The Reverend Jeff Engel writes (from the November 2019 Prescot Parish Magazine):
“I prefer winter and autumn, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape – the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show.” Andrew Wyeth
I have to attend a number of Clinics and Support Groups at Whiston Hospital each month. During these visits it is a great privilege to get to know many people I would not otherwise meet. It is good to hear their stories and to engage with what is bothering them. Perhaps it is because I am there as a fellow patient rather than as a visiting vicar, that I can get alongside them in matters which are often quite personal, sometimes matters of life and death. One thing I have noticed, however, is that the subject of death is usually avoided in the groups but it does come up in one-to-one conversations.
That I am a Church of England priest is not secret and I am sometimes asked about the after-life. “What’s heaven like? What happens when you die?” It is a reasonable enquiry – and yet quite frequently they add something like “But then nobody can really say, can they? After all, nobody has ever come back to tell us, have they?” I never accept this easy opt out. I have to share with them the Christian assurance that Jesus himself did return from the dead and brought us all a new hope. A Eucharistic Prayer in our Communion Service makes the power and promises of Jesus clear: He lived on earth and went about among us; He opened wide His arms for us on the cross; He put an end to death by dying for us; and revealed the resurrection by rising to new life. A new life for everyone who puts their trust in Him.
I am told that actuaries say that clergy tend to live longer than many other professions, and you may have heard me joke that considering that the clergy preach the joy of going to the Lord, they show a remarkable reluctance to pack up and go!! I must admit to being a bit confused myself. Although I would really love to know what the New Life in heaven is really like, whenever I think like that I find myself adding a quick Prayer heavenwards saying: “But don’t get any ideas, Lord: I’m not quite ready yet!”
Jesus Himself tells us very little about life in heaven, but He does tell us the things we really need to know. “In my Father’s house there are many mansions” He says and there we shall be with Him as family at our Father’s Table. It is a picture of fellowship and love shared with those who have gone before us. It is one of the reasons that a shared meal is at the centre of the main Christian Sunday Service: the Communion Service. We meet this side of the Holy Table, beyond, at the other side, just out of sight, are those we love but see no longer, sharing this same Heavenly Banquet. We are all part of one great family for love cannot be broken – not even by death.
Like many others I can have my doubts about all sorts of things, but one thing I have found has anchored me over the years, in good times and in bad: I trust in the promises of Jesus Christ. I know that all will be well. I don’t need to know the details of what heaven is like, as long as I know I will be with Jesus and those I love, safe in the arms of a loving God.
If you are prepared to trust God, not for yourself alone, but also for those you love but no longer see, do come to the Requiem on 3 November. The Eucharist in Prescot Parish Church is for any friends or family you wish to hold before the Lord, whereas the Ecumenical Service is specifically for mourners of those who have died during the last twelve months. For all of them and all of us the promises of Jesus are the same: “Trust in God, trust also in me … I go to prepare a place for you” [John 14 verse 1]. All will be well.
May you know the Lord’s strength and friendship in this world and the next.