These days the sharpness of my own response is honed each morning as the face that stares blearily out from the bathroom mirror reminds me that the fresh faced youth I was once is a somewhat distant memory. Whenever I walk the cliff top path near my home I am intrigued and, if I am to be honest, sometimes irked by the impromptu shines of fading flowers, balloons and other memorabilia tied to benches and bushes in honour of people long dead but clearly not forgotten.
Today I find that I am no longer able to brush off hearty, well meant speculations about the geography and activity of heaven as harmless wishful thinking - 'Old Bill will be up there now tending God's vegetable plot '....or, 'little Grace will be playing happily with all the other small children who went to be with Jesus prior to reaching double figures on Earth ...' - without yearning for a better and more honest way of dealing with these issues.
At the same time, the increasingly popular stance of some Christians and non-believers alike that this life is all that there is and nothing lies beyond seems inadequate and absurd. An intuitive sense of human purpose and the testimony of Christian understanding and experience propel me in the direction of finding a language with which to speak of death and eternity with conviction and not embarrassment, and without the need to request that hearers suspend rational thought for this topic of conversation. Where this pursuit is taking me is into the realisation that in this territory where so little can be known, to say less speculatively is actually to say more helpfully.
When my mother died two years ago I felt no strong need to retain many physical mementos of her life or of the family home that my parents had shaped for nearly 60 years. What I did feel moved to conserve were some token elements from the garden. It was only ever an ordinary suburban back garden and yet it was populated with so many memories - of the games we had played there as children, of plants and shrubs which had arrived as gifts or cuttings or 'thank yous' for some kindness shown, and of the last mortal remains of both parents, rescued from the bleak sterility of a crematorium and interred discretely amongst the roots of a favourite tree. On our last visit to the house before it was to be sold I hastily dug up some late Autumn remnants. At home in Lowestoft I planted these unpromising specimens in a part of our garden recently laid waste by building work.
Winter passed and with the coming of Spring I added some bought plants and enjoyed watching that one time piece of waste ground as tentatively it brought structure, colour and vitality into the garden. It was clear to me that this was not a memorial, nor a vague mystical link to those who had gone before so much as a simple, wholesome declaration that continuity is a principle which underpins, informs and sustains human life and, indeed, the whole of Creation. In this I realised that I was merely mirroring my Mother's own approach to garden design which was to cultivate a living presence of people, places and events through serendipitous acquisitions over the course of her life.
Earlier this year my mother-in-law died and to the patch of ground were added a number of sculptures which she had created or owned. As these sculptures blended with the plants the label 'continuity garden' became yet more established, as way of describing both that re-claimed space and my understanding of these profound issues.
I have never doubted the resurrection stories of Jesus, not because I find the idea of a corpse resuming normal life easily credible in any rational sense, but because that is not quite the tale the gospel writers tell. If we read what the stories actually say we encounter a Jesus who is both tangibly present with his friends and yet significantly changed.
A theme common to virtually all the resurrection appearances is that Jesus is at first unrecognised but then known through his voice, the way he breaks bread, and the sustaining provision he makes for others. The gospel writers offer little if any detail about his physical appearance. Perhaps those details were not known. More importantly, those details were not relevant to the gospel writers' intention of proclaiming through the risen Christ the continuity of God's purposeful presence.
I write this as the cycle of seasons has left far behind the vigorous flowering of Summer. The foliage has mostly died back, the sculptures are coming out of hiding and the continuity garden has embarked upon a time of unobtrusive preparation for next year, and the year beyond that, and on and on ....
I've just planted some springtime bulbs and as I straighten up, my Mother's trowel held loosely in my hand, I almost catch a voice saying 'I hope you're going to clean that trowel before you put it away!'