Jesus said, 'I am the way and the truth and the life'

I’ve been on leave for a few days and I try and catch up on my reading when I am not working.  One of the books I wanted to read is one called With the End in Mind.  It’s by Kathryn Mannix and it has the subtitle ‘How to live and die well.’

Two people recommended the book to me.  One is a priest in our diocese whose opinions on books I greatly respect.  And the second person was my daughter-in-law who is a doctor and who has recently suffered a traumatic bereavement.

The book is written by a palliative care doctor and it’s about death and how to cope with it. 

Of course, as usual, I didn’t have as much time to devote to reading as I wanted so I did that thing where you pick a chapter because you like the title and start off just reading that.

The chapter I chose is called ‘Looking beyond the now’.  Essentially the book is a set of stories from the life of a palliative care doctor.  And all the stories in this chapter are about how people simultaneously cope with the day to day business of looking after somebody who is close to the end of their life, while also honouring the person that they are and the whole life they have led. 

Looking beyond the now.  I suppose I chose this chapter because I thought it might help me to understand what faith in Jesus Christ has to say in these situations.  How might our faith help us to look beyond the now when we are facing death; either our own or that of a loved one?  I thought, maybe a palliative doctor could offer some useful insights.

I love that song by Vera Lynn that we have been hearing so much in recent days.  ‘We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when’.  It’s very emotional, isn’t it?  I always imagine this people singing it during the war.  People singing it to themselves or with others, whistling the tune as they reflected on the farewell with loved ones before embarking on paths that were full of danger.

‘We’ll meet again’. A statement of complete optimism.  ‘Don’t know where, don’t know when’.  That optimism is now qualified.  The uncertainty of the situation is acknowledged.  ‘We’ll meet again some sunny day’.  Is that a sunny day on earth or a sunny day in heaven?  It’s not clear is it?  And yet, either way, it is a message of hope.

I have a German parent and an English parent so I have a German grandfather and an English grandfather.  VE Day always makes me think of my German grandfather because it was on that day, or a day very close to it, that he surrendered to allied forces and it happened like this.

He was in a detachment of German soldiers in charge of a convoy of trucks of food, mainly canned meat.  The trucks were parked in a field in what is now the Czech Republic.  It rained that night so the soldiers slept under the trucks.  In the morning, somebody thought they saw figures moving towards them from the hills to the East.  The cry went up, ‘It’s the Russians!’ and panic ensued.  They got the engines of the trucks started, some were now stuck in the mud and abandoned, but the ones that could be moved were driven away from the Russians and into the waiting arms of the army of the United States of America who were just round the next corner.  Hands up!  The war is over!

My grandfather’s first night as a prisoner of war was spent sleeping in a farmyard close to where he had surrendered.  In the morning he thought he would have a shave.  So he went to the well in the farmyard and began trying to shave without soap and without a mirror.  An American soldier was watching him and then suddenly disappeared only to return with a shaving mirror which he offered to my grandfather. 

It was, for my grandfather, an unexpected gesture.  A man who would have shot him 48 hours previously was now lending him a mirror.

Shortly after that my grandfather was loaded onto a truck which formed a convoy of prisoners that made its way slowly westwards, heading towards a POW camp in France.  My grandfather was struck by how relaxed the American soldiers were.  The war was over!  What a difference that made! The trucks passed through an area of forest very close to where his parents in law lived and my grandfather decided to take a chance.  He slid off the side of the truck, rolled over and crouched behind a bush.  Nothing happened.  There were no shots.  The trucks just kept moving.  Once they were gone, my grandfather got up and walked to the town where he hoped to find his family staying with his parents-in-law. 

His parents-in-law were amazed and overjoyed to see him but had to tell him that his family were staying somewhere else, a few days walk away.  So my grandfather set off again, walking through the forest, until finally he came to the street where the he hoped to find his family. 

As we walked down a street he saw a little girl who looked like his daughter.  The girl looked at him and then ran into the house.  Maybe she was frightened of soldiers? He began to run forward.  That girl was my mother.  She had run into the house to say to her mother, ‘I think Dad has come home.’

We’ll meet again.  Don’t know where, don’t know when.  Let us reflect for a moment on the joy of all those homecomings.  All those loving embraces.

I have some pictures here.  They are not pictures of that homecoming but they are pictures of my grandfather.  He is walking through the forest with three of his grandchildren; my brother and sisters, whom he was very lucky to see.  Maybe you can see how happy he was to have been so lucky.

I know this story because my German grandfather told lots of stories.  My English grandfather was different.  He wasn’t such a storyteller and above all, I don’t think he told stories about the things that really mattered. 

VE day would have been very different for my English grandfather.  His joy at war’s ending would have been affected by the sadness at having lost his younger brother who was a captain in the British army and lost his life in Belgium in 1944, we think shot by a sniper.

As a result I grew up listening to my German grandfather’s stories and I never knew my English great uncle.  I grew up listening to stories about a private in the German army who tried to do the least he could to support the Nazi war effort and was proud to boast that he had never fired his rifle for the whole four years he was in uniform.  I never knew the man who was a leader of men, who probably did fire his weapon at the enemy and gave his life to defeat fascism in Europe.  We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when?  I never met him.  His stories have died with him.

I want to show some other photographs.  These were taken in 1957.  This is a summer camp for young people from all over Europe that took place in northern Germany.  The young people worked together to renovate housing for refugees from Easter Europe.  It was part of a movement across Europe designed to bring young people from different countries together.  My parents met at this camp.

Looking at these pictures, it strikes me that these are very powerful images of Victory over Fascism in Europe.  The words on the back of the photographs actually describe the place as a ‘lager’ which means camp.  It’s the same word as the German word for concentration camp.  But the word has been reclaimed. 

We can see from these pictures that this camp was a place of joy for people who were children during the war.  Young people from many countries; not fighting, not oppressing each other, not wearing uniform, but working together and having fun.  The Nazis would have hated it.  This is the victory we were meant to be celebrating on Friday.  This is what victory over fascism looks like. 

We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when.  In these pictures we see the nations of Europe reunited.  The nephew of the British army captain who was shot in Belgium and the daughter of the German soldier who took a chance and slid off a US army truck so he could go home.  Meeting again.  Some sunny day.

Of course, when we sang these words over the last few days, we all saw the connection with what is happening in the world today.  I was reading a harrowing account written by a nurse in New York who has been working with corona patients.  She described families dropping their loves ones off at hospital, being told that they couldn’t come in with the person who was sick, saying goodbye; see you soon.  She described how it felt to witness these farewells while having a pretty shrewd idea from the state of the patient whether this rushed farewell was actually the final goodbye or not.  And then taking that emotion home after a long shift.

This nurse has been struggling to cope with the stress of the pandemic.  She struggles to witness scenes like this.  She struggles to cope with the day to day business of looking after people who are dying in these conditions because she is also honouring her patients’ lives and wants to heal them but often she cannot.

How do we cope with situations like these?

We turn to the words of Jesus Christ.

Jesus said,  ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.  In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.  And you know the way to the place where I am going.’

This is Jesus saying his farewells to the disciples.  He knows this is like the hugs in the A&E department that the New York nurse was describing.  This is like the hugs on the platform before the soldier gets on the train.  Just a hug in an ordinary everyday place that is also the last hug between two people on this earth. 

And what does Jesus say?  ‘We will meet again.’  Just like Vera Lynn.  Except when Vera Lynn sings ‘Don’t know where, don’t know when’, Jesus says he does know.  He knows the place and he tells the disciples that they know the place.

It’s Thomas who blurts it out.  We don’t know the way!  Jesus says, ‘yes you do know the way.  I am the way.  I am the way to the Father.’

Philip still doesn’t get it.  ‘Just show us the Father!’  Jesus says, ‘I am the Father.’  Follow me.  Be like me.  And you will get to where you are going.

Do you remember the title of book I read?  With the End in Mind – How to live and die well.  The challenge in life, and especially when we are facing death, is to live in the moment coping with the challenges that present themselves to us while also valuing life and honouring each person we meet and ourselves.   

Jesus tells his followers how to meet that challenge. 

We are at peace.  We know where we are going.  Jesus has gone on ahead of us and has got everything ready for us.

And we know the way.  He is the way.  We live each day the way he would have us live it.  When we fail, his sacrifice means we will still arrive at our destination.

We can live each day in the moment and yet also understand what our whole purpose is.  That is his gift to us.  Let us embrace it as we stand together to declare our faith.

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Page last updated: 10th May 2020 8:33 AM