franciscan - January 2004
© The Society of Saint Francis, 2003
Brother David Stephen SSF, RIP
Brother David Stephen SSF died on 21st August 2003 in hospital in Alnwick and his funeral mass was at Alnmouth Friary. He was aged eighty nine years and in the twenty fourth year of his profession in vows.
A sermon preached at his funeral on 2nd October 2003 by Brother Samuel SSF.
‘Not everyone who says to me “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.’
My first contact with David was on the squash court. I was then a very junior curate in Liverpool and Canon David Stevens, leader of the Liverpool Industrial Mission team, had just moved into 68, Laurel Road with a group of Franciscan brothers. There had recently been a Franciscan Mission in our parish and so I was a bit interested in Franciscan things; I thought that this might be a way of developing the link. Besides this David was a member of the rather posh Racquets Club on Upper Parliament St and I was thinking that he might help me to become a member too. I reckoned that because of the disparity between our ages (34 years) I might need to hold back a bit with my game, but, of course, on the court he ran rings around me. I hardly scored a point, and in the shower afterwards he told me of his plan to celebrate his 60th birthday by climbing the three highest peaks in England, Wales and Scotland! Despite my humiliation we became friends – he even helped me to improve my game a little – and within a few years we were both brothers in the Society of St Francis.
When that game of squash took place some 28 years ago more than two thirds of David’s life had already happened. King Edward’s School and the Toc H days in Birmingham; then the army and war service. He was wounded by ‘friendly fire’ in March ’45 after the crossing of the Rhine. When peace came Col. Stevens was appointed Military Governor of Kreis Dannenberg, the most easterly district of the British zone of occupation. Among all the various tasks within his responsibility, not least finding food for a starving population, David established what he claimed was the first post-Hitler Youth Club in Germany. Out of RAF auxiliary fuel tanks, which he had commandeered, canoes were made for outdoor activities; they named themselves the ‘Dannenberg River Pirates’. I can see David enjoying all that enormously – there was always a great sense of boyish fun in him.
But it wasn’t all just ‘Boys Own’ stuff. Later on David was to write: ‘a powerful ideology cannot be replaced by table tennis, juke boxes and all that. It seemed to me that it was only the Christian faith which could meet the need with all its challenges, hopes and possibilities of new life; indeed I could see it happening in the young men working with me in the various groups that were getting off the ground.’ Two of the young men who became Christians through David’s example and encouragement went on to become pastors in the German Church, and it’s an honour and a joy that Mark Muller, the son of one of those men, is with us here today.
By the time the work in Germany was coming to an end David’s own mind and heart were being drawn towards the priesthood. He was ordained in Liverpool in 1952 to a curacy in Wigan and then became Priest-in-Charge of St Paul’s Litherland. We’ve had a letter from one of his former parishioners.
In 1957 he was asked by Bishop Martin to work in and with industry in the diocese, and David’s one room over a barber’s shop in Warrington became, as well as his bedroom, the office and meeting place of the Liverpool Industrial Mission. He was joined there by our Br Ronald and over the following 20 years David and Ronald and others pioneered and established a way of working with both management and those on the shop floor that valued human life and experience and witnessed to the reconciling and transforming love of Christ. It’s very good that some members of the Recce Group of apprentices which used to meet at Laurel Road have made it to David’s funeral.
And then, when most people would be thinking of and planning for retirement, David joined us brothers (he had been a member of the Franciscan Third Order for some years already). He has been professed in vows for 23 years – years full of missions and school visits, preaching and teaching, gardening and YMCA trips to Mull; years of friendship and fun and fishing. You can’t do justice to it all in one sermon.
What strikes me when reading about David’s life – and we’ve received many letters paying tribute to him – is the number of lives which have been touched by him; the number of people who have not just been helped or advised by him, but who have been given a sense of the worth and dignity and enjoyment of human life through him. Many of you here will witness to that.
‘Not everyone who says to me “Lord, Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.’ For the work of God’s grace in and through David Stephen we give great thanks today.
We’ve also come together today to welcome ‘Sister Death’. Last night, here in the chapel, we sang that verse of the Canticle of the Creatures which was composed by St Francis shortly before his own death:
By death our sister praised be
From whom no one alive can flee
Woe to the unprepared.
But blest be those who do your will
And follow your commandments still.
That praise of Sister Death is not just a postscript. The joyful letting go, the stripping bare, the dying to oneself, is at the heart of the Franciscan and the Christian life. There’s a sense in David’s life that Sister Death was embraced a long time ago. In the past few years that letting go, that stripping bare, has had a certain poignancy and sadness about it. We owe a debt of gratitude to both the staff at Castle View, Alnwick, who have cared for him and also to the brothers here at Alnmouth who have supported him. Now Sister Death has helped him to his true home. And David, who in this life with us has but glimpsed the love and glory of God, we now commend to the unfathomable fullness of God’s mercy and compassion.
But there’s one more thing we are doing at this funeral and Requiem Mass for David. As well as giving thanks, as well as welcoming Sister Death, we are also celebrating the hope in which he has stood and in which we ourselves stand. We celebrate that David Stephen’s life has been a witness that Christ has conquered death and hell, and that in our own lives and in our world evil and sin and all that is wrong do not have the last word – that they will not prevail. Every time we celebrate the Eucharist – perhaps most especially at a funeral – we look in hope for, and align ourselves with, a world transformed by the love of God in Jesus Christ.
David left instructions for this service to be joyful. He also wrote: ‘I hope heaven isn’t all saying prayers…..perhaps some singing would be good. No doubt I shall be able to sing even more beautifully then.’ (he couldn’t sing a note!!). The foundation of our joy today – and of David’s – is our hope in and through Jesus Christ. The Gospel reading we’ve heard, of the house on the rock and the house on the sand, was a passage of scripture that David used to refer to often in sermons and groups sessions. He would say that people don’t listen to it properly, to what it’s really saying. ‘People’, said David, ‘think it’s about making sure that one’s life has a good basis. But it’s not saying that at all. It’s saying to us “Build your life on the Lord Jesus Christ.”
To the God of Jesus Christ, our sure foundation, be all honour, praise and glory for ever. f
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