We mustn’t speak ill of the dead. Sometimes, that’s hard. Not today.
We have come to pay our last respects, and commend to God’s everlasting arms, a person who was truly remarkable. In the past couple of weeks, I have spoken to a good number of people about Forbes—to family members, colleagues, friends, church members—and come away with the impression that no one seems be aware of anyone who knew Forbes who did not like or respect her. It seems that there was precious little ill to speak … with the possible exception of her time-keeping. And even that, to someone with my time-keeping habits, was something that made my life easier and more pleasant, because that made her at least one person who was truly sympathetic to my weakness.
No, Forbes really was remarkable in the way that she attracted the respect, admiration and love of others wherever she went. Her colleagues admired her intelligence, her professionalism and hard work, her utter devotion to the care of her patients, to the way she nurtured younger colleagues, and was unflappable in her support of anyone who needed her support, in a 45-year-career of dedicated service to the NHS. In the church, she was faithful, generous, helpful, kind, tactful, caring and dedicated. She served as treasurer, as chairman, as Sunday School teacher, she provided church music, and together with Paul seemed to run the unofficial church guest house. She came as close as you can get to being declared a saint in the Lutheran church when she agreed to take on the role of treasurer to the whole church body—a demanding role which she performed without grumbling and with her customary competence, thoroughness, tact and dedication. She even took the ELCE’s finances with her on holiday, sitting up in the hotel late into the night poring over e-mails and spreadsheets on her laptop.
And to her family—what could I possibly say that is adequate? Not only Ian and Paul, who might be accused of bias, but their many friends have paid tribute to the Perfect Mum, the mother you would want if you didn’t happen to have one already, the mother you would design if you got to make one in a lab—utterly devoted to the happiness and well-being of her family, and eager to extend that same love to many others who had the fortune of visiting the Morris home, whether briefly or for long stays. To Eleanor and Eloise, to Clare and Annika, to her siblings and their families—to all the family—a heart of love and loving care that cannot be replaced. To Paul, a faithful and kind life’s companion, a stable keel in a long and happy life as a couple and a family. I could go on for a very long time in this vein, yet words fail to express the depth of affection, admiration and love—and the depth of loss—felt by seemingly every life touched by Forbes.
And everywhere that same description: selfless. Focused on the needs of others, careless with her own time and energy for the sake of others, at home, at church, at work. A model of self-sacrificial service to others, whether by sewing buttons or making birthday cakes, doing chores or operating the church music laptop, getting down on the floor with holiday club children or doing accounts, making patient care plans or listening to colleagues in their time of need.
Yet most striking for someone of such noble character—there is no better word for it—was her self-effacing modesty. It’s utterly telling that it wasn’t until they found the tell-tale glass trophy in a box inside a box only last week, that Ian and Paul learned of Forbes’ award for excellence from the Chief Executive of the NHS Trust—one of several accolades, and of well-kept secrets. The fact is that whichever sphere she operated in—family and friends, work, church—she was deeply appreciated, but people in one sphere would know very little about her life in the others, not only because she was a private person but because she was never one to blow her own trumpet. No matter how great the kindness shown, or the effort made, for others, she would just say with a smile, “Oh, that’s all right”, and move on. We call her modest precisely because there was so much to commend her.
It’s partly because of that modesty that, as we all know, Forbes wouldn’t enjoy these words, this focus on her and her qualities, one bit. They would make her very uncomfortable indeed, and might even have cracked her serene exterior.
But it’s not mere modesty that would have done that, but a genuine humility. I don’t know how many of you ever said to Forbes, “Oh, Forbes, you are so lovely, or so kind, or so good.” I know that people did say such things to her, and that the answer tended to be the same every time: “Oh, no I’m not.” And as odd as it may sound, after all I have said so far, and with all the memories each one of us has, that wasn’t false modesty. In genuine humility, she meant it, and she was ultimately right. In the words of the Welsh poet R.S. Thomas, “It is a truism of the Christian life that the most saintly are the most conscious of sin.”
For many of us, both those of us who share her Christian faith and those who do not, the strength and depth of her Christian faith was remarkable. Even in the darkest times, at the time of her diagnosis last October, in the throes of the terrible, debilitating treatments she endured, and in the last few days in hospital after the penultimate, near-fatal hæmorrhage as she waited for the final, fatal one to strike, Forbes’ faith in the goodness of God and of the good heritage prepared for her by her Saviour Jesus Christ never wavered. She lived the words of the Psalm we just sang, “Yea, though I walk in death’s dark vale // Yet will I fear no ill; // For Thou art with me and Thy rod // And staff my comfort still.” Even as she lay dying, in discomfort and experiencing all the ugliness of that final enemy, there was no fear—because there was no uncertainty as to where that dreaded portal would lead her: to the promised rest of those who sleep in the life-giving wounds of Jesus. This faith was a gift of God, but it was a gift she cherished and cultivated by faithful reception of God’s word and sacrament in church and Bible study, a diligent study of God’s word in her daily life, and a life of prayer. In this, too, she has left us an example to follow and emulate.
And the root of Forbes’ faith, and of all true Christian faith, was her recognition of her own sin. Some of the last words I heard Forbes speak from her hospital bed were the words of the confession of sin: “O almighty God, merciful Father, I, a poor miserable sinner, confess unto You all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended You and justly deserved Your temporal and eternal punishment.” She knew, both from God’s word and from personal experience, that however selfless, giving, diligent and kind she was, she was still a sinful member of a fallen human race, in need of God’s forgiveness by the shed blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. Her trust and confidence before God’s judgement were not based on her own character or deeds, but on the fact that she had had her sins washed away. All her remarkable attributes were not her ticket to heaven—they were God’s gift to all of us. She was God’s gift to us, above all as an example of faith, hope and charity, with all of which God had endowed her to a remarkable degree.
Now that Forbes is no longer with us, we no longer have those gifts to enjoy—though we have many beautiful memories to treasure and to hold up to ourselves as examples. But neither does she need anymore. She no longer has faith—for her faith in God’s promises has turned into seeing, as she sleeps in the arms of the Saviour to await the resurrection of the dead. She no longer lives in hope—for her hope has been turned into fulfilment, as she rests beyond the clutches of sin, death and the devil. Only one thing remains: charity. She now lives in full enjoyment of the love of God, and is able for the first time to love perfectly as she herself is perfectly loved. We might not be able to imagine how you could have improved Forbes—but that is precisely what God has now done by releasing her from death’s dark vale, and removed every stain of sin from her.
And so it remains for us to give thanks to God for this beautiful, wonderful gift of a life lived in service of others that He gave us in our dear Forbes. But she would want us to do more than that—and again, for reasons greater than mere modesty. Forbes loved her family, her friends, her work, her colleagues and patients. But above all, she loved her Saviour who had loved her and given His life for her. Her life was not her own, but it was the life of Christ in her—which could not but flow out in munificent love towards others. She loved you, she loved us—and that love was poured into prayers for those whom she loved, most of all the prayer that that love would not die with us or remain a mere memory, but continue into all eternity. Dear friends, just as you want to see Forbes again, Forbes wants to see you again! Her dying wish was to be reunited with her loved ones. That is her will for you—and that is God’s will for you!
This is why she chose the readings we heard read a moment ago: she placed her trust in the way, the truth, and the life, even Jesus Christ, knowing that through faith in Him, the way to the Father and to eternal life was open to her and to all who believe in Him. And where she has gone, she wants you to follow, by imitating her in her faith in that faithful Lord. Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord, that for Forbes, death has been swallowed up in victory and it can no longer sting her. May God give us grace that we too be given steadfastness in faith, so that one day we will be reunited with Forbes, and together with her and all the saints who have gone before us, we may enjoy the joys of God’s unending love to all eternity.
Let us pray.
Bring us, O Lord God, at our last awakening into the house and gate of heaven to enter into that gate and dwell in that house, where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light; no noise nor silence, but one equal music; no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession; no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity; in the habitations of thy glory and dominion, world without end. Amen.
(A prayer of John Donne)