Monday, 26 September 2011

Overgate Hospice - The First 30 Years

A Sermon preached at the Minster Church of St John the Baptist, Halifax, 25th September 2011, at a Service of Thanksgiving for 30 years of Overgate Hospice - Canon David Burrows, Hospice Chaplain

Reading 2 Corinthians 4.7-15

Because you care, we can, and have done so for 30 years.

This Service of Thanksgiving is an acknowledgement of a genuine and lasting Community Achievement, of 30 years of caring.

First time visitors to the Hospice will often comment on the striking carvings in the Entrance, the generous gift of the Wood-Carvers, panels representing the towns and villages, the cultural, political and sporting life of Calderdale. At the heart of it is a panel simply showing two intertwined, open hands, the Hospice logo. Little by little, over the last 30years, Overgate has worked its way into the heart of our Community. We are upheld by great waves of affection and care, which are given practical expression in so many ways.

If you want to know where you are going, it’s good to know what brought you to where you are now, and on whose shoulders you stand. As we have looked back this afternoon, so we will look forward. In an ever changing and challenging world, Overgate too has to change and grow as well. Sometimes those changes may be difficult to live with, but there remains the challenge and opportunity set down by Dame Cicely Saunders and the pioneers of the modern Hospice movement, to care for human beings at their most vulnerable, to care for the whole human being in an holistic way, and, to be open enough to learn from those in need. Each and every one of us has a unique human dignity – that dignity is not diminished in the face of illness, or in the face of death. One of Overgate’s key statements says, ‘ we cannot add days to your life, but we can add life to your days.’ A so-called life-limiting illness, can indeed be life-fulfilling.

There is a traditional Christian prayer, perhaps little used these days, that speaks of praying for a good death, of dying in the faith one has professed, of paying respect to the things that have been of significance and value in life, of being cared for and valued. Many have discovered that it is not the life-limiting elements of cancer that endure, but those that are life-enhancing.

In the words we have just heard from his 2nd Letter to the Corinthians, St Paul writes of living the human life as like having Treasure in clay jars – jars that can be so easily broken. We are vulnerable, but capable of all that is beautiful, and honest, and holy – afflicted but not crushed; perplexed but not driven to despair; struck down, but not destroyed. For Christians, it is in the messiness and the vulnerability of life, that life’s real purpose is to be found.

Overgate rightly takes it’s place in a rebellion, a movement that has quietly challenged and changed attitudes to illness, and to dying. The very word Hospice, of course, signifies a resting place, a breathing space, a place of shelter and of haven, it’s origins lying in the mediaeval pilgrims’ Hospices, on the great Christian pilgrimage routes. Whatever Spirituality feeds and sustains us, wherever we find ultimate meaning and value in life, in the journey of life, and in the journey of dying, it is the gift of care, and time and love that the Hospice represents. That these things are no longer hidden away, that we can speak once again of death, is in part due to places like Overgate. Perhaps there is a vital lesson to be learned as well, by those who in our own day plan, and manage, and legislate for our sometimes target-obsessed Health Services: there is a better way.

Of all the things people comment on about Overgate, the one that always strikes me most of all is when people comment on its ordinariness, and that might be the greatest virtue we have to offer, of facing the hard-headed realities of disease and dying and all the messiness that involves, with a good deal of practical common sense and care, with the willingness to go the extra mile.

In the words of Grace Sheppard, ‘We all have to die one day. The Important thing is to be ready, and then we can really get on with living.’