Yesterday I went to church three times.
In the evening, I went to St Peters, Bexhill, because I had stumbled on the news that they have choral evensong from the Book of Common Prayer every Sunday. I love evensong, and I am a total Thomas Cranmer junkie, so this was a real hang-out-the-flags discovery for me. One by one all the churches round about have dropped off their evening worship – this was the only church I could find that opened its doors on a Sunday evening at all. My discovery happily coincided with their patronal festival (ie Petertide), in celebration of which (joy upon joy) they were singing Parry’s I was glad. I went along braced to be disappointed (natural pessimist), and was not. It felt quite extraordinary, a real Tardis journey, as I found myself transported back forty years to what ‘church’, when I was a teenager, meant. Such a beautiful and happy experience, and for sure I will go again often.
Earlier in the day I went with my daughters Grace and Alice and the Wretched Wretch to worship at Pett Methodist Chapel, the loving and creative little fellowship out in the English countryside where Grace and the Wretched Wretch worship every Sunday. This chapel is very special for our family. My second marriage, to Bernard, was consecrated there by the then minister the Revd Derek Brice – scholarly, gentle, wise, funny, kind and much loved. A cross of Bernard’s making hangs on the wall (he was an artist blacksmith), expressing the holy Trinity at the heart of creation and the cross that stands while the earth turns. The east window was designed and made by my daughter Alice. Pett was the chapel that welcomed us, nurtured us and loved us when our lives fell apart. And I was for a while their pastor. So our roots grow deep there, and I love to worship with them.
Pett Chapel – especially last Sunday when Derek Brice, now retired, was the visiting preacher – is a place of kind men.
Keith Miller, their organist, manages the website, puts together the worship power-point, writes hymns and blesses the church family with the unfailing generosity of his love and his smile. He is the kind of man who picks up the fallen and notices the ones who have been left out and forgotten. A peaceable spirit, he is able without confrontation to work for what is good regardless of any adversity, and to stand up for and support the Kingdom things that should be happening even if they fall into disfavour or simply drop off the agenda.
Ken Hatch, with Wendy his wife, came to the rescue of Pett chapel back in the days when its congregation had dwindled away to almost nothing and closure began to look inevitable. Against every kind of discouragement they have kept going, keeping the flame of witness alive in the heart of that village. When the villagers couldn’t be bothered to bring their children, Wendy went to the school instead – there ‘Sunday School’ became ‘Tuesday Club’, so the children could still learn about Jesus and His Gospel of love.
Ken has been a much appreciated friend to our family. He visited Bernard in hospital and at home when Bernard was dying – and Pett chapel was the only church Bernard ever felt really at home. Ken drives the fourteen mile round trip every Sunday to pick Grace and the Wretched Wretch up for chapel and then does it all over again to take them home. Ken was waiting on the first Sunday the Wretched Wretch came to chapel as a tiny baby, the first to take him in his arms and welcome him. On the Sundays we make it up there to worship, Ken’s quiet and loving welcome is assured.
And this last Sunday, as the time came for worship to begin and the the preacher (Derek Brice) walked from the back room, where preparatory prayers had been said with the steward, up to the front of the sanctuary, his route took him past me standing with the Wretched Wretch in my arms pointing out Jesus in the picture hanging up on the wall. And Derek paused as he went by, put his hands on my shoulders to give them a little squeeze, saying ‘It’s so good to see you here’. To explain why this was so very special and so very kind, perhaps I can go so far as to hint that sometimes, since the devastation that befell our family and my eventual withdrawal from ministry as everything within me unravelled, most Methodist ministers have been lukewarm at best in the proffering of fellowship. But not Derek – because he remembers whose minister he is.
And when we came to the sharing of bread and ‘wine’ in the eucharist, not only did he understand that the Wretched Wretch would appreciate being permitted to join in the sharing of the bread, but he had the imagination to let him choose which bit of bread he would like to take from the plate. Saint Derek. God bless him! By such means is the love of a grandmother permanently won.
Before that, I went to the 8.00am eucharist at our own parish, St Johns. Our rector there, Andrew Perry, is one of the kindest human beings I have ever met. When he greets his congregation one by one as they leave the church, they take his hand and hold on to it as if they would never let it go. His attention fully on them, he really listens, really looks at them. As if each one were the only person in the world. He preaches a Gospel of forgiveness, inclusion and grace. He is Christ’s man.
So I have good memories of yesterday – it is this kindness that arises like incense into the nostrils of a God of love. Nostrils. God. What do you think? REALLY big? Hair growing from them? I bet there is.
And then today, the promised heat wave that showed up on cue yesterday is still with us.
Time is so very precious, it is our treasure, our wealth.
I know the months of dark and cold will be here all too soon – and not without their own austere beauty, too. So, while the sun shines, I will sit in the garden and walk by the sea, open the window for the sea breezes to lift the curtain and waft in the freshness of the garden.
I watch the old people making their way to the post office or the grocery store, bent and slow and feeble. While I am strong and can walk swiftly, while my joints are smooth and easy and my muscles and balance are good, let me run and dance and walk and work in the garden.
I listen to the Wretched Wretch’s first adorable beginnings of putting sentences together, hear him call with such joy, “Hello Mumble!!!” when he sees me coming or hears my voice. While these fleeting days are here, for they will be gone before we know it, let me take time to hold him, listen to him, play with him, love him.
I see the gut-wrenching warnings of climate change and environmental degradation, I watch as the forests and the beautiful bays of the sea are sold to the highest bidder, so that concrete can cover everything until we fry in our own stupidity. While there is sunshine and rain, while green steals over the dun landscape at the coming of spring, while stately trees shade our summer gardens, let me love this beautiful England, and drink deep of the sweetness of the living earth.
I count the friends and family members who have passed on, the sands of time run out for them, no more than a memory now. And I wonder about Heaven. What is Heaven like? I don’t know. You don’t know either, not even if you think you do. But whatever are the glories of Heaven, lit by the fair beauty of the Lord, while there is time let me gaze on the dappling of light and shade in the greenwood, marvel at the fragility of the speedwell flower and the flavour of wholewheat bread and the fragrance of oranges and of woodsmoke and the cool pure breath of the rose.
For kind men, and for the time You have given me here on earth, Oh, I thank You, Lord.