The power of love, both human and divine!
A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley
by Andrew McKearney on 4 November 2018
Robert Peston, quite well known as the former BBC economics correspondent, was interviewed a year after the death of his wife, a young woman in her forties. Asked how he thought about her now, he replied that, although he was not conventionally religious, he had a strong feeling that she was still with him.
I wonder if we’ve ever felt like that?
Forty years ago now, a Welsh GP, Dewi Rees, conducted a major piece of research into these types of experiences. His findings were published in the BMJ and expanded more recently into a book ‘Pointers to Eternity’.
To his surprise, he found that similar pieces of research undertaken in several different countries and in other parts of Britain produced almost identical results. About half the bereaved people interviewed in all of these samples, covering, in all, many hundreds of people, said that they had had a specific experience relating to the person who had died. This sometimes took the form of a spoken word, or a sense of presence, or a visual experience, or even occasionally a touch. All but a tiny minority (six per cent) found the experience positive rather than disturbing.
I wonder if we’ve ever had similar experiences?
Then there’s coincidences.
In a recent book ‘Daniel, My Son’, a father, David Thomas, writes movingly of the death of his brilliant young son of bone cancer. A few months after his death, the author was staying the night alone in a hotel and casually switched on the television. The programme that came on was ‘University Challenge’, and soon a question came up about hymn tunes. Of the four hymn tunes played, three were of hymns sung at his son Daniel’s funeral. That was surprising enough, but then he realised that the college attempting to answer the question was Daniel’s old college, Magdalen College here in Oxford.
Or take the experience of David Winter that he writes about in his book ‘Heaven’s Morning: Rethinking the destination’. A former BBC religious affairs correspondent and a priest in this diocese, his wife died in 2001. A few days after her death he was visited by a Macmillan bereavement counsellor. The counsellor was talking about possible books that might help his grandchildren cope with their grandmother’s death. She held in her hands a book about a larva that left the others in the pool to rise into the sky as a dragonfly. At that moment a dragonfly landed on the book. The event happened indoors on a cool day in May and took them both by surprise.
Neither of these are coincidences are particularly striking – a chance question about hymns on TV, a dragonfly happening to land on a book – but to those involved they were deeply significant.
I wonder whether we’ve ever had these sorts of coincidences?
For the most part, these experiences are testimony to the enduring power of love. When Robert Peston was asked whether he had any explanation for his feeling that his late wife was still with him, his eventual reply was one word: ‘love’. As we heard Saint Paul write: ‘Love never ends’, and Paul goes on to say that it ‘abides’ or ‘lasts for ever’.
Love is the key to many of these experiences – that human love at its best is so powerful and inextinguishable a force that its echo, as it were, can produce feelings and sensual experiences like those described by these and many others who have suffered bereavement – as Saint Paul wrote ‘love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things’.
I wonder what we make of these hints and guesses?
Humans since the earliest of days have wondered!
The tomb of a child in one of the catacombs just outside Rome has an inscription on it presumably written by the child’s parents which says: ‘Pray for your parents’! And in turn it’s natural that we should pray for those that we’ve loved who have died. If we love someone and trust that God loves them even more than we do, we’ll instinctively ask God to go on taking care of them.
Some of you may have been to those catacombs outside Rome. In the catacombs there’s not only that delightful inscription ‘Pray for your parents’, but also one of the earliest, if not the earliest artistic portrayal of Christ as a shepherd carrying a lamb around his neck on his shoulders.
A modern take on the sentiment implied by this is the little meditation ‘Footprints’ that you can buy as a card or as a small poster typically from a Cathedral shop.
It often has as background to the words a beach with some footprints in the sand. The words tell of a man who has a dream in which he sees footprints in the sand, at first twosets walking side by side and then just one set. The two sets side by side reflect the writer’s experience of Christ being alongside them through life. However the transition to only one set of footprints prompts the writer to ask why it is that at the most difficult time in their life, Christ was no longer present alongside them.
To which Christ answers by saying that it was not at all that he had disappeared but rather that there was only one set of footprints at the most difficult time because it was then that Christ had carried them. It’s a meditation that has its roots in that picture of Christ in the catacombs outside Rome!
And there are favourite passages of scripture too that this goes back to – Psalm 23 that we’ve just sung and the parable of the lost sheep are some of the favourite places to go, with the parable telling of the shepherd leaving the 99 to go after the one that’s lost – that’s when the shepherd carries the lamb back on his shoulders, the image used in the catacombs and in the meditation.
Christ’s compassion and care, his knowledge of us knowing each one of us by name, his willingness to lay down his life for us, and his desire for there to be one flock, one shepherd. Core to this image of the good shepherd is a strong sense of protectiveness.
The rod and the staff of the shepherd are used to protect the sheep, with the rod being a bit like a baseball bat to keep the wolf from snatching the sheep and scattering them. I’ve never seen an artistic portrayal of Christ with baseball bat in hand warding off the wild beasts but there’s a toughness there that I warm to!
The power of love, both human and divine – it’s tough, it endures – and it’s the only thing that really matters!
Richard Baxter in the 17th century wrote this prayer:
Christ, who knows all his sheep
will all in safety keep:
he will not lose one soul,
nor ever fail us,
nor we the promised goal,
whate’er assail us. Amen.