Friday, 26 November 2010

Grace Sheppard

On Wednesday we steamed north to the Wirral for the funeral of my cousin, Grace. We'd heard about the lorry fire on the M5 and went instead by the M6 Toll, which meant we got to the church (in the car!) in time to snatch some lunch before the service. It was a moving service for an impressive person. She looked after her husband, Bishop David Sheppard, when he contracted cancer. "Since caring for David through his illness, and following his death in 2005, Grace confounded all by not succumbing to the darkness of bereavement, in spite of a diagnosis of breast cancer in 2006. Quite the contrary, she embraced life and didn't waste a moment, putting her energy into deepening relationships with her family and friends and expressing her inspiration through writing" - as her daughter and her brother well put it in the service sheet.

As I've said, exactly one month and one day before she died she preached in the Pause for Hope service in Liverpool's Anglican cathedral. This is part of what she said that day:
"There is power to heal in gratitude.
"Some years ago I was sent a postcard from a friend. It had on it this quotation:
'Gratitude never faileth.
'For gratitude is the herald of faith, and
'Faith the harbinger of hope.'
"There is a link between gratitude and hope. Just saying thank you politely is not what I am talking about. It is having such an awareness of God's gifts that a feeling of thankfulness wells up causing us to express that gratitude in heartfelt ways. Once this awareness of what we have been given is allowed room, then real gratitude can begin to take root. Then it becomes a habit. And then you can't stop and despair is sent packing and hope moves in. I have tried this and now I can't help seeing so much by way of gift. I am convinced that this has helped me through some tough times recently, and strengthened my faith too. I recommend Gratitude as a tool for healing. For whingeing and self-pity only lead to despair. There is a choice....

"Sometimes it is in the little things that God shows himself, and very often through other people.
"It is in the tenderness of an elderly man that I saw in hospital patiently tending his dying wife day after day: in the way the light falls on the plants in my garden: in my little next door neighbour jumping on the trampoline, with arms outstretched, shouting  'I can reach the sky!': in the robin puffing out his chest in the early morning sun: it can be found in the way food is prepared and presented on a plate:  - and yes, even in the company of a close friend enjoying 'Strictly' on a Saturday night.
"We are each other's gifts. I'm thankful for every life-giving encounter. Today I stand here out of sheer gratitude: gratitude for Life; to God; to my family and friends and neighbours; to everyone who has sent cards and messages and flowers and offers of help; to all in the NHS: doctors, consultants, nurses, Macmillan nurses, district nurses, researchers, administrators, chaplains, secretaries, maintenance engineers, phlebotomists, radiologists, dinner staff, tea ladies, auxiliary staff, porters and volunteers. They are part of us and we are part of them. Thank you too to all who have been praying - I can feel it every day. There is healing power in Gratitude.
"Pausing, breathing in the love of God, in this great stillness together will give inspiration - oxygen - to our spiritual wellbeing. It will touch people in our homes and hospitals, in our streets and workplaces, in our communities and across the world; it will contribute to the common good.  I hope it will touch you as it has touched me.
"Breathing out is as important as breathing in: it is creative, calming us in the face of fear. Here we are enfolded in the safety of God's love.  It reminds us of our belonging and connectedness to one another. Pausing, breathing and giving thanks together is life giving, and makes room for mutual respect and hope to flourish. It is something we can all do, wherever we are, on the path between living and dying.
"So let's get on with living - in hope!"

One of the most touching parts of the service was when Grace's grandson, Gilles, aged 10, read the version of the 23rd Psalm which she had adapted herself in her final illness.
"... Even though I walk through some dark valleys,
I will fear no danger, for He is at my side....
Your loved ones and mine are there to strengthen and comfort me....
My cup of joy overflows.
Kindness and faithful love pursue me
Every day of my life.
I will be at Home with you today and for ever."

What a privilege to have known her! You may understand that the service was not miserable but a celebration. She loved her garden overlooking the Dee estuary. The last alteration she had done in it was to have an overgrown conifer replaced with a liquidambar sapling, which she called her "resurrection tree". It was illuminated at the funeral tea. She herself never saw it in position, but as she said, "Let's get on with living - in hope."


  1. This brings back memories from deep in my mind of proofreading a book, entitled if memory serves me correctly,"George Burdon - a study in contradictions". It was a biography in essence and charted the work of George as one of the workers at the Mayflower Centre in London.

    I was working at a printers in Worcester at the time (1969!) and was so inspired by the book that when staying in London I chose to travel from Harrow where I was staying to visit the centre amidst the then derralict London docklands.

    George Burdon from what I remember was a very enthusiastic and hard worker when with others but when alone he could easily, for want of a better description, just fall apart. Proving I suppose that we all need support at some time in our lives if we are to remain strong.

  2. Almost right, Rob. He was George Burton. And I guess that was one of the Mayflower's strengths. It was a community of the vulnerable.