Pastoral Letter - 26th March
I remember when I was Curate at St Mary’s Church, in the Old Town, Eastbourne, getting a ‘phone call from one of the Funeral Directors in the town. They asked if I would conduct a Funeral of a lady who had lived in a flat in central Eastbourne, outside our parish. There was no next of kin, just a solicitor who was dealing with the Estate of the deceased. I got in touch with him and arranged to meet to talk about arrangements for the service. These proved to be rather modest, especially as there would only be the solicitor and some of the deceased lady’s neighbours present.
I have conducted hundreds of Funerals in over thirty years of ministry, but what has prompted me to recall this one in particular was something the solicitor said about his client. He himself was a jovial fellow, a red-faced man whose physique suggested the enjoyment of food and wine. He struck me not merely as a "glass half full" man, but one whose cup brimmed over. His relationship with his client, though primarily a professional one, had obviously spilled over into the sharing of life’s experiences. She had lived in Eastbourne during the Second World War and, what he told me of her which has stayed with me all these years, was this: "When my client got bored of the War, she would get into her Austin 7 and drive out to the Cuckmere to paint watercolours."
How absolutely marvellous to admit to getting bored of the War and to have the flair, leave alone the petrol, to get in the car and go off to the countryside to paint. But this may well be a sentiment many of us can identify with at the moment. Though our "war" is with a virus, we too have grown weary of the lockdown restricting and limiting our lives in such prohibitive ways. I for one would have loved to have jumped in my car on numerous occasions since last Autumn when we in London went into the top tier of restrictions and were prevented from travelling anywhere. I would love to have motored down to the Cuckmere, or any other part of the countryside if I am honest, to do what another lady from that same Eastbourne parish called, "blue doming." "Sorry Father Jeff, my husband and I couldn`t come to church last Sunday, we were blue doming." "What do you mean by that?" "Oh, isn’t it obvious dear? Walking in the country, enjoying the big blue dome of the sky over our heads, rather than the ceilings of our home or the roof of the church, I’m sure you understand...." And, of course, I did. "Blue Doming" is something I have thought in terms of ever since!
Like you, I am so looking forward to some of the lockdown rules being relaxed to allow us to travel once again, walk in a different landscape, smell a different air, see a different sky. My home has been like a monastic cell over recent months, with Marble Hill Park my cloister where I have taken exercise. How I am looking forward to getting away, just as soon as I am allowed!!!
Unable, when "bored" of lockdown, to jump in our cars and go off for a painting trip to our equivalents of the Cuckmere, what many of us have been doing, with enjoyment and appreciation, has been to watch television programmes of the natural world, so as to get our fix of "Blue Doming". The Blue Planet, Life on Earth, Countryfile, Life in Colour, Planet Earth, The Life of Birds, Yellowstone, Wild Africa, The Life of Mammals, The Secret Life of Elephants, Penguin Island, Nature’s Great Events, Pembrokeshire and many more besides. You and I have sat in our homes transported into places of beauty, wildness and wonder. We have lost ourselves, we have found ourselves, we have moved beyond the boundaries of our current circumstances, understanding, experiences, landscape, and encountered something strangely other. And in a sense that is what this coming week offers us through the gift of the story of Jesus’ last week with us on earth, in Holy Week.
Deprived as we are yet again this year, of coming to church other than to sit quietly on our new pew benches and contemplate Christ on His Cross, you and I are invited to keep in our homes, the events of Holy Week which pierced human experience with the encounter of God. You and I are asked, through the reading of the last chapters of the Gospels, to travel to a different time, a different landscape, a different experience of human life. To hear, taste, smell, see, sense what it must have been like to be caught up in that unfolding story. To be jostled by crowds, hear them welcome Jesus into the city on the Sunday, only to spit at him and call for his blood within a few days, urged on by malign, manipulative, poisonous, pernicious, opinion formers of the day. You may see yourself as one who threw a palm branch down on the dusty road when Jesus rode in on a donkey. You may have breathed the air, sensed the excitement, at the coming of the Promised One. You may have been in a similar crowd, feeling the tidal wave of darker influence which called for Jesus to be killed. You may have peeped through a window and seen Jesus’ feet being washed by a prostitute, or Jesus Himself washing His disciples’ feet just a few days later. You may have passed by a house, hearing laughter and loud conversation through the open window of an upper room, as Jesus sat down to the Passover Meal with His friends. You may have looked into Marys eyes as she saw the one she had given birth to bleed from the cross. You may have heard the hammering of nails into Jesus’ wrists and ankles or the thud of the stone as it was rolled to close the entrance to His tomb, and then heard the eerie silence as even the birds stopped singing and darkness fell upon the landscape of Good Friday.
Just as surely as wildlife programmes call us into a different landscape to encounter the realities revealed there, so you and I are bidden to go into the landscape, physical and emotional, of Holy Week to know the realities laid bare there. I recall a young boy being asked whether he preferred books or films. Straight away he said "Books!" "Why?" he was then asked, "Because, " he said, "the pictures are better...!" I hope we will all be able to say the same.
Please, at some point over the coming days, read one of the following and allow the landscape revealed there to be real to you: Matthew Chapters 26 and 27. Mark Chapters 14 and 15. Luke Chapters 22 and 23. John Chapters 18 and 19.
Read until you can smell, taste, hear, see, feel what is going on. Read until you get some idea of the people being described, understand some of the motivations and reactions to what is unfolding. Read until the events there become immediate and real, as though revealed for the very first time. Read whilst connecting with what people are experiencing now, of powerlessness, fear, exploitation, grief, pain, suffocation; and connect the Christ revealed to you in those chapters, to the people who populate our world of today. See Him reaching out with passion and compassion, into the very real turmoil and trauma they are going through, offering them friendship, offering them solidarity, offering them the gift of Himself.
So much of what it is to be human is enacted in this story of Jesus’ last days amongst us: love, loyalty, loneliness, loss, intimacy, friendship, injustice, despair, kindness, cruelty, compassion, tenderness, power, influence, betrayal, gratitude, guilt, duty, grief, hope. It`s all there, waiting in the unopened pages of our Bible, wanting to be engaged with, read and experienced. It`s all there, the story of our all too human God, knowing every nuance and inflection of the human situation. This God asks us to be close to Him this coming week, for no other reason that He wants us to.
So, please, read the scriptures and encounter the truths revealed to us there, truths which have spoken with power and potency to so many people before you, influencing and inspiring the manner and direction of their future lives. Allow His story to connect with your story, His reality to speak to your reality, His fear to resonate with your fear, His promise to fill you with hope and aspiration, His presence to accompany you through your experiences, always.
You and I cannot fully see the light, feel the warmth, experience the power of the resurrection, unless we first know the cold, cruel darkness of the Cross. Allow yourself to travel into the Gospel this coming week, perhaps as never before. Walk into the landscape which Christ walked within and know that even now He walks with you in the landscape which you inhabit, there to accompany and empower, refresh and strengthen you.
With blessings, prayers and good wishes, Jeff
ZOOM Please join us at 9.30am on Zoom at the start of HOLY WEEK, for our celebration of PALM SUNDAY. The first reading will be Philippians Chapter 2 verses 5-11 and the GOSPEL will be the story of Jesus` final hours up to His crucifixion.
Collect for Palm Sunday: Almighty and eternal God, Who, in your tender love toward humanity Sent your Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ To take upon Him our flesh And suffer death upon the Cross: Grant that we may follow the example Of HIs patience and humility, And also be made partakers of His resurrection. This we ask through the same, Jesus Christ our Lord, Who lives and reigns With you and the Holy Spirit, One God, now and for ever. AMEN.
A few of you contacted me after the Zoom Service last Sunday, to say how much you appreciated seeing me in church and the blessing of the graves in the Memorial Garden. In case you would like to watch once again, and use the blessing of the graves as part of your Holy Week prayer for your departed loved ones buried there or anywhere, here is the link to that video: Passion Sunday All good wishes. Jeff