174a Hoylake Road
Patterns and Examples
Jeremiah 29 vv 11-13
Early in February, the lovely little chapel at Two Mills was full for a very special funeral, as we paid our last offices of love to a remarkable and unique human being: Frederick Keith Lancaster who had died aged 70. And though we were reminded yesterday in Ecclesiastes that there is a season for everything and there is a time to mourn, there is also a time to dance and sing and celebrate. And so, we gathered in the chapel not to mourn Keith’s passing but to celebrate his life.
Every person there had in some way been touched by this remarkable and unique human being. And there were many more who were not with us who have cause to be thankful for having known Keith. Keith quite simply gave out love with his whole being. It radiated from him. Now before I continue, there is something you should know about Keith. He was born with the most severe learning difficulties. Brought up by devoted parents, Bess and Fred, with a sister who also had learning difficulties (though not as bad as Keith’s) his adult life was spent in care homes. He was a shining light there, touching and inspiring his fellow residents and carers. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus called his followers to be the tiny grain of salt that gives flavour to the meal, to be the light that lights up a whole room. Keith was that light to the world; he was that tiny grain of salt that gave flavour to so many lives.
I was privileged to be at his mother’s table at her 90th birthday party with Keith and Ruth. Keith decided to get up and make a speech. It was the most powerful expression of a son’s love I think I have ever heard. His words were incoherent (Keith’s language impairment was particularly severe), but once he started that speech, there was no stopping him. And we listened. I will never forget it. Yet just one person, one grain of salt. I remember too visiting Keith in his home one day when he insisted on showing me his room. He was so proud of it, he wanted to show me everything and point to every photograph. Once again, he just gave out love and generosity. Up until his sudden death in January, Keith would enjoy walking around the Fred Lancaster garden at his mother’s care home and throw his arms around before putting his hands together to pray: incoherent but utterly genuine and beautiful. He sensed Fred’s presence. To the very end, he walked with his late father, closer to him than we dare imagine. And closer to his heavenly Father than many.
It reminded me of Stephen Poliakoff’s television drama, The Lost Prince. It is based on the true story of the short life of Prince John, youngest son of King George V and Queen Mary. Prince John was not as severely handicapped as our Keith but suffered from epilepsy and a developmental disorder and died in 1919 at the age of just 13. Unlike Keith, in those less enlightened times Prince John was hidden away from public life for much of his life. Yet the emotional impact of Johnny upon his parents becomes apparent in the drama - though they could not show their feelings in public and had to play out the part of King and Queen. They had to choose their words carefully; not so, Johnny. He just said what he thought. “Why are you wearing that silly hat?” he would say to his mother. When the Tsar went for a swim, Johnny shouted “I think he looks like a fish!” After his funeral, Poliakoff has Johnny’s brother, young George, turning to his servant with these words: “Do you know, Johnny was the only one of us who was himself.” Jesus said: Truly I tell you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.
For all kinds of reasons, when we grow up, we lose something of the simple innocence and the expressive love that Keith Lancaster and Prince Johnny showed. We put on masks – we act out different parts for different people. Are we really ourselves, are we really the people, the children of God, that God intended us to be?
In Holy Week I think the only person who is himself is Jesus. Look at Peter: he is trying to be the brave fearless disciple. “I will never betray you!” But is that the real Peter? We shall see soon enough. Look at Pilate: there is a politician for you! He does not want blood on his hands. He wants to please the crowd and his Roman bosses. So, he says Jesus is guilty. “Crucify him!” But is that the real Pilate? All of these people are behaving in a way that is meant to please others. But are they really being themselves? Only Jesus is constant and true to himself throughout this week. Only Jesus is himself.
God has given each one of us a unique gift, just as he gave a special gift of love to Keith. It is up to us to discover that gift and to be true to the real ‘me’. The story is told that after Live Aid Bob Geldof met Mother Teresa. The little woman half the size of Bob shuffled into the room. Geldof wrote later that he immediately felt humbled and said, “I cannot do any of the things you can do”. “Yes” replied Mother Teresa, “You cannot do the work that I can do. But I cannot do the work that you can do. Only you can do that.” I was given the opportunity to work with Mother Teresa when I was working for the Church of South India. But I have a yellow streak the width of the M6 on my back. I am the proverbial coward and chickened out. (How I regret it now!) A journalist friend of mine had the courage to go. Returning from a few weeks with Mother Teresa, she was a changed person. She told me what other people have said: that Mother Teresa saw something of God in every person she met. What Mother Teresa did, as Brother Lawrence once said, was to practice the presence of God. To practice the presence of God.
For five years living in Grimsby before coming to the PCW, I chose the Quakers as my place for weekly spiritual refreshment. You may be familiar with their history. In 1640 a young man, George Fox, was shocked by the failure of those who called themselves Christians to live up to their standards. (Join the club.) In search of spiritual help, he turned from one person to another until in 1647 he wrote this:
Now the Lord God hath opened to me by his invisible power how that every man was enlightened by the divine light of Christ; and I saw it shine through all, and that they that believed in it came out of condemnation and came to the light of life and became the children of it…This I saw in the pure openings of the Light without the help of any man, neither did I then know where to find it in Scriptures; though afterwards, searching the Scriptures, I found it.
Others soon gathered around George Fox and begin to meet in rooms or halls, but not in churches. Meetings began, and still begin, in silence. Those who are present wait for God to speak in their heart. This small group of people, seeing the divine light of Christ in every person, has had a huge influence on society far greater than their numbers would suggest. Quakers have been at the forefront of the anti-slavery campaign, the peace movement, prison reform, education, health care improvements and much more. The first mental hospital was founded by a Quaker in York with humane treatments decades ahead of its time. And if, like me, you enjoy chocolate, then you can thank another Quaker, George Cadbury. But we never lose sight of what George Fox said and more importantly who he was:
Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come, that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people and to them: then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world answering that of God in every one.
Think again of those around Jesus in Jerusalem who were never really themselves but trying to please others, putting on an act. Pause for a moment to think of those whose own ‘pattern or example’ has inspired you. Is it their words that have, as Quakers would say, convinced you of God? Or is it their way of life? As the Quaker Book of Faith and Practice challenges us:
Do you respect that of God in everyone though it may be expressed in unfamiliar ways or be difficult to discern? Each of us has a particular experience of God and each must find the way to be true to it. When words are strange or disturbing to you, try to sense where they came from and what has nourished the lives of others.
Earlier this week I spoke about “Mrs Pearl” who came to India to minister at CMC though she was dying of cancer. She had been my student. I taught her. Or did I? Pearl was always herself. She never tried to please anyone. She spoke her mind! How often in ministry, or in your own work, do we have to ‘play politics’, being careful what we say and treading the fine line between being true to our convictions and not offending others or ruffling feathers? Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come, that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people and to them…
Today’s passage from Jeremiah was Pearl’s favourite passage and was read at her funeral in Inverness on a cold day in January all those years ago. A message had come from the Chaplaincy Team at CMC Vellore, who wanted to pay their tribute to Pearl. On her coffin I placed a small wreath of tropical flowers, a reminder of the special place in her heart that was CMC Vellore. And with the flowers, a little card on which I wrote Thank you Pearl for teaching me.
There were flowers too all over Two Mills Chapel on that February day this year when we said our earthly farewells to dear Keith. A friend wrote, “A little ray of sunshine had gone out of the world.” The flowers on the windowsills and communion table were all spring flowers that Keith loved. We could almost see him there in his pew belting out the words to his favourite hymn, “All things bright and beautiful”. Yes, the Lord God made them all.
The theologian and pioneering visionary of working with the learning disabled, Jean Vanier, said that the great reversal of the gospel is that it is lived out in the lives of people with the most profound learning disabilities. Here, he said, we see that the weak become strong and the foolishness of this world turns out to be the glory of God. In the weakness and vulnerability of the intellectually disabled Vanier discovered Jesus. In my own tribute to Keith, I said that we have been blessed, truly blessed by Keith’s remarkable and unique life. I am no theologian, but I do know this: that in seeing Keith, in knowing Keith, I have been truly blessed. So were all who knew him. For in the life of Keith Lancaster, in his ability to love and to enjoy all situations, in his friendliness and good manners, above all in his smile, we caught a glimpse of the face of God. In Frederick Keith Lancaster, walking through a garden, clasping his hands in prayer and muttering something incoherent to the rest of us, but just being himself, we have seen Jesus.
And if, by God’s grace, I ever reach the banqueting table of heaven, that kingdom beyond Easter and beyond this world where there shall be no more death, no more mourning and no more pain, there at the throne I shall see Christ the King robed and crowned in all His glory. And at his right side, in his bright flowery shirt and with that disarming broad grin, will sit Keith Lancaster. Holy Week and Easter belongs to such as these.