My youngest granddaughter is in London this weekend, and before she left home in Cardiff to catch the train she sent me a text, excited and happy. Now, I know she’s 15 and I know she’s done it before, and I know she will be met at Paddington but I still couldn’t resist texting back ‘Be safe, go carefully, have fun, but keep safe. Don’t go anywhere on your own. ” I can imagine her reading that and thinking “Yeah, yeah, I know!”
Sometimes we need to be told what we already know, and sometimes we can’t help repeating ourselves.
I’ve been reading Hebrews 12 & 13 as part of a project with a friend. The book of Hebrews is a heavy old thing, wonderful and full of substance and ideas and truths. Those two concluding chapters remind me of the sort of thing you might say to a youngster if they’re going on a long journey without you; a sort of round-up of all you’ve ever said to them about keeping safe and sensible and… erm, don’t talk to strangers and make sure you always have some cash in your pocket, and … you know … all the sensible stuff of experience. But the writer of Hebrews isn’t reminding the traveller about passports and sandwiches, but about never giving up, always heading purposefully towards Jesus, looking after each other, listening to good advice, always learning…. loving each other… looking to God for support. Just as practical (but less prosaic) as ‘go to the loo before you get on the train.’
I don’t know who wrote it, most scholars say it was a contemporary of Paul if not Paul himself, but whoever it was, I get him, I think. The clear impression I draw from those two last chapters is that they are exactly the sort of farewell we are all familiar with, and the warmth and concern of the writer just shines through. He’s said all he wanted to say but he can’t resist saying it again, in shorthand, in practical terms, as the front door opens, the taxi is waiting at the kerbside, and the traveller is about to depart. “Before you go – hang on – remember what I said…. in case I didn’t make myself crystal clear….” He’s earnest and urgent.
And strangely, weirdly, these two chapters, written to Hebrews two thousand years ago, made me think of my friend Michael, and of his death. I didn’t know Michael for long – we met only a couple of years before he died but it was long enough to really like him, because he was a twinkly, naughty kinda guy, and we somehow understood each other. When I met him he wasn’t a Christian and he had a certain resistance to the gentle society of Christians, which was unfortunate as his wife Jane was deep into church life. She would bring him to my house for various churchy meetings, and he would sit in the back row, rolling his eyes and sighing, not quite disruptive but always in danger of erupting into a snorting giggle and getting a dirty look from Jane, probably wishing he was down the pub instead of listening to a talk on Ephesians. Eventually, I would give him the nod and we would sneak away to the kitchen and snigger together about… oh, I don’t know, everything. He was a full-time mischief-maker.
I hadn’t known him for long when he was diagnosed with cancer, advanced and voracious. It was a terrible blow, made more shocking by the vitality and sheer physical presence, the booming voice and the jokiness of the man. All through his illness he remained good natured, equable, funny and naughty while the rest of us prayed for him, for his spiritual life and for healing. One day, when the medical team had told him that all there was for him now was palliative care, he told me that he resented being prayed for, but he understood that it was all we could do when we all felt the need to do something. But gradually, almost imperceptibly, Michael began to listen, to think and to search. It helped that there were people in the church he trusted and liked, people he could relax with and question and with whom he could share his doubt. And it was a teaching church, not at all preachy. He realised that Christianity isn’t about trying to believe, or pretending to believe, it’s about discovering that – one day – you’ve done the thinking, the searching, and you believe.
So with no great ‘road to Damascus’ moment, he realised that Jesus Christ was and is the Son of God. That He died to redeem mankind. I remember Jane nudging him, half in delight, half in amazement and disbelief, “You’re sure? You’re absolutely sure?”
When he was a few days from death he was baptised, but he was far too ill to even sit up properly so he was baptised in bed, with his family and friends gathered around. He had very determinedly arranged it so that all his family were there – his non believing children and grand children, and that’s when he did that Hebrews 12 &13 thing….. ‘Before I go, I just want to say this….’. He spoke movingly and seriously to his family, told them what Christ meant to him, what Christ could mean to them, he gave them small loving nuggets of wonderful advice, and then he was baptised. There are some moments that stay vivid and immediate in our memories for ever, and this was one such moment for me; As our Pastor and friend Rob asked him the simple questions that would lead him to his statement of faith, Michael answered clearly and firmly, his voice strong. Our church usually baptises by immersion but for Michael there was just a trickle of water on his forehead, a symbol of a symbol if you like, and afterwards – this is the moment I will never forget – there was visible peace and joy on Michael’s face. I see him even now. He put a thin weak hand up to Rob, a thank you, and Rob took it in his two strong hands. And in that moment, there was a small piece of heaven in that room, a glimpse of eternity, the living and the dying and the eternal. There was. I will never forget it.
Afterwards, as I sat with Michael and we looked back on the day, I congratulated him on organisiing his whole family so efficiently, getting them all there on the right day from all the corners of the UK….. and he grinned. He said ‘They were a bit shocked, eh?” and he was right. The last time they’d seen him he was the old dad and the old Michael, non-Christian and barely tolerant of his wife’s beliefs. As he had spoken to them they had stood in stunned silence, hungrily searching his face, trying to understand this new and joyful man. I told him that as they had gathered, standing around the bed, I couldn’t help smiling because it reminded me of one of those very tragic Victorian paintings, maybe the death of Nelson. He snorted with laughter and then dutifully tried to look tragic but couldn’t, because he wasn’t a tragic kinda bloke. We just ended up laughing as usual.
I know that the opportunity to speak to his family about the most important aspect of his life gave Michael a peaceful death. His story was told, his race was run, and maybe that’s what the writer of Hebrews felt as he finished dictating the very last verse, the blessing, ‘May God’s grace be with you all.’
In those last couple of peaceful, drowsy days, Michael bequeathed Jane to me. There’s no other way to word it. He didn’t ask me to look after her, or befriend her, he bloody well gave her to me, whether I wanted her or not. He knew what he was doing, he had it planned. He knew that whatever he wanted, in those last days, he would not be refused. Cunning man. And right enough, Jane was a wonderful, funny, equally mischievous, silly, sweet friend. She was diagnosed with cancer not long after and now she’s in eternity along with Mike. I miss them both.
Hmmm. I was supposed to be studying Hebrews 12&13 this afternoon, and instead I’ve been telling you all about Michael and Jane.
What a twit I am.
But the fact remains, the Bible is deep and detailed and instructive but, more than anything else, the Bible is full of love, concern and understanding. Humanity. The more I read the it the more certain I am that we are loved.
Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die. John 11:25