I’m sitting down to write this as a kind of reflection in progress. I say in progress because the event(s) I’m reflecting on as I’m sitting here ruminating are only in the midst of their processing. How I feel today is not necessarily how I’ll feel after the next conversation I have on the phone.
It’s been that kind of week. Each time the phone rings, change happens. Some calls have led to minor improvements in mood and outlook. Others the opposite and more than one has brought quite a swirl of shocking emotions, competing for attention in my increasingly-stretched and pressed emotional view.
Just under two weeks ago, my family suffered an unexpected and sudden bereavement. Trained in pastoral work and care as I am, quite experienced in doing it pretty well as I’m told I am, after those first few times the phone rang to offer increasingly desperate and then ultimately crushing news, comforting words seemed far from my mind. Presence, quiet consolation, mixed with a raging sense of the unfortunate unfairness of it all, they’re what came to me then and have sustained me ever since. I hope I’ve been of some support and use to my family in their grief, still so new and raw, but even if I haven’t, I’ve given what I had, what God gave me when I prayed urgent, hushed prayers asking for ‘enough’ for today and then that tomorrow would bring enough for that day. God has been faithful, kind and generous as have so many of our family and friends, and yet, still I wish what happened hadn’t happened. Death and grief are fine enough when they’re distant, theoretical concepts, but when they come close the feelings they engender, the tiredness, the bone tiredness that’s been part of my life for 12 days now, that’s what I think will change how I talk to bereaved families or families whose loved ones are close to the end. Anyone who’s been through it will probably remember, or still be experiencing the feeling. Being a professional minister means that I sometimes have to do the professional work of supporting grief and loss, but it is so important that any of us who have this privilege don’t detach ourselves so far from the visceral pain of what is happening that we seem aloof. The most helpful things that have happened over the last few days are people who have asked us ‘how are you?’ or who have turned up at the door with food we didn’t ask for or realise we needed but which have meant we haven’t had to think. Thinking is hard. Thinking is tiring. Decisions are distant dreams. So I all of a sudden am very keen on provided soup, casserole and the like.
All of that would and probably should be enough, but then a couple of days ago when the phone rang, it was for a different reason. On the line when I picked up was the Family Liaison Officer from a prison not too far from us. As soon as the prison was named I knew who it was about, but what I was told next really did shock me. A prisoner who I an others at Emmanuel befriended through our Foodbank and other work and who became part of our Church family was seriously ill with Covid-19, she said. He was in a bad way. My heart sank. How sad. He’s due out this year. The shock didn’t end there though. The prisoner, my friend, had named me as his next of kin. Was I willing to take on the role? Having then as I do now, not much idea of what that might entail I thought I ought to say yes.
What a privilege, a sad and humbling privilege. On the one hand that the work I and many others had done with him had had such an impact; on the other that there was no one else who he felt he could trust and rely on to take on this role.
That was on Wednesday morning. I’m writing this on Friday afternoon. In the intervening time, P has deteriorated and rallied, deteriorated and rallied. I have decisions and judgement calls on his behalf which have all been best-guesses. Apparently the answer ‘keep him alive please’ is not detailed enough when responding to the question ‘How would you like us to proceed’, for instance. Just this afternoon I have spoken to the prison FLO, a Dr who is treating him and a member of the hospital’s fantastic chaplaincy team. What I’ve gleaned is that all of them are fantastic and want the best for P and are doing the very best they possibly can to bring it about. It is still very much touch and go what will happen in the coming time. This afternoon P has been asking if I could go and see him. It is, I have to say, pretty gutting that I can’t at the moment.
So, rather than just tell you a long-winded piece of a tale with an unknown ending, how about some reflections….
First, at the moment, the two situations I’ve described above are all I can think about at the moment. As I’m typing I know that there are some people I work with who are pretty unhappy with how things are going at work. I also know that the Church of England, of which I am a part and who to an extent I represent, has got itself in more than one media kerfuffle over the last 24 hours. I also know that all over the place people are receiving news, both good and bad, that the team I support and chaplain for, Northampton Town, have a game tomorrow and plenty more besides. Ordinarily, of course, all of these things are important, some of them crucial, even, but at the present moment I couldn’t really care less about most of that. I wonder where God is in that thought? I wonder how it might impact how I talk to those who are dealing with things of this nature (because I know there are a lot of them) in the future that might be changed compared to how I might have been three weeks ago?
What would Jesus say to P, or to those treating him, caring for and about him, or to my family, or to me, if we paused to listen today? Maybe ‘come to me all who are weary’ might be something. Would Jesus weep? Would he rage? I think I know what he would not do: walk by on the other side. I think he would point out all the ways he is at present involved, working, caring for, soothing and challenging in equal measure. I think at some point he would ask ‘what do you want me to do for you?’ and then do it, to show that this world is not all there is, that what we see in front of us, the failures, the mess of our own making and that made by others, is actually gloriously passing away, and would give a sign that the better world we are promised and of which we dream is closer than we even dare to believe. I think he would do all this and more.
A little while back, in a previous lockdown, far, far away before any of this happened (the end of October) I wrote a piece about starting to record a new album called Ruthless Trust. Sometimes my trust is wafer thin. Sometimes it’s thinner than that, whatever that is, but at times like these, when I honestly have no clue what to do or say, it’s a surprising comfort to me to be able to say ‘I am no longer my own’ and that in some small way I have understood a little of what it means to enter into the fellowship of the suffering that Jesus went through for me, for my family, for P, for those treating and caring for and about him. I’d give a lot to not have gone through the last two weeks, or to have watched those I love go through the last two weeks, but it seems like all I can do is persevere and hope that in doing that, faith and character follow and that out of all of that, this maelstrom of words I have written here which gives you an insight into a little of the chaos of my brain at the moment, new hope would be born. I want that hope to be firm, not in a concept or a thing, but in the One who is making all things new.
In the meantime, if you pray, please do for my family, for me, for P and all who have not had pieces written about them today but who also need some comfort, some peace and some strength to carry on.
The phone only rang 3 times while I was writing this. I hope it doesn’t ring again for a good while.