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05 March 2014

A celebration of life

A celebration of life

This Christmas was significant in the Clifford family as at 9.15am on Boxing Day morning I received a phone call saying that my mother had died.

by Steve Clifford

She had been unwell for a while but deteriorated quickly and died peacefully without regaining consciousness. I am sure many of you will recognise the mixture of emotions; sad that she was gone; relieved she was free of the discomfort of her last months; glad of the assurance she was in a better place.

If you asked me about my mother (until relatively recently) I would have described a woman whose life had been dramatically overturned by the death of her husband less than six years after they married. A young widow with two children without security of home or income. Her life became one of 'survival' – child rearing, teaching (a profession she re-entered) and her church. She rarely left her home town of Bradford and taught in the same school for 28 years. 

However, in the few years before her death and the weeks that have followed, another story emerged. She was not a high flying educated professional (thank God for those who are called to this). She was a primary school class teacher. In 28 years of teaching she had responsibility for more than 900 pupils.

I was in the pub having lunch with my mother a few years ago when a man in his 40s came up and whispered in my ear:"Excuse me, I hope you don't mind me asking, but is that Mrs Clifford?" She had taught him 30 years earlier. He took the moment to express his thanks to her for being such a wonderful teacher. In fact he was a plumber and indicated that if she needed to, she should call him.

At the 'Celebration of Life' service and in reading various letters and cards, I realised the profound impact she had had on so many lives – running a school Christian Union, sharing her faith with her pupils (I'm not sure you would be allowed to in quite the same way today) and her commitment to prayer. Here was a life which at times struggled with fears and insecurities but was far bigger than it presented. People had come to faith; others were called to and supported in ministry; many thankful to God for the influence of her life and faith.

I began to reflect on what it means for our lives to 'count', to 'make a difference'. As we read Christian literature, it's so easy to get the impression that there are certain 'superstars' of the faith: men and women doing extraordinary work, influencing culture, business, government and whole sections of society. Let's thank God for these people. However, I have a suspicion that in the age to come there will be other stories being told. Stories of unsung heroes of the faith who devotedly lived their lives, day in day out, influencing others, giving sacrificially but secretly, praying faithfully and God being moved by their prayers. Over the years, I have had the privilege of meeting scores of such heroes. It's so easy to miss them in the crowd or perhaps in the busyness of church life. However as I've asked questions and listened hard, I have begun to realise before me often stands someone who has no idea that they provoke 'great smiles in heaven'.

The challenge of 1 Peter 2:12 rings in my ear: "Live such good lives among the pagans that though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day He visits us."

2014 will go down as the year of HOPE. Churches all over the country are committed to impacting their communities with the gospel in words and actions. But how does this work out for me in my street, place of work or education, my social club or among my family and friends? In the words of the apostle Peter, what could my "good deeds"look like? Are there little acts of kindness, words of recognition/encouragement or offers of prayer which will have an influence way beyond my expectations?

You will be pleased to know my mother left very clear instructions as to the expectations of her two sons as they planned her service of celebration (which she insisted it was called): bright clothes, no flowers (money to be donated to charity), certain hymns and readings and last but not least that her commode should be returned to Bradford council. All of her requests were fulfilled!

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