Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Called to be a punch bag for Christ

I've just glanced at my Facebook page, and saw there a link to a homily given tonight at evensong at St Stephen's House, Oxford, by first year ordinand, Roger Butcher. Over the years I've had to bury a number of children, and I can identify with the notion of "facing the small coffin coming towards us." I was so moved by this homily that I thought I'd share it with you.

Can you remember where you were a year ago? I can! A year a go this very day was a day I will not forget.

I would like to introduce you to a boy called Ted Newton. I know him through my daughter Lauren, as they shared growing up through pre-school and then onto junior school. Unfortunately, when Ted was eight he contracted bone cancer. The doctors and nurses worked diligently to save Ted, but all they achieved was to prolong the inevitable. Ted’s funeral was a year ago today it was an unusual funeral. A red coffin, Ferraris and an Aston Martin following the hearse transporting Ted to the village church, shopkeepers came out of their shops in the local Town to show their respect people stopped and bowed as the small red coffin went on its way.

In the church, the Hospital chaplain had the unenviable job of taking the service with the local community in attendance, nervous schoolchildren trying to sing, fighting back the emotions of grief, tears running down their face stinging their eyes.

Within the community, my business and church work are well known. For many there I represent God. The odd few comments directed towards me mainly came from the schoolteachers stricken by grief. For them, I became their punch bag. Who could blame them! Ted was a nice boy who had lost his life at the age of 10.

In addition, I soon learnt that there is no quick theological band-aid to apply here and if there were, those who grieve would not want to hear it, and I cannot blame them for that. As we train towards the priesthood, it is likely we will all face the death of a child in our ministry; we hope that it is not too often, yet we know it will happen at some point. The sight of a small coffin and grieving relatives has to be one of the most emotional and difficult challenges we face. As I said earlier there is no theological band-aid, yet we are disciples charged to proclaim Jesus to the whole people, even if we become a punch bag for the grief of others. The disciple of Jesus recognises the pain in others and shares in it.

Furthermore, death should not become the focus of our fear, rather we rest in the knowledge that God loves us, and has not forgotten us in our grief. A disciple of Christ lives by loving what is special, and unique in every person. Everyone matters to God. “The sparrows are two a penny, yet not one is forgotten by God”. Every life is a special gift from God. The disciple lives and works with the truth that each person matters, a love that forgets nothing and no-one.

I think what matters here is we celebrate those we love, especially those who have had their lives cut short so suddenly, like Ted. It is important that we remember their unique beauty, which dwells with us and in us, in the knowledge they are infinitely precious to God our creator and redeemer. As priests, we will face the small coffin travelling towards us, seeking strength in the fact that God has numbered every hair on the back of our heads. We dwell in the assurance in the knowledge that God does not forget the smallest of his creatures. And brothers we are called to share in that loving, even if it is only to be a punch bag for Christ.


Alice C. Linsley said...

The hardest funeral I ever had to officiate was for one of my students, Nigel Gwira, age 15.

Now my godchild is very sick with leukemia. We are seeking God's mercy and healing for her. My priest is a tender-hearted man and it will be very difficult for him to bury this precious 7-year old girl.

Anonymous said...

Hello Alice C. Linsley. Nigel Gwira is my brother, reading to know that he still lives in the heart of others almost put me to tears (in a good way) I'm glad to know that his memory still lives on. Thanks for sharing this. (Nathan Gwira)

Alice C. Linsley said...

I am delighted that Nigel's brother found this. Nigel was a student of mine at the Episcopal boys boarding school where I was the chaplain at CFS, The School at Church Farm. He died at Children's Hospital in Philadelphia just shortly after I had visited him. His family were gatehred around his bed as I gave him the last rite. They were all softly humming a hymn that Nigel loved - Great is Thy Faithfulness.

I took a bus load of students to his funeral in New Jersey. It was held at Nigel's family's church. When I walked into the church I was greeted by the Pastor, a kindly man. Nigel's mother gave me a Kente stole to wear and wrapped a black band around my arm. I asked what it meant and she said "You are now family."

Nathan, if you read this, please give my love to your family.

Nigel would be so interested in the research I have been doing these 32 years on the book of Genesis. I have traced Abraham's ancestors back to Africa. Nigel was an outstanding Bible student. He was in both of my Bible classes: Overview of the New Testament and Overview of the Old Testament.

I remember his enthusiasm for God's Word, his smile like the sunshine, and the way he could dance. All the other CFS boys envied Nigel's dancing

May his memory be eternal!

jtblesses said...

I was a student at CFS. I remember Chaplain Linsley's classes very well. I have always remembered Nigel. He had a profound impact on my life. More deeply than I could have ever known at the time. He surely lives on in my heart. The zest for life that he showed was admired by us all. His strength and courage in his dying days serve as a reminder to me that I must never give up. I must always grab each day with a determined fist.

John Turner

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