Two Friends, Two Lives

On successive days last week Liz and I attended the funeral/memorial services of two very special friends – Jeremy Clark and Tim Pidsley, aged 50 and 53. The sense of loss was heightened not only by their relatively early deaths (and in Tim’s case by its shocking suddenness) but also by the sheer quality of their lives.

Jeremy grew up in Christchurch, came to faith in early adulthood, and entered the Anglican ministry.  After a curacy at St Stephen’s, Shirley, in Christchurch, he and his wife Catherine moved to England to be closer to her family. He ministered in parishes in the Wirral and Devon until a little over two years ago.

Jeremy Clark

Liz and I were in England in September 2014 visiting family. We hoped to catch up with Jeremy and Catherine during that time, but it didn’t work out with our travel plans and his. He e-mailed me to say, “Don’t worry. I’m coming back to Christchurch in November. I’ll see you then.” We returned to New Zealand in early October, and the day after we returned Jeremy was diagnosed with terminal melanoma. He e-mailed me: “Won’t now see you in November. It will be at a later date, or in a greater light.”

Jeremy has now entered into that greater light, but during these last two years he has had an extraordinary ministry through his blog, Tracing the Rainbow through the Rain. The blog is remarkable – and it has had over 170,000 hits. It is movingly human and honest about the fears and struggles of terminal illness; and it is simply inspiring in showing the difference faith in Christ makes when facing the greatest challenges. (Within a few months of his own diagnosis, Jeremy had to also face the loss of his 23 year old son, Ben, who caught a rare virus and died after suffering repeated brain seizures.)

The trajectory of Tim Pidsley’s life was the exact reverse of Jeremy’s. He grew up in Devon, did a degree and worked in the UK, then came to Christchurch to live and work in the area of leadership and organisational development. As a director of Tricordant and Leadership Lab, his clients included NZ District Health Boards, The National Library, Shell, and the National Health System, UK.


Tim became a very involved and hugely loved member of the church I pastored in Sumner-Redcliffs. He had a great appetite for outdoor adventure and was an expert climber, skier, sailor, kayaker, and cyclist. It wasn’t long before he completed the Coast to Coast, the classic race from one coast of the South Island to the other. It was an enormous shock to everyone who knew him when he was found dead in his bed after completing the BDO Cycle Race from Wellington to Auckland in February.

Tim had a remarkable gift of friendship. Although single, he related to a whole range of couples and families with whom he was a great hit. He had a penetrating, thoughtful mind and was a stimulating person to talk with. Despite his physical strength and intellectual ability, he was gentle and humble in manner and very considerate of others. Calm and positive in outlook, he was an excellent person to have around in a crisis.

Everyone who knew Tim well saw that his character qualities flowed from his faith. He embodied what he believed. A close friend said of him that “his faith was under-stated and over-lived.” Another friend said that “he gave us a master class in living.” He walked humbly with his God and lived a life of love.

With the loss of Jeremy and Tim, the world seems a poorer place. Yet the quality of their lives and the reality of their faith were such that I am convinced that death does not have the last word over them.  At Jeremy’s service, his father read the well-known passage from John 11 in which Jesus comes to Mary and Martha after their brother Lazarus has died and says: “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even though they die” (John 11:25). I’m a Christian because I believe that Christ, not death, has the final word over human destiny.



 Missing God and Fearing Death

Nothing To Be Frightened Of, Julian Barnes (250 pp)


“I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him” is the striking opening sentence of the most intriguing book I read last year. Julian Barnes is one of Britain’s leading novelists – he won the Man Booker prize in 2011 and has had three other novels shortlisted for the award – but this is a personal memoir and meditation on the twin themes of God and mortality. And despite the seriousness of the subject, it is wonderfully entertaining.

I suspect that most of us push the awareness of death to the back of our consciousness, but for Julian Barnes it has been with him on a daily basis since he was a teenager. “Over the decades,” he writes, “my fear of death has become an essential part of me.” And he describes the acute attacks when, in the middle of the night, he finds himself “pitch-forked” into wakefulness, beating the pillow and “shouting ‘Oh no Oh No OH NO’ in an endless wail.”

Having rejected the “attenuated belief” of his family background, he is aware that, with no God and no Heaven, death is “on the agenda in quite a different way.” The heart of the issue for him is the fear of blank extinction. While his rationalistic older brother (an academic philosopher with whom he is in debate) is quite content with that prospect, Julian Barnes can imagine all sorts of things that would be better than “utter obliteration” – an eternal life talking to the great philosophers and novelists, for instance, or a second go at life in which you get the chance to correct the mistakes of the first. His brother says it would be irrational to fear extinction, to which Barnes responds:  “IRRATIONAL? It’s the most rational thing in the world – how can reason not detest and fear the end of reason?”

Having rejected the bland acceptance of mortality, he also rejects the so-called consolations atheists offer. He refers to Richard Dawkins’ view that we are the lucky ones because the vast majority of potential people never even get born – and finds this no consolation, rather a disconsolation, because it emphasizes our staggering uniqueness which makes it even harder to shrug our shoulders at mortality. To the argument that your children ‘carry you on’ after your death, he responds: “What happens when you reach the first generation born after you are dead, the one with no possible memory of you, and for whom you were mere folklore? Will you be carried on by them, and will they know that is what they are doing?”

Two of the appealing things about Julian Barnes are his candour and humility. He sees atheism as ‘aristocratic’ and Bertrand Russell as the embodiment of that sort of pride. Having called himself an atheist in his youth, he now sees himself as an agnostic because he has more awareness of human ignorance and asks, “How can we be sure that we know enough to know?”

He is very candid about missing God:

“The God I don’t believe in yet miss is naturally the Christian God of Western Europe and       non-fundamentalist America. I don’t miss Allah or Buddha, any more than I miss Odin       or Zeus. And I miss the New Testament God rather than the Old Testament one. I miss         the God that inspired Italian painting and French stained glass, German music and                 English chapter houses, and those tumble-down heaps of stone on Celtic headlands             which were once symbolic beacons in the darkness and storm.” (pp 117-118)

Why does he miss God? Part of it is aesthetic. There is a loss of wonder when confronted by the natural world: “If what is out there comes from nothing, if all is unrolling mechanically according to a programme laid down by nobody, and if our perceptions of it are mere moments of biochemical activity, the mere snap and crackle of a few synapses, then what does this sense of wonder amount to?” (p 71) He also realizes how much more great religious art and music would mean if he could see it as true. But that is only the beginning. Behind it is something deeper: “Religion used to offer consolation for the travails of life, and reward at the end of it for the faithful. But above and beyond these treats, it gave human life a sense of context, and therefore seriousness.” (p 57)

Yet sadly, despite the sense of loss, Barnes never seems to have seriously investigated faith or considered the evidence for God. Instead of engaging with the issue, he simply settles for a default position of agnosticism. And his few believing friends don’t seem to have served him well. At one point he mentions asking a Catholic friend why he believes and getting the response, ‘I believe because I want to believe’, which Julian Barnes understandably finds less than helpful.

Although seemingly unwilling to explore faith as a personal option, Julian Barnes has a sure sense of what it should be like. He writes: “Agnostics and atheists observing religion from the sideline tend to be unimpressed by milksop creeds. What’s the point of faith unless you and it are serious – seriously serious – unless your religion fills, directs, stains and sustains your life?” (p 81)

His attack on subjective re-inventions of faith is also very much to the point. To those who say something like, “I don’t go to church, but I have my own personal idea of God”, he responds: “You may have your own personal idea of God, but does God have His own personal idea of you? Because that’s what matters …. The notion of redefining the deity into something that works for you is grotesque.” (p 45)

Julian Barnes is dealing with two of the greatest questions of human existence – God and mortality – and, while the extent of his engagement with the first is disappointing, he leaves the reader with much to ponder about the second. Unlike a friend who said to him, “I know that everybody else is going to die, but I never think I am going to die”, Barnes lives deeply with the awareness of his mortality. And his book is an engaging, lively and human response to that reality. We live in a society that pushes away the awareness of death. (I’m frequently struck in pastoral situations by how often death takes people by surprise.) In its honesty and candour this book is (to use the author’s own phrase) a significant “wake-up call to mortality.”