. Biblical language and Christian phrases may be absent but I wonder if contemporary words like ‘I hope the big man up there hears and answers my prayers’, have become the modern day equivalent of ‘Lord remember me….’
Now I can hear the theologians shouting where is the repentance, the confession, but I saw faith. A simple, childlike faith held by an ageing lady that is very similar and typical of many who I meet and talk with in my role. My heartfelt prayer and hope is that our loving heavenly father who knows us all so well will find a place in his heavenly kingdom for such people like this lady when the time comes.
And on that day – and please God may that not be for a long while yet, for that 86 year old lady is my mother there won’t be any white doves to release!
‘The Eulogy’, or as some call it ‘The Tribute’, is perhaps the central part of most funeral services. An opportunity to talk about the deceased and honour their lives, identify their achievements and recognise how they have graced and blessed the lives of the many with whom they spent their years.
I wonder though, whether the words spoken during this part of the service, either by or on behalf of the family, would come as a surprise to the person that they are talking about. Have we told them what we feel about them in their living years?
Within a eulogy, recounting some of the factual aspects of an individual’s life – perhaps their early years or their distinguished career can often be spoken with clarity and no quiver in the voice. However, once we start to talk about deeply treasured memories that we shared or express our emotions as to how we felt about the person, real emotion can quickly kick in and anything from a few pauses and some spluttering words through to outright sobbing, and every conceivable emotion in between can ensue.
Yet how often do these beautiful words and feelings ever get expressed to a loved one before they die? Are we good at articulating our love and appreciation of people face to face? Not just a few flowery phrases written on a birthday card or Mother’s Day / Father’s Day card that has been picked up because the picture looks mildly better than the one you just put back as you say to yourself ‘That’ll do’… Surely in an ideal world, the words of a eulogy will be those that have already been declared to the loved family member or friend frequently, prior to their death.
When we take the time to do this and speak out telling family and friends how they have enriched our lives and how thankful we are to have spent time with them the outcome can be memorable for the rest of our life. Let me share an experience that I have had.
Introduction to church life for me came at the age of 15. Riding my bike one evening through a local park there were some lads playing football. I discovered that they were a local church team and although I was just too old to play in the team I was welcome to join in that evening. Afterwards I went with the team manager – himself only a couple of years older than me to the local pub where I was introduced to some of the other church youth group. An unorthodox introduction to church life – but hey would you expect anything different of me?
As the weeks turned to months turned to years, I benefitted from being a part of a fantastic youth group. We shared some great memories together and then I was offered the opportunity to be a young youth leader within that church. I look back with huge fondness to these times, the friends I grew up with and the youth leaders who invested in me and then allowed me the opening to take my first steps in youth ministry.
During these years we had many local young people come through the different youth groups that the church provided. One of these young people was called Simon. Simon was the son of the church minister, not overly sporty but a lad who I got on well with and was good to have in the group.
I remember the evening that he made his decision to ‘become a Christian’ a guy called Duncan Banks had spoken at an event that evening and Simon was moved to make his peace with God that evening and become a follower of Jesus. He and I then met up for an hour or so each week for the next few months as he started his journey of faith.
Another memory I have of Simon was when he played the male lead role in a Pantomime that we put on at the church one year. Cinderella played for one night only but happy memories, spoonerisms from James who played Buttons accidentally fluffing his lines ‘who so ever shits this foo’, instead of ‘fits this shoe’, scenery that we had painted, the church full and the applause at the end of a great night.
Teenage years were not a breeze though for Simon. His mother was diagnosed with cancer and whilst she continues to make recovery, this cruel disease left its impact and it is probably only now that I am able to reflect on how hard that must have been for Simon and all his family at that time.
I moved on from this church to become full time Youth Minister in another church the other side of town. Subsequently, I didn’t see too much of Simon through his A level years and those following as he went on to further study. So fast forward maybe 10 years. I was in a really dark time and place. Adultery had seen my marriage fail, my job was lost, my home was with friends who had taken me into their family for a couple of months. It was during this, doubtless lowest time of my life that an email pings up on my computer out of the blue.
Simon had emailed me. I had heard that he had been diagnosed himself with cancer but he explained in his email that it was terminal and would I be willing to meet up with him for lunch? Would I???? Immediately, I replied and a date was set for the following week.
Within a few days I drove north and met with Simon for the first time in quite a few years. After a quick catch up with him and his wife, he and I went to a local restaurant and spoke over a meal.
It was during this meal that he said something to me that will remain with me for the rest of my life. I asked him that as he was living with terminal cancer were there things that he had listed to do and achieve before he passed away. The phrase ‘bucket list’ was not one that I was familiar with back then but that’s exactly what I meant. He said ‘yes’ he had and that there were two things he particularly wanted to do whilst he was still alive. Curious to know I asked what these were. One was to return to Berwick Upon Tweed and see again the Puffins that he recalled from family holidays as a boy. ‘And what is the other?’ I enquired – He said that his other wish was to meet up with me again……. BOOM! My eyes filled with tears……. He continued, ‘you see I had a great relationship with my parents and my family as I grew up, but outside of my family you had the biggest influence in my life and I wanted to meet up again and say thank you.’
I have never been able to tell this story without the tears coming and getting choked and now I discover that I cannot type the story without the same thing happening.
An overwhelming feeling of unmerited favour, God’s grace, his compassion and mercy filled me and continues to whenever I recall this day. In my darkest season of my life, here I was reconnecting with someone honouring me for my input into his life. I remain genuinely humbled – thank you Simon, thank you God!
Saying goodbye was a strange experience, knowing that it was highly likely that I wouldn’t be meeting up with him again, we hugged, and I drove away my eyes laden with tears.
Simon passed away just a few weeks later. I deeply regret that I didn’t go to his funeral. The truth is I bottled it. My shame and guilt from my own failings and circumstances convinced me that I wouldn’t be welcome or at best, I should stay away to avoid embarrassment for others. But that afternoon I spent with him, talking and hearing him as he prayed a blessing over me is one of the most special memories of my life so far. I am deeply honoured that I had that opportunity to hear how he felt I had played an important role in his life.
Now what about us? Are there people who have shaped and impacted your life in such a way as to prompt you to arrange a face to face conversation and in turn honour and pay tribute to them? Are there words that you need to speak into the lives of loved ones before they pass away? Words of thanks, blessings to declare over and into people’s lives? If ever there comes a time when we stand to deliver the eulogy to someone important in our lives, I pray that what you say would in no way come a surprise to the person who’s life you are celebrating.
And yes there is a huge note to self here but maybe for you also…
Love to know your thoughts………….
God bless you x