What do the numbers 53, 60, 96, 95 and 84 mean to you I wonder? Do they mean anything at all?
For those who appear to be obsessed with celebrity deaths, these are the ages of George Michael, Carrie Fisher, Ricard Adams, Liz Smith and Debbie Reynolds who have all died recently (Reynolds being the latest).
A number of people have engaged in in the 'tragic' news - tragic on the grounds that they were stars; they were famous and did stuff that put them in the public eye. They tell me how. "There's something going one with all these stars dying!" And you know what - they are right.
Now consider the ages 94, 88, 95, 88, 70, 98, 88, 67, 80, 91 (my last ten funerals) and have a think about the fact that in some of those there were a handful of people left to mourn the loss of a life and yet in the stories that represented their lives there were heroic acts, selfless love, tragic lives and lives lived to the full.
A heroine taken and heroin taking another - that would be the heading for a couple of the celebrity deaths; a mother's broken heart accounts for another and 'just being old' a couple more of the celebrities.
But there's no conspiracy - as (a much quoted and more often unattributed) comment puts it - the high number of celebrity deaths corresponds with the rise to fame of film and music stars and the birth of the 'celebrity' whom so many now worship makes a large number of the deaths nothing more than a statistical reality and a reflection of candles burnt. Now I know one of the recent deaths was extremely sad in that the loss of one celeb' played a part in the second death but look at the 'December' deaths and tell me which of them cause a real surprise:
Liz Smith: 95 Richard Adams: 96 Debbie Reynolds:84 Carrie Fisher: 60
George Michael: 53 Rick Parfitt: 68 Zsa Zsa Gabor: 99 A A Gill: 62
Greg Lake: 69 Peter Vaughan: 93 Andrew Sachs: 86
Now look at the list again and having removed those who have clocked up a fair number have a stop and think about lifestyle choices of the 'surprise' deaths that remain - could it be that the 'sex, drugs and rock and roll' lifestyles and the like have played a part here?
So we now reach a place where it becomes pretty obvious that despite the newspaper hype and the fairtydust folklore attitudes of many around me (and I am assuming that the people here are little different to the people elsewhere) and you will see that God, most definitely, is not building a rock and roll band. Neither did he read Watershed Down and cry out, "Author, author!" only top find him standing before Him in an eyeballing later.
Regardless of who a person is or what they do - a life is a life and yet some seem to count the life of the star as something more than the life of a woman who cleaned toilets or worked at a lathe and walked to work because the money didn't allow for a bus or the man who was working four jobs during the time when short-time working, layoffs and the like (aah, remember the 60's and a time when the UK had a manufacturing industry?) - and all that to put love in the home, food on the table; clothes on their children's backs.
We need some perspective - all life is valuable and the loss of life is always a tragedy for someone.
It is sad that many who had so much in life get more again in death whilst the 'have not's' are buried quietly with barely a nod or, sadly at time, a person to note their passing.
One of the saddest funerals I have ever done was for a person who devoted their life to the service of others and yet when the died at 104 there was just me, the organist and their carer from the Old Folk's Home to mark her passing. The stories were few because none who knew them were alive and those who might have been family, albeit distant, had no relationship with them because they were separated by the generations!
So - here's a plea. We are called to comfort those who mourn and the greatest role I have as a Priest is that of helping the well, and the dying, to die well - regardless of whether that event is imminent of perhaps(but who knows) years off. We have all buried people in their teens, a time when death isn't even the glimmer of a fear and the assumption is that there to be tens of years before them.
So we can but live each day as if it were our last and act as if someone is watching (and of course they are - and I don't mean Santa either!) and an account of our actions will asked of.
Yesterday the Church remembered the 'Holy Innocents' - those children under two who were put to death by Herod as he sought to remove Jesus from this world. Today we ignore the children, those innocents, who die around the world in refugee camps, warzones, places where famine, poor sanitation and the lack of effective (or cost-available) drugs all conspire.
I have met people who have spent inordinately large sums of money to mark the passing of a celebrity and yet these same people were resolute in their lack of support for the Christian Aid envelope stuck through their letterbox. How happy we are to pay out for what is unimportant whilst the important - and isn't life always important? - is ignored.
So a message to those around me: 'Wake up before you go go" because you only get one chance to do good things on this earth whilst you're here - and after that there's some clarification to be sought. A no, a Band Aid Tee Shirt doesn't count as having acted charitably, it means you were more likely than not just indulging the celebrity cult with a bit of salve (after all, the local who told me they spent almost £500 to be at the concert: "But it was for a good cause," and, "They really loved nn and, at last, got to see them!! Yeah, that sounds like charity doesn't it?
Psalm 146:3-9 has a pointer in all this:
"Don’t put your life in the direction of those who know nothing of salvation life for they are as flawed and fallible as you. They live their lives of illusion on the screen, the stage and in their own existence and yet, they so often fail to have what it takes to live life to the full - and yet people seek the empty reality wrapped in the misplaced glamour that the masses crowd in to give them
But when they die, their fantasies, the appearance and the applause die with them so why not, instead, put your hope in God and know what real blessing and turn peace; what things make for a whole person and a fulfilled and blessed life are all about?
God has never decided to no longer reply to His fans, neither has he erected high fences to keep us away because He wants His privacy. God always stands up for the wronged and feeds the hungry (without selling you a Tee Shirt) and acts to release captives of all kinds.God loves all people, protects the strangers, takes the side of orphans and widows, but (and this probably is a warning - so take it as such) makes short work of the wicked."
Let's admire and applaud talent and ability - but never let us lose our balance such that we make them the small gods of our age who can lead us nowhere and do little of substance for us and be a dissipation rather than blessing.
And now praying:
surround us and all who mourn this day with your continuing compassion.
Do not let grief overwhelm your children, or turn them against you.
When grief seems never-ending,
Take them one step at a time along your road of death and resurrection
In Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen