Rushin, Redcastle, Cappagh South, Ballaghmore.
The townland names roll off the tongue like a railway station announcer’s litany, but have also a poetry of their own. Each conjures images of farms and the dwelling houses, of narrow lanes and high hedges, of ancient trees and long memories.
The names appear on the headstones in the freshly mown churchyard. The smell of the grass adding a timeless quality to the moment’s contemplation of each one. The intended house call not possible because the person was out, wandering the churchyard becomes an opportunity to fill in time.
Eleven weeks in the parish and there is a realisation that the names recorded are familiar names; they are the family names of those who are in church Sunday by Sunday. These were the parents, siblings, and, sadly sometimes, the offspring of the faithful who gather each week.
In the brief inscriptions there must have been stored pain beyond the imagination of a passing stranger. How would anyone ever come to terms with losing a child?
Suddenly, there is a moment of fear. Those who come through the doors of the church each week come in expectation that they will hear something that makes sense of their experiences; something that will help them cope with the sheer anguish of grief. The young woman who has lost her dad does not want platitudes or ecclesiastical jargon. There is no desire for exposition of arcane doctrinal points; there is a wish for meaning, for words telling that it’s all going to work out in the end.
They deserve not to be let down. They are good people, faithful people; they look for encouragement, for assurance. It is intimidating to contemplate.
Leading the midweek service at which a couple of dozen people have congregated, the thought occurs that this is 5% of the parish population. One person in every twenty has come to a service on a Wednesday night; it is a proportion unimaginable in a big urban parish. They have come in expectation; they have come not to be let down.
Ministry has become almost frightening; these people matter too much for it to be casual.
The preacher reminds us this evening that we have nothing to boast of except Christ. It is all we have to offer; there is nothing else.
The lines of headstones, the expectant congregation; the only response is a story of a Galilean carpenter who is killed – and comes back to life. It seems odd, strange almost. Perhaps that’s the nature of grace.