My Dear Friends,
It is difficult to listen to the news these days, when the headlines are dominated by the numbers of those who have died. It is very easy to harden ourselves to the reality of death, forgetting that behind each one of the daily statistics is a personal tragedy, a grieving parent, child, partner and friend. Yet I am conscious that as the pandemic deepens, many of us are becoming those who are behind the statistics – those who are grieving for loved ones who have died as a direct or indirect result of Covid-19. It has been a very tough year. When our churches and families are able to meet again there will be those who are missing. Increasingly, none of us are untouched by the loss of life caused by the virus.
And yet we are here, still in the heart of Eastertide, still proclaiming, alleluia, Christ is risen! The celebration of resurrection is hard – what does it mean in the face of death, especially perhaps when those dying are dying before their time, or in circumstances that we might think were avoidable? Eastertide should be a time of hope and possibility. Yet I confess I have found that hard this year, when at the heart of life is the harsh reality of death, and not just death at a distance. So, I want to try to write a few things in this letter – I hope they may be useful to you – as I attempt to make sense of it all myself.
The Psalm which is set for Sunday 3rd May is the 23rd Psalm and that's a good place to begin. It is, of course, not only the best known of all psalms, but in my experience, one of the most commonly read pieces of scripture in Christian funeral services, with its message of God's graceful and life-giving provision in the face of testing situations, a message which has resonated with generations of dying and grieving people. It is utterly beautiful, and probably many of you could recite it off by heart. Yet the psalm has also played its part in the way in which death is associated with darkness and fear. The heart of the Psalm, verse 4, can be translated as either, 'even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death' or as 'even though I walk through the darkest valley'. Either way, the association of death with the idea of a dark and fearful state is well cemented in the human consciousness. Darkness represents the unknown and is associated with anxiety and finality. Yet it hasn't always been that way. In ancient Celtic cultures – and we're going back hundreds of years before the Christian era now – death was very much one part of a cyclical human existence. Taking their cue from the moon, people saw a pattern of immortal or never-ending existence; life arose, and waned and was transformed within a place of 'cosmic darkness' from which new life emerged. This place of cosmic darkness was sometimes considered to be an underworld, sometimes in the sky , but always it was a place, not of fear and boding but a place of re-birth, abundance, fertility and plenty, a place of life and energy. Over time these ancient understandings found their way into various spiritual and religious frameworks; it's quite easy to ground the Christian understanding of resurrection and eternal life within that ancient narrative. And so it is into a valley of darkness and death which Christ leads us, but this is not a dark, fearful valley rather one which is regenerative and restorative, one in which darkness and light are the same, the source of a new, mysterious beginning into which ultimately we are all drawn and transformed.
Of course, the image of the Lord as shepherd is one of the most established in the Christian tradition – it's an image that has almost universal significance and which translates cross-culturally very well; many of the pictures of Jesus that we will have grown up with will have portrayed Jesus in the shepherding role – the one who leads the sheep and protects them, who gathers them together and risks life and limb to save those who are lost. We can understand that image. Yet in John's gospel (chapter 10, verses 1-10 for those of you who would like to look it up) Jesus is described not only as the Shepherd only but also as the gate of the sheepfold. The image possibly comes from the ancient tradition of shepherds to sleep across the gap in the wall of the sheep fold, both preventing sheep straying and predators entering, and thus becoming a sort of human gate.
It's when it comes to thinking about death that I actually like the image of the gate rather than that of the shepherd. I see a shepherd as one who protects, yes, but I don't particularly like to think of myself being herded around! In a traditional Christian interpretation, the good shepherd guards the sheep, guards the flock and protects them, he offers love, care, concern and shelter – but only for those who belong to him, only for those who belong to the flock. Any who stray from the fold are to be pitied, considered to be lost, in need of saving, rather than as intrepid explorers, filled with determination and intrigue for the bigger world. There are some very negative connotations to the idea of the Lord as shepherd, and I think we can see how perhaps in subtle ways they have permeated our thinking about what it means to be a Christian – condemnation for all those who fall outside the faith, or who move beyond it, condemnation for all those who do not conform to the expected patterns of behaviour and so on. And this makes death fearful. Have I been good enough? Has my loved one been accepted as part of the flock? We know that many of those who have died from Covid-19 were members of other world faiths, maybe some of those we know who have died were not committed Christians, but surely a shepherd who would discard those people from his flock would be a cruel shepherd indeed?
Of course the gate can be part of what keeps the flock locked in, but it is also what sets them free when the time comes; the gate is the key to freedom, and that is the part of the picture that we need to reclaim; the shepherd, who is himself the gate, who can allow anyone into the fold and who ultimately can set all the sheep free.
So, death itself is not to be feared. Life without a loved one, yes, that is fearful, awful, that takes time – often a very long time – to adjust to, to find a new way of existing; And if we do find ourselves in that place, it is often the community of faith which can be the thing which sustains and upholds us, helps us to survive.
One of the hardest things at the moment is the difficulty of holding funeral services. A few close relatives are allowed to gather in the Crematorium or at the graveside for a brief service but that is it. However, I know that in the sharing of prayer and concern, families who have been left bereaved have felt the love of the Body of Christ. Just the knowledge that others are praying can sometimes be the thing that sustains us in times of deep crisis. And when we come out of this time of lockdown we will gather again and hold services to celebrate and remember these who have died. We will hear stories of the lives of those who are no longer with us and each story spoken, each eulogy will represent a fragment of healing.
I would like to end this letter with Christopher Marlowe's great love poem , 'The Passionate Shepherd to His Love'. Not only does it offer us a wonderful picture of nature, a reminder of the world around us, outside, which is springing into life and bloom as I write, but I believe we can read it almost like an English Song of Songs – Christ as the lover, the shepherd who woos the one he loves to travel with him through this life and beyond, through a beautiful valley, into a perfect Kingdom of eternal life.
'The Passionate Shepherd to His Love' by Christopher Marlowe
Come live with me and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove,
That Valleys, groves, hills, and fields,
Woods, or steepy mountain yields.
And we will sit upon the Rocks,
Seeing the Shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow Rivers to whose falls
Melodious birds sing Madrigals.
And I will make thee beds of Roses
And a thousand fragrant posies,
A cap of flowers, and a kirtle
Embroidered all with leaves of Myrtle;
A gown made of the finest wool
Which from our pretty Lambs we pull;
Fair lined slippers for the cold,
With buckles of the purest gold;
A belt of straw and Ivy buds,
With Coral clasps and Amber studs:
And if these pleasures may thee move,
Come live with me, and be my love.
The Shepherds' Swains shall dance and sing
For thy delight each May-morning:
If these delights thy mind may move,
Then live with me, and be my love.
And please remember as always:
In this time of isolation and separation may we feel the unity of God's spirit in the bonds of peace and love which connect us to one another.
-When we feel lonely let us know that in Christ we are never alone.
-When we feel isolated may we be reminded that within the worldwide Body of Christ we are always connected.
-When we need a hug help us to feel the warmth of God's embrace
-When we are compelled to keep our distance, may we be drawn close to each other within the Spirit of Companionship that flows from God and which moves through and between each one of us.
With love and blessings,
There will be a live act of worship every Sunday at 3pm for the United Stockport Circuit led by the ministers and others via the Internet application Zoom. You can join with a video link and see and hear everything and everyone else who is participating, or you can join just with audio, or you can telephone in. Log in Details for the next two Sundays are as follows.
Sunday Service May 3rd 3pm
Meeting ID: 811 6246 4288 Password: 012927
Sunday Service May 10th
Meeting ID: 860 2314 4838 Password: 007191
Agape (Love Feast) Service Tuesday May 5th 7pm
As we are currently unable to share Holy Communion together, the ministers will be leading a special Agape, or Love Feast Service on Tuesday 5th May at 7pm. The Agape is a Christian fellowship meal recalling the meals Jesus shared with disciples during his ministry.The service expresses the joy of sharing, belonging and fellowship enjoyed within the body of Christ. If you wish to take part in the service you are invited to have with you a cake, or bread to eat and something to drink. If you wish, you can bake a special Agape Cake! You might like to make Agape Cup Cakes, or a large cake which can be sliced, and leave some on the doorstep of someone who will be taking part in the service but who may not be able to bake. Here is the recipe.
A traditional Love Feast Cake Recipe Adapted from the Middlesmoor Lovefeast Bread used in the Yorkshire Dales at the time of John Wesley
Mix the flour and baking powder together, rub in the butter, then add the sugar, sultanas and peel. Beat the eggs together with a little milk and add to the dry ingredients. Add the rest of the milk to make a soft consistency. Pour the mixture into two loaf tins or a large cake tin. Cook at 180°C (350°F) or gas mark 4 for at least 45 minutes for the loaf tins, or 1 hour for the large cake tin.
Zoom details for the service are as follows:
Agape Service May 5th 7pm
Meeting ID: 870 4637 5613 Password: 002488
To join any Zoom Worship by landline telephone:
Step 1) Dial any of the following numbers:
0330 088 5830
0131 460 1196
0203 481 5237
0203 481 5240
0208 080 6591
0208 080 6592
Step 2) Follow the prompts you hear on the phone. Have the Meeting ID and Password to hand.
You may be prompted to enter 3 different things:
Meeting ID followed by "Hash" – on your phone keypad, "Hash" is represented by the symbol #
Password followed by "Hash" – on your phone keypad, "Hash" is represented by the symbol #
Participants ID – You will not have one of these, don't worry, all you need to do is enter "Hash" #
You should then be entered into the service.
Please keep an eye on the Circuit website www.stockportcircuit.org.uk for up to date information and any changes. Log in details will also appear there each week; or if you are not online, ask someone to phone you and keep you updated.
In addition, every Sunday morning at 11am – when we would all normally be in worship in church – we are encouraged to pray the following prayer. This way we stay connected in a very really and tangible way.
God of Love and Life,
We pray to you this morning for the life the United Stockport Methodist Circuit, for our sisters and brothers who belong to:
(pausing briefly to reflect after each name)
Christ Church Methodist /URC
Davenport Methodist Church
Dialstone Lane Methodist Church
Edgeley Community Church
Hazel Grove Methodist Church
Heaton Mersey Methodist Church
Heaton Moor United Church
St. Johns Methodist Church
Tiviot Dale Methodist Church
Trinity Methodist Church
Windlehurst Methodist Church
In this time of isolation and separation may we feel the unity of your spirit in the bonds of peace and love which connect us to one another.
We worship you, we give you thanks, we praise you for your glory.
We ask that this time of crisis might pass and that those who suffer might find comfort and strength within the knowledge of your grace, revealed through the kindness and compassion of the people of God.
Eternal God, though the self-offering of your Son
You have filled our lives with your presence.
Help us in our sufferings and trials
Fill us with hope and strengthen us in our weakness.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
When we miss our families and friends
when we see illness and loss all around us:
Thank you, tender God, that we are held in your love.
When we are anxious and afraid,
when we feel weak and helpless:
Thank you, tender God, that we are held in your love.
When we grow weary in our caring,
when we feel the world has forgotten us:
Thank you, tender God, that we are held in your love.
In our fear and in our trust,
in our despair and in our hope,
Thank you, tender God, that we are held in your love. Amen.
Stockport Talking Newspaper, provides weekly local news from the Stockport Express in free, audio form via memory sticks to blind and visually impaired listeners. They also create a free monthly audio magazine, largely, but not entirely, about Stockport. Their output is available online for anyone to enjoy at stockporttalkingnewspaper.org.uk and they would be pleased to register any blind or visually impaired person for receipt of the news and magazine by post on a free memory stick, once lockdown ceases. They are also asking for anyone who would like to record an historical piece about their church to get in touch.