Sermon preached at the Funeral of the Reverend Robert William Lawson
in the Church of Saint Brigid, Castleknock, Dublin
by the Right Reverend Dr Paul Colton, Bishop of Cork
Saturday, 26th January 2019
We gather here, as we heard at the outset, ‘… with confidence in God, the giver of life, who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead.’ In saying what I say to you today, I felt drawn to the words, read earlier, from the Wisdom of Solomon:
‘Those who trust in him will understand truth,
and the faithful will abide with him in love, …’
We’ve a saying in the Church of Ireland, indeed in the Anglican tradition, which, when you boil it down, means ‘if you want to know what we believe, look at how we worship and how we pray.’ In the same way, we see much of Robert and his pattern of belief in the choices, many of which he made, for this liturgy today: the prayers first with him and his family in the home he loved; the choice of this place where, on his journey, much of his faith was nurtured and where he exercised ministry long before he was ever ordained, where his earthly body will lie; the participation by his family, inviting us in Christ’s name to gather with him in this Eucharist, the scriptures, the ecumenical involvement, the taking-part by members of Contemplative Outreach Ireland, the quotations from Fr Thomas Keating and Thomas Merton, the hymns with their themes of personal and earthly journey – towards home, towards God, and towards rest.
More generally the Funeral Service sets out why we are here, and what we believe this is about:
- To remember before God our dear brother Robert;
- To give thanks for his life;
- To leave him in the keeping of God his creator, redeemer and judge;
- To commit his body to be buried; and,
- To comfort one another in our grief
And we do all of this ‘in the hope that is ours through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.’
It’s a helpful structure for the liturgy today, and it can be used by the preacher conveniently to give shape to our thoughts at a time like this. Unfortunately, however, in the case of Robert, a formula like this, on its own at any rate, just won’t do. It’s too tidy and too convenient. It lets institutional religion and its representative preacher – me, charged by Robert with this responsibility today – off the hook. There’s much more going on in our minds, our hearts, our spirits, as we gather here today, and these bullet points simply will not contain it all. We know there is a bigger and more difficult story to tell as we reflect on the many ways we have each known and journeyed with Robert.
We had some great and happy times; so we do remember and are thankful. Time is too short, now at any rate, to go through them all: life here in the parish, his ministry as a lay man and as a reader, his reaching out especially to people who were ill. This was a part of Dublin that accelerated in growth in the 1990s, and has continued to expand since. To put it in perspective, when I arrived here 29 years ago, Castleknock still looked like a village and there were 107 Church of Ireland families; when I left nine years later there were 517 families. The region has continued to expand during the incumbencies of Andrew Orr and Paul Houston.
This was an area of population explosion and Robert was one of the many lay people here who I could not have done without, people without whose voluntary work, I would have gone under, and when I nearly did, Robert was one of the ones who was there. You have your own memories – Sunday Cub, Boys’ Brigade, football, fund-raising, vestry, and life outside the parish too: his sport, his work in the Department of Biotechnology at DCU, the Church’s Ministry of Healing. He trained to be licensed as a Diocesan Reader followed; and next, ordination training, deeper contact with neighbours in Lucan and Leixlip, being made a deacon in 2008 and ordained priest in 2009, deep relationship with the people of Celbridge and Straffan with Newcastle-Lyons, and then Christ Church Cathedral Group, and contact with countless others in these dioceses and further afield. And then I suppose I better mention that he was a Liverpool supporter. Before vestry prayers each week in that vestry, the air had to be cleared as of first importance of friendly football banter; yes, we parked it. As he leaves us, it looks as if it could well be his team’s year.
The last time we had communication with one another was on Saturday last – the 29th anniversary of first meeting one another at my Institution as Rector here in this very place. As it happens, 1990 was also the last year Liverpool won the league. Those were the days when Robert was emerging from the first phase of his illness. The years that followed in the 1990s and the first part of the twenty-first century, such was Robert’s zest for life and people, that illness, and markers, and check-ups while all there, all took a relative back seat. A new diagnosis in 2010 came as a real jolt. Recent years brought new stages on his journey; and that is how he saw it – as journey. He never saw it as ‘battle’, ‘struggle’ or ‘fight’, and didn’t want it labelled as such. And this, of course, goes against our instinct.
I reminded him last Saturday of the friendship anniversary that was in it. Ever the mystic, and ever the somewhat intangible in his spirituality, at least to rationalists like me, he replied: ‘Many philosophers would say the friendship started long before we were born.’ I’m still thinking about that one.
On his journey, Robert had come to see a lot of things on a different timeline. This cannot always have been easy for those closest to him, but they have journeyed faithfully and lovingly with him, and he with them.
So now that he has come to this point on his journey, we are especially mindful of you – those of you who were closest to him along the way – Ada, Theo and Paul, Robert’s mother, Muriel (who cannot be here today due to her great age), his mother-in-law Florrie, all of Ada’s family, and of course, his late brother John’s family; and in the communion of Saints, worshipping with us today – ‘angels and archangels and all the company of heaven ‘ – we think of his father Bill, his brother John, and Victor, his father in law. Intrinsic to Robert’s journey were his medical team – they were, of course, professionals, but to Robert they were friends and teammates on his side and he had huge admiration for them as individuals and their science. And of course his countless friends, in person, and virtual, to whom he reached out, gave himself, ministered and made a difference. Many of you here received counsel, friendship and ministry from Robert in your own hour of need. I am not going to repeat the words that you have said and posted about him again and again on social media which he embraced. Sometimes though he had a way of challenging you – me at any rate – and I’d never give him the sut, as they say, of knowing that he was right (that’s pride) but often he hit the mark, not always mind you (he was far from perfect), so it is no wonder that one dear friend, against that background, described him as ‘infuriatingly lovely.’
Robert whatsapped (that was his way latterly of keeping in touch with many of us) on 20th December to say that he was embarking on a new drug which, in his words, ‘wouldn’t be a game changer’ and it would be ‘his last throw of the dice’. Again his words. I asked what he wanted and he said ‘Just keep in touch’. Robert, more than anyone else I have ever known, learned to live in the moment. We kept in touch, in the days and nights since – banter, jokes, sometimes more pensive and vulnerable. Often I sent him photos – a morning mist over farmland when I was out two weeks ago in West Cork; it wasn’t a lot different from his home townland, I thought, of Carrickbanagher in Sligo, in the Parish of Collooney. Robert’s journey was a deeply personal one, and sometimes, for those of us apart from himself, it was hard to figure out: perplexing. He was quite clear that it was ’his journey’; ‘I have to make the journey,’ he said, but he knew that he was not alone. I am not thinking only and predictably of God, that again is too clichéd. So I want you all to know how Robert saw it and what he said to me about all of you – most of you are included anyway, I hope – (you can see Robert widening his eyes and putting his tongue in his cheek at my saying that; and perhaps even his deep guffaw of laughter – ‘Did he just say that?’). Last week when he told me that he believed, to use his words, ‘time is beginning to catch-up with me’, I asked him if I could do anything for him. ‘No thanks’ he said “God has put me together with so many beautiful different people to learn from them. That’s enough for me.’ That’s you guys.
Contact sustained by long walks when I was here, occasional get-togethers, social media asides, and long, long conversations on the car phone (with handsfree I emphasise) that often lasted on my drive home to Cork from Newlands Cross to as far as Urlingford or even the Horse and Jockey, until I reached the hard border into Cork a few miles north of Mitchelstown, we kept in touch and he usually left me in no doubt about what he thought about institutional religion, in general, and bishops and other types of ecclesiastical authority, in particular, and the way that authority and power is exercised, particularly when it excluded rather than included. His journey didn’t alienate him entirely from institutional religion, but a lot of it exasperated him – certainly it brought him to a place of holding it in proper perspective in a very contemporary 21st Century millennial way. These recent years of journeying have been, for him, paths of deepening spirituality: the Cloud of Unknowing, the writings of St John of the Cross, Thomas Merton, Richard Rohr and, most especially, Thomas Keating. And so came the importance of contemplation and centering prayer; spirituality, which he saw as the way forward in the ministry and mission of the contemporary Church – not strategies, programmes, or frenzied activity and initiatives.
And that brings me to the Scripture readings (Psalm 23, Matthew 5.1-11) and the reading from the Biblical Apocrypha (Wisdom of Solomon 3.1-9) chosen for today, including the text I was drawn to. One of the things they have in common is this, and this commonality, for me at any rate, captures something of Robert’s spirituality, which had become deeply mystical, yes, in the tradition of the Christian mystics. All of the readings contrast conventional perceptions with a new and transforming and transformative perspective on things. They turn conventional outlook on its head. Robert often strove to do this himself.
In the psalm the God who in great parts of the Hebrew Scriptures is encountered as Almighty, powerful God, omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent, sometimes portrayed as terrifying, is, here, in contrast, a shepherd who pastors and restores us, is with us in the valley of death, takes away fear, and brings comfort. Even when we are surrounded by those metaphorical enemies there is a laden table of welcome and hospitality to sit at, where the cup is overflowing, and God welcomes us into his house, forever.
Jesus, in what he did and said, was, par excellence, the one (Matthew 5.1-11) who turned the accepted wisdom and the human mores of the day on their head. As Robert’s beloved Father Thomas Keating said of the parables of Jesus, for instance, ‘The thrust of the parables is to subvert the distorted myths in which people live their lives.’ So, for example, it is the foreigner who is good and who comes to the rescue, not the priest or the respectable local. For Jesus the Kingdom of God, surprisingly, is like a mustard seed, or a widow, or a child, the lost sheep, or a wayward son. So it is here again in today’s snippets of sermons gathered in what we call The Beatitudes. It is the poor in spirit to whom the kingdom of heaven belongs. Those who mourn are comforted. The meek inherit the earth. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are filled. The pure in heart see God. Peacemakers are children of God. Those who are persecuted are given the kingdom of God, and so, in spite of everything that we face, we can ‘rejoice and be glad.’
Robert’s journey had brought him to a point where he seemed to have grasped these outlandish things and rested in them, which brings me, finally, to the first reading from the Wisdom of Solomon (3.1-9). It is a passage that is curiously beautiful and yet unsettling – dare I say ‘infuriatingly lovely’? For it casts those of us who have the very human reactions, as the foolish ones – ‘in the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster, and their going from us to be their destruction…’ Truth be told that is how we actually feel at times like this. Yet again, however, the conventional outlook is turned on its head: ‘…but they are at peace … their hope is full of immortality … God found them worthy of himself …’
In his last message to me last Saturday Robert was anticipating the move to the Hospice, and he said ‘it should be a great time of purification already … if you could use the word or whatever you want to call it – part of the spiritual’, he said. His last words to me were discomfiting – that wasn’t surprising – but this was not my journey, it was his.
It takes spiritual maturity to realise and embrace all of this, and if we are honest, if I am honest, many of us wrestle with these things, not least with the ideas of discipline and testing, but there again, as Saint Paul said somewhere else, ‘now we see through a glass darkly’ (1 Corinthians 13.12)
But Robert’s spiritual journey had led him to embrace how he saw it and had come to grasp it: ‘I lie in greater opening to my God’, he said last Friday. This is why, friends, I was drawn to the text I chose:
‘Those who trust in him will understand truth,
and the faithful will abide with him in love …’
It seems to me that that is the point to which Robert had arrived on this stage of his journey. That is why, as I say “we have confidence in God the giver of life, who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead’, and that we can rest in the truth that ‘the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, [where] no torment will ever touch them.’ (Wisdom 3.1)