The Spirits in Prison

A sermon preached by Martin Hattersley to the Prison Fellowship Group at Edmonton Institution, August 6, 1988, shortly after the death of his daughter Catherine Greeve.

“It’s me, it’s me, it’s me, O Lord,
Standing in the need of prayer”

I had to make a decision as to whether I should be with you or not tonight. I do assure you, it would have been very easy to ring up Bud and say I couldn’t be there—and I am sure Bud would have understood. But at the back of my mind, I could not get over the fact that there couldn’t be such a coincidence in timing in this whole matter without the hand of the Lord being somehow involved—and if the Lord is saying to me ‘go’ then I’d better go.

Besides, there is something right about my being here with you tonight. Perhaps just because of your background you can understand a little bit of what I am talking about. I, and some of you also, know firsthand just what murder is. So many people do not.

Only when you have been through something like this do you know what it is to lose a child in this way. First there is the awful mystery. Cathy has not been at work since lunch; hasn’t picked up the children at the day care center. Her husband Tony answers the Centre’s phone call and goes around and picks them up.

We phone our friends. No sign of her. We phone the police, but they are not interested in missing person until they have been gone for 24 hours. They suggest we try the emergency wards of the hospitals. We phone them. No success.

Then a rumour reaches us that an unidentified woman’s body was found in the Rapid Transit station early in the afternoon. Tony finds Cathy’s car parked downtown. More phone calls. We go to pick the car up. It is cold, and looks as if it hasn’t been touched all day. We take it to Tony’s home, and find ourselves suddenly in the company of police who are already there. Questions, questions, questions, about our movements, our family, about Cathy, the boys.

Finally the news is broken. The body in the L.R.T. station is that of our daughter.

After a time to pull ourselves together from the shock of the news, it is down to the police station, through corridors and into areas we have never seen before: statements, questions, and above all, waiting, waiting, waiting—not knowing for what.

Then to the Medical Examiner’s office. There, behind a glass panel, to see the Catherine I knew. The same, but not quite the same. The left side of her face blackened and bruised. A strange expression of pain coupled with surprise on her face. Beneath her chin, an unusual redness. But more than anything else, not moving, not laughing as we always knew her, not even breathing as we knew her when asleep, but still—utterly still.

It is three in the morning before we get to bed, but certainly no to sleep. The following day, phone calls, TV cameras outside the door, the Press, statements, rumours, pressure, pressure, pressure—and infinite sadness.

Earlier this year, I attended a course on healing put on a by a husband and wife team of counsellors from the States, John and Paula Sandford. They went into some detail into what makes people behave as they do: particularly, why so many of us are cursed that, even when we want to do right, violence and evil are all that come out of us.

God has made man to love, and has made parents to teach children what love is. A child when born needs love—needs it in the form of attention to its needs for food and warmth, to change its diapers, to give it cuddling and affection. Parents are called on to give their children this love, and whatever a child at that early age receives from its parents, it interprets as love.

This is fine, if the child indeed receives the love and the care it expects to have. But what if it doesn’t? What if it is neglected, unfed, unwashed. If it cries, what if its parents beat and abuse it to shut it up, rather than deal with its needs? What if the child is sexually abused?

The answer is, that this child will interpret whatever it receives as love, even if what it receives is really abuse. And having received hatred or neglect in infancy, and believed that this is what love is, its every effort to express love when it is older will be in actions of cruelty and abuse. So a culture of abuse and hatred can spring up in one generation, and be passed on from parent to child from generation to generation, if nothing happens to stop it. As Jesus said: “If the light that is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” How great indeed!

All of what I have given you so far is the bad news. The good news I have to give you is that God has given to man a way out of this mess, and I would like to talk to you about that also.

The first step in this way back is simply the nature of God. God is love. One of the hobbies I used to pursue in my basement at one time was a model railroad. I guess people like model railroads as a hobby just because it gives them a chance to play God. We can create our own world, and make things happen in it. Quickly, however, we find that all does not go exactly according to plan. Trains derail, switches don’t always work; I used to have the greatest trouble with my speed controllers, which ever so often would go up in smoke. Whatever it was, however, what I noticed was that what gave the most trouble also got the most attention. The whole railroad had to work. If some part of the track, some engine, some rolling stock, was giving trouble, the whole railroad would come to a standstill, as I left everything to put right whatever was not working.

God is like that. He has created the world. He has his idea of how it ought to work. Things don’t always work out as well as they should in His universe, because most of us aren’t as perfect as we ought to be, but there He is, the eternal engineer, ready always to fix us up, clean us, straighten us, mend us, rewire us, so that at the last we will fit into His universe the way He always wanted us to be. There is no limit to His patience. His concern applies to the worst of us—who get more attention than those who don’t cause problems. This we can count on: it is the first stage of the solution.

The second stage is, that God has given us the Law. Through the Bible and the leaders of ancient times, He has told us the way of life we can follow in order to be able to live at peace with Him and our fellow men. The basic code is the Ten Commandments—which tell us not to steal or murder, to be faithful to our wives, to tell the truth, to honour our parents, and not to covet things that belong to other people. These commandments tell us also how to relate to Him—to worship no other God, to honour His name, to respect His times of rest, and to put Him first in our lives. People who do this don’t get in trouble. A nation that lives by these rules is strong and peaceful—a good place to live.

This is great in theory, but the trouble about the Law is that it is a bit too perfect—and we are not perfect. The Law is great if we keep it, but if we don’t, the same Law that says we won’t have trouble if we keep it, also says that we will have trouble if we break it. And most of us do break the Law, and most of us make trouble not just for ourselves, but also for others, by doing this, and trouble means suffering—not just for us, but also for innocent people, if you and I are as sinful as most of the rest of the world, the Law is no comfort to us. All it does is tell us we’re in trouble.

God has to give us something better, and in the third stage, He does. The Law is sometimes called the Old Covenant—the old arrangement between God and Man, in which God promises that if we will be good to Him, He will be good to us. We need an arrangement that will help people who have broken His law—people who are sinners. To deal with our sin, God has given us, through His son Jesus Christ, a new arrangement—a new covenant—a new deal.

The terms of the new arrangement are quite clear. God will no longer worry about our sins. He proves it by allowing His son to be put to death on a cross even though He was innocent. He just wants one thing from us. Just as we have been forgiven by God through the death of Jesus, so we are expected to forgive others the sins they do in a place like this. It’s something different—even dangerous. It’s following a Christ who lost his life for the sake of what He believed in. It’s something that can cost you your life, too.

I am told that a number of you today were baptized. This is a great day for you, because in this Baptism is shown exactly what all this new covenant is all about. Through the symbol of water, we allow God to put to death the person that we once were. We allow God to give us a new nature, the character of Christ himself.

I gather that one of the problems you have in a jail like this is of people getting depressed and wanting to kill themselves. So many people, also, go half way there by attacking their bodies and their minds with alcohol and with drugs. The strange thing is, they’re not completely wrong. The sort of person we are does have to die. The good news of the Christian life is that there is a way of dying that can leave us more alive than ever. My fourth piece of good news is that not only does God love us, tell us how to live, and forgive us when we go wrong—He gives us a way of ending our old lives and putting on something entirely new.

Jesus died on the Cross. Imagine yourself, also, along with Him, dying, and being laid in a grave. Imagine yourself lying from Friday evening, cold and in the dark, through Saturday—the Sabbath, the day of rest. Then, as the dawn breaks on the Sunday, new life comes to you. The stone is rolled away from the dark prison of the grave. Life is yours—but it is a new life. You can consider that your old body, your old way of life, is dead. The life you now live is the life of Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, living inside you. Living a life that will never end, even with earthly death, because it is already the life of heaven.

This is what your Baptism means. That is why we need not despair, even in the presence of death. May God be with you as you go forward as new men into the Christian life ahead of you. It may not be easy—but it will be Life—LIFE with a capital ‘L’!

– Text of a sermon delivered on August 6, 1988
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Would I Had Died For Thee

A sermon preached at St. Barnabas Anglican Church, 14 August 1988.

“Would I had died for thee, Absalom, my son” (2 Samuel 18:33)

The passage which forms our Old Testament reading today is from a part of the Bible late in the Second Book of Samuel, called ‘The Court History of David’. Essentially, it treats the part of David’s career when, after the death of Saul, he at last becomes the unchallenged King of Israel, and develops his power and prestige, and extends the boundaries of his Kingdom, up to the time of his death.

One would have expected this to be a period of sweetness and light in David’s life, with well-deserved rest, appreciation and recognition after years of unjustified persecution. Alas, it didn’t work out that way. The ‘Throne of David’ was a difficult throne to sit on! David’s enemies, from this point on, came from within his family, not from outside, but nevertheless were just as deadly.

The great value of this account of David’s history is that, reading between the lines of this section of the Old Testament, we can see in David a picture of God—the Bible calls him “a man after God’s own heart”. The picture that we see here of the nature of God, expressed in the actions of this King, is both profound and provocative.

The background to today’s passage dealing with Absalom’s death is an involved and not very pleasant story. David was a great lover, and sometimes, like Hamlet, he loved ‘not wisely but too well.’ Besides his proverbial love for Saul’s son Jonathan, he had a number of wives, and by them a number of children. Their upbringing and behaviour left a great deal to be desired. One of the comments, for instance, that the Scripture makes on one son, Adonijah (who tried to make himself King in David’s declining years) was that “never in his life had his father corrected him, or asked why he behaved as he did.”

Other brothers were guilty of equally unsavoury actions. One of these, named Ammon, had developed a crush on his half-sister Tamar, and securing her presence in the privacy of his bedroom by a trick, first raped her, and then abused and rejected her. The story became known, but David did nothing to punish Ammon. Another, elder, son Absalom, upset by what had happened, took time to plan his revenge. Two years later, he threw a banquet, invited Ammon as a guest, and had him murdered. Thereafter, Absalom set himself up in open rebellion against King David.

David therefore had to flee from his life from Jerusalem. Crossing the brook Kidron, he climbed Eastwards up the Mount of Olives, and out to the desert—a historic route that Jesus would himself follow on his own journey to the garden of Gethsemane. Absalom lacked the courage to capture David and secure a quick victory. David’s forces gradually rallied to him, and a pitched battle took place east of the river Jordan, in the forest of Ephraim.

Before the battle, David had given his troops strict orders to take Absalom alive. In the course of the battle, Absalom’s long hair caught in the branches of a tree in the forest, his mule moved on, and Absalom was left, a sitting target, hanging in mid-air by his long and beautiful hair. The first soldiers to come on the scene refrained, as ordered, from taking Absalom’s life. David’s general, Joab, however, quickly saw to it that Absalom was speared to death. Our lesson opened today as the news reached King David, and we see David racked by uncontrollable grief at the death of his son Absalom—this treacherous rebel—even to the point of making the Israelites ashamed of winning the victory and restoring David to his throne. “Absalom, my son, my son,” weeps David, “would I had died for thee, Absalom my son!”

Joab rebuked David, and insisted that he show his loyal troops more gratitude. Nevertheless, the absolute, unfeigned grief of David over the death of this vain, treacherous and conceited rebel moves our hearts now as much as it must have the hearts of the people of Israel three thousand years ago.

If David in this story symbolizes God the Father, what does this all mean? We can understand the love of a father for his children, and grief at their death—but when the boy was such a wastrel, when the King himself had nearly lost his life and his Kingdom, and his wives had been defiled by the actions of his child, one would have expected love to have been tempered with a little common sense. Certainly General Joab thought so. Moreover, if only David had exercised just a little bit of discipline towards all his boys as they grew up, wouldn’t the whole family have been a lot better for it? The writer of the story obviously thought David was a lot too lenient to be much good as a father! Is God the same? In fact, is God a bad father—too soft and loving for our own good?

I wonder if, by human standards, the answer is ‘Yes’. We, humankind, children of God, have been utterly spoiled, as Absalom was. We have been given an incredibly marvellous universe to inhabit, and we ourselves are part of it. We know, from God’s revelations to man, what we need to do to preserve this world, develop it, and carry out His purposes of harmony and reconciliation. Sinners that we are, we ignore his laws, raise ourselves up in rebellion and revenge every bit as bitter as Absalom, drive our Father from the seat of authority, and kill his son. Yet God still loves us. In the middle of all this hate, pride, vainglory and rebellion, He does not glory if we get our just deserts—He is mortified. He weeps “Would I had died for thee, Absalom, my son, my son.”

One truth that has come deeply home to me in recent weeks is the concept of the depth of God’s love—not just in creating the world for us, but in leaving us so utterly free either to wreck it, or to try to build it and redeem and restore it. God’s incredible love goes way beyond the mere rewarding of good deeds with thanks and benefits. It is a deep, deep love to death for the most unworthy, dangerous and rebellious of sinners. God himself would rather die than suffer the death of even the worst of sinners.

“O love, how deep, how broad, how high
It fills the heart with ecstasy!”

As we come to the Lord’s table, remembering this story of Absalom, how it reminds us of Christ, who indeed aid down his life in the same spirit for sinners. It is indeed a true saying, and worthy of all men to be received, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. And this was not just some exercise in spinning words. It was because he had such an estimate of the worth of even the vilest of humankind, that Christ would die rather than see them perish.

Is God a bad father? He has certainly raised a bunch of spoiled brats among his children on earth, and those who keep his laws spend much of their time cleaning up the mess, binding up wounds, suffering the consequences of the sins of others, and trying to stop this planet’s entire ruination. Like the armies of Israel, they are expected to save the day, starve, fight and sweat, and at the end of it all, be treated as lepers by their King who is bawling his head off because some poor sinner, contrary to orders, is given his just deserts.

If we are among the ninety and nine just people who need no repentance, God is very unfair in his demands on us, just as General Joab says. But if we are that one lost sinner, whose pride, rebellion and vanity have in the end led him to the brink of destruction—O thank God for such love. Thank God for a Jesus who out of his love for even the worst of sinners, died to be our Saviour!

Most of us in a typical Sunday church congregation are like the ninety nine sheep who have put up with less than perfect care, because their shepherd is out looking for the last, lost member of the flock straying on the mountains. We are in the position the elder brother of the prodigal son, who stayed with his father keeping the farm going, while his younger brother was spending the family fortune—and then was expected to be happy when this wastrel came home. We are like the members of Israel’s army, who after fighting their best, are rebuked for not saving the life of their greatest enemy. We all face the real temptation of losing our patience with God, of being unsatisfied with our pay, because those hired later generously received the same wages as we do. Yet it is precisely this accepting this unfair load with cheerfulness that marks us as ‘children of our father in heaven’. It is by bearing such burdens that we become “conformed to the image of his Son”!

It is a hard lesson for good, right thinking and right acting religious folk to learn, that God is who He is, not what we think He ought to be. Yet the truth is, that the greatest saints, by God’s mercy, are often people who once were the greatest of sinners. Where would the church be, if Ananias had not ministered to his greatest enemy, Saul, persecutor of the church, later to be known as Saint Paul? If Saint Monica had not prayed for the conversion of her dissolute son, the later Saint Augustine? If Jesus had not welcomed back Peter into the number of the disciples, after being denied three times? What would the history of Israel have been, if Absalom had survived and repented, and gone on to be the next King of Israel, greater perhaps than Solomon, and more faithful, because he had gone to the limits of rebellion and sin, and realized that he must turn back from them? God’s way to sainthood, in fact, perhaps comes not from avoiding evil, but from following it to the limit, until the perpetrator himself is disgusted. Then come repentance, and that deep sorrow and hatred for all that is evil that can be the mainspring of a saintly life. The greatest persecutors of the church, by this reasoning, are not simply to be tolerated or forgiven: we are to see in them the potential leaders of our church, and pray and work for their conversion.

Joab was wrong, and David, in his grief, truly reflects God’s sorrow at our lack of love for the sinful. May we, in our churches, learn to reflect this terribly costly love that God gives to us, but also demands of us, in caring for those who go astray.

– Text of a sermon delivered on August 14, 1988

Suffering

A sermon preached at St. Peter’s Anglican Church, 21 August 1988.

“He who eats me, shall live because of me.” (John 6:57)

It’s good to be back with you in St. Peter’s. Last week, I was helping out with services at St. Matthias—the old Saint Barnabas. I like visiting other churches, because each one of them has some special little thing that makes it unique. At St. Matthias, I noticed that children are admitted to Communion at a very early age, and it was a wonderful thing to give the bread into the hands of children of two or three years old, a visible sign that they, too, are full members of the church family.

This was not always allowed. At the first General Synod I ever attended, I remember a discussion on the subject of admitting children to communion—at that time, too daring a thing even to think about. One of the speakers, no doubt with tongue in cheek, described what when on in his church. “We have all the children in the church for the first part of the service,” he said, “and we finish that part of the service with some children’s hymn, perhaps:

‘When mothers of Salem their children brought to Jesus
The stern disciples drove them back, and bade them depart …’

After that, the children go out to Sunday School, and we go on to Communion without them!”

I don’t know whether it was that speech that persuaded the House of Bishops shortly afterwards to issue their ‘guidelines’, clearly establishing the right of children, under proper supervision, to take Communion before confirmation. At any rate, we have, in past years, seen children come to Communion at an earlier and earlier age. Some people wonder if they should, since they perhaps do not have a full intellectual appreciation of the meaning of the Holy Communion. (I wonder who does!) My own justification for allowing this comes from an incident at our supper table, several years ago now, at which our youngest, Janet, then aged 3, learned for the first time that the meat she was eating had once been a living animal. Her face dropped, she pushed away her place, and said very quietly “I don’t think I want any meat!”

It is this same revulsion from the enormity of what Jesus was saying in our gospel passage today, that caused many in the crowds to fall away from Him. It is from passages like this, after all, that Christians in the early Roman Empire were accused of cannibalism at their Eucharists. It would be much nicer if we could stay at arm’s length from Jesus, have an ice cream cone together, perhaps, but nothing so close and personal: nothing that involved such suffering to Our Saviour, as for us to eat His body so that it would become part of our body. After all, we are what we eat! Too much eating Jesus, and we might start turning into people who do the same thing for others, and it’s obviously a painful thing to do!

You will recall that I was speaking to you three Sundays ago—and what an eternity it seems!—on the subject of suffering. I spoke about the suffering that we bring upon ourselves through our sins. I also spoke of the suffering that we bring to other innocent people through our sins, in the story of David, and the first child of his illicit union with Bathsheba. But because it was not the main topic of my sermon, I skipped a part of my notes, and only indirectly alluded to a third category of suffering, the category of Job or St. Paul, which I classified simply as ‘none of the above’. It is to this third category that I want to turn today.

A little further on from today’s reading in John’s gospel, in Chapter 9, we see Jesus being asked a question about a man born blind:

“Master, who did sin, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

Jesus answered,

“Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents, but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.”

From this short interchange, we can see quite clearly that, in Jesus’s mind, here is a category of suffering that is quite removed from sin. We might perhaps call it “suffering to reveal the glory of God.” We see it in this blind man, now delivered by Jesus from his darkness. We see it in the Old Testament story of Job, where unmerited suffering led him in the end to a fuller, deeper perception and acceptance of God. We see it in St. Paul, who fervently prayed that some bodily ailment—‘a thorn in the flesh’—would depart from him. God’s reply was brief and to the point,

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness.”

Again, the glory of God is revealed in human weakness—a theme that St. Paul comes back to again and again in his letters. Jesus himself prayed fervently in Gethsemane to be spared his hour of trial: the end of it all was not deliverance, but acceptance of the suffering of the Cross. The same petition—“lead us not into temptation,” or in the modern version “save us from the time of trial”—is prayed by millions every day in obedience to Our Lord’s command—yet millions every day still suffer their times of trial and testing.

“Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,” says Jesus, “for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Blessed are you, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.”

As we look at these cases, and indeed at the world outside, where disease and natural disasters can cause suffering quite the equal of any caused by human sin and cruelty, we are forced to recognize that trials and suffering, at least in some cases, are part of God’s training of our characters. It applies to ourselves, just as it applied to Jesus Christ, who, according to the writer of the letter to the Hebrews,

“..though he were a Son, yet learned the obedience by the things which he suffered, and being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation to all them that obey him.”

The character of Jesus, apparently, was not complete until he had passed through the test of suffering. We, who aim to become ‘children of our Father who is in heaven,’ have to accept this discipline of obedience also.

This suffering is necessary, in the end, because it is the only way in which we can be taught what the character of God really is. Of course, from the earliest days of the Church, we have acknowledged that character to have been displayed in Jesus Christ: the suffering servant, the Master who washed his disciples’ feet. We often enough accept this in a kind of grudging faith. What we find almost impossible to accept, and especially so since the time when Constantine made Christianity an ‘official’ religion, is that this Jesus, suffering on the Cross and raised from the dead, is indeed the image of God the Father also. The church would much prefer to think of God the Father as a kind of glorified Roman emperor, ruling by His whim, and casting some souls into heaven, and some into hell, giving pain to some, and an easy passage to his special favourites. This might be nice, if it were true, but it is not. Look at Jesus on the Cross. The roughest treatment of all was reserved for God’s only son!

The picture of God much nearer the truth is one that Jesus gives over and over again in his parables: the ruler betrayed by an unfaithful steward; the father agonizing over the rebellion of his son; David, deposed from the throne by his son Absalom, yet still praying that Absalom’s life be spared, and inconsolable in his grief on learning of his death. The secret of the character of God that this kind of suffering teaches, is that our heavenly Father is a sufferer too. It is through God’s self-giving that Creation exists at all. Such is God’s love that mankind has been given the unfettered privilege of ruining it all if he so desires. It is man’s compassion for the suffering of others that this would cause that is the chief motive that prevents mankind from doing just that. It is to those who are specially devoted to Him that He reveals this final secret of His character. They are given the strange privilege of sharing in some way in these sufferings—which are the birth pangs of His new creation. They are privileged to share the fierce joy of paying the price of suffering, as the cost of participating in the redemption of the world. They are the ones privileged to share at the marriage feast thrown by the King of Heaven—and the menu at that banquet is lamb.

“As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me shall live because of me.” So says Jesus, explaining the source of the life giving power that welled up from within him. It would not be right for me to leave this topic, however, without one last word of explanation. We are used to physical food that comes from animals that have been killed: the animal dies, we live, and that is all. Christ’s food is the spiritual food of Love, and the more that kind of food is consumed, the more there is:

“Love is nothing till you give it away…
And you end up having more”

as the popular song says. To experience the love of Christ, we must draw on it deeply, for the more we receive, the more there is to receive. And the same love within us must be passed on, to humanize a grasping and sinful world, by our giving and forgiving our fellow human beings. No matter what the cost to ourselves in the suffering we may be called on to bear—all is as nothing for the surpassing worth of knowing God through Jesus Christ, who, for the joy that was set before Him, gave His life for mankind in suffering on the Cross.

– Text of a sermon delivered on August 21, 1988

The Armour of God

A sermon preached at All Saints Cathedral, Edmonton, 28 August 1988.

For the past few weeks, our Epistles have been taken from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Today, we reach both the climax and the ending of the letter—the wonderful and well known passage telling us to “put on the whole armour of God”.

Out of many wonderful letters that St. Paul wrote, this one to Ephesus is perhaps the most outstanding. In it, St. Paul is at his most ambitious. He lays out for us nothing less than his concept of the whole eternal purpose that lies behind God’s creation of the Universe, and the impact of this purpose on ourselves.

The latter has, therefore, a very definite structure. It starts with the eternal purpose of God, and works outwards, firstly to the spiritual powers of the heavenly places, then into the path of redemption and so into the daily life of the church and of the believer—a descent that takes us from the most sublime contemplation of things into which angels do not dare to look, down to such a practical advice that “Let him who stole, steal no more.” At the end of it all, comes this glorious passage describing the warfare in which we are engaged, and the armour we should be wearing to win it.

In its most general way, this eternal purpose is outlined in chapter 1 and verse 10 as follows:

“That the Universe, all in heaven and on earth, might be brought to a unity in Christ.”

As the instrumentality to achieve this unity, by which even spiritual powers opposed to God will eventually be brought into subjection, we find the Church—this frail and very human, yet divine, institution to which we belong. In chapter 3, verse 10, we read of God’s purpose being hidden through ages:

“In order that now, through the Church, the wisdom of God in all its varied forms might be made known to the rulers and authorities in the realms of heaven.”

It is an incredible vision. It means that this church—this gathering of us sinful mortals Sunday by Sunday for the praise and honour of almighty God, with all our faults, jealousies and imperfections that we know only too well—has been catapulted into the front line of a cosmic conflict as a demonstration to the antagonistic powers of heaven of the superior power of love to all their apparent strength. Truly, if we believe this, the foolishness of God must surpass the wisdom of men! But if we accept Paul’s argument, then, quite simply, it will be the manner in which the Church resists the temptations and strengths of the powers of this world that will demonstrate the invincibility of God’s law of love, and bring the whole Universe into harmony under the leadership of Christ. God’s whole reputation—the success of His enterprise in creating this world—hangs on the faithfulness, morale, and will to win of this army in which we enlisted as soldiers at our Baptism, that is, his Church.

In this war in which we are engaged, who is our enemy? Who are these spiritual powers, endeavouring to control the world that God intended should be united under Christ?

One of these powers is the Economic power: the power of money, of the business world, of physical things needed to satisfy physical needs. The power that asked Jesus in the wilderness to satisfy his hunger by turning stones into bread. The power that persuaded Judas to sell his Master for thirty pieces of silver. The power that through the fear of poverty drives so many to avarice, exploitation of man and environment, cruelty, inhumanity, slavery. The power of Mammon, which has money for armaments, but not for food, and which even now, decrees suffering, poverty and starvation to large parts of the world, through mysterious and ill-explained economic ‘laws’.

Another power is the Political power: the power of soldiers, police and the State, coercing men into doing deeds that harm their fellow men, through the fear of punishments, or the fear that our fellow men, unless repressed, will break out and do us injury. The power that promised Jesus in the wilderness the rule of all the kingdoms of the world, if only he would bow down and worship it. The power that seduced Nebuchadnezzar, Alexander, Julius Caesar, Tamerlane, Genghis Khan, Napoleon, Hitler, and a host of other, lesser, would-be world conquerors to their doom. The power that even today imprisons so many of mankind under dictatorships and totalitarian governments of many different hues.

A third power is that of Tradition. The power of apparently immutable laws that were once of great value, and now have become hindrances to progress. The power of an enforced belief—the scientifically proved ‘god’ who has demonstrated Himself by a miracle of throwing Himself safely down from the Temple—the concept of God that the Chief Priests were so sure of, that they crucify the Son of God for blasphemy when He failed to fit into their mould. The power that cannot allow God Himself to enjoy free will, but insists that He walk within their narrow little bounds, for the sake of the consistency of their theological laws.

These are powers that, day after day in dozens of different ways, influence and control our lives. They are necessary for the orderly functioning of the world—but as servants under God, not taking God’s place and claiming to be worshiped themselves. Each is capable in some way or another, of placing a false God in the place of the true Creator of the world. They claim that honours and reverence are due to riches, to wisdom, to political power. Yet all of them, as Paul points out in his letter to the Colossians, “have been made a public example of”, because they are the powers that, individually and together, were responsible for the crucifixion of the Son of God. What reverence can we give to money, if money sold Jesus for the price of a slave? What reverence can we give to military power, if a timid Pilate sacrificed his conscience and Jesus’s life, because he feared his soldiers could not control a riot? What reverence can we give to our traditions, our laws, and our culture, if by those laws, the Son of God must die?

Christ has led the way, and in his train, year by year and century by century, the saints and martyrs of the church have fallen into line, and themselves defied poverty, defied popes, defied emperors, sacrificing their lives if need be, rather than give way to “spiritual wickedness in high places.” We too, are called to participate in this battle, and we must do so recognizing that this is not play acting. It is war to the death, in which the pain and the casualties are real. We are not going to escape without our bruises, heartaches and scars. It has been the blood of the martyrs that has been the seed of the church. It is our lives, our wealth and our comfort that have to be laid down, if we truly follow Christ’s path to “overcome evil with good.”

To fight this war, we are given six weapons, besides the weapon of prayer. Five of them are defensive, and only one, the Word of God, is offensive.

The first weapon of our defence is Truth. The powers of this world depend on lies to stir up our fears and secure our compliance. The world is full of Emperors parading without their clothes on—but it is a bold child who will, as in the Hans Anderson story, point the fact out. And we are to be properly clothed with the truth ourselves.

Secondly, the breastplate of Righteousness—one translation says ‘integrity’. What kind of witness does the Church give to the world if its own conduct does not pass examination? I am reminded of the old lady who made it a point of wearing clean underclothing at all times—just in case she fell under a bus and was taken to hospital, so she would not be ashamed. Something of that spirit of being ready to be examined, to be audited, any time no matter what time, is another weapon of our defense.

We have also to wear the helmet of Salvation—our assurance of being loved by God which saves us from going on ‘mind trips’ of doubt, which lead us to faithlessness and failure. How many dizzying blows to the head we can receive—often enough from modern, sceptical theology—if we will not rest in the assurance given us by the Gospel record of the incredible, eternal, sacrificial love of God to humankind, all of us, revealed to us by the cross of Jesus Christ?

Our feet are to be shod with the preparation of the Gospel of Peace. Some people interpret this as being guided in our journeyings by the needs of the Gospel. I rather think of a different picture—of hard, hand to hand combat in which the enemy has fallen to the ground, and I only need to put my boots to his face to put him out of action for ever. But I hold my action and extend mercy, not sacrifice. It reminds one of the mildness of the archangel Michael reported in the letter of Jude, who, when disputing with the devil over the body of Moses, used words no stronger than “the Lord rebuke you.”

Fifthly, Faith is our shield. The enemy is throwing fiery darts at us—Greek fire in those days, napalm in ours. Faith, actively wielded against the attack, keeps our bodies from being singed and burnt away in these attacks.

Our offensive weapon is a single one—the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God. That Word of God is Christ, and it is in demonstrating the nature and power of Christ’s love in our lives and in our conduct to others that we go on the offensive: our generosity and kindness ultimately makes the other powers wither away, because in a world where all are impelled by Love, there is no need for them.

Beyond this, lies prayer—the communications system between an army and its General that makes His strategy prevail. Prayer is how we call up the reinforcements we need. Prayer is how we ourselves receive our orders in order to fight effectively in this war.

So we are equipped as individual soldiers, and with these weapons we need not fear to go into battle. But I would like to make one last point.

Soldiers do not fight alone. This passage is addressed not just to them, but to the Army as a whole—the whole organized church. It is not a pretty picture in church history how often this army has been close to capture by the forces of the enemy—forces of greed, of stagnation, of political ambition. How many leaders of the organized church, over history, thought they were leading their church to success by using their temporal power to further their organization? There have been times when it seems as if the whole church has been ambushed and spiritually routed as a result of such bad generalship. It is a problem as serious in the Church today as ever in the past: the Church must never be deflected from its path of witness to God’s love, by fear of poverty, by fear of persecution, or by fear of breaking with tradition.

The war is fierce, and the combat hand-to-hand. At stake is the proof in the spiritual world of the wisdom of God’s way of love. God is relying on His church to believe, to be faithful and to stand its ground. We have promised to do this, each one of us, in our baptism. What is at stake is monumental in its importance. God depends on us, the Church, to fight for Him, and to win.

Are you ready for the battle?

– Text of a sermon delivered on August 28, 1988

Bereavement

One of the strange results of a bereavement is the effect it has on relationships.

What once was accepted, familiar, even taken for granted, has suddenly been put in question. Familiar places are suspect: they may contain dangers we had never before thought about. Familiar people are perhaps not the same as before. We feel guilty that we may have hurt them through the sorrow of our own tragedy. Our everyday bearings in a world which used to move so smoothly have been disturbed. Familiar worries and ambitions are out of place—they have become so ridiculously unimportant in the face of graver matters. Our compass no longer points to the magnetic pole we knew, and we have to reset it.

So part of the process of recovering from a bereavement is precisely this one of recapturing lost territory. To go downtown has never before been anything very difficult. To go downtown to the location where a murder has been committed is something else. To go to a public washroom to relieve oneself is nothing spectacular. To go to the particular washroom in the Churchill L.R.T. station where one’s daughter was killed is an act of courage, even of defiance.

So with people. In our minds, the crime of one person puts the fidelity of the whole human race in doubt. How easy to become a recluse, to trust nobody, to hide behind a cloak of mourning and self-pity. How easy to hate, to give way to stress, to fail to allow for the stress that others are under as well. Person by person, like an electrical system after a power failure, our relationships have to be checked out and rendered operative once again. Until then, an invisible barrier exists between us and our fellows, which can so easily over time harden into stone.

The good news of bereavement is, however, of the incredible compassion and sympathy of ordinary people, impotent, often enough, to do anything more than express their grief in a letter or card, and add their prayers to the thousands already being offered. Sympathy expressed in cards, in letters, in flowers, in food, in kind deeds beyond the call of duty, in a visit, a handshake, a prayer, a tear or a hug—how much these mean! The shock and horror that others share with us is a step back for us to normalcy. Our grief at something so horrific and unexpected is shown to us to be normal, when we witness the same reaction in others.

The most remarkable experience is to find oneself quietly made a member of an invisible club—a club with many more members than one would ever realize—the fellowship of those who have suffered. The owner of a pizza store, whose brother was shot ten years ago by a sniper in Lebanon. The elderly lady whose sister was the victim of a yet unsolved break-in and murder. The widow whose husband never came back from the war. Parents whose children have disappeared or who have died. For a moment the scars and the suffering, normally borne in silence, are displayed as a kind of secret badge of membership. Then they are put away again, so that the world as a whole will be spared the anguish of another’s private grief. But the bond has been established, and will always be there.

There is no way of joining this club except by a path that no member would wish even on his worst enemy. Yet, the entrance fee once paid, few indeed are those who would go back to the days before their sorrow struck them. Members of this community have been forced by events to dig very deeply within themselves. Strangely enough, it is from these depths that they have recovered a hidden treasure of peace and joy in the midst of sorrow, of more value to them than anything else the world can offer.

– Gemini, September 1988

Fatherhood, Faith, and Freewill

This message was given in response to an invitation from the Camrose Full Gospel Businessmens’ Association, at a dinner about fifteen months after Cathy’s murder.

Thank you so much for asking me to share my story with you tonight. I am happy to see so many of you here, and extra tables being brought in. I do want to apologize to your President, Alan Brager, because I hesitated for some time after receiving his invitation to speak to you tonight, without saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’, before saying that I would come. That is always an awkward thing for speakers to do to people running meetings of this kind.

My reason for hesitating was this. November 10th is my birthday. It is a birthday that I share with my daughter Cathy Greeve, who was murdered in a subway station on the Edmonton L.R.T. just over a year ago. So today is a rather special day, and it carries some bitter-sweet memories. Forgive me, then, if what I say tonight is a little bit personal.

Let me start by giving you some background about my own spiritual life. I was born in England in 1932, and brought up in a good religious home as a regular attender at the Anglican church. I went to a boarding school where religious instruction was a regular part of the curriculum, and daily Chapel was the routine. I did well in my studies, and ended up with a Scholarship to Cambridge University. In those days, shortly after World War II, all young men reaching 18 were drafted for two years of military service, so after completing school I was drafted as a rather reluctant soldier, along with a good number of other rather reluctant soldiers, into the Royal Artillery.

In the stress and loneliness of Army life, I found myself disappointed that the religion I had been brought up with didn’t really seem very helpful. However, I do remember from that period that we had two young Bombardiers with us, unashamed members of the Salvation Army. They stood out in our rather demoralized regiment as stable, cheerful and reliable soldiers, no matter what was asked of them: glowing with a sort of inner glow that I wished I had had myself. It was a very powerful testimony.

When I went up to University with my full time service completed, one of the first people to greet me was a friend from my old school. In my room that evening he asked me a question that puzzled and rather insulted me—“Are you a Christian?” I said I thought I was. He went on to ask: “But do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?” That was something new to me, and I didn’t really know what he meant. So he went on to talk about talking to Jesus, confessing my sins, accepting his forgiveness, and asking him to take charge of my life. So that is what I did.

From that day on, I was very surprised to find a number of things changing. Verses in the Bible started to jump off the page and talk to me as if they had been printed in three dimensions. I started sleeping very well at night. I started a habit of ‘quiet time’ with God each day which I have maintained ever since, and which has done more than anything else in my life to keep me sane. I began to realize that for years, while I thought I had been looking for God, I had been deliberately turning my back on him so that I wouldn’t see him. Finding God was not a matter of searching any farther. It just meant turning around and starting to talk face to face with Jesus as a person. He’s been there all the time!

Since then, I have been busy around the church in many ways. I directed church choirs for many years—that was where I met my wife after coming to Canada in 1956. I was a lay reader and a delegate to the General Synod of the Anglican Church—which was where I met a group involved in the Baptism of the Spirit. In 1972 I was asked by the Bishop of Edmonton to allow myself to be ordained as a Priest “in secular employment.” I have had a very fulfilling ministry acting as an assistant priest in various ways ever since that time. In the secular world, as many of my friends here will know, I have earned my living as a lawyer, and worked hard also in the political field in the Social Credit party, without, I am afraid, having too much to show for it all.

Florence and I were married in September 1956. We had three children, all daughters. Catherine was born on my birthday in 1958: Nancy when I was working for Social Credit leader Robert Thompson in Ottawa in 1963, and Janet after we returned to Edmonton, in 1966. All three of them are graduates of the Baptist Leadership Training School in Calgary, where they went after finishing Grade 12. Both Cathy and Nancy were Valedictorians. Cathy was married, with two young boys, Jonathan and Rowan. She and her husband Tony were people who loved the Lord, and had a real music ministry, singing at weddings in particular: many of the songs on the sheet we have used tonight carry the sort of message she loved to sing about. She was a person who bore many of the problems of life—including not the least a shortage of money, with a happy laugh. She was very much appreciated and valued in the positions she held in the work place. And she it was, who was very suddenly taken away from us by this murder on August 3rd, 1988.

It is almost impossible for me to describe to you just what a blow a sudden loss like this is to a family. Some of you, I am sure, have experienced losses in your own lives, and you will know what I mean. None of us can tell ahead of time when such a loss will happen. What I’d like to do in the time I have with you is to share some of the spaces I have been and the thoughts I have had since then, trying to reconcile this loss with my faith in a loving God whose will in the end controls the Universe.

I would like to think of this under three headings: Firstly, the Fatherhood of God, Secondly, the Free Will that God has given us, and finally, the effect of all this on our Faith.

The Fatherhood of God

Jesus teaches us that God is our Father. When we are little children, we have a very different idea of fatherhood from when we are grown up. To a three year old child, fathers are very big, very strong, sometimes very frightening. There is nothing a father cannot do. If we ask father for anything, he can provide it. If he doesn’t do it, it’s not because he’s got other things to do, but because he can’t hear us or he doesn’t like us. That’s the child’s view. Many people share this rather childish view of what God the Father is like. If things go wrong, then, it isn’t because God has other plans and considerations that are more important than our bodily comfort. We think it’s because Father either doesn’t care, has no power, or has deliberately let us down.

As we get older, get married, have children, we realize that being a father is not quite that easy. There’s bills to pay, income to be earned, a job to be found, a boss to be kept happy, demands on our time in filling the needs of others: working hours and conditions that sometimes place limits on our family life. There’s training and responsibility in bringing children up—teaching them to wait, to share, to study, to help around the home. There’s times when our children disappoint us, fail, need discipline, or need encouragement. Being a father is not an easy task!

The Father Jesus talks about is much more the way that adults know Fathers really are. Jesus speaks of fathers who are worried, or who are betrayed. There is the father who had a son who was asked to do some work: his son said he would, and never did it. There is the father whose son took half the family fortune, wasted it all, and then came back home and asked for a job. That father had another son who broke his father’s heart because he would not forgive his wastrel brother for what he had done. There are kings who entrust great riches to servants who betray them. One king, in particular, is a father who rents out his vineyards to tenants and sends his servants to collect the rent, and they are mistreated and driven away. In the end, he sends his only son, thinking that they would reverence him—and they kill him, wanting the vineyard all to themselves. That is the picture Jesus gives us of God the father, and of the way people, and often religious people, have behaved towards him.

It’s a thing I see in my own law practice—respectable middle aged clients, who would never in their lives get in trouble with the law, shamefacedly coming into my office, needing the services of a lawyer, because their young children have wrecked the car, got impaired, been caught shoplifting, or something similar that brings the whole family into disrepute. They are ready to pay the price to have the problem put right. God is that kind of a father, too. Jesus says that “He who has seen me, has seen the Father.” God isn’t some kind of Roman Emperor, allowing his son to die while sitting unmoved on his throne. He is as broken hearted father, having given everything for the good of his children, and received so little by way of love, obedience and thanks from them in return. When, on the evening of August 3rd, in the basement of the house where Tony and Cathy had been living, the police broke the news to us that Catherine was dead, Tony had his pastor come over. Thank God that he spoke to us then about the Cross. That way, God becomes to us not an unfeeling tyrant, whose commands have taken away someone very dear to us. He is one who has himself lived through the loss of His son. He shares our broken heartedness at the wickedness of mankind. We share his sufferings and his loss.

Freewill

Why, then, does God our Father allow such terrible things to happen to us? The answer comes, surprisingly enough, in the depth of his love. God loves mankind so much that he won’t say ‘no’ to us. He has given us Free Will. The world didn’t stop in the days following Cathy’s death. In my duties as a minister, I was called on a number of times to take Sunday services, and I found myself very much helped in working through my own grief and perplexities by having to preach on the Bible passages set for the week. One of these, soon after death, was the story of David and Absalom. You probably know it well. King David had a number of wives, and a number of children. Most of these children grew up as spoiled brats, and the record of II Samuel indicates that their father had never denied them anything in their lives. One of them, Absalom, in particular, saw his father growing old, and thought he could do a better job as King, and so organized a revolution. King David was forced to flee from Jerusalem, by a route to be followed later by Jesus himself—across the brook Kidron, up the Mount of Olives, and then into the wilderness across the Jordan.

David’s army rallied to him to fight Absalom, and he gave them strict instructions to spare Absalom’s life. Absalom lost the battle, and as he rode away through the forest, his long hair got caught in a tree, his mule moved on, and he was left, a sitting target, hanging between heaven and earth. Some of the soldiers there remembered their orders, and left him. However David’s general, Joab, took a spear, ran him through, and killed him. When David heard the news, he was heartbroken. No matter that he had won the battle. All that he could think of was the son he had lost—“Would I had died for thee, Absalom my son!”

David’s conduct here is a picture of the love of God for every lost sinner who has ever rebelled against him. If I were God, I am sure that I wouldn’t have that capacity to love those who sin and those who rebel. But thank God that I’m not God. That love of God for man, shown in a picture for us by David for his rebellious son Absalom, is the grounds upon which we can come back to our Father, even when we have sinned against him, and ask for his forgiveness and receive it. That same love cost the life of Jesus. That same love, if we are truly to be “children of our Father in heaven”, makes it necessary for us ‘good guys’ to pay the price of sin in this world, in our own undeserved losses and sufferings. It is the price we believers pay so that those who are now straying from the commands of God will be able one day to be reconciled to their Father.

Faith

How then has my Faith stood up to all this battering? I think a number of us secretly wonder at the way we might react, if at some time things really went wrong in our lives. Religion can be fine when the skies are sunny and the days are warm: what when the clouds darken and the storms come and the days grow cold? Can God still be trusted then?

The good news I can give you is that where God gives the problem, God also gives the strength. I started keeping a list around this time of all the strange coincidences and happenings that seemed to indicate to me that a hidden hand was at work. It came to about thirty items in just a few weeks. The enormous sense we had of Cathy’s presence in the days following her death, guiding us in the funeral arrangements. The insurance policies that had been placed on her life, one by her Credit Union only the night before her death. The thunder and brief rainstorm that took place during the funeral service, and the great square cloud with a roll of thunder, but no rain, that came up during the interment of her ashes. The finding of a house for Tony and the children, bought with insurance money, in the area where we live, at a reasonable price, with the sale contract signed within twelve hours of commencing our search. My association with the Prison Fellowship, which had led to my first visit to the Edmonton Institution only a month before, and where I was due to speak just three days after the murder took place. The ministry of preaching I was given in the weeks following the loss. I could not get away from the feeling that God was writing the script for a story I could not yet fully understand, and my part was to follow him, without always knowing the way, or how things would end.

There was also a very positive side to this disaster, and it was in the torrent of love and sympathy that swept over us from friends in all directions, but particularly from the church. Our living room was filled with flowers, and I recall Florence pointing out to one visiting clergyman that every single arrangement came from someone we knew who had also lost a loved one. There was food that arrived from all quarters, including two roast chickens with potatoes and vegetables that some people from Nancy’s church brought around just when we felt we could never face cold meat and cheese again. There was the efficiency and tact of the funeral director, of the police, and the concern of so many of my fellow clergy. There was prayer—prayers from all directions and all parts of the country, that continue and uphold us even now. It is true that there was one deranged murderer at large in the city responsible for this death—but the other side of the story the press never got around to telling was the incredible kindness and concern of thousands of people, who remembered us with prayers, letters, flowers, food and helpful services, and we can never thank them enough. It was an experience of Christian love that I am never going to forget.

One thing I learned and I pass on to you was the value of one’s regular spiritual life. A loss like this comes on you like a surprise test at school. You have to rely at such a time on the resources you have piled up in the routine of worship and daily study over the years, no matter how dry these seemed to be at the time. I think that the pastors here will know what I mean when I say that one of the most tragic situations a minister ever has to deal with is to have to console a family that has lost a loved one to sudden death, when they have no religious roots, no grounding in the familiar psalms, hymns and scriptures that can bring comfort to the bereaved. Cathy wasn’t like that. She was a person who loved her Lord and let the world know it—it was something of a family joke that she and Tony were always waiting to be ‘raptured’. So the funeral preparations were not all sadness. They were rather a chance to speak and sing out her faith, as she surely would have liked us to do, and the service itself was a very uplifting experience—as a funeral service really ought to be.

These experiences have certainly also changed me. I was recently reading a book called Roses in December, a lovely study of loss by a woman who herself has lost three children in her family at different stages in their lives. One question she had been asked was “Wouldn’t you like it if all this hadn’t happened, and you could have your children back?” Her answer goes very deep. She says: “Of course I would like to have my children back. However, I would not like to go back to being the person I was before I lost them.” I find that our family has quietly joined a secret club that I never before knew existed: the society of those who have suffered loss, many of those losses even more tragic than our own. But I also find that those wounds provide us with the compassion and the power we need to help and heal others in their troubles. This has become a new and wonderful factor in my life.

One particular aspect of this is that I have started looking at sin and sinners in rather a different way. It’s so easy to classify the world into ‘good guys’ (who aren’t in jail) and ‘bad guys’ (who are). It’s even easier of people to go on from there and think that because they aren’t in jail, they must be good. That flies against Paul’s text that, “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” Rather, I see sin now as a spiritual force attacking all of us, and gaining control of some, and our mission to those under its control is one to deliver, not to punish. One clear result of all this trouble has been a very strong call to involve myself in the prison ministry.

The final element relating to my faith comes in relation to two classes of people whose conduct very much disturbed me. What had happened had hurt them, and they wanted as little to do with us as possible. One class I had rather expected. It was those whose lives up to that point had been built on the rewards of this life—career, reputation, a good home, money in the bank. For them to know that all these things could be lost to them without advance warning in the time it takes to visit a public washroom downtown was a horrible and unpleasant challenge, and some people couldn’t face it.

The second class of people surprised me. These were people who often were active in Christian work, but it had been on the basis that they did great things for God, and God was going to do great things (in the material world) for them. For a clean-living Christian girl who loved her Saviour to be treated the way Cathy was appeared to them as a denial of the love of God and a denial of their faith.

There are two consecutive Psalms in the Bible, which many of you may know quite well. I understand that in the Hebrew, they go very closely together. One is Psalm 22, starting with the words Christ used on the Cross: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” It continues with a terrible, graphic description of death by crucifixion—the parched mouth, the pierced feet, the bones out of joint. The next Psalm is the well-known Psalm 23: “He restoreth my soul”—“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” At first sight, you would hardly think these two Psalms are talking about the same God.

If you look closely, though, you will note a subtle difference. The first Psalm is talking about the body. The second about the soul. The body perishes, the soul endures. God, it appears, is prepared to be absolutely brutal to our bodies, to prepare our souls for everlasting life. We have to learn to lose everything in this world, so as to be prepared for the life to come. This is the lesson that Job in the Old Testament had to learn. To begin with, he did everything for God, and God did everything for him. Then the time came when God had to learn whether Job was faithful just for what he got from his religion—and Job had to learn that God’s love continued for him even when he was so down that he had nothing to offer. It is a lesson for us religious folk as well.

I had a friend who came here from Ethiopia as a university student. The first September he was here, he was absolutely appalled as the trees in our river valley changed into brilliant fall colours of yellow, orange and red, and later fell off entirely. In his native country, where the seasons do not change between summer and winter, the only reason that leaves turn colour and fall off the trees is that they are suffering from some dreadful disease. In his eyes, the whole tree population of Edmonton’s river valley was sick and dying.

Of course, we know he was wrong. The leaves fall from the tree in the fall, but we need not despair. Spring will come next year, and the trees will be clothed in a new set of leaves.

Are we like the Ethiopian when we think about death? Or do we know that our bodies, our possessions, are only the leaves of the tree? Winter will come and we will shed them. But the trunk of the tree is the soul, grounded in the root of God’s spirit. The leaves will turn colour and fall—yet do we know that when winter is over, springtime and a new covering awaits us, more glorious than the one we have left behind? That is part of the Gospel message.

Some of you here may be in one of those two groups. You may not yet have learned to look beyond the things of this world, and realize that these do not last. Or perhaps you are one of those whose faith has been shattered by the harsh knocks we sometimes receive in this world. I wonder if I can help you with a little exercise in your imagination.

Imagine we are back at Halloween—a time of year when we think of death, and I am told, it is when folk memory records the tenth day of the second month, when Noah went into the ark, before the rest of a sinful world was overtaken by sudden death. Imagine you are at home, on Halloween night. Outside, it is cold, and the wind is blowing. Horrible creatures, ghosts and evil spirits are outside your front door, asking for treats from you with threats of tricks and mischief. You hardly dare open the door. (The name of that door, by the way, is Death.) Suddenly, however, you hear outside a friendly and familiar voice, asking to be let in. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock”, says Jesus, “if any man hear my voice and open the door, I will come in, and sup with, and he with me.”

Cautiously, we open this door, and let our friend in. We apologize for the mess our house is in. We ask him to stay for supper. While we are getting things ready in the kitchen, we are surprised and pleased to see our dusty, messy house gradually become clean and tidy as he tidies and dusts a little bit here, and a little bit there. The house of our lives is transformed by his presence, becomes bright and shining inside, and we have a wonderful meal together.

If this is something you have never done, I invite you to do this now. Forget your fears, open the door, and say “Come into my life, Lord Jesus.” He will come in, just as he has promised.

But that’s not the end of the story. The dinner is over, and Jesus leans over and says to you: “It’s my turn now. Come over to my house. I go to prepare a place for you. Come to my wedding feast.”

It’s easy to be frightened again—frightened by the idea of witches and goblins and ghosts and all the paraphernalia of fear that we think lies on the other side of that door of death. But the Bible says that Jesus came “to set free all those who, through fear of death, spent all their lifetime in bondage.” (Hebrews 2:15) On the other side of that door is not fear and punishment, but the same Paradise that Jesus promised to the penitent thief on the Cross. The banquet is the King’s feast, that so many mortals refuse to attend.

Those of you who claim to be Christians here—are you ready to follow Jesus through that door marked ‘Death’ when he calls you? Are you willing, even filled with joy, to allow those whom you love to hear his call and travel there, knowing that to be with Christ is ‘far better’? Or are you so scared by the hobgoblins of Halloween that you are still a prisoner?

Jesus has come to set us free from this prison. What is on the far side of the door is far more wonderful than the humble house here on earth in which we spend our lives. What I am asking all of you to say to Jesus, right now in your heart of hearts, both for yourselves and your loved ones, is this:

“Thank you, Jesus, for this invitation to your banquet. I accept. When your call comes to me that it is time to go, I will be ready to pass through that door of death, and will be honoured and happy to join you. When that call comes to those whom I love, I will be willing to let them go, looking forward to the time when I too will be able to join them again with you in heaven. Amen.”

– Text of a lecture delivered in November 1989

The Foolishness of God

Our Epistle reading today was so short, that when I have taken my text out of it, there is very little left—yet it goes to the heart of the Gospel message. St. Paul’s proclamation is of “Christ crucified”, and he says:

“Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”

The Book of Acts gives us a picture of what St. Paul’s missionary journeys were like. Usually, he would come first to the Jewish synagogue in a new town, and be welcomed and asked to preach, an interesting new man with an intriguing message—that the long awaited Messiah who was to deliver the Jewish people from their oppression had now come to his people. His welcome changed to outrage, however, when the message was given that the Christ who came was not a conquering hero, set to right all the wrongs of the past with his sword, but a suffering servant, betrayed by his own people, dying out of love, not only for the Jews, but the Gentile world as well. The crucified Christ, to the Jews, was a stumbling block. He wasn’t the sort of deliverer that they wanted or expected.

Usually, after that, Paul went to the Gentiles—often to Greeks who had become interested in the Jewish religion, but were not full members of the synagogue. He would teach in a secular building—a school or lecture hall. But, as we read in the history of a sermon he gave in Athens, he had his problems there. He could draw on the many similarities between Jewish teachings about God and Greek philosophy, but when he came to the idea of a God who had a purpose in history, who called people to service, and showed his power in miracles, and in particular in the raising of Jesus Christ from the dead, many dismissed him as a ‘quack’ and lost all interest. They had their own idea of what God could and could not do: the idea that events could happen outside such boundaries was unacceptable foolishness.

It reminds me of one of my favourite stories, of Thor Heyerdahl, the Norwegian explorer who shortly after World War II sailed on a primitive raft across the Pacific. In the middle of the night, while he was asleep, one of the other crew members on the watch hooked a coelacanth—a primitive fish from the Jurassic era, that scientists had believed extinct for sixty million years. He excitedly woke up Heyerdahl, to show him this incredible find. Heyerdahl opened up one eye, looked at the fish, and muttered “Impossible! Creatures like that don’t exist.”—and went to sleep again. In the same way, modern, ‘scientific’, man will so often tune the miraculous out of the Gospel story—we have panels of theologians marking Christ’s words in red, or pink or grey, doubting the resurrection, the miracles, the Virgin birth, or what have you. These things seem to them too strange to be believed, and so, Greek style, are dismissed as foolishness.

What, then, is left if we reject the limited picture of God enjoyed by Jew and Greek? It is St. Paul’s gospel of Christ crucified and risen again from the dead. It is of a Creator God with so intense a love for his creation that, in spite of all its failures and rebellion, he loves it to the point of death itself. It is of a God who quite literally is ‘madly in love’—the kind of zeal that we see in the Gospel for today when we read of Christ’s concern for the purity and holiness of the Temple. It is of a Jesus, the Christ, who expressed this nature of God in his life of obedience, teaching, caring and suffering. It is of a call to Christ’s followers both to accept this incredibly tolerant love, and to pass it on both to God and to the rest of God’s world.

The point is this: God’s nature is a matter of fact, even though there may be all sorts of theories about it. If our theories are wrong, then we are simply wasting our efforts and our breath on foolishness. What God is like is as much a question of fact as what Mount Everest is like. To follow the analogy further, the Jew is like someone who sets out to climb the mountain, but half way up it gets so steep and threatening, that he stops there, and announces to the world that he has reached the top. The Greek is like a person who, finding the actual mountain too difficult and dangerous to climb, goes and climbs some different mountain altogether, and after climbing it, says he has reached the top of Mount Everest. The top of the true spiritual mountain, the concept of a God who in passionate love gives his all for the good of his world, is not reached in either case.

To illustrate what I mean, I have a story for you and a confession. For the past seven years, I have carried around a letter in my briefcase, unanswered. Only in the last two weeks have I summoned up the courage to answer it. The letter was from my daughter Catherine, now deceased, and was a very difficult one for a father to receive. Essentially, it was a reproach, in the form of a poem, to a father who was too busy with important projects to improve the world, that he never had time to share in his daughters’ lives, and simply be a father to them. It pointed out that the very highest title of God, our heavenly Father, was ‘Abba’, or ‘Daddy’.

This whole matter came up recently in my discussions with a friend who was preparing some written material concerning Cathy’s death. She asked if I could, perhaps even at this time, put in writing a response to this message. So I have put pen to paper, and this was my reply:

The ‘Perfect’ Daddy

Gee, what a mess
God has made of the Universe –
And all because he cares
For everyone ahead of his own family!

Busy, Busy, Busy –
Out to Save the World –
Letting humankind get away with murder
Too soft to wipe them all out and start again.

Putting the last to the head of the line –
Paying off workers in full, who come in late –
Forgiving the stewards who plundered his estate –
Feasting the wastrel boy who came home broke –

Worst of all, there was the way he treated his son on the Cross
in all the agony of rejection, shame and death:
Son pleading to his Father “God, why have you dumped me?”
Father giving him nothing for an answer.

It’s the price of caring for others
That we have no time for our own
The cobbler’s children have no shoes –
A cruelty we hardly equate with love.

Oh, my poor lamb! It hurts that I could never answer your letter:
Hurts that you felt so abandoned and lost:
Hurts that you sensed such a distance between us –
Hurts that our Father has forced us both to walk
The way of the Cross.

– Text of a sermon delivered in March 1994

Faith, Hope, Love

It is great to be back with you at St. Peter’s. I don’t remember all the sermons I have given here over the years—I hope you do!—but an incident last week reminded me of one that ties in with the theme of this first Sunday after Easter—a time when we can reflect on the meaning of the great events of Holy Week, Good Friday, and Easter, and what they all mean for us.

The sermon was on the last Sunday of July in 1988. The subject was the death of the innocent child who was the result of King David’s sinful lust for Bathsheba, the wife of his general, Uriah. The message was how innocent people suffer as a result of the sins of others. I recall using the opening words that “Sometimes the stories in the Bible are more up-to-date than the headlines in tomorrow’s newspaper”—not knowing that before the end of the week, the newspaper headlines would be of the murder of my daughter, Catherine, by a person then unknown.

What brought this to my mind was a questionnaire that I received last week from a representative of a victim’s organization, who was preparing a Master’s thesis on the reaction of victims to crime, particularly in connection with how they were treated by the justice system. It was an enormous document, twenty foolscap pages long, with, I believe, seventy five different questions. One of them, however, stood out in my mind as being especially interesting:

“Have your views on God or religion changed as a result of this tragedy. If so, how?”

It seemed to me that this question did not only apply to my own situation, but also to the church. It is so easy in the church to take the Cross simply as a symbol, and forget the horror and the injustice of the betrayal and crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the man who had spent his life teaching, healing and caring for others. The goings on of Good Friday were indeed a tragedy, and we could well ask ourselves how they have affected our views on God and on religion.

The answers I gave to this question did not take me long, but they rather surprised me by how definite they were. The first part of my answer ran as follows:

“Yes – a really terrifying appreciation of the depth of the love of God for sinners who don’t deserve it.”

Perhaps that needs some explanation. All of us in our lives are faced with tragedies of some sort or another—times where, if we really believe in a God who is “Maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible”—including human history—we think he hasn’t done a very good job. In our first lesson, Peter talks about Jesus as being, “This man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God”, and it is easy to wonder in such a case what God is up to. Perhaps he doesn’t care. Perhaps he’s simply powerless against evil. Perhaps he is hostile to his own people. Perhaps he simply doesn’t exist at all. All these are thoughts that can well run through a person’s mind when some disaster strikes us and we try to make sense of it.

One other explanation is possible, however. It is that God has such an incredible love for sinners, that he is prepared to put the life of his own Son on the line, in order to be reconciled to them. As St. Paul puts it: (Romans 5:7)

“Rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person, someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners, Christ died for us.”

It is hard to believe in such an incredible love. If this is the love that God also expects us to show to the undeserving, it makes following in Christ’s footsteps a very painful thing. Which brings me to the second part of my answer:

“A really terrifying appreciation … of my own hatred of God and Jesus Christ for having such an attitude.”

There’s a story behind that reply. Some eighteen months after the murder I was talking about, I found myself depressed and restless, without knowing exactly why. I followed some advice from my second daughter, to connect depression with suppressed anger, and try expressing that anger in physical action and see what came into my mind. So I started shadow boxing, and before long, got taken up in a fury I had never known in my life before. But what surprised me the most was the object of that fury—it was not the perpetrator of the murder. It was Jesus Christ himself. If the soldiers who flogged him before the Crucifixion had not done their job well, I would gladly have taken over. I punched and I punched and I punched.

After a while, I calmed down and reflected what was going on. It was something that Jesus had himself talked about in the parables. In the parable of the Prodigal Son, it was the anger of the elder brother against the father who loved his wastrel son enough to take him back, when he had spent half the family fortune, and left the elder brother to do all the dirty work for a very long time. It was the anger of the vineyard workers who had received their wages for a day’s work in the hot sun, and then found those who had come at the last hour were being paid just as much as they were. It is so easy for us to pride ourselves on our religious observances, all the services we have attended, all the sacrifices we have made, and think we are entitled to something better from God than everyone else. But when we are dealing with infinite Love, that doesn’t happen. As the Psalmist says, “His compassion is over all that he has made.” As the landowner said to his workers, “Is your eye evil because mine is good?” It is a very humbling thing to find that one has in one’s heart that attitude of the Pharisee, that God owes us something for all our good works—and realize that not only is that concept completely false, but it puts us on the side of the enemies of Christ when we come to the events of Good Friday.

So let us examine these concepts in the light of our readings today. We hear about Thomas—the disciple who was convinced into belief by the risen Jesus. It’s worth noting that there is more than one lesson here. First, of course, that Jesus’s presence and his wounds convinced Thomas that Jesus had been raised from the dead. But secondly, in his words “My Lord and my God”, we know that he has recognized, in the Jesus he had come to know, the character of God himself. So, thirdly, there is a new view of God the Father, not as an angry old man casting thunderbolts on the earth from Mount Sinai, but as infinite love, sacrificing his only Son for the sake of the salvation of humankind.

This theme of faith continues in our Epistle from St. Peter. This letter was written to Christians ‘of the dispersion’—refugees from religious persecution who had set themselves up in the modern Turkey, perhaps having fled from Rome as a result of the ban on Jews living in Rome made by the Emperor Claudius. This was the situation of Aquila and Priscilla whom St. Paul had met in Corinth. (Acts 18) We hear that they are, “Protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed at the last time.” That faith, knowing that Christ was the Son of God and had risen from the dead, would carry them in confidence through all the trials of persecution, even through death itself.

But faith is not all. In this passage we also meet hope. Peter’s readers have “A new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” And thirdly, love. St. John says “We love, because He first loved us.” For the same reason, Peter says “Although you have not seen him [Christ], you love him.” God’s great love for us and for mankind, once we recognize and understand it, is the fire that lights a flame of love for God and our neighbour in our own hearts.

So as we go forward from the great events of Holy Week and Easter, can I put four questions to you?

First: Have your views on God and on religion changed as a result of this tragedy—and if so, how?

Secondly: Are you prepared with Thomas, to acknowledge in this risen Jesus “My Lord and my God?”

Thirdly: Are you jealous of the fact that God is “kind to the unthankful and the evil” just as much as to yourself, or do you celebrate this as an expression of the infinite depths of his love, and pass on this good news to those who could profit by it?

Fourthly: Do you, right now, enjoy that “living hope” of the resurrection into the “life of the world to come”?

In the Gospel story of the “Day of Questions” in Holy Week, we hear how the Sadducees tried to trip Jesus up, and prove that the resurrection idea was foolish, by a story of a woman who had seven husbands in succession—“In the resurrection, whose husband will she be?” Jesus points out their ignorance: points out that even in the Old Testament, God appears to Moses as the “God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob” … “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for all are alive to him.”

So may this resurrection Faith inspire us with Hope and fill us with Love for both God and neighbour, as we go with renewed courage into the world, filled with the joy and power of the good news of Easter.

– Text of a sermon delivered in April 1996

Resilience

[notes for a presentation to students of Grant MacEwan College, Edmonton, March 14, 2000]

Introduction

My thanks to Grant MacEwan College for the opportunity to speak to you today on this very interesting subject. I guess that most of you here are gearing towards a career in one or other of the ‘helping professions’. You will be hoping to glean ideas that may help you to help others who in some way or another have been battered by the storms of life. I hope, though, that before we finish, you will realize that it is not only other people who have disasters in life—sometime or another, they may very well strike you as well.

None of us are going to get out of this world alive, and troubles are things that can strike anyone, at any time. That includes both me and you. Furthermore, I hope that none of you think I have some sort of secret pill that will give instant relief, like a headache remedy on TV, when disaster strikes. There isn’t one. The upside of that is that, as you develop your own ability to cope with difficulties, you will also learn better and better how to relate to others who are having their own problems to handle, and that is what I would like to talk about today.

Background

My background, and qualifications to speak on this subject of resilience, come from a few life experiences I have had, and would be happier not to have had. I was born in England in 1932, grew up in the years of the depression, was evacuated to live with relatives when war broke out in 1939, and my years from seven to fourteen were spent with boarding school sirens, bombs, air raids, gas masks, shortages, rationing, and the associated stresses of war. My parents emigrated to Edmonton in 1953, after the war: my father, a lawyer who for many years was interested in money reform and the Social Credit movement, was fascinated by the success that Alberta’s Social Credit government had had in getting the Province out of debt and restoring prosperity after it was elected in 1935, and wanted to write a book about it. However, he died suddenly of a heart attack when I had just passed my 21st birthday; my mother died of cancer about eight years later. I myself came out to Edmonton to join the family when I had finished my two years of military service and four years of University education, in 1956. I married my wife Florence in 1957, and we had a family of three daughters.

Apart from a two year stint in Ottawa on the staff of the House of Commons, I have lived in Edmonton since 1956 and practised as a lawyer. Alongside my involvement in law and politics, I have also been involved in the Anglican church, first as a lay reader and choir director, and later as a ‘priest in secular employment’, an unpaid part-time helper in ministry.

My eldest daughter, Catherine Greeve, aged 28 and mother of two young boys, was found strangled in a washroom at the Churchill L.R.T. station early in the afternoon of August 3rd, 1988. Actually, this was the last of four deaths of children of members of our law firm that took place in only a five year period—one to sickness, one to accident, and two to criminal activity, of which she was one.

An event like this death is totally unexpected. It changes a person’s life so much that I think of the history of my life now in two phases—B.C. (standing for ‘Before Cathy’), and A.D. (meaning ‘After Death’). And the consequences of something like this go on and on and on, never ending, and spreading out like ripples on a pond in most unexpected ways.

The Effect of Homicide

What I can tell you about the effects of homicide comes simply from what I have seen myself, and in my family, and among the group of others affected by it whom I meet regularly in a support group that we have in Edmonton sponsored by the CAVEAT organization. People are different, circumstances are different, their reactions are different, but yet there are some factors common to us all.

  • We have been taken by surprise. This earth shattering event has burst on us without any advance warning. Unlike, say, a death from sickness or cancer, we have had no time to prepare our minds in anticipation.
  • We are not professionals. Unlike lawyers, the police, the courts and so on, we in general are ordinary folk who know very little about crime and the justice system, and most of this comes from detective stories and American shows on the television, which are very different from real life. We expect our justice system, perhaps a bit unrealistically, to somehow make things right for us, to help us and protect us. We are often very disappointed in this hope.
  • We are angry. Anger is the natural human reaction when we, or anyone we care about, is treated with disdain. We cannot control it, even when we try. Our anger has a way of breaking out quite irrationally against anyone who we met in our way—family, police, media, criminals, even ourselves.
  • We are confused. Emotions flood over us. No one has ever taught us how to deal with a situation like this. We are suddenly in the public eye. We have unexpected tasks to carry out. We have all sorts of practical problems created by a sudden loss. We need sympathy and practical help, and we don’t always know where to find it.
  • We have become hyper-vigilant. ‘Once bitten’, we are ‘twice shy’. We can become fusspots, worried about minor matters, seeing fearful things around each corner, under every bed. We tend to be suspicious of everything and everyone. We can become obsessed with health concerns, germs, tidiness, fear of assault or other crimes, uncontrollably paranoid. It’s ‘Post-traumatic stress syndrome’. Be patient. Just remember what we’ve been through.
  • We are overwhelmed. The rest of the world goes on with its many interests: we have one subject filling our minds, going over the same ground over and over again—and we can’t stop it. Our attention may be so utterly caught up in our loss that we forget to cook, to feed or care for ourselves: we become absent minded, and often completely hopeless at doing our daily work. This disorientation can last for a very long time.
  • We have flashbacks. Memories and feelings from the past get joined with our present situation, and we may well slip back into childish emotions and behaviour, and relive unpleasant experiences from the past that we thought we had forgotten. Poor sleeping, reveries and dreams are common, some pleasant, many not so.
  • We have been tainted by the crime. The social groups we have belonged to have a way of melting away. People connect us with the crime, and may want to put some distance between us and them, as if we had some sort of disease. When this happens within a family, unless we deliberately determine to stay and support each other, it can well lead us to divorce and marriage breakdown.
  • We cannot ‘get over it’. It is impossible to get over a serious loss as if it had never happened, any more than it is possible to get over losing a limb. The best we can do is to learn how to carry on with life in our new circumstances, ‘sadder but wiser.’ You will have to learn to live with us in that frame of mind.
  • Lastly, though, we are filled with energy and a new seriousness. That anger I referred to earlier is an emotion that gives us the power to work to put things right. If turned inwards on ourselves, it will lead us into depression. But given an outlet, it will lead us to write letters to the papers, petition Parliament, organize groups to fight crime, and do a hundred and one other things that seem to us useful—not all of them appropriate or sensible. But it’s important for us to make use of this energy: if we do not, we will burn up inside.

Getting our Ducks in a Row

I laughed a while ago when I was told of the dinosaur that lived many millions of years ago, that was so huge that it had two brains, one in the head of its body and one in the tail. I should have kept quiet. While we usually think of humans as having just a single brain, the human nervous system actually consists of four distinct parts, and the conscious part of us that we call ‘I’ is only a small part of the whole—an enormous amount goes on in our brains that our conscious minds cannot directly control at all, which is what mental illness is all about. Neurologists refer to the Cerebral Cortex, the Limbic System, the Reptilian Brain, and the Sympathetic and Para-sympathetic nervous systems. Ordinary laypeople and clergymen like myself refer to the mind, the body, the soul, and the spirit. One of the great faults of many schools of psychiatry is to think that some single new ‘magic pill’ or therapeutic technique can fix all these different areas with one approach. That’s as ridiculous as thinking that a car that has been badly damaged in an accident can be fixed simply by work, say, in the body shop without also checking the wheel alignment, the engine damage, the electrical faults, and so on. There are many different psychiatric techniques, and most are very effective in particular cases, but the idea of ‘one size fits all’ doesn’t really wash.

Our Minds

Human beings have an ability that animals do not have, to ‘understand’. That means that, particularly through the use of words, grammar and language, we can so arrange our memories, our experiences, and the experiences that other people have told us about, that when input comes into our brains from our senses, we can compare it with a picture of a world of space and time, and rules that this world follows, that we hold inside us, and by comparing it with what is there, ‘understand’ what is going on, explain it in words if necessary to others, and make decisions accordingly as to how we will act. That internal picture is what we ‘live by’—what we ‘believe’—our ‘faith’.

Everyone has a faith system of this kind, but their different systems can be very varied. They may have come from a particular church, culture or religion in which we have grown up. Our worldview can come from a belief, or non-belief, in a God or gods of many different characteristics, or in the universality of scientific laws—or a life that the world has been made by a ‘blind watchmaker’ who has left it to run down on its own as time goes by. It likely has some component in it of the idea that there is a basic justice in the world—that good guys get rewarded, and the bad ones meet with trouble. Conversely, that those who get in trouble have some evil in their system that means they deserve what is happening to them. Some of these ideas may be true. Some false. All are likely to be incomplete.

It is likely to be an enormous challenge to us to make sense of what has happened. There’s a particular class of believers who have been sold on the idea that accepting a particular belief form is in some way a talisman that will keep them out of all future pain and trouble. My experience with them has been that their faith has been completely upset when a disastrous loss happens in their life. Is there no God? Does God hate me? Have I been guilty of some sin that has led to this punishment? If so, what? Does God enjoy making people unhappy? Are we just His playthings? Is God not all-powerful, so that the devil has to be satisfied too? Can we reconcile all of this with the idea of a God of love?

Don’t think that thoughts of this kind haven’t passed through my mind also. Life was made more complicated because at the time of this murder, I had quite a schedule of preaching assignments on my roster, including one to the Prison Fellowship group at the Edmonton Institution three days after this crime, which included quite a number of ‘lifers’ doing time for murder. Three insights came to me over time that I found very helpful. One was that so many completely unusual things were happening at that time, that I could not believe that everything that was going on was a matter of coincidence and chance. Another, a dream in which I saw Cathy dancing with Jesus in heaven, to the tune that she often sang—‘Love is patient, Love is kind …’, gradually opening the circle to include the whole human race in her dance—and I realized the happiness of her present state. I also realized the depth of the sorrow in God’s heart towards the perpetrator, that his mind should be so mixed up that he would be capable of doing such a thing

The third was a realization of the depth of my own anger towards a God who would love criminals so much, that the ‘good folks’ who stay home and do all the right things get neglected, because the Good Shepherd is off travelling the hills and dales to look after his lost sheep.

Suddenly whole areas of the Bible and the New Testament stories came into a different focus for me—Job, the utterly good man who lost his health, his wealth and family to a tragedy, and then was pestered with three religious friends who wanted to blame him for all that had gone wrong. In the end, he learned that he had done nothing wrong, except that he didn’t understand the big picture, and wasn’t expected to. Ecclesiastes—the complaint of Solomon, the richest, wisest and most powerful man in the world of 1000 B.C., with a thousand wives to choose from. He was plunged into despair, because everything ended in death, where all are equal. The Psalms in particular, because there you find the cry of the human heart, waiting for God to make things right, often filled with hateful emotions that most of us dare not even speak about. The story of Absalom—the son who tried to take his father’s throne, and it broke his father David’s heart when his general, Joab, disobeyed orders and killed him. All sorts of stories told by Jesus about lost sheep begin searched for while the main flock was left; of people who couldn’t get work for a full day getting paid as if they had been in the fields all the time; of the young boy who spent half the family fortune and still was welcomed back with open arms. A God who goes into the dregs of society to hunt for the lost. A God of infinite love—love to the point of death—but this love included the bad guys just as much as the good, and the good guys aren’t always very happy with being given equal treatment like that.

Well, you may have your own idea of how the world is made, but certainly to me, one element in being able to bounce back from disaster is this concept that the Universe can still be explained in a positive and rational way. Viktor Frankl, the Jewish psychiatrist who survived the Auschwitz concentration camp in World War II, wrote a book Man’s Search for Meaning. Until we can give ourselves a mental framework by which we can understand the world we live in in a positive manner, we will indeed be lost souls. It has certainly been one reason why I have kept in touch with the prison scene. The good news of the Gospel is well worth passing on, and it can ‘comfort the afflicted’ as well as ‘afflicting the comfortable’.

Our Emotions

Just understanding the universe is not a cure-all. The mental part of our minds can record facts just as a computer does, without any emotion, but we have a second part of our brain, one we share with all mammals, that records emotions without attaching them always to particular events. This part has been put under enormous strain.

Depression, anxieties and obsessive thoughts and behaviour can be associated with excessive activity in different areas of the brain—which can to some extend be controlled by drugs tailored for that purpose. If we are unwise, there is also alcohol, and there are a number of non-prescription drugs that can be used to ‘dull the pain’, and we are in great danger because it is so tempting for us to become addicted to them.

One picture of this central area of the brain is of a series of units feeding into each other in a circle, so that the emotional effects of an unhappy experience go round and round and round, establishing a mood that it is very hard to ‘snap out of’. To defuse all that energy which is churning around inside our heads, there are two exits. One is to express it by talking: bringing into consciousness feelings that would otherwise be buried. Drawing, singing, speaking, writing—all these things help to make the pressure a little bit less. I have been very fortunate to have been in a place where I have had ample opportunity to speak and write, and in speaking in particular, to be able to unload the heavy emotions that are cooped up inside. The other outlet comes in bodily actions—the sexually abused child becoming a sexual predator himself, for instance, or the abused child becoming a bully. Bodily action is perhaps the only way the pain can be released when the abuse has been suffered so young that the mind is not able to put it into words. It is important to get such pressures expressed through our bodies in a safe and socially acceptable way.

Bioenergetics

This leads me on to an area where I was very much helped by a course put on by two relatives, professional family counselors, who made a visit from Australia after this death with the primary purpose of helping members of our family. Part of it was based on the idea of ‘bioenergetics.’ This is the concept that memories are not just stored in the brain, but in the whole body. The burdens that we bear, indeed our whole outlook on life, can be shown in the way we carry our bodies: stooping, downcast and crushed, perhaps, or else radiant, upright, looking outwards and self-confident. Tensions in our muscles, our faces, scalps and foreheads, between our shoulder blades, and so on, speak to the blows we have suffered and the tensions we carry as a matter of habit into our daily lives. One secret is, that by expressing feelings physically—say by beating a mattress, lying on the floor throwing a tantrum, or, my favourite, shadow boxing—feeling we are unaware of can be called up so that they can be expressed and understood. They no longer remain inside us as our silent controllers. Several Eastern disciplines—Yoga, Tai-Chi, Karate, for instance—work to bring peace of mind from this kind of discipline of the body. In the Western culture, we have massage, music and dance. Exercise such as swimming or walking that promotes physical fitness has a similar value. The body is toned, and the pressures on the mind are relieved. All part of this process of ‘bouncing back’.

The Heart

Lastly, the most fascinating area of our mind—the one that all other animate creatures share with us, our brainstem, or ‘reptilian brain’. This is the very basic decision making mechanism of our nervous system that decides—often before our conscious mind knows what is happening—what in fact our body is going to do. In any situation, and in a fraction of a second, it makes one basic decision. Do I trust, or do I fear? Someone rings the bell at our front door. Do we trust them? Are they well known friends, or long lost relatives? Are they masked bandits out for a home invasion? Is it a solicitor for a worthy or unworthy cause? Our lives can depend on it, and we often react in a way determined by prior programming before we even consciously think on the matter. We have a ‘gut reaction.’ To control such reactions, therefore, we have to prepare our ‘mind set’ well ahead of time.

When we react, we choose one of three ways in each case. If we trust, then we will either nurture (if it’s a person in need), or seek nurture (if it’s a person who can help us), or work cooperatively and creatively (if it is an equal and we have some project in mind). On the other hand, if we fear, we do one of three other things. We may fight. We may submit. We may avoid. All in response to three main areas of threat—to our persons, to our property, to our relationships. A total of nine possible responses, all caused by fear—and it’s interesting that these nine responses to fear correspond closely with the Church’s traditional seven deadly sins, with the addition of two extra, Cowardice and Hypocrisy.

Through my interest in the prison system, I was introduced to a program that the Quakers devised for a prison in New York state some twenty five years ago, that has now spread across the North American continent, and into Latin America, Central America, Bosnia, Russia, and many other countries of the world, called the Alternatives to Violence Project. Although devised for criminals who want to learn how to master the impulses that get them in trouble, its aim is to do exactly what we victims of crime also need to do—to get away from an attitude of fear to one of trust, where our resulting conduct is helpful and acceptable.

After a brief introduction, the weekend basic course lays down ground rules that ensure that during the weekend, participants can be assured that they will be free to speak, free from being put down, free to pass on any part of the course that makes them feel uncomfortable, and confidentiality will be respected. This is followed by various ‘hands on’ exercises that develop first affirmation of the worth of each other, then communication skills, then community building, and finally conflict resolution techniques. It is quite amazing to see the changes that take place in a person, and a group, as these skills are learned.

In other words, to be freed from abuse, we have to work at a level that will enable us to live in an atmosphere of trust, not fear. And this may very well bring us right back to some of the basic things that Jesus demanded of his followers—not to cling on to their wealth, not to be men-pleasers, to be willing to get crucified as occasion requires, and to live in the sure knowledge that the more we pile up in this world, the more we’ll have to say goodbye to when our end comes. Yes, someone had died, but do we honestly think we will all live for ever on this earth? There’s a place for quality in living, not just quantity. Remember the words of Kristen French in the Barnardo case. “Some things are worth dying for.”

So there we have four important elements. Finding a positive worldview, obtaining release for our emotions, allowing expression through our bodies, and replacing fear with trust.

Conclusion

So where does this leave all of us?

You wish to help others. You need to be ready yourself. A few suggestions:

  1. Be ready yourself. The English poet and writer D.H. Lawrence wrote a wonderful poem, based on the custom that Viking warriors had when their chiefs died—to prepare a ‘ship of death’ with all the needs that the warrior would have in his journey to the world beyond, a ship that would then be set sailing towards the Western sea. He describes all the preparations, the rounding up of the necessary supplies, and then the voyage into the sunset and the darkness—until finally, a thread of light dawns in the Eastern sky. He ends his poem with these haunting words: “Have you built your ship of death? O build it, For the long voyage awaits you.”
    If we are to be of any help to those affected by death, we have to face our own mortality, head on—and I have already told you of some of the techniques and the requirements. Confront for yourself and work out your answers to the big questions of life. Develop your own pattern of spiritual, mental, emotional and bodily discipline. Make sure you have people in your world who can give you support when you need it. Learn how to worship and pray. The time will come when you will be ever so grateful that you come to disasters—whether yours or those of another—properly prepared.
  2. Don’t make it worse. The first rule of medicine is “Primum, non nocere”—that is, “Firstly, don’t make it worse”. Be someone who lightens another’s load not adds to it. I find that far too many in the helping professions are there for reasons of avoidance—doctors who treat death as failure, rather than the natural end of human life. Psychiatrists who have studied their subject as a way of trying to solve their own personal problems. Counsellors who are more like Job’s comforters, and add to a client’s woes rather than relieving them, because they cannot stomach being unable to ‘fix’ the pain of the world. Don’t, please, be one of these.
  3. Support, don’t fix. Why do you think we need fixing? The kinds of emotions we are suffering, the kind of bewilderment and anger that we live through, are just the normal reactions of normal people to extraordinary circumstances. There’s nothing ‘wrong’ with us, that practical help and sympathy cannot cure.
  4. Develop empathy—genuinely. There are plenty of conventional phrases that people use, such as ‘I know how you feel’, that are nothing but barefaced assumptions and lies. If you want to be close to us, spend some time in our imagination to assess just exactly where we are, and then ask us if you are right in the way you imagine our feelings. This will give us a chance to spill out what is churning around inside us.
  5. Be patient. Listen to us, and lend us our ears again and again. It may bore you, but it’s an immense help to us.
  6. Be practical. If you notice that we have overlooked some task of daily living, fill in the gap, without making a song and dance about it. We will be eternally grateful.
  7. Make us feel safe. That way, we’ll behave less like a hen with its head cut off, and more like normal human beings.
  8. Do your job. If you are a doctor or a nurse, do your job efficiently and with respect. If you are a policeman, show your interest in solving the crime. If a prosecutor or judge, show your interest in making the system work. If a clergyman, console and pray with us. To us, it seems as if the systems of the world have in some way failed us, and we are very sensitive and suspicious. To see people who have the responsibility in society for doing these things carry out these responsibilities well, gives us faith in the workings of society as a whole, and brings us back to a normal frame of mind more quickly than anything else. The reverse is also true. If police show disinterest, if doctors seem unsympathetic, if clergy, counsellors and social workers are not there when they are needed, we can be traumatized more than a mere bystander would expect us to be.
  9. Don’t give up on us. I talked earlier about how the basic structure of our character can be described as one of three types of responses to fear—following a list of the seven deadly sins plus two. But when we overcome those fears, what was our weakness becomes a source of strength. We use these characteristics, not to protect ourselves against a hostile world, but as a source of usefulness to the whole community. So the angry bully becomes a leader; the slothful, passive aggressive type becomes an enabler; the prideful, perfectionist and addictive type becomes a wonderful craftsman. The self-seeking, gluttonous con-artist becomes a real visionary; the coward turns into a useful trouble shooter; the avaricious miser, an effective project manager. The lecherous predator contributes as an artist; the hypocrite, as a reconciler and statesman; the envious critic can become a real counsellor and caregiver. The greatest sinners become the greatest saints. As the poem says:

“By failure and defeat made wise
We come to know at length
What strength within our weakness lies
What weakness in our strength.”

So:

“Build your ship of death, O build it,
For the long voyage awaits you

– Notes for a lecture delivered in March, 2000