As the saying goes, "you can't turn the clock back".
When I think of myself in my teens and twenties, I had such a different perspective. Passionate and idealistic, full of faith. I listened so eagerly to preachers then, and thought they were wonderful.
So much has happened, and most of it has worked disillusionment until disappointment has ceased to be a feature of my world view, and I am surprised more by integrity and conscientiousness.
It's like when you learn to drive, and can never really relax as a passenger again; or when you become a writer and every book you read for evermore you now read with an editing mind ("that's a repetition; that's not what you said on p.106"); or when you become a preacher and every sermon you hear, you critique for excellence ("don't start off by telling us you preached this at your brother's ordination, man, nor that when you sat down in your study to prepare this you couldn't think what to say — just cut to the chase and give us some theology").
I've just got so used to lies and evasion, jealousies and resentments, self-deception and vain clutching at self-image.
I count myself utterly blessed that I share a home with the truest, humblest, kindest, wisest people on God's earth. I can go to them for good counsel, and count on them for honesty.
And today, we lay the body of my friend Pearl to rest. You could not have found a soul more gentle and brave and loving. Such sweetness of manner and attitude. Unfailingly encouraging, she thought the best of everyone.
You would have thought, would you not, that the church would have been her natural home, but it was not so.
Christmas was Pearl's favourite time of year. She'd lived through long stretches of poverty in her childhood, and she said her best Christmas of all was the one where they had no money whatsoever for presents. Her mother, who was a Wise Woman and a healer, sat Pearl down (she was seven years old, I think) to explain this. Together they drew up a list of the presents Pearl would have really, really loved. They spared no cost and made the best list ever. And then her mother made it come real in Pearl's imagination — the beautiful doll, the puppy, everything she wanted — and those imagined gifts exceeded all material expectations, remaining for all time the best presents Pearl ever had.
Pearl's mother influenced her deeply. Pearl never forgot the time they had just one sixpence left on the mantelpiece to buy a loaf of bread; but her mother saw a ragged tramp passing by, and made Pearl take that sixpence and run after him with it as a gift, because he had nothing and they at least had a home.
And Pearl's mother instigated in their home a practice of thank you notes. She kept a little box on the mantelpiece, and all through the week wrote notes on scraps of paper giving thanks for life's blessings. Pearl and her father joined in, and once a week they all sat down at the kitchen table together, to open the box and read them out and say "thank you".
Pearl was their only child, and she became a (much beloved) teacher when she grew up. She paid for their home with her salary, and she began with her school pupils her mother's practice of the "thank you" notes — it caught on right through the school. She also cared for her mother in her last illness and was with her when she died — when she said the room filled with a wonderful fragrance.
She cared for her father too, in his old age — he had a stroke and was a long while disabled — so he could stay in their own home until he died. She would come home in the school dinner hour to give him his lunch, back again at the end of the day to make his supper and wash him and put him to bed, up early to get him ready for the day before she set off for school, where she became the deputy head.
Pearl loved Christmas so much, and every year used to watch her video of It's A Wonderful Life (her favourite, alongside the one she had of the life of St Francis). Then, every New Year's Eve she kept watch until midnight. She lived alone in her cottage in her old age, and had no visitors at New Year, but as the old year passed away and the new year began, on the stroke of midnight she would open the cottage door. She had a treasured picture of Jesus, and she would carry it in through her door from the midnight garden, to give him the first footing into her home.
Like her mother, Pearl was a healer, and had a particular place in her home (in front of the hearth) where the confluence of energies brought strength and peace. She laid her hands on animals and humans alike, and brought healing and blessing and peace.
She loved the living earth and made a small outdoor chapel in her garden where she sat to allow God's love to enfold her. She loved the birds that flocked to her bird table, and she loved her trees. She had a statue of St Francis, who was one of her heroes.
But her main hero in life was Peter Goldman, whom she held at her heart's core with a deep, true, abiding love. He taught her about the healing frequencies of colour and sound, and she incorporated these into her own healing practice. She found her faith community at White Lodge, which he taught and led. There she was loved and honoured.
The church, not so much. Pearl loved any place that revered the name of Jesus, and over the years she came and went at churches local to her neighbourhood. But they hurt her. On one occasion, she went to help decorate the parish church for Christmas Eve, and the vicar's wife asked if Pearl would be attending Midnight Mass. But Pearl explained she could not go, because her disabled father needed her with him through the night. She was his carer. The vicar's wife told Pearl she could not be a proper Christian, then, if she was not going to be in church on Christmas Eve — and this rejection went through Pearl's heart like a knife. She never forgot it.
This same church participated in a mission, with the name "Walk of 1000 Men". And some of the fine Christian men in question came knocking on Pearl's door. With her usual loving hospitality, she invited them in and served them tea and cookies. While she made their pot of tea, they sat in her living room waiting, and wanted to know when she brought in the tea, what was the small colour wheel on the table nearby. So she explained about the use of colour frequencies in her healing work (it really does help people get better). And these men then started on at her about how she and her healing work belonged to the devil. They were the only people I ever knew Pearl to throw out of her house. Courteously, yes, and respectfully; but she asked them to leave.
It was her dearest wish that her funeral would be jointly conducted by her beloved Peter and me. Because she was a woman of faith, her executors understandably chose the parish church as the location that seemed obvious to them for her funeral. And wouldn't you know it, the clergyman with oversight of this church (they are temporarily without a vicar), though he permitted Peter to give a eulogy (thank goodness) would not allow me to conduct the service there — though he very graciously did say I could read some prayers or give a reading or address; he did not shut me out, but I declined his offer, kind though it was. They showed me some of the prayers to be included in the service, and I think what they have chosen is just right; it will be beautiful.
I have a history of my own with that church. In past years, when I was pastor of the Methodist Church in that place, the incumbent at the parish church refused to participate in an ecumenical mission if I had anything to do with it! I didn't want the mission to be spoiled, so I withdrew. But back to today — the committal of Pearl's body will be not there but at the crematorium, which is an open space over which the clergy have limited domination (though in my years of taking funerals there, I have seen the church of England clergy make a power grab, taking from the funeral directors to themselves jurisdiction over all funerals where the deceased had no particular religious affiliation). So I have been left the precious honour of there laying my dear friend to rest.
And this day, I have so many mixed feelings. Of the gradual disillusionment wrought by decades of association with the church, of gratitude for the many Church of England clergy who, over the years, have graciously bent their rules to make space for me to officiate at funerals in their churches, of gratitude that this space and opportunity has been given to me to bless my Pearly queen as her little boat docks on the further shore, of thankfulness for souls good and true, whose work is for healing and peace and spiritual mastery, and — I confess it — of contempt for the efforts of those who take the name of Jesus and try to make of it a platform for their own advancement and empire-building, who try by exclusion and rejection to gain a monopoly on the goodness and truth which shine with such a dim and grubby glow in their own witness.
Think of us today, if you will, friends, as we lay this beloved, unusual, holy woman to rest. The Force was strong with this one, and that's the truth!!