Over the last little while I have been out of the loop, not just of the Spiritual Journey site, but the normal things of everyday life. Everything suddenly ground to a halt when my father suffered a major stroke early in December, and several traumatic weeks later, died in hospital.
Life immediately transitioned into a swirl of hospital life, caring for my mother, and sharing in the chaotic lives and emotions of the relatives of the other stroke patients in my father’s ward. Pretty much everything else was parked on the shelf.
And then one morning, as we were with him, my father passed on quietly in his sleep. Just like that.
The enormous grief we all felt was swiftly swallowed up in another round of intense busyness, this time centred around funeral planning and all the administrative paraphernalia that claims your time and attention when a close family member dies.
Then, finally, came the day of the funeral; a beautiful, crisp, sunny morning with a very special touch that would have appealed to my meteorologist father: a beautiful double rainbow edged its way spectacularly across the blue skies over the church just as the last two people arrived. The atmosphere inside was warm and supportive, the pews packed with assorted friends and family. The service itself was a sensitive and meaningful celebration of my Dad’s life, with the music, the readings and the shared memories all piecing together something of his very essence.
Yet… in amongst all the positivity, something, somewhere had jarred. One of my daughters put her finger on it later that week, quoting from the format suddenly as we chatted: ‘…the great promise of new life – for those of us who are Believers…’ She pulled a ‘yikes!’ kind of face, instantly nailing my own source of discomfort. The church hadn’t been filled solely with professing Christians. Yet this phrase had popped up more than once, pointedly implying that the assurance may not be applicable to everyone there.
Meanwhile, another, somewhat higher-profile funeral took place around the same time… that of Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs. The Reverend Dave Tomlinson took Mr Biggs’ funeral – and, having also presided over the funeral of Bruce Reynolds (seen as the Robbery’s ‘mastermind’) a year earlier – found himself scathingly dubbed ‘The Villains’ Priest’ in some quarters of the press.
Personally, I loved the label. It sounded to me reassuringly like Jesus, the ‘friend of sinners’.
Dave seemed fine with it, too, responding thoughtfully to his critics in an article in the Church Times. He explained how he had joined many of Ronnie’s friends and family in the pub after the service (happily handing yet more ammunition to a few journalists), describing them as representative of ‘the hordes of people who know that their lives are a bit screwed up, who make no claim to being squeaky-clean Christians, but whose hearts are open to God, in all sorts of ways.’
With humility, he pointed to the deeper complexities of the concept of a ‘sheep and goat’-type Last Judgement: ‘…The reality is that there is a sheep and a goat in all of us – certainly within me. Divine judgement has to be more sophisticated than simply telling the Biggses of this world to stand on one side, and people like me to stand on the other.’
Whether the ‘sinners’ with whom Jesus shared his life all went on to step over some qualifying line or not, they evidently sensed that they were accepted rather than being judged by him. Just as the Prodigal Son was extravagantly welcomed home rather than quizzed first to ensure he had signed all the officially-repentant forms.
So I’ve been musing… isn’t it likely to be more productive, let alone more authentically spiritual – more Jesus-like – to count people in rather than to assume that unless they conform to our particular spiritual brand, or are at the same point on the journey as ourselves, that they are unlikely to make it safely through the Pearly Gates?
And how significant is it, I wonder, that shortly after Dave took Ronnie Biggs’ funeral, he was once again featured in the press alongside the Biggs family – this time welcoming Ronnie’s grand-daughter, Lilly, into the church at her baptism…?