“He left them, went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there.”

After the noise of that journey into Jerusalem on the donkey with all the shouting and the waving of palms, and after the the losing of his temper with the traders in the temple…. more noise and confusion; it is not surprising that Jesus retreated to the home of his friends in Bethany. There he knew he would find a welcome and the peace of gentle companionship. There he would find a good meal and somewhere that nurtured him and would happily give him a bed.

I always find this simple sentence very moving. He may have taken his friends with him..Mary and Martha were generous, but they may have scattered to various homes in the city. We do not know. All we know is that Mary and Martha and Lazarus were his friends. There he was safe, there he was welcome.

The gospel writers are not very good at telling us much of the personal life of Jesus…just glimpses here and there… a dinner party here and , an invitation to a wedding…….but I am most glad of his friendships, of having a disciple who St John tells us was loved by Jesus, a family who supported him even if at times they thought he was mad and Mary and Martha and Lazarus his friends…..

Most of us can look at our lives and see those few extra special people who have been true friends to us . Those who support us steadfastly yet are not afraid to challenge us if necessary. Those who are instrumental in changing us..a very precious few.

I want to tell you about Mary.  Mary was born into a closed Brethren family but grew up to  step bravely out of that background when she discovered the study of theology. First went her fundamentalism, then  her narrow opinions, all to be replaced by a liberal Anglicanism and a deep love of the Old Testament. She was to finish her career as vice principal and senior lecturer in Divinity at what was then known as the Salisbury Diocesan Training College . Much later it was to be called Sarum St Michael. (so named because its chapel was dedicated to the Holy Angels; now the lecture room in the Salisbury Museum)  She was my tutor and later my friend .

When Mary had finished correcting my split infinitives she turned herself to bring out my latent abilities. She encouraged and stretched, recommended reading, painstakingly taught me skills of theological reflection, taught me to write fluently and with two others taught me New Testament Greek. She adopted me into a study group for  those who were handpicked for their theological competence from the community.  They were mostly clergy but not solely. She took me to St Anne’s Oxford where, from 1962 until 1982, I went for two weeks lectures from the leading theologians of the day every year without fail. I was excited by sitting at the feet of CH Dodd as he talked of the primacy of St John’s Gospel, SH Hooke  on the mythology of Genesis 1-11 (already well into retirement.. a slight lively man excited by his material), John Fenton who shocked some by saying that there was only one certain phrase from Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels (“The Kingdom of God is at Hand”) The theology has long moved on  but the memory can still excite me.

It was through her I gained my double distinctions in Divinity and Practical Teaching.

It was here that she had guided me, talked of faith, prevented me from becoming a fundamentalist. Through her I learned to appreciate the liturgy of the Cathedral, was introduced to Benediction at St Martins, made my first confession to one Father Mac who had 15 cats and was rector of St Martins. Eventually I settled at St Edmund’s  (now the Salisbury Arts Centre) that was eagerly embracing the new Family Communion movement. Sunday’s were fun, a lively congregation, a sung liturgy (Merbecke of course) followed by parish breakfast.

We gently became friends, I was senior student in her hall of residence and I chaired ‘Fellowship,’ a student led  group, that discussed all things theological.

I only once  remember being rebuked by her. It was my 21st birthday and my parents gave me a record player and I played Britten’s Missa Brevis far too loudly for her liking!

Occasionally  she drove me to the coast and we walked and talked.

I left Salisbury and taught in what was then called Middlesex. I wanted to go somewhere that was in need of teachers and which was tough. I was offered jobs by the LCC (London County Council) and Middlesex. I went to latter and taught in what was then colloquially known as Potter Street Sec  Mod. (please don’t pronounce the tt  in Potter) It is now the London Borough of Hillingdon.

It was not surprising therefore that after I had left and after my mother’s funeral, I drove to salisbury to see her. I can feel now the comfort of being back in her study looking at a painting she had done hanging over the fireplace. That same picture now hangs in my home here in Salisbury.

She helped me come to terms with mum’s death. She encouraged me to continue teaching leaving my brothers (17 and 14) in the care of my father. On one level I know she was right, on the other I might have been able to save my brothers much suffering . I am still torn to pieces by that decision..not knowing whether it was right or wrong.

It was much at that time she asked me to call her Mary and I said she could call me Ann. That will surprise some of you but there was a formality in those days. She was Miss Rogers, I was Miss Noble. To be asked to call her Mary was a big thing. It changed the relationship to one of intimacy and a friendship of commitment.

I could go on about Mary.  Suffice it to say she was an excellent teacher and a loyal friend. She lived in retirement with a contemporary and I visited them often in their home in Exeter where I was always welcomed and where I was always given space to talk and be myself.  I took her funeral in Exeter Cathedral where she had worshipped throughout her years of retirement.

Her home was something of a Bethany.

I am simple enough to believe that God sometimes gives us people. When it happens there may or may not be a reason but those people are always precious.

I am sure Jesus that night gave thanks for that little family at Bethany. A family that offered him a strength when he needed it most. Theirs was a most precious task. The Father trusted The Son into their hands. Jesus knew he could rely on them and trust them. My prayer is that I too may be that kind of friend. My prayer too is that I may receive such friendship.

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