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Sunday, 13 September 2009

Sermon at David's funeral

Sermon at the funeral of The Revd David Parsons, given by his brother Robert

Holy Trinity Church, Street on Wednesday 22nd April 2009

The Bible Reading was 2 Corinthians 4

My theme is two men, David and Jesus. I will speak more about David, but the two are inseparable because he was a man, as the New Testament puts it, in Christ. He was united with him in baptism and by faith, so his story is part of the story of the people of God in Christ.

Inevitably for many of us, minds are full of the last three months, when David knew he had a limited time on earth, and he grew weaker day by day. Yet today we want to celebrate his whole life, 72 years well lived and purposeful. But when you think about it, these last weeks have summed up so much of what he loved and who he was. He made music - performing, recording and continuing to compose; he visited his school and his university; he said farewell - “valete” - to his Latin teaching colleagues, handing over their website; he worshipped (thank you to everyone here in the churches in Street, thank you Wells Cathedral, Bath Abbey, Kings College, Cambridge); he posted on his blog precious thoughts and feelings; he welcomed friends in person or by post or email or phone; he enjoyed beyond measure his family; he trusted God; . . . and he continued depending on other people tidying up after him! (Thank you, Chacquie.)

So if you can’t get these recent weeks out of your mind, you are probably thinking and thanking about the heart of the man. Let’s think about some of these things that were so precious to him.

The 14th of April, Easter Tuesday, was the day when David died. 73 years earlier in 1936 the 14th of April was also Easter Tuesday and on that day The Revd Martin Parsons and Miss Emily Wynne were married in Warsaw in the first-floor church in the mission house of the Church’s Ministry Among Jewish People. Their first home together was in a flat on a floor above, and it was there, some ten and a half months later, that David was born. Writing his life story, he began, “Yes, it’s really true that I was born on top of a church.”

They chose the name David. It was fitting that in their work among Jewish people in Warsaw, the baby should be given the name of the great King of Israel. I think he felt something of the connection later on when one of his poems in the Monktonian magazine went:

To crown green blades upon the sod,
Perfect in form and colour both,
A perfect crimson flower grew.

And painting, seeing it, praised its hue,
And science, seeing, praised its growth;
King David, seeing it, praised its God.

It was a poem about himself, of course.

From the start he was surrounded by love and prayer, and I believe that those two things were at the heart of how he related to all of us. Yes, of course there were other ingredients in the mix, but undergirding everything, he loved and he prayed, as I think we are all aware.

Not many of you remember his childhood in Dublin, but he enjoyed speaking of being a refugee from Hitler. During the comings and goings of those days he was left for some time with his grandmother in Foxrock (whose words we have heard already) and the two became close friends, age and infancy. He knew the great security of a loving family.

Dorothy and I were a bit younger than David, and we stood in awe of his abilities. He seemed so knowledgeable and quick-witted. So it was quite a relief when he was about 16 or 17 and we were living in Blackheath, that he showed he was not totally competent in everything. Both our mother and I had gone to bed with flu, and he took charge of the situation, carefully taking my temperature. He went to rinse the thermometer before doing the same for Mum, and came back looking rather sheepish, for he had held it under the hot tap, and the rapidly expanding mercury had burst the thing open. “We have this treasure in jars of clay” (verse 7). Another incident comes to mind, this time when David was a very small toddler. Mum was struggling to put shoes on his feet, when, with a disarming grasp of the situation, he said, “I’m not trying, that’s the worst of it!” Don’t you have to love a chap like that!

He really was a humble man, never seeking his own self-importance - though he was rather pleased that his portrait had been painted by a young man, a pupil of Sue’s, who later went on to paint the Queen!

It was obvious that David was academically bright. He has written, “I am good at learning what makes logic to me”, so Latin and Maths were a delight. His least favourite subject was Biology, which, he said, seemed too free and random for him to grasp.

He became a scholar of Queens’ College, Cambridge, and got a first class degree in classics. It needed a broad education and an agile mind to complete the Times crossword as a matter of course, sometimes done in the coffee break in a staff room. Later on, even to within a few days of his death, he would download the Guardian Crossword and complete it. David did have wide interests. Has anyone counted the books in his house? They cover a range of subjects, indicating his exploring mind - though the thermometer story leads me to observe that science is not heavily represented on the shelves!

Did you hear about when, with small children there was lots of washing, he pegged a book to the clothesline so that he could read as he hung things out to dry?

In one school report, Mr Lace, his housemaster, who was in charge of the corps, wrote simply, “He is not a military type”, which David later took as a compliment. David evidently wrote to him from his National Service in the RAF, for in Mr Lace’s autobiography, he mentioned some of the exploits that former members of the corps had achieved in their national service, and then: “I was amused that one non-military type managed to arrange that he spent most of his service learning Chinese; but even he during his real military training found that ‘the one disadvantage was that, with nothing to learn, the instruction periods were a bit of a bore.’” Non-military he may have been, but he remembered what he had learned as a cadet.

David used his learning as a teacher for 25 years of his life, in Edgarley Hall and Bruton School for Girls, but in more informal ways too, from his late teens, when he offered extra tuition in English to a schoolboy in Northwood to his helping an ordinand in Street with New Testament Greek.

He was a writer as well. He had several entries in the school magazine, poetry and prose, and carried on writing through his life. A gently erotic sonnet, written in his teaching days, when he drove each day from Locking to Glastonbury, appeared in his blog recently. And what a wonderful letter it is in the front of this month’s parish magazine. Are you aware of his well-researched history of Bruton School for Girls, “Gleam Flying Onward”? Even for those who are not familiar with the school, it makes a good read.

Then there was the music.

I remember learning that when David was a child, our father took him to the Christmas Carol Service at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, and Dad later suggested that the occasion might have been David’s introduction to the power of great music. Paul wrote, “God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (verse 6). For David music was a way to turn towards that light. A fridge magnet in his kitchen says, “When words fail, music speaks.” Early on in his life the piano became a great love. I remember going to bed in the evenings with Beethoven’s sonatas providing the lullaby. He told me that he once decided to give up the piano for Lent, but caved in within two or three days, and Mum said she had noticed he wasn’t playing, and wondered whether he could sustain the deprivation. The Monktonian of Christmas 1953 had a report of a school concert, saying, “Two things in this concert will be remembered above the others . . .” One of them was “David Parsons playing the Adagio movement from his own Sonatina for Piano. . . Written at the age of 15, it showed promise of greater things to come.” And he did go on composing till very recently, writing things for his visitors to play. How proud we were to hear him, in his last term, playing one of the pianos in Mozart’s concerto for two pianos with the school orchestra.

He didn’t take music exams until Grade 8 on the organ, when he passed with a distinction. Later on he got his ARCO, though not at the first attempt, nor even, (surprise, surprise!) the second.

Arriving at Cambridge he joined the fairly newly-formed Ichthyan Singers, whose aim was to sing to the glory of God in Christian Fellowship. He was tailor-made for it, and moved from singing bass to playing the organ to conducting. It was good experience for him, not only musically, but also in being creative about organising worship and leading a group of Christians.

He took advantage of the many musical opportunities that Cambridge presented. He moved on to Ridley Hall for training for ordained ministry. One morning, when he was due to play the organ for Morning Prayer in the chapel, he arrived late, just as they were beginning to say the Psalm, in the absence of the organist. It was Psalm 132: Lord, remember David: and all his trouble.

Did you know he gained notoriety in the North West as a curate who dared to play his guitar for some singing at a youth service in church? Possibly he was the first. That got him on to regional television. Or, as he quoted from a local paper, “My playing of the guitar in church raised revolt!”

I recall going up to Ormskirk to take part with David and Jill in a concert he organised in support of the Bible Society. Through his life there were many more. He believed in live music-making, even when the standard might not be as high as in the recorded music you could buy. But what pleasure he gave - and his standards were very high.

When he first came with the children to Locking he joined the Amateur Operatic Society at Worle and reviews spoke of his fine strong voice.

He has told of a concert in Downend: In 2007 he wrote, “A tenor called Paul Potts has won ITV's show, Britain's Got Talent. He was shown on the local news singing Nessun dorma. In 1999 I went down to a big Tesco in Bristol at midnight to see him and ask him to sing in Christ Church, Downend, in our Millennium concert, and he was charmingly eager to do so. He sang Nessun dorma then, too, and I accompanied him. He was a huge success, having a splendid voice. Now he's won £100,000, so doesn't work nights in Tesco - or do gigs for nothing!” I wonder if David’s invitation and encouragement helped this young man who was described as “cripplingly shy” to move forward in his career.

He wrote Christian songs for little children, words and music. Several appeared in a book, “Come and Sing”, published by Scripture Union. Although he could write some demanding music for the piano, these songs have accompaniments that even the most hesitant pianist can play.

I have been thinking so far of his early life, and how things that were begun then have developed. How do you remember him?

For some it is as a parish priest, in Ormskirk, Beccles, Woodbridge and Downend. You think of a pastor, whose love and prayer has been an inspiration and encouragement. He got involved with choirs. Perhaps you were with that group in Downend that went away for weekends, and for some of you a highlight was the pilgrimage to his beloved Ireland. You will be thinking of his preaching - delighting to explain whatever the Bible says and to apply it. “We do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (verse 5). I don’t think you ever felt threatened by him, but I believe you were often challenged by him. “We have renounced secret and shameful ways” (verse 2).

For some the memories are of a schoolmaster and school chaplain. And how he would work at those extra-curricular activities: taking pupils to Greece and Rome; helping to produce Britten’s Noye’s Fludde; making scenery for plays; Classics evenings and so on.

For some it was as a pillar of the Association for Latin Teaching, helping you to pray in Latin at conferences, and entertaining with musical wit on the final evenings. And running the website of course.

How many websites did he maintain?

Some of you will think of him as the one who developed our family tree. When I gave him a historical novel about the battle of Crecy, he set about discovering that we had ancestors on both sides, and he might well have wanted us to learn the lesson - that at some point the descendants of those who fought had married, so enemies don’t have to be enemies for ever.

Some of his travels included finding places where ancestors had lived and worked in Ireland and Germany. Glendalough was one of his favourite places on earth.

Perhaps you remember him as an enthusiast for the Street Society, doing all he could to help preserve the best in the village’s history.

Perhaps you remember him as a neighbour or member of the church communities here and in the mission church and at Walton.

Or a very good friend. And family: his marriage to Jill and the difficult times that brought it to an end - “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed” (verse 8); the loving companionship with Sue and her family. And I say, Hats off to David’s children and grandchildren, who have all in their own way been a huge strength.

We give thanks to God for him, a man of love and prayer.

We come to God also with our feelings of grief, our tears, our hugs, everything that cries out that this isn’t how it ought to be.

I believe you can say to God whatever is in your feelings. We could wish that David had lived longer; we could think, If only . . .; we could ask Why? Yes, we can do all those things; they can all be a part of the prayer that comes from the heart, a prayer that perhaps receives no obvious answer, but is surely heard, just as Jesus’ prayer was heard, when he said from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

But let’s also go on loving and praying in hope. Twice we heard St Paul say, “We do not lose heart” (verses 1,16). David gave us all a fine example of this in his blog, choosing to post things that were important to him, revealing his love of life and his faith in God through his Saviour and Lord, Jesus Christ. “I believed; therefore I have spoken” (verse 13). Death, which must come, soon or late, did not cause his spirit to shrink, but rather made him more of what he was - a man of love and prayer. It could truly be said of him as we heard from St Paul, “Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day” (verse 16).

On Easter Day, David was here, celebrating in word and sacrament the resurrection of his Lord and ours. Jesus, who pioneered the way through death, to live for us here and now, and beyond death, was the source of his hope of heaven. In 1937 on Easter Day [28th March] he was baptized when he was four and a half weeks old, dying with Christ and rising with him. The resurrection faith, in which our parents nurtured us, was what he longed for everyone to share. On this eve of St George’s Day, for the sake of our nation and the world, and for ourselves, let’s travel on, or even take the first steps, in that faith, in which he lived and in which he died.

Robert Parsons.

This is a poem written by our grandmother, which David put in his blog. I printed it here but I did not use it at the service.

White hair growing thin,
Bright eyes growing dim,
Shoulders sagging,
Footsteps lagging.

A Pause—A Flash!

Eyes crystal clear,
Footsteps light as air,
Glad hands raised in joyous praise
Vindicating Heaven's ways—

Friday, 17 April 2009

David Parsons, 25th February 1937 - 14th April 2009


The beloved author of this blog, David Parsons, died on Tuesday.

Realistic as he was from the moment he received his diagnosis, Dad warned us ten days earlier not to expect much more. He was already very weak then, and there was concern he would not make it far beyond that weekend. And yet, as you will have read, Dad rallied during Holy Week, buoyed by the company of family and friends, and with a clear determination to experience the joy of Easter one more time.

Mercifully, Dad's pain relief continued to be very effective, but the wasting effects of the disease meant that any kind of movement was becoming more difficult by the day. Nevertheless Dad was set on celebrating Easter in church on Sunday. With great courage he endured the preparation and the journey, and we arrived on time (a first for the Parsons family?!) at the Parish Church, which was bursting at the seams with an unexpectedly large congregation. Dad followed the varied and entertaining service attentively, spoke prayers and responses with a strong voice, and took communion.

After the service many people came up to greet Dad, and we stayed socialising for a good while. Then it was back home, to relax all afternoon in the back garden and talk with visitors and with friends on the phone.

On Monday, the effort of the previous day had clearly taken its toll, and Dad was completely exhausted, having the energy to contribute only infrequently, for instance to greet visitors with a smile, before closing his eyes again to continue listening and resting.

On Tuesday, Dad woke in an agitated state. He asked for some pain relief, which we gave him, and he soon confirmed that he was no longer in pain. His breathing continued fast and shallow, though, so we called the nurses and doctor to help. They came quickly, made him as physically comfortable as could be and gave him something to calm him. It worked to some extent, but I was struck that, in the midst of talk of milligrams of this and stat doses of that, the nurses' most urgent request was for music. While their work to comfort the body was important, they recognised that the soul's requirement was far more pressing.

With Dad calmed somewhat, the nurses left, saying they'd return later. Shortly, visitors arrived, whom I talked with briefly in the kitchen until I realised that Dad was on his own. I excused myself and went back in Dad's room. He was looking ahead into the distance, breathing quickly, as if in anticipation. I played him Alfred Deller's rendition of Purcell's 'Music for a While'. Beautiful and soothing, undoubtedly, but as the song finished I knew that canned music, however sweet, was just not real enough.

I remembered that dear Dolly had told us that she asked Dad a couple of weeks ago what he would like to have read to him in the event that he couldn't speak any more. She expected him to reply with chapter and verse from the bible, but he surprised her with "Narnia!". I was expecting that information to be useful over the course of weeks, not minutes, but never mind. I searched the blog for Narnia, and found the passage Dad had copied out and entitled 'A valiant mouse'. Taking The Voyage of the Dawn Treader from the boxed set bought for Dad by Charlie, I turned to the end of the book, and read him not only the bit about Reepicheep, quivering with happiness as he disappeared over the horizon in his coracle, and the author's opinion that he had come safe to Aslan's country, but also on to the breakfast with the Lamb, who awesomely turns into Aslan.

Dad's response, and the calming of his breath, convinced me that he was listening, and drawing inspiration from these words which he had in any case chosen. Next I searched for 'pilgrim' on the blog, and up came 'Encouragement from John Bunyan'. No paper version of Pilgrim's Progress being to hand, I just read from the screen.
"Now you must note that the city stood upon a mighty hill, but the Pilgrims went up that hill with ease, because they had these two men to lead them up by the arms..."

In the last few days, Dad had been rather losing patience when we his carers showed any lack of clarity. He didn't want to be bothered with our trivial questions. He wanted to hear conviction from us. The day before, he had told Barbara that he wanted to know how to die. We couldn't provide an answer, but I think that the words of the Shining Ones did.

"You are going now, said they, to the paradise of God, wherein you shall see the tree of life, and eat of the never-fading fruits thereof; and when you come there, you shall have white robes given you, and your walk and talk shall be every day with the King, even all the days of eternity."

When I had finished the Bunyan, I had nothing more to read. Sensing that Dad's time was close, I reached for the nearest thing in my head, and fumblingly said the Lord's Prayer. As I said “Amen”, he released his last breath.

You might say that it was a coincidence, that Dad couldn't possibly have been registering, that the timing was a fluke. But I am sure that it was the power of the Word that gave him the confidence to let go of this life in certain faith of the next. I was just fortunate to be there at the right time to speak it.

In the time since, the family has gathered. We have cried, hugged, laughed, told stories and remembered, and we will continue to do so.

Dad's funeral will take place at 1.30pm on Wednesday 22nd April at Street Parish Church. The service will continue briefly at Yeovil crematorium. All are then invited for light refreshments, kindly provided by members of the church, from 4.30pm at the Mission Church, Vestry Road. Please come and help us celebrate a life well lived.

If you would like to write something about David for others to read, you are encouraged to add a comment to this post. You can read other people's comments by clicking on the 'n' comments link at the end of this post.

Messages for the family, including any favourite photos of David you'd like to share, can be sent to

Trevor, for the family.

For all that has been, thanks; for all that will be, yes.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

School friends at Cambridge

Malcolm, Norman and David

Norman Parker has sent me this photo of him, Malcolm Drummond and me - all three Old Monktonians - while we were at Cambridge. It was taken on the day when our director of music at Monkton, Alexander Hay Youngman, known as 'Penguin', visited Cambridge and invited us to tea at the Royal Cambridge Hotel.

Tigris - a tip for Latin teachers

On our return from the rehearsal of the Dream of Gerontius two weeks ago, Charlie and Trevor helped me make this video, as an offering for my teaching colleagues. My idea is that a device as simple as a glove puppet can help a teacher add a little drama into the classroom, and at the same circumvent some of the strictures placed on teachers in today's rather cautious world.

Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Good Friday

What should the blog contain today but the story of Jesus?
Jesus was placed before the governor, who questioned him: "Are you the 'King of the Jews'?"

Jesus said, "If you say so."

But when the accusations rained down hot and heavy from the high priests and religious leaders, he said nothing. Pilate asked him, "Do you hear that long list of accusations? Aren't you going to say something?" Jesus kept silence—not a word from his mouth. The governor was impressed, really impressed.

It was an old custom during the Feast for the governor to pardon a single prisoner named by the crowd. At the time, they had the infamous Jesus Barabbas in prison. With the crowd before him, Pilate said, "Which prisoner do you want me to pardon: Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus the so-called Christ?" He knew it was through sheer spite that they had turned Jesus over to him.
While court was still in session, Pilate's wife sent him a message: "Don't get mixed up in judging this noble man. I've just been through a long and troubled night because of a dream about him."

Meanwhile, the high priests and religious leaders had talked the crowd into asking for the pardon of Barabbas and the execution of Jesus.

The governor asked, "Which of the two do you want me to pardon?"

They said, "Barabbas!"

"Then what do I do with Jesus, the so-called Christ?"

They all shouted, "Nail him to a cross!"

He objected, "But for what crime?"

But they yelled all the louder, "Nail him to a cross!"

When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere and that a riot was imminent, he took a basin of water and washed his hands in full sight of the crowd, saying, "I'm washing my hands of responsibility for this man's death. From now on, it's in your hands. You're judge and jury."

The crowd answered, "We'll take the blame, we and our children after us."

Then he pardoned Barabbas. But he had Jesus whipped, and then handed over for crucifixion.
The Crucifixion

The soldiers assigned to the governor took Jesus into the governor's palace and got the entire brigade together for some fun. They stripped him and dressed him in a red toga. They plaited a crown from branches of a thornbush and set it on his head. They put a stick in his right hand for a sceptre. Then they knelt before him in mocking reverence: "Bravo, King of the Jews!" they said. "Bravo!" Then they spit on him and hit him on the head with the stick. When they had had their fun, they took off the toga and put his own clothes back on him. Then they proceeded out to the crucifixion.

Along the way they came on a man from Cyrene named Simon and made him carry Jesus' cross. Arriving at Golgotha, the place they call "Skull Hill," they offered him a mild painkiller (a mixture of wine and myrrh), but when he tasted it he wouldn't drink it.

After they had finished nailing him to the cross and were waiting for him to die, they whiled away the time by throwing dice for his clothes. Above his head they had posted the criminal charge against him: this is Jesus, the king of the Jews. Along with him, they also crucified two criminals, one to his right, the other to his left. People passing along the road jeered, shaking their heads in mock lament: "You bragged that you could tear down the Temple and then rebuild it in three days—so show us your stuff! Save yourself! If you're really God's Son, come down from that cross!"

The high priests, along with the religion scholars and leaders, were right there mixing it up with the rest of them, having a great time poking fun at him: "He saved others—he can't save himself! King of Israel, is he? Then let him get down from that cross. We'll all become believers then! He was so sure of God—well, let him rescue his 'Son' now—if he wants him! He did claim to be God's Son, didn't he?" Even the two criminals crucified next to him joined in the mockery.

From noon to three, the whole earth was dark. Around mid-afternoon Jesus groaned out of the depths, crying loudly, "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?" which means, "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?"

Some bystanders who heard him said, "He's calling for Elijah." One of them ran and got a sponge soaked in sour wine and lifted it on a stick so he could drink. The others joked, "Don't be in such a hurry. Let's see if Elijah comes and saves him."

But Jesus, again crying out loudly, breathed his last.

At that moment, the Temple curtain was ripped in two, top to bottom. There was an earthquake, and rocks were split in pieces. What's more, tombs were opened up, and many bodies of believers asleep in their graves were raised. (After Jesus' resurrection, they left the tombs, entered the holy city, and appeared to many.)

The captain of the guard and those with him, when they saw the earthquake and everything else that was happening, were scared to death. They said, "This has to be the Son of God!"

There were also quite a few women watching from a distance, women who had followed Jesus from Galilee in order to serve him. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the Zebedee brothers.

The Tomb

Late in the afternoon a wealthy man from Arimathea, a disciple of Jesus, arrived. His name was Joseph. He went to Pilate and asked for Jesus' body. Pilate granted his request. Joseph took the body and wrapped it in clean linens, put it in his own tomb, a new tomb only recently cut into the rock, and rolled a large stone across the entrance. Then he went off. But Mary Magdalene and the other Mary stayed, sitting in plain view of the tomb.

After sundown, the high priests and Pharisees arranged a meeting with Pilate. They said, "Sir, we just remembered that that liar announced while he was still alive, 'After three days I will be raised.' We've got to get that tomb sealed until the third day. There's a good chance his disciples will come and steal the corpse and then go around saying, 'He's risen from the dead.' Then we'll be worse off than before, the final deceit surpassing the first."

Pilate told them, "You will have a guard. Go ahead and secure it the best you can." So they went out and secured the tomb, sealing the stone and posting guards.

Maundy Thursday

Rowena, David, Barbara and Trevor

Rowena, David, Barbara and Trevor

David and Alan
David with Alan Ripley, who looks after retired clergy locally. Alan told us about his interest in spinning and weaving, which he learnt from a Benedictine monk.

Huddling from the rain

The Reynolds family are staying all week, and were enjoying themselves, and the company of cousin Nicolette, despite today's damp weather.

Rowena and David at their keyboards

Rowena and David at their keyboards.

David with Jenny and Peter

Jenny and Peter from Downend came to visit.

Helen Lunt

Helen Lunt dropped in with flowers and fudge.

Full house

All in all it was a busy day in Ivythorn Road.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

The Easter Message in pictures


The image is a montage we have made of the images from two cards which arrived today. By chance, both are by the same artist, Alan Kiernan. The card on the right is from Margaret Drury, one of my friends who lives in York, a member of ARLT. The card on the left is from Cass and Harry, my daughter Barbara's in-laws. (I wish there was a more direct English term for this relationship, which is important to me. Let us call them 'fellow grandparents').

Reading from right to left in each of the two pictures is reading from darkness to light and from death to life. We see the Cross making the bridge from the unbroken black of hopelessness, by means of Christ's blood, to a new life. Looking left, I see a bedroom curtain from which the dove, representing the Holy Spirit, is flying out. Whitsun is just around the corner, with its promise of a Spirit-filled life. Now the black, into which the spirit is flying, is merely a background to the star-filled heavens.