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At the end, God
This week I was at the bedside of my father as his life came peacefully to an end after 95 years. Death, loss, is never easy to deal with but I felt it was the right time for Dad to go and his ending was as good as I could have wanted. I am sometimes asked (or told!) if having religious faith helps me to cope with death, particularly of those closest to me. I think by this people mean that I have a hope that I will be reunited with Mum and Dad, my grandparents and others once I am dead. The truthful answer is rather more complicated. A few years ago, a book was published called “Heaven is real”, based on someone’s near death experience when this individual became convinced that in Heaven a detached house with a car in the drive awaited the deceased, along with his/her relatives awaiting. To be honest, this picture of Middle-America suburbia sounds to me more like a vision of hell. The classic Christain picture is that after death, the deceased sleep until everyone is resurrected in a one-off event. I can buy more into this picture, but I am also reminded of the words of the head of Cuddesdon College, Bishop Humphrey Southern, who when I was training to be a vicar once observed that in his opinion, most theology is pious speculation. He was speaking tongue in cheek, but he was making a serious point. The General Resurrection has some truth in it, but I would not want to push it too far. What I think really gets closest to the truth are the words of a great American Old Testament Scholar called Walter Bruggermann, a man in his 90s, who was asked what he thought would happen when he died. He replied that in words to the effect that he neither knew nor cared about the details; for him it was enough that the God of Life prevails, even in the face of human death. As St Paul put it almost 2000 years ago, there is nothing that can cut us off from the love of God, not even death. Rest in peace Dad, and rise in Glory.
Rev David Poyner
Our Burning World
In the light of the driest July on record, this is a poem composed in 2020 by the Rev Malcolm Guite, as part of a collaboration with the composer Rhiannon Randle. It references Isaiah 51;17-10 and Mark 13:32-42, but the words speak for themselves.
Our burning world is turning in despair,
I hear her seething, sighing through the air:
‘Oh rouse yourself, this is your wake up call
For your pollution forms my funeral pall
My last ice lapses, slips into the sea,
Will you unfreeze your tears and weep from me?
Or are you sleeping still, taking your rest?
The hour has come, that puts you to the test,
Wake up to change at last, and change for good,
Repent, return, re-plant the sacred wood.
You are my children, I too am God’s child,
And we have both together been defiled,
But God hangs with us, on the hallowed tree
That we might both be rescued, both be free.’Rev Malcolm Guite, 2020
Rev David Poyner
Queues at airports and the ports, train strikes and locally, trying to work out which roads are still open; travel at the moment is not easy. For most of us, the journey is little more than an irritation; we travel simply to arrive at our destination. But there is another way, where the journey itself is more significant than the destination; this is pilgrimage. To go on a pilgrimage is a spiritual exercise, the journey is a way of travelling deeper into ourselves. Pilgrimage is open to anyone who is wants to explore their own spirituality, whatever they might call that. Abdul Rashid, the England cricketer, has recently been talking about the Haj, his pilgrimage to Mecca. Undertaking this once in a life is considered a duty for a pious Muslim and it is clear it has had significant benefits for Abdul. He has spoken to his team-mates about how it has taught him patience, self-discipline and gratitude; all important attributes for a professional sportsman. Of course, there are other ways of learning these, but I suspect the experience of the pilgrimage will stay with Abdul and will have changed him.
Billingsley Church is part of the “Small Pilgrim Places” network, but all of our churches are places where anyone can go to pause and reflect. There are many other places around us that also have this spiritual quality. And perhaps, if going to one of these, you get stuck behind a tractor or at traffic lights, that is also an opportunity to accept the delay and live in the moment, on your pilgrimage.
Rev David Poyner
The last few days have been extraordinary with new record temperatures set and dire warnings about the dangers of excess heat. I do not think I can ever recall similar weather and my memory goes back to the summer of 1976, when we had a much longer drought but not the same intense heat. As I watched my garden bake, I was struck by the fact that there was a breeze, but this was not the friendly, cooling breeze of a normal summer, it seemed to owe more to heat storms of desert countries, further shrivelling anything in its past.
In certain films and TV programmes from the US, this would be the cue for an elder from a native American community to appear and talk about how the earth was angry. Whilst technically the earth is an inanimate object which does not feel emotion, there is poetic truth to such statements. I suppose as a vicar, I am more naturally drawn to Bible texts, which talk in plenty about the dire effects of drought and desert winds; from a time when water was not on tap for the garden or to cool down. Of course, there are parts of the world where that is still not true but we have been given at least a glimpse of what that is like. For the ancient Hebrews, drought and heat were often humbling experiences when their only option was to turn to God and plead for mercy, to look at themselves to identify what was sinful in their lives. Perhaps this theology is a bit simplistic, but as I watched the pictures of grass fires in this country destroying homes, I did feel in awe of the forces of nature, “creation” in vicar-speak, and it made me reflect on why it is important to care for it and slow global warming.
Rev David Poyner
Disagreeing with Grace
Yet again, America seems to be tearing itself apart over abortion. Battle lines are drawn between conservatives and liberals, often apparently between the “religious” and “non-religious”. In fact the debate is more nuanced; whilst the Bishops in the Roman Catholic church are overwhelmingly anti-abortion, opinion polls suggest there is not reflected in the pews. In the Episcopal Church (the equivalent of the Church of England), Bishop Michael Curry, who spoke at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan, has spoken of his sorrow at the decision to restrict abortion.
The issue is complex and difficult; it raises questions of both science (when does independent life begin?) and ethics (how do we balance competing rights and duties). I would not presume to tell people what they should think; I am not really sure of what I think. Perhaps this is one of those times I draw strength from the Bible. Not by using it as a text-book of embryology; something totally alien to the spirit in which it was written, but by seeing how its writers argued and disagreed. We can follow how individuals struggled to live Godly lives over the best part of a millennium, how different views, sometimes quite contradictory, were held in tension. Disagreements could become heated as views were strongly held, but somehow people found ways of living with each other. It is that spirit which we need to learn from.
Rev David Poyner