Welcome to Life in 361˚. This blog is an 'open journal' - a space where I keep notes on bits & pieces I come across day-to-day - including books and articles I've read that I feel are worth sharing, interesting pictures and photos (I'm a visual learner, you see), random musings - and anything else that happens to catch my eye or ear. It also acts as a kind of 'open experiment' in terms of developing my views and writing skills - and networking with other people of a like-mind.

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31/10/2014

To Know

Yesterday, in what was originally intended to be a quick stop-off for a cup of coffee at my parents' house before going on my way, I ended up finding myself in a lengthy theological discussion with my father and youngest brother.

I don't really do theological discussions - I kind of gave up on trying to arrive at a systematic theological position a few years ago which leaves it hard to then advocate for a particular theology. I also tend not to be very open in day-to-day interactions about my thoughts on faith (saving them instead for this journal!). I have been advised by a good friend and mentor that I essentially need to 'come out' and be more open as a Christian - though I consider belief to be ultimately a private matter and that what counts most, in terms of expression of faith, are my actions.

I also ended up drinking tea.

My father has always leaned towards a more radical, non-trinitarian Christianity - largely influenced by contact with Jehovah's Witnesses in his younger years, though never taking up affiliation himself. He did do some seeking as a younger man - it was just the other day he told me how he read the Koran during his younger years (which I guess would have been around the early seventies) - but I would imagine, without the internet and scale of multiculturalism we have now, his access to the wider world of faith beyond Christianity was much more limited. For example, a few years ago when I told him we were getting married in a Unitarian & Free Christian chapel and took him to see it, he was pleasantly surprised that another historically non-trinitarian church other than the Jehovah's Witnesses existed.

My youngest brother, on the other hand, attended an evangelical church during his mid-teens before becoming an agnostic and seeker in his twenties, as he is today. He is questioning and to an extent disillusioned with what mainline Christianity has to offer. His questions are the big ones,

"Does God exist?",
          "What is God?",
                    "Does God answer prayers?",
"Does the worship of Christ not amount to death-worship?"

I sometimes wonder whether we have a genetic predisposition within our family towards a more radical, open-minded Christianity - whether there is something about the way our brains are structured and wired, what with us seeming to have a common tendency to more analytical, divergent thinking, that in turn lends itself to dissenting positions.

Yet I would also say, as much as this is a gift in that it is liberates us from following the status quo and drives us toward new frontiers - not just theologically, but in life generally - such tendencies can be a block to an experience of living faithfully. We can end up too busy caught in the infinitely various, abstract intricacies of theology - it all becomes restlessly hypothetical rather than contentedly lived.

This, I suggest, is a problem for liberal-minded faith in general. It is perhaps what I saw at work during last week's Meeting for Worship where a heartfelt expression of the Spirit became, at least in my humble opinion, reduced to a question of semantics.

Interestingly enough, I finished the discussion with my brother by saying I would send some reading recommendations his way -  namely the Tao Te Ching and the Dhammapada. This may seem odd, coming from someone who identifies primarily as a Christian. But, as I explained to my brother, I have found in my own search that sometimes we need to take a step away from Christianity and encounter non-Christian spirituality for a time in order to then come back to the faith of our upbringing with a fresh perspective.

On browsing through my bookshelves this morning, with the thought of supporting my youngest brother still in mind, I picked up Anthony De Mello's book, 'The Song of the Bird', opening the pages randomly before spontaneously reading what was in front of me:

"TO KNOW CHRIST

A dialogue between a recent convert and an unbelieving friend:

“So you have been converted to Christ?”
“Yes.”
“Then you must know a great deal about him. Tell me: what country was he born in?”
“I don’t know.”
“What was his age when he died?"
“I don’t know.”
“How many sermons did he preach?”
“I don’t know.”
“You certainly know very little for a man who claims to be converted to Christ!"
“You are right. I am ashamed at how little I know about him. But this much I do know: Three years ago I was a drunkard. I was in debt. My family was falling to pieces. My wife and children would dread my return home each evening. But now I have given up drinking; we are out of debt; ours is now a happy home. All this Christ has done for me. This much I know about him!"

Christ as the archetype, as a way of trying to see more clearly and trying to live more cleanly; this is my theology.

30/10/2014

Against 'The Light'

I have written a letter to The Friend, magazine of the British Quakers - and an excellent one at that, as far as church magazines go. It raises a small protest against the branding of the redeveloped Large Meeting House as 'The Light'.

"Dear Editor, 
As someone relatively new to Friends, after a spiritual search lasting some years, I remember well the joy I felt on visiting Friends’ House for the first time. The adventurous redevelopment of the Large Meeting House is something I am looking forward to seeing first hand.

However, I continue to have this nagging feeling that the marketing of it as ‘The Light’ smacks of following the patterns of the world. It seems to go against the principle of plain speech, instead attempting to somehow line up with ‘The Shard’, ‘The Gherkin’ and other buildings titled as ‘The’ something or other. 

More importantly, it confuses the spiritual experience of Friends with a material object. It seems as absurd as calling a state-of-the-art elevator, ‘The Christ’! I have heard the Buddhist master Lin Chi quoted on issues of iconoclasm, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!” I wonder, also, what George Fox would say?"

This, I believe, points to a wider theological incoherence within the Religious Society of Friends - a trend I was pleased to see Ben Pink Dandelion take on in the 2014 Swarthmore Lecture.

26/10/2014

Opened and Cut

This Friday just gone I was sat at my work desk, first thing in the morning, muttering and sighing, when a close colleague made the slightly teasing, slightly concerned observation that I had seemed 'a bit grumpy' during the week. I retorted, with the dry wit I am apparently known for, that I was in fact 'in a spiritual desert'. The colleague laughed, 'how dramatic!' she cried.

It was a passing conversation but there was truth in it, for I have felt caught up in the busyness of the world these past few weeks. I have had a hugely creative, productive and enriching past two months yet I readily admit such an intense focus on work can leave me irritable, restless and hard to live with. The way I often describe this state of being, in my inner dialogue, is that my heart gradually becomes encased in a stone-like casing as my mind increasingly tangles itself up in a web of machinations.

This is why, as much as I continue to attend and feel inspired by more traditional 'programmed' worship services, it is the uniquely Quaker 'Meeting for Worship' that I feel I depend upon.

George Fox spoke of experiencing 'openings' through silent contemplation, moments of pure clarity and connection with God, with Christ - whilst his loyal supporter and eventual wife, Margaret Fell, described the first ministry she heard from George Fox, a product of such 'openings', as cutting her to the heart. This for me describes in a nutshell the great potential - and the continuing draw - of Quaker worship.

We have been previously asked by elders to begin reflecting on the future direction of our fellowship. This, as I understand it, is borne out of two concerns; firstly, the question - posed by Ben Pink Dandelion, speaking at the 2014 Swarthmore Lecture - of whether the foundations of Quakerism are being slowly eroded away alongside, secondly, a more pragmatic question particular to our meeting of how a decentralised, collaborative church can sustain itself as some of its most active members become too old to shoulder practical responsibilities whilst younger members find their commitment  constrained by their working lives.

As I sat in the silence today, it was this issue that frequently entered into my consciousness - to the point I felt I was perhaps being prompted to minister on it. However, I remained silent and was, in due course, deeply thankful for restraint. A Friend who I had never heard speak before in ministry rose at around 11:25, nearly halfway through our hour of silent prayer, opening and cutting me with his words.

He began by recalling how, in the last moments of Corporal Nathan Cirillo's life - victim of the Ottawa terrorist attacks - a good samaritan Barbara Winters crossed the road (at the risk of being shot herself) to cradle and assure him, "You are loved."

The Friend then went on to reflect that to know we are loved is to know God, and vice versa, for God is love - and we each must concern ourselves with clearly showing love to one another, this is our essential purpose. This was followed by the famous reading from Paul's letter to the Corinthians:

"Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. 

As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love."

Tears welled up in my eyes, I bowed and held my head in my hands for a time, for I recognised starkly my sin over the past week or so - yet I also was reminded too that for all my transgression of love I was still loved and capable of loving.

There was further ministry in the remaining half-hour and some commentary during 'Afterwords', mainly focused on whether Paul's portrayal of childhood as negative was correct. On this occasion, and though I too contributed to the subsequent discussions, I privately felt the initial ministry should ideally have been left to stand alone in the silence - for 'the letter killeth'.

Perhaps in all of this we were handed the spark not just for personal return and growth but for the wider return and growth of our little fellowship.

Watership Down by Richard Adams

Below is a somewhat belated reflection on ‘Watership Down’ by Richard Adams – my ‘book of the summer’. Had I written my thoughts down at the time of reading or shortly after, as I typically do when I read a book that has a significant impact on my perspective, I can’t help feel the following words would have flowed much more easily. However, other commitments took hold and so instead I have found myself writing this post over the past week or so in a much more stuttering, hesitant fashion than usual – and this may well be reflected in the reading of the final product of my labour.

Over the summer – whilst on holiday in Budapest with my wife - I read the Richard Adams novel, ‘Watership Down’, the precursor to the animated film of the same title I remember vividly from my much younger years – and fondly so, despite its serious, somewhat menacing tone compared to the rest of my childhood viewing which usually consisted mainly of He-Man and the Looney Tunes cartoons.

It is quite obvious, re-encountering the story in my thirties, that ‘Watership Down’ is as much a commentary on human affairs as it is a fantastical story of anthropomorphic rabbits living in southern England. And it is an insightful one at that, looking at the varying forms of communities and forces at work within them.

The novel, which the author explains originated as short stories told to his daughters during long drives through the countryside, must at some point have taken an evolutionary leap into the tale of adventure covering a range of complex human conditions - now resting in England’s library as a modern classic.

There are a wide range of threads that can be pulled from ‘Watership Down’; the one I found myself constantly reflecting on was the concept of storytelling as a tool of empowerment within communities. This is most obvious with the frequent interspersing of stories of ‘rabbit legend’ into the on-going struggle of Hazel and his Lapine-speaking comrades to find a new home following the systematic destruction of their warren to make way for a housing estate.

Quite pointedly, very early on the prophetic Fiver – a close companion of Hazel – attempts to warn Sandleford warren of the impending disaster but is dismissed by the chief rabbit, partly due to their lowly status and partly due to the hierarchy’s vested interests in maintaining a status quo.

Having embarked on an exodus from Sandleford, Hazel, Fiver and their group journey across the Hampshire countryside in search of a new warren encountering danger at every turn. And just as with the Jews journeying out of Egypt, there are moments in which the migrants become despondent and need reassuring. It is at these points the group’s storyteller, Dandelion, regales them with tales that point to ideals about their origins, development as a species and future course. At the centre of such stories is the mythical rabbit known as El-Ahrairah, ‘The Prince with a Thousand Enemies’, who in many ways takes on a Moses-status for the rabbits. Within the stories there is also the ever present Lord Frith, God manifest in the Sun, who acts in the world primarily through messengers such as the Black Rabbit of Inlé, who in some ways (though not all ways) has a Christ-like deity status:

“Now, as you all know, the Black Rabbit of Inlé is fear and everlasting darkness. He is a rabbit, but he is that cold, bad dream from which we can only entreat Lord Frith to save us today and tomorrow. When the snare is set in the gap, the Black Rabbit knows where the peg is driven; and when the weasel dances, the Black Rabbit is not far off. You all know how some rabbits seem just to throw their lives away between two jokes and a theft: but the truth is that their foolishness comes from the Black Rabbit, for it is by his will that they do not smell the dog or see the gun. The Black Rabbit brings sickness, too. Or again he will come in the night and call a rabbit by name: and then that rabbit must go out to him, even though he may be young and strong to save himself from any other danger. He goes with the Black Rabbit and leaves no trace behind. Some say that the black Rabbit hates us and wants our destruction. But the truth is--or so they taught me--that he too, serves Lord Frith and does no more than his appointed task--to bring about what must be. We come in to the world and we have to go: but we do not go merely to serve the turn of one enemy or another. If that were so, we would all be destroyed in a day. We go by the will of the Black Rabbit of Inlé and only by his will. And though that will seems hard and bitter to us all, yet in his way he is our protector, for he knows Frith's promise to the rabbits and he will avenge any rabbit who may chance to be destroyed without the consent of himself. Anyone who has seen a gamekeeper's gibbet knows what the Black Rabbit can bring down on elil who think they will do what they will."

The parallels we might draw with our own Judeao-Christian mythology are self-evident. This is most evident in the proverbial sayings upheld by the rabbits:

“El-ahrairah, your people cannot rule the world, for I will not have it so. All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you, digger, listener, runner, prince with the swift warning. Be cunning and full of tricks and your people shall never be destroyed.”

Which has obvious similarities with:

“Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings. And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.” (1 Peter 5:08 – 5:10)

~

As Hazel and his band of rabbits go further forward in their odyssey, the author also raises the question of the flipside of storytelling. Early on we see the wandering bunch come to a warren of plenty, seemingly perfect for their need. At first they are welcomed by Cowslip, who is viewed as the de-facto chief of the warren, and Hazel’s group have seemingly arrived at their new home. Yet all is not as it first appears with the host rabbits gradually revealed to be something akin to H. G Well’s Eloi – well fed, even tempered yet disconcertingly apathetic in spirit. They have in fact come to a state of having no central story, appearing stupefied by their material comfort. As the state of unease is increased, it is revealed the rabbits of this warren are in fact knowingly living as livestock for the local farmers, being fattened up and randomly trapped according to the will of their aloof sponsors. Adams writes:

“The rabbits became strange in many ways, different from other rabbits. They knew well enough what was happening. But even to themselves they pretended that all was well, for the food was good, they were protected, they had nothing to fear but the one fear; and that struck here and there, never enough at a time to drive them away. They forgot the ways of wild rabbits. They forgot El-ahrairah, for what use had they for tricks and cunning, living in the enemy's warren and paying his price?”

As I read this I couldn’t avoid mulling over Western European society in the early 21st century. I frequently feel, with the onset of consumerist capitalism, we have become trapped in a state of disempowerment and moral ambivalence. It seems at times we have lost any collective sense of narrative of where we are travelling, spiritually-speaking. By narrative, I do not just mean the collapse in Christianity but also, as Richard Koch and Chris Smith explain in ‘Suicide of The West’, the collapse of our story as inheritors of the Reformation and Enlightenment, a narrative that raises us up as individuals, as citizens of liberal democratic states, as students of reason and science, as equal children of God, each with the unique potential to act positively in the world; as participators, as co-creators, as shapers of a brighter future – as seekers of the Kingdom. Instead it feels we, like the rabbits of Cowslip’s Warren, have – with the rise in material comforts and their subsequent pursuit – become unaware of and unaffected by such grander schemes of things and the sense of common purpose this bestows.

~

With the rabbits returning to the road again, journeying far from Sandleford and the above mentioned ‘Warren of Snares’, they encounter a third warren. This warren, known as Efrafa, is ruled as a tyranny by General Wormwort (whose name, interesting enough, refers to a plant with healing qualities) who employs a highly-rational yet utterly loveless method. Efrafa is described in cold, menacing terms:

“As the warren grew, so Woundwort developed his system to keep it under control. Crowds of rabbits feeding at morning and evening were likely to attract attention. He devised the Marks, each controlled by its own officers and sentries, with feeding times changed regularly to give all a share of early morning and sunset-the favourite hours of silflay. All signs of rabbit life were concealed as closely as possible. The Owsla had privileges in regard to feeding, mating and freedom of movement. Any failure of duty on their part was liable to be punished by demotion and loss of privileges. For ordinary rabbits, the punishments were more severe."

It is worth keeping in mind the author, Richard Adams, was born in 1920 and therefore part of a generation that witnessed, as young men and women, the rise and fall of Fascism followed by the tide of Soviet Communism. Both were initiated as revolutionary movements seeking to sweep away what they saw as the fossilised, corrupted modes of society yet, with the taking of power, they morphed very quickly into inhumane systems designed simply to preserve the privilege of the new elites through exerting total control of the masses. The only stories expounded by such regimes were ones tapping into primeval fears of predators and plague. And whilst some churches may have slipped into the heresy of collaboration, the essence of Christianity remained at odds and was therefore the target of many attempts at eradication.

As I mentioned in the opening paragraph to this entry, I was reading ‘Watership Down’ in Budapest. On reaching this stage in the adventure, I was becoming more and more aware of the city’s tragic history of tyranny. The fictional story of rabbits and the tragic history of this beautiful ‘Paris of Eastern Europe’, naturally came together causing me to reflect on how we, as human beings have a tendency to fall from, rather than rise to, our divine potential.

This, I feel, is where we see the utmost, pressing need for ‘metanarrative’ as found in the Gospel, and for that matter other religious scripture and traditions. It not only serves – at its best - to bind individual human beings together and provide them with direction, but can act as a check and counter to those darker human impulses and frailties – a side of humanity Adams acknowledges more directly on occasion during conversations between the rabbits:

“Animals don't behave like men,' he said. 'If they have to fight, they fight; and if they have to kill they kill. But they don't sit down and set their wits to work to devise ways of spoiling other creatures' lives and hurting them. They have dignity and animality.

And:

“There's terrible evil in the world."

It comes from men," said Holly. "All other elil do what they have to do and Frith moves them as he moves us. They live on the earth and they need food. Men will never rest till they've spoiled the earth and destroyed the animals.”

I sit writing this with Syria and Iraq continuing to dominate the headlines, the Islamic State movement taking centre stage in another unfolding, deeply miserable chapter of human history. In ‘Caliph Ibrahim’ we see another General Wormwort coming to the fore – a figure with some mystique but a wolf in sheep’s clothing nonetheless. As Adams notes, and without wanting to spoil the end of the enrapturing story that is ‘Watership Down’, he has adopted a state of being that can only lead to destruction – most pointedly, including self-destruction.

“Bigwig was right when he said he wasn't like a rabbit at all,' said Holly. 'He was a fighting animal - fierce as a rat or a dog. He fought because he actually felt safer fighting than running. He was brave, all right. But it wasn't natural; and that's why it was bound to finish him in the end. He was trying to do something that Frith never meant any rabbit to do.”

So, let us rediscover and revive the stories that have shined on in the darkness for generations gone by, not slavishly so but with a sense of free inquiry and adventure - and in doing so, let us hope we each and all re-find our way.

~

A few snaps from Budapest:





19/10/2014

Gentle Soul, Gentle Night

The last visit we paid to Auntie Norah was on Thursday 28th August, the end of our summer holidays. She was in hospital, which I am ashamed to say, triggered the visit. Prior to this visit I had perhaps not seen her for up to a year, often remarking I needed to visit but not making time to do so, always pursuing other priorities. I would often begin my visits by apologising for my absence, to which she would reply with her unfailingly genuine and unassuming manner, "Don't worry love, I know how busy you young'uns are..." A comment which in many ways inadvertently heaped more shame upon me.

Prior to the visit I had heard horror stories about just how ill Auntie Norah had become, about her ulcerated legs that had apparently been leaving her in crippling pain throughout the summer. It was mooted things had become so bad that she may yet face having a leg amputated, we wondered aloud as we made our way there as to whether she would survive such drastic surgery. As I walked down the ward, consciously averting my eyes from other patients, I felt a sense of foreboding about what state she would be in - with the memories of my Grandad Roy's final hours still vivid, performing a macabre dance in my mind's eye. 

We couldn't find her initially, and then I heard her familiar Barnsley accent from behind the blue plastic curtain, engaged in a perfunctory conversation yet nonetheless warm. Five minutes later, the junior doctor having now moved on to the next stop of what must be a seemingly endless round, we each greeted Auntie Norah with a hug and I handed over a 'Get Well Soon' card. She appeared tired but was in otherwise seemingly good form. When asked how she was, a customary question we Brits seem to ask one another and always habitually lie in response to, she responded that she was feeling much better - the morphine was 'working wonders', 'marvellous'! Auntie Norah then went on to say, as we  inquired about her summer, that it had been difficult but she had lived many years, she had enjoyed life and it was the young people fighting cancer and the like that we should all really worry about. On reflection, such simple, powerfully selfless words would not be out of place in the scripted, intensely practised scenes of a Hollywood movie yet they were made here as casual, off-the-cuff reflections.

Unbeknownst to me, Auntie Norah had spent part of the summer in a care home rather than the cosy council house on the outskirts of the city which she'd shared with my grandfather for the past 40 years - 'respite' they term such things, although having heard so many stories from different sources about the nature of care homes, I question respite for who? During the visit, Auntie Norah's own brief tale of her time in the care home did nothing to dispel this impression, with her retelling a short story of being left on a commode for two hours in the night, unable to get up and back to bed - and when the care worker finally arrived, then being 'told off' (I imagine as a small child might be scolded by an early 1900s schoolmistress) for not getting back to bed independently. It had not been discussed with her, as far as I know, that on leaving hospital, plans were being made for a move to a care home full time. If it had, or she had simply logically predicted her fate, then I cannot help but think it somehow contributed to the following hours. The treatment of the elderly, particularly so in care homes, is one of the major social justice issues of our times. However, unlike other oppressed minorities which have risen up in previous years to claim what is due to them from state and society, the voices of our very senior citizens are rarely heard, quietened by their medical conditions - and, if we are to be blunt, silenced by the coming of the gentle night. Again, we - the relatively young and able - are shamed by our negligence, distracted as we are by other things.

We hadn't expected my Auntie Norah to end up in hospital in this way. Granted, she had reached the fairly grand old age of 78 years but she always seemed younger than her years, often out and about socialising - including a weekly trip to the gym. My Auntie Norah was my late Grandad Joe's second wife. She was around 12 years his younger, the pair meeting at a large food processing factory. My grandfather had lived to the grand old age of 91 but his final years of life were marred by a slow but unrelenting decline in both his mental and physical well-being. My Auntie Norah had become my Grandad Joe's live-in carer, attending to his most basic needs, but the radically changed nature of their partnership had clearly not diminished the romance between them - one of my most vivid memories is of my Grandad, a gentle but very reserved man, suddenly reaching with one arm from his favourite chair by the window to the sofa beside him to give my Auntie Norah a hug and a peck on the lips. When my Grandad passed away just less than two years ago, there was a sense of timeliness and a hope Auntie Norah could perhaps enjoy some years relieved of what had become an overbearing duty to her much-loved husband.

From what I have been told, Grandad Joe and Auntie Norah fell in love at some point between the late 60s and early 70s. They left their existing, apparently deeply unhappy, marriages for a life with one another - my Grandad is said to have told my father in later years, "I loved your mum but I could no longer live with her..."  In such times and in the traditional close-knit working class environments they inhabited (alongside the Jehovah's Witness influence within my family), I imagine this was fairly scandalous. 

I witnessed, as a grandson, the damage this event caused as my grandmother, Nannan Else, would regularly rail against them. Even as a small child I could see she was a deeply hurt woman, and now I recognise just how consumed she was by the fires of her grievances. She would frequently air her embittered views both at family gatherings and when I was alone with her. This left me feeling torn. I knew her comments - whilst rooted in the truth of her betrayal - were 'not right' but couldn't object to them for fear of rejecting her, a lady I adored and, in some respects, feared. This feeling of being torn has obviously lessened with age and the subsequent growth of wisdom but it still casts a shadow with seemingly trivial matters, such as where to place their photographs, still creating questions of love and loyalty. There is of course a certain indelibility about childhood influences that no amount of time, awareness and reason can shift. Maybe this was why Jesus took such a hard line on the responsibility of adults to provide protection and guidance to children?

Our visit to see Auntie Norah was cut off abruptly as we were conscious medical staff needed to return to make a further assessment of her legs, the decision on how to proceed still not finalised. We were mid-conversation about photographs; Auntie Norah's big passion. We were talking about our brother's wedding and bringing her a photobook she could show the wider family. By wider family, I mean the patchwork of two families that Auntie Norah and Grandad Joe came to be grandparents for - a disparate collection of people sewn together following their marriage, in many ways only ever becoming something like a 'family' through connection with them. Such are the unique complexities of reconstituted families.

We went home that evening, talking in the car about how well Auntie Norah in fact seemed, moving back and forth to discussion around the possibility of surgery and her moving to a care home. That night I returned home and fell asleep, Auntie Norah back off my mind, my attention turning to other things. Awakening in the morning, I experienced a hazy recall of a dream, a feeling, in which Auntie Norah was in some kind of peril. Again, it was passed to one side - I got ready and ventured into town to buy some new shoes and a suit for my coming return to work on the Monday. The shopping trip was interrupted by a telephone call, my mother delivering the news Auntie Norah's heart had stopped in the early hours of Friday - they had resuscitated her but she had not regained conscious, and any prospect of recovery was ruled out, her passing now inevitable and imminent.

Such news was a shock, the words from Lemony Snicket's 'A Series of Unfortunate Events', spring to mind:

"It is a curious thing, the death of a loved one. It's like walking up the stairs to your bedroom in the dark and thinking there is one more stair than there is. Your foot falls down through the air and there's a sickly moment of dark surprise."

It turns out our visit to see Auntie Norah in hospital would be our last encounter with this lovely, humble lady - a grandma in very nearly all but name. For those left behind, we can really only wonder, and at best theorise, as to what lies beyond the gates we must all one day pass through. Speaking personally as a disciple of Christ, as a practicing Quaker, I draw hope from the experience that at the heart of each soul rests a powerful energy (for want of better words) which is beyond material destruction and connected to a larger unfathomable source - that which, in the Book of Daniel, is called the 'Ancient of Days', that which Psalm 139 portrays as an inescapable, pervasive Spirit present within all life, that which the Jesus story reveals as ultimately good. Having now sat at three funerals this year, I am more conscious of the relentless passing of time, our need to appreciate the life we have been given and the recognition we have no legacy but our impact on other travelling souls, our imprint within the ever-lasting memory of God; this is both the great comfort and the terrible burden of the Christian.