Saturday 22 August 2020
I’m very sorry indeed that I only had the chance of meeting Douglas, briefly, on one occasion – and that, I think, was at the end of a Christmas service here at St Faith’s, when I customarily get to shake about 400 hands. Not really the best time to make someone’s acquaintance.
But from what I’ve heard about Douglas from Teresa and Alan over the past few weeks, I have no doubt at all that I would have enjoyed his company immensely. It seems we had quite a few things in common – not least a love of music, and of encouraging others to play music in ecclesiastical spaces. It was ironic, to me, that just as I was beginning to think about re-starting our lunchtime concerts season here, I heard about Douglas’ efforts as a musical impresario at St Paul’s.
What I am not going to do, however, is try to do justice to Douglas long life and ministry – his two primary ministries of being both a priest, and a family man. I don’t know about you, but I usually find myself rather dissatisfied at any eulogy by a minister who never really knew the deceased. The rather more interesting question for me, as a priest, is to ask what Douglas wanted you, his family, to remember him by. The answer to that question is found in the choices that he made about the readings and hymns we are using in this service.
Many such choices, made for funerals, are frankly usually pretty arbitrary. They tend to consist of distantly remembered childhood hymns (which is why ‘The Lord’s my shepherd’ remains so popular). Scriptures chosen tend to be either those suggested by the church, or again, dimly remembered passages about ‘my father’s house has many mansions’. But the choices of a priest, who has lived and breathed these Scriptures and these hymns throughout his life, are choices worth contemplating. What messages might Douglas have wanted to convey, through these Scriptures, and through these words?
The first hymn he chose, of which we only heard the tune, reminds us of the sacrifices of the Saviour, on a green hill far away – clearly the foundation of Douglas’ hope and life. The second hymn asks for the guidance of the Great Redeemer to every pilgrim through the barren land of world in which God’s Kingdom is yet to be fully established. It asks for nourishment along the journey, through the Bread of Heaven.
The first reading, is a long discourse on forgiveness. Perhaps there have been people in Douglas’ life who he found it hard to forgive. Perhaps he guessed that others struggled to forgive him. I know that I frequently have to ask my own family for forgiveness, especially for those times when I let my ministry as a priest take precedence over my ministry as a husband, father and grandfather. Perhaps Douglas asked for your forgiveness too, through this reading?
Then, through the reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, Douglas offers us advice. Rejoice! Rejoice in everything that life throws at you. And always focus your thoughts and intentions on things that are true, lovely, honest, just and pure. Perhaps in these days when our television sets are filled with half-truths, false news, dishonesty and impurity, these are words we do well to heed as we live the rest of our lives?
Then comes the psalm. Psalm 139 – a deep and penetrating sense of God’s deep and penetrating knowledge of each of us. For some, this notion can be discomforting. For those with secret sins, or blackened hearts, it can be an arresting notion to realise that God knows us intimately, and has known us since we were formed in our mother’s womb. But for Douglas, after a life lived in search of God, I suspect there was joy in the invitation to “Search me out, O God, and know my heart”.
The “Battle Hymn of the Republic” is the colloquial name for the last hymn we shall sing today. But I suspect that for Douglas, it held before him a glorious vision of the end of all things, when the Son of Man returns to earth, when the Kingdom is fully established, and when all humanity can sing together ‘Glory, glory, halleluiah!’.
And all these thoughts, and all this depth, is summed up in Douglas’ last hymn choice – the tune of which we will hear as we finish our service. Written by Sydney Carter, whom I suspect was Douglas’ friend, ‘the Lord of the Dance’ reminds us that in Jesus Christ, all things hold together. He is the dashing dancing-partner, who invites us to take his hand on the dance-floor of life. Through all the ugliness of the cross on a green hill far away, for all the barren land through which we need the guidance of our Great Redeemer, through all the lies and impurity of our messy human lives, Christ invites us to dance with him. “I’ll live in you if you’ll live in me…I am the Lord of the dance, says he”.
You will all have your own memories of Douglas, of Dad, of Grandad. And I hope you’ll enjoy sharing them which each other today. But let me encourage you not to miss his final words of encouragement and hope to you – mediated through the choice of these hymns, and these readings, today.