A story of ‘lost and found’ and coming home

I feel I ought to break my recent long blog silence with an explanation: we have moved house.

It has been overwhelming. We moved out of the family home in which our children had grown from age 9 and 11 to beyond the point where they’d left home for uni and then into the big beyond.

It was a move that marked the end of an era of family life and it also signalled a new stage in life. We have moved into a vicarage for the first time as I have taken up my first solo vicar position, following what feels like years and years and years of training (7 to be precise). As a result I have spent a lot of time reflecting on loss and letting things go. This process has been amplified (as if by ‘surround sound’) by the fact that my beloved mum moved at the same time from the town she had lived in for over 40 years to come and live nearer to all her children.

For six intense weeks I shuttled 3, 4, 5 or more times a day between the house I lived in (where we were packing and trying to live), the house mum was moving into (being done up by steady stream of decorators, electricians,plumbers etc etc) and the house we were moving into (equal number of contractors needing direction, payment, supervision). All this whilst starting what still feels like the most significant job of my life so far.

There were highs (such as the service for my ‘installation’, a very workplace word, rather appropriate given all the others installations that were going on at the time) and there were lows (such as the day of four deliveries in three different places, two contractors, and one funeral).  It just got very, very stressful and if you are a clergy person reading this out there, my advice to you would be: never, ever agree to begin the job before moving into the house.

However we are moved in now, and all is well. The church folk were understanding and even though we broke some things and lost some things along the way, the house is great. Prior to the move we had been pretty ruthless, throwing out a lot of things we never looked at but carefully preserving anything with sentimental or historic meaning. We still filled 168 boxes come the day of the move!

On day one in the house, we began to unpack and sort out. In the lounge, our daughter helpfully boxed up a set of books from our old lounge and labelled them ‘Dad’s boring plane books’. And, for the most part that’s what they were. David, suffering from a ‘let’s throw everything out’ fever brought on by his own doom laden and oft repeated remark ‘where’s it all going to go?’ decided to take said box to the tip and hurled its contents away without so much as looking. Argghhh!

Over lunch half an hour later, the conversation went thus:

Daughter: ‘you didn’t throw those books out did you Dad?’

Dad: ‘Yes of course!’

Daughter: I hope  your PhD thesis wasn’t in there?

LONG SILENCE!

Around the table it dawned on all three of us that, yes, most likely, knowing the section of shelving that had been given over to Dad’s plane books, the PhD would indeed have been in there somewhere.

Daughter and I headed straight back to the tip, where we spent a dispiriting half hour watching a very helpful crew of recycling employees rake through the contents of the cardboard and paper skip. To no avail, save the sight of a few boring plane books and the rescue of one book about the cosmos, of which I was fond. Lots of sympathy, but no PhD.

To be fair, it’s was hardly a recent piece of work. Completed 27 years ago and never read by any member of the family other than its author. It had been used for at least 5 years as a conveniently heavy object to hold down the lid of the hamster cage. David claimed not to be upset by its loss but Daughter and I returned to our unpacking with heavy hearts.

Over the next few days I couldn’t shake off the sad feeling of having lost something important but quickly realised my sense of loss was out of all proportion. David had moved on cheerfully and ever practical Daughter had taken steps to trace the original piece of work lodged in the University Library and requested that it be digitised (yes, it was written pre computer!).

I think the incident jangled me emotionally just because it seemed to represent all that we were giving up or leaving behind. The empty nest stage of life had been hard enough, but it least we still had the ‘nest’! This move meant change at a whole new level. My feelings were all the more intense because a) I was utterly exhausted after such a long effort to get here and b)  there was a daily echo of pain from Mum now moving around her own new house, struggling to hold fallible memories in place and not being able to find her things, wondering if they were gone for good. Previously I had occasionally, and perhaps rather glibly, reminded her that ‘we bring nothing into this world, and we shall take nothing out so it’s best not to get too attached to anything along the way’. Easy for me to say when it wasn’t me looking for that book or trinket or photo that felt so special.

Anyway we moved on and got busy, after all Christmas was coming. 

After his last day at the office David came home via Tesco. I was busy cooking and daughter was home as well.

‘You’ll never guess what I found on the shelf at Tescos’ he declared as he pulled out a black hard-back bound copy of his PhD thesis from a shopping bag.

For a few seconds, my mind raced – ‘how on earth did that get from the tip to Tescos?!’

But he was just having us on. He’d spent the day tidying his desk at work, apparently an annual ritual, and … .BEHOLD… a copy of said Thesis was discovered to have been sitting for years and years on his desk! So long that he had completely forgotten that it even existed!

We screamed and yelled and thumped him thoroughly for being so forgetful but of course we were delighted. The ‘IOU one bound copy of your Thesis’ Christmas present from Daughter to Dad had to come out from under the tree, but no one minded that.

Now, oddly, it feels like we have ‘come home’, the sense of loss is lifting (although I still cried at Toy Story 3 yesterday, I just cant bear the moment when Andy gives Woody away having played with him for one last time) and I am embracing our new normality. I am grateful that so many everyday things have stayed the same and new and old friends are close by. We have been overwhelmed by cards and good wishes from friends both near and far. I look around at our freshly painted walls and bless Sarah and the friends from our new church who helped us decorate, to our friend David for clear drains and lots of curtain rails in place.  I’m thankful to my brother who masterminded Mum’s move and continues to manage the practical things that are beyond her now. I’m grateful to the kids, it’s been great to have you ‘home’ and good to see you feeling at home in our new surroundings. And my own dear David, what a star… even if he did throw away his own thesis only to rediscover it!

We live as resurrection people: loss will always be followed by life and this is the truth that underpins my life.

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‘Echoes of a Voice’ – experiences that point us to God

I have just watched an extraordinary film. Moving, beautiful and life-affirming; at one moment hilariously funny and at the next acutely uncomfortable: extraordinary is the only word that will cover it.  

Departures is a Japanese film directed by Yojiro Takhita, an Oscar bid in 2008. It tells the story of a young man who looses his job as an orchestra cellist and returns to his home town with his young wife. He is desperate for work of any kind and replies to an advert that sounds like a travel agency. He is hired before he realises that dealing with ‘departures’ actually means dealing with the ‘departed’. Taken on as an apprentice in ‘casketing’ he is taught how to prepare bodies for their cremation, but not in some back room of a funeral parlour rather through an intensely moving ritual performed in front of the grieving relatives in which the body of their loved one is washed and dressed with the utmost tenderness and respect, before being laid into the casket.

Daigo is initially appalled by the idea of handling dead bodies (his wife even more so) but he comes to realise the healing power of this simple but profound ritual in the lives of those who call for his services.  The biggest surprise of all is the healing power it has in his own life…

Given that it had almost as many corpses as characters and a huge cast of grieving, angry, distressed, hysterical relatives, it neither descended into despair nor gave way to ‘schmaltzy’ sentimentality. Yes, you probably will cry, but those tears will not have been manipulated out of you by cinematic contrivance. Instead, like a deeply vibrating note from Daigo’s cello (the music is beautiful), the film simply portrays some of life’s bleakest moments and your own  memories and emotions cannot help but resonate. That makes it sound like an experience you’d be unlikely to want to pay for but this is a really great film, I’d encourage you to see it. Especially if, like me, you have any part to play in funerals ( I promise you,  taking an Anglican funeral will seem like a walk in the park compared to this!) 

If you’ve ever given birth you’ll no doubt remember the intensely intimate and dependant relationship you had with your midwife during labour  and being the professional taking a family through a funeral is a similar kind of privelege, only at the other end of life.

Departures turns out not to be a story about loss at all but rather a story about embracing life, something we can only do when we equally embrace our losses and griefs.

I loved it. It’s slow-moving and visually very beautiful (I felt as if I’d visited Japan) and also culturally fascinating. It spoke eloquently about the value and power of ritual to allow us to articulate our grief. No wonder it is the emotionally constrained Japanese who have formulated this extraordinary ceremony.

Why didn’t it depress me? It was a film full of funerals after all. Because, as one of the friends who watched it with me said, ‘it was full of hope’.  It wasn’t a neatly articulated hope, succinctly expressed in some slick soundbite:  but it was the hope that relationships are more important than achievement, individual lives count and love matters more than anything. 

Something else has given me hope this week. I have been reading a Christian ‘apologetic’ book. That strange term is simply the name we give to a piece of writing that defends a set of beliefs.  This one is a recent book by Tom Wright called Simply Christian. There are very few really good apologetic books: they are either too obscure to be of any use to anyone not prepared to take a crash course in theology or so simplistic and formulaic they make the Christian God sound predictable, containable and more like a slot machine (‘line up the oranges and you have won eternal life’!) than the wild, mysterious, boundless God I believe him to be. 

However this book is shaping up to be different. So far the author has not insulted my intelligence but has required of me a reasonable knowledge of the forces that have shaped the culture of western societies for the last few hundred years.  (A Radio 4 listener would cope).  I confess I’m only 4 chapters in but so far he has approached the whole idea of belief in God as if it were a reasonable idea based on the ‘echo of a voice’ that we all hear in our common human experiences. Experiences such as:  our shared desire for justice in the world, combined with our common frustration that the world is not a safe or fair place and that this is largely due to our own inability to make it so. The fact that we all value relationships most of all but we all screw them up as well. The fact that we appreciate beauty but everything turns to dust eventually. The fact that death feels like an aberration, the sense that we were made for something more, that this can’t be all there is. To me, these seems like good places to start the process of wondering whether there is an ‘other’ somewhere in the universe who tells us this is not how it was meant to be and calls us to a relationship we can’t screw up (because it depends on someone whose love will never fail us) and a life that doesn’t end as ashes in an urn.

The book reminded me why I am a Christian. The film reminded me why I’m glad to be one. In the face of  loss and grief or  the brevity and seemingly random misery of life and death, everyone finds a ‘something’ to hang on it.  In Christianity I’ve found not a ‘something’ but a someone who offers me hope.  And this hope is not some wimpy bit of wishful thinking but something far more substantial and active. The Bible calls it a ‘sure anchor for the soul’, it’s the hope that there is a God, he did make us for more than just this life and he does like us.

Tom Wright's book cover

If you prefer to hear Tom Wright speak you can listen to a series of lectures called ‘Simply Christian: why Christianity makes sense’ on YouTube start at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hWn-vt7SeNo