My Help Comes From the Lord

Today, we said farewell to J’s father. I had the privilege of sharing a meditation at the service. What follows is the script of the message. Bill was a special man to many, a husband, father, opa, and great grand father. He will be sorely missed.

The texts chosen were Psalm 121 and Ephesians 3:14-21

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photostudio_1455803000581It seems more than a little unreal to be here today, celebrating a life, saying farewell. So many have said in the past days that they just can’t believe that Bill is gone.  It seems like death crept up on us, surprised us,  took us from the hope of the new lease on life that surgery promised, to the shock, and despair, of watching a beloved husband, father, opa, and great grandfather slip away from us. Death shocked us with its finality, as we watched last breaths, and final stillness, come over a once vitally active man.

We are left in deep sorrow, holding on to our memories, holding on to the legacy of love and faith Bill leaves behind.

It’s in this sorrow, this shock, that we turn this morning to scripture for a word of comfort, a bit of hope, some light to carry us through the coming days.

The Psalms are often referred to as the songbook of life. Every emotion, every human condition finds description in the words of the psalms.

Psalm 121, which we just read, was a psalm describing the journey of the people to the temple in Jerusalem, a journey that would take them, on foot, through rough country, through dangerous territory, through mountains in which robbers and ruffians, and wild animals could hide.

When the psalmist says I lift up my eyes to the mountains he is not looking at the mountains as a source of hope, as the place where God is keeping watch, as the place where God lives, has some sort of fortress, but rather as a place of fear, a place where trouble might come from, an unknown and wild place, a frightening place. As he looks at those mountains with fear, he asks the question: with all this wildness and uncertainty around me, all of the potential for a bad outcome, all of the opportunity for harm, who can I count on to save and protect me, who is out there who will watch over me in this journey, this journey to God’s house.

Over the past months, Bill’s life has lead him, and Grace, and the rest of his family, into a mountainous place. He had been in the mountains before, he had learned from experience the answer to the question posed by the psalmist. He knew his help came from the most powerful source imaginable, the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth, the creator of all, the sovereign God

As he learned the diagnosis of clogged arteries, as he made the decision to submit to surgery to gain some of his old strength back, and even as he faced the final, insurmountable mountains of cardiac arrest and multiple strokes, Bill knew where his help came from, he knew that the Lord was walking through those mountains with him, that the Lord would not let his foot slip, that even as we slept, and he slept, the Lord was watching, protecting, watching over his life, his coming and his going, watching not just now, not just then, but forever more.

He knew that the Lord was walking right beside him and that whatever the outcome of his surgery, frightening though it was, he could go forward, though these mountains, through the darkest valleys, knowing he was safely in God’s hands. Knowing God was right beside him, protecting him.

Today we can take the same comfort. The past weeks have bought us unexpected mountains, we knew there would be uncertainty in surgery, but took hope as Bill began to walk the hospital halls, began to work with physiotherapists, and even though the future was still unclear, it appeared that we were coming out of the mountains, that we were looking forward to a somewhat more safe time in our journey. When suddenly, the earth shifted, Psalm 46 talks about such shifts, and a whole new crop of mountains lifted their heads, and we looked up and ahead, afraid for the future, afraid for our journey.

With the psalmist, and with Bill, we can say that no matter how ominous the mountains may appear, our hope comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.

Possibly the one of the last scriptures Bill heard, and responded to, was Ephesians 3:14-21. It’s the scripture that Pastor Ray left when he visited Bill in the hospital just after his initial surgery. Bill slept through Ray’s visit that day, but Henrietta, finding the note Ray left behind, read the text to her father later. She said, after she had finished reading, that Bill, who was that day, discouraged by the pain and the slowness of recovery, let out a sigh, relaxed into his pillow. It felt like he was at peace, she said. Scripture had done it’s work of comforting, of restoring hope.

This piece of Ephesians 3 fits really well with Psalm 121, extends it actually, building on to the picture of a protector, painted by the psalmist, It points us to the glorious riches offered by God from which we can gain strength. It points us to a God who is a protector, not because there is some responsibility to protect in the way perhaps that a paid baby sitter might care for your children, No Paul points us to Gods love for us through Jesus Christ, a love that he prays we would try to measure , to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and by trying to measure it to find out, to know, this love surpasses all knowledge. It is just too big, to huge, for us to be able to comprehend

It is this sort of love that accompanied Bill on his journey through his mountains, this sort of love that will carry us through the mountains that we face ahead of us as we journey on. This sort of love that Grace can rely on in the coming days, that Bill’s children, grandchildren and friends can put their hope in.

But Paul doesn’t stop there, he goes on to describe Christ as the one who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine.

And what do we have to do for all of this assurance. What was it that Bill did to be able to trust in God to take him through the mountains?

These passages would suggest we really don’t need to do anything more than believe.

The psalmist, in Psalm 121 does a wonderful thing with words. You’ll notice that there are no demands made at all by the Lord, the Psalmist never says because I did this thing or that thing, or made a big donation, or sacrificed a whole lot of lambs, the Lord is now my helper, my protector. All of the verbs, the working words, in the Psalm belong to the Lord. All of the watching, the keeping, the shading, the wakefulness, all of the work is done by the Lord. The Psalmist asks nothing of those who are seeking protection. It is a free gift.

 

Paul in Ephesians only asks that his readers have the power to grasp how great God is, not to earn favor, just to stand amazed.

 

Because that is the way God works isn’t it. God, in our lives does all of the heavy lifting. God gives us more than we can ask or imagine just because of love. We don’t always feel very comfortable with that, because we think that we should likely do something to earn our way into God’s favor, to earn our salvation. We feel uncomfortable when we get things for free, when we can’t pay our own way.

 

The Heidelberg catechism though tells us that instead of being uncomfortable in God’s graciousness we should find deep comfort in it when it asks: What is your only comfort, the only thing you can count on, the anchor in your storm, in both life and in death? If there is one piece of the catechism many of us can recite it is this answer, this statement of faith.

 

That I am not my own,1
but belong—

body and soul,
in life and in death—2

to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.3

He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood,4
and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil.5
He also watches over me in such a way6
that not a hair can fall from my head
without the will of my Father in heaven;7
in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.8

Because I belong to him,
Christ, by his Holy Spirit,
assures me of eternal life9
and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready
from now on to live for him.10

 

Do you see how the catechism echoes the psalm and the epistle. God does all the work, all the bleeding and paying and setting free, all the watching and assuring, in fact, even the living for God we do is inspired, and motivated, through Christ’s Holy Spirit.

 

What a freeing experience! The experience of finding ourselves in God’s love, under God’s protection, living in a way where the only responsibility in front of us, the only work to be done, is trying to measure God’s love for us and praising God when we find we can’t, when we find ourselves overwhelmed again by the height and depth and width of that love. Assured that even in the mountainous places of our lives God can and will do more than we ask or imagine.

 

It’s with this assurance that we can face death with hope, where we can face an uncertain future with a sense of calm, where we can say, around a bed in the Caridac Intensive Care Unit

“My help comes from the Lord,
the Maker of heaven and earth.”

And he can, and will do more than we can ask or imagine.

 

The battle over sin and death has been won not by our strength or our work but by the work of our great God. In Jesus Christ, our future, Bill’s future is secure.

 

He would want you to know that today. He knew it and if there was one gift he would yet want to give, one thing he would like to pass on to his children, his grand children, and his great grand children it would be the great sense of peace and security that comes from belonging to a faithful savior, protector, Jesus Christ.

 

We give thanks today for Bill, for his place in our lives, we also give thanks to God, the God who sustained Bill in this life and continues to sustain him, now and forevermore,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So…There was a Fire in the Church

When the phone rings at 7:00 am it can never be good. Yesterday, it wasn’t.

We actually weren’t quick enough to catch the call, leaping from bed, running down the hall, only to find the phone too late, a missed call, but a familiar number; they wouldn’t normally call at this time of day. Then the other phone starts up. Same person. We get it this time.

“The church is on fire. You need to get there”, short and not so sweet.

Minutes later we are in the car, racing toward what could be a disaster, studying the horizon, looking for the plume of black smoke we imagine will be hanging over the village, 17 kilometers away. Wondering if our church home had been destroyed. Wondering if my still meager collection of books has been lost. Wondering how this event might change our lives.

Fire trucks but no smoke plume

Fire trucks but no smoke plume

We arrive to a parking lot filled with fire trucks, but no smoke plume, no dancing flames. There has been a fire, but it’s already out. It was not a false alarm. In fact, it was a very close call. An early rising neighbour, hearing the alarms going off across the street, called 911.  Firefighters got to the scene early enough to fight the fire from inside the building rather than the outside.

There was a sense of unbelief, some relief, and also a huge mess. A small area on the stage had burnt. Soot covered the entire sanctuary. Water was dripping into the kitchen and nursery.  Structurally there is no damage, but we feel overwhelmed by the scope of the task clean up will be.

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The insurance company is called. A restoration company comes along with the adjuster and, by early afternoon, a crew is working to deal with water, opening ventilation in downstairs ceilings and moving in huge fans and dehumidifiers. By day two more crews arrive, books and benches are removed for cleaning. Water damaged drywall and soot filled carpet start to fill a dump trailer parked out front. We feel like we have been invaded by worker ants and the future seems a little closer, a little clearer, a little less overwhelming.

Our service for this coming Sunday was already planned for a park as part of of our annual church camping. We won’t be in our own building for at least a couple of weeks after that, but like the woman who brought cookies and coffee for the fire fighters, our community is a generous one. Space has been offered in other churches until we can get cleaned up. Helping hands have been offered. Notes and calls of concern received.

I’ve been able to work in my office these past two days. The door was closed and it is far from enough the center of the blaze to be relatively unaffected. My books are safe. My schedule is out of whack  with people coming through, questions to answer, contingency plans to discuss. Sunday’s sermon is a little behind schedule, but it will come.

We’re grieving too. Our church home has been violated. Precious things are damaged and being handled by strangers. Some things can’t be made the same again and it seems, right now anyway, we can’t do anything but wander through, trying to absorb what has happened.

 

Indian Horse: Book Review

Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese, Douglas and MacIntyre, 2012, 221 pp.

wagamese      Saul Indian Horse is an Ojibway, a native Canadian, who finds himself at the New Dawn Center (“They call it a treatment facility.”)  to deal with his addictions. He is asked to tell his story, the story of how he came to be in this place a place where the choices are change or death. He struggles to tell it. He cannot do it in the context of the circle with thirty others listening, so he is encouraged to write it down in the hope that by facing the story, bringing it out for examination and understanding, he can get on with life, in fact find life again..

The story told is one that is not only Saul’s story, but the story of a whole people, told in such a way it cannot help but convict those who were, and are complicit, in the abuses suffered in the name of bringing a policy of assimilation to first nations people. It is a riveting story, a stark story, one that does not allow the book to be put down. In the same way as our eyes are drawn to the horrors of a car crash along the highway, this story of draws the reader deeper and deeper into a story which is indeed an allegory of the experience of an entire people. We are drawn to witness, pain, abuse, racism, loss, in a way which does not throw it in our faces but rather entices us to find ourselves in the story.

Wagamese weaves this story of abuse with humour and overlays it all with Canada’s love for its national sport, hockey. The use of hockey at the center of this story, makes it unmistakably Canadian, it brings the rest of the story home, close to home, while also providing something of a metaphor for the way that Aboriginal people, even when they are good enough to compete in the mainstream of society are prevented from reaching their potential by the prejudices of the dominant society. Even those who seem to be allies in Saul’s quest to embrace the game, who seem to be encouraging and protecting him, are, in the end shown to be exploiters.

While the exploitation Saul suffers is named, its place in the story gives the impression the author recognizes people don’t want to acknowledge that they too have been used. Saul is quite willing to enumerate the abuses, the losses, the deaths suffered by others in the residential school system, but, for much of the story holds himself outside of the circle of victims. Certainly he does recognize the wrong he suffered in the loss of his family, and the fact that his mother was lost to him, “turned so far inward she sometimes ceased to exist in the outside world” because of what she had earlier suffered in the system. He also recognizes the prejudices he has endured as he has entered and excelled in the world of hockey. But, for almost the entire book it appears that he has emerged from St. Jerome’s Residential School relatively untouched, physically. He’s done this by keeping his head down, blending into his background, one of the lucky ones to survive the system.  He’s done it by burying his own abuse while grieving that of those around him.

He gains success in the white man’s world playing “their game” until the anger boils over, and alcohol becomes the medicine to cover, salve, the deep hurt and grief that comes with recognizing he too was abused, shamefully, continues to be exploited, and was really only valued as something to be used and tossed away. He spends most of his story toughing it out, trying to beat the whites at their own game, their sacred game, to rise above and ignore what has been done to him until it finally does catch up and he gives up his dream.

Many books have been written describing in detail the abuses suffered by First Nations peoples in both Canada and the United States. While their words are certainly accurate, and their accusations against “the invader” very likely fully warranted, Wagamese brings the message in such a way that it cannot be ignored, it cannot be put aside as another Indian manifesto enumerating the wrongs of generations past. Indian Horse puts flesh on the realities in a way that implicates all of us. It draws our eyes to the disaster created by a policy of assimilation, wrapped in the mantle of Christian mission, in a very personal way. It pulls back the curtain on the idea of assimilation, showing the end result to be domination rather than equality; a society with an underlying foundation of racial superiority where true assimilation was never really the goal anyway. By putting young Saul in the game, playing better stronger, smarter hockey and being pushed out for the colour of his skin rather than being honoured like the hockey greats he had come to look up to and admire, Wagamese draws a parallel to the struggle of all natives to succeed in the white man’s world.

I don’t know if I have ever read another book about hockey, but this book really isn’t about hockey. It’s about a system pushing people down, destroying lives. Indian Horse leaves the reader with a sense of disquiet. Certainly the residential schools have been closed. St Jerome’s is broken and battered. But, the wounds remain, the hurts still hurt, and there don’t seem to be any ready remedies. While there are few answers or simple solutions, Wagamese leaves us with the sure knowledge that hearing the stories is an important first step to reconciliation and wholeness.

2013 Christmas Letter

Christmas time is a good time to reflect on the past year. It is at this time we remember the Gift God gave to the world. It is also a time of giving gifts to each other, appreciating and enjoying these gifts. We were given the gift of another year, with all of the good and exciting things that happened in it. While 2012 revolved around the growth of our family, this year was more about travel and milestones.

Introducing D to Sesame Street

Introducing D to Sesame Street

We were in Edmonton twice this year to visit with our Grandson D and his parents. He is growing up so quickly. Our last visit in October was wonderful, because D, now walking, is so responsive. We visited the zoo together where he became totally enamored with the domestic pigs, mimicking their grunts at every opportunity. Google talk has been a wonderful tool for keeping, and growing our relationship. I find it amazing the way a eighteen month old can seem to understand that the folks on the screen talking to him are real, as he interacts with us, just as if we were in the same room. Our son-in-law, J, has finished his PhD, with his defense in September. R, continues to work on the last stages of hers and hopes to complete this spring. They are doing a great job of balancing their lives as students and parents.

J and Clementine out for a drive

J and Clementine out for a drive

In February we traveled to San Francisco to visit J and L and our newest grand puppy, Clementine.   J continues his work with Google and seems to be flying around the world on business even more than he did before. L has left Google for a job with a company that makes a robot which is run by an iPhone. This company is based in San Francisco, saving her the commute to Mountain View which J continues to make. Clementine goes to work with one of them, most days.

J and M in Toronto came home a couple of weeks ago with news. They are going to be parents to more than two dogs and a cat. The baby is expected to arrive sometime in June. This news has put a little more pressure on them to finish the work they have been doing on their house.

Doggie messengers

Doggie messengers

They have been renovating the attic for a master bedroom and still have work to do on the main floor. M completed the requirements for his engineer’s stamp this year and also got his real estate licence. J continues to be active in her church as a youth leader and in her knitting group.

Last month we said goodbye to Liia. It was tougher to let her go than either of us had imagined.

Liia May 2004-Nov 2013

Liia May 2004-Nov 2013

Over the years on the farm we had, in one way or another, had animals come and go in our lives. Liia had entrenched herself in a much more intimate spot  than any of those others. We still feel her absence every day. For the first time in over 30 years, our house is pet-free.

History and cow pastures in Ireland

History and cow pastures in Ireland

This year, we joined the group we walked the Camino with in 2011 to visit the high holy crosses of Ireland. We decided that an eleven day bus trip in Ireland was not really an active enough holiday for us, so we extended it with a sixteen day bicycle trip. Ireland was a wonderful experience. The people are amazingly friendly and the history of the place is deep. The history surrounds you in castles, tower houses, and cottages.

Across a two lane road in Ireland

Across a two lane road in Ireland

Much of it just left where it is, protected by law and maintained by sheep and cattle. We were gone nearly a month.

J continues to work at the local YMCA as a personal trainer. She has also rediscovered knitting putting together socks, shawls, sweaters, and most recently Christmas balls. She has also started playing with clay at a local pottery shop.

Some of the many Christmas balls

Some of the many Christmas balls

The first days were pretty frustrating, but now warns me a new shelf might be required for all of the pottery she is bringing home this week and is hoping to make in the future.

A couple of years ago, J and I started taking dance classes. Initially, it was to keep from embarrassing ourselves at J & M’s wedding, but, finding that we enjoy doing this together we have continued. We don’t get a lot of chances to show off our skills, and maybe that is not even the point of the classes for us. For us, it something we can do together when biking, canoeing, and travelling are not possible. It’s good to have a best friend to share life with.

In April, I finished the last class of the MDiv I have been working on since 2009. In June, I was declared a candidate for ministry in the Christian Reformed Church. In September the congregation in Lucknow, my home congregation, called me to be their interim pastor.

Graduation October 2013

Graduation October 2013

While it seems like the end of the journey, it’s really just another way point. I’m enjoying the work at the church and look forward to the next couple of years here. The call is a part time one and I continue to consult with sheep and goat farmers through Threefold Consulting.

As the year draws to a close, we look forward to 2014.  We’re already talking about the cycle trip we hope to make, the canoe trip in Algonquin, the new grand baby. How many times will we get on an airplane next year?  Even as we talk about these things, we recognize life is fragile and we’re in God’s hands; whatever comes, we trust it’s part of God’s plan.

The Annual Cycling Summary

The Cycling season is definitely over. Outside, there is over a foot of snow, and the chance of another ride this year seems pretty remote. The road bike is now attached to the trainer in the basement.

The Santa in Ireland

The Santa in Ireland

This year the new tandem got the most use with the majority of those kilometers done on the narrow roads of western Ireland. Somehow,  for the rest of the spring, summer and early fall, we had a hard time finding the opportunities to get out on long rides. There were lots of short ones, but they really don’t add up quickly.

The final tally then:

Santa Tandem: 1670km

Canondale R600: 568km

Opus Legato: 48km (all while camping)

Total: 2286km, just slightly less than last year.

The Auction

“You’re riiiggggght” shouts the auctioneer, at just past eleven o’clock on an overcast, but dry, Saturday August 31 2013. “We’ll start with this wagon load and at noon we’ll sell the farm”. After explaining to the crowd who my parents are and, surprisingly, his own history with the farm they have owned for the past fifty years, the auction begins. The auctioneer knows my dad quite well as a cattle dealer and a regular auction attendee.  A number of the articles he will sell today dad bought under his hammer at other farm auctions over the years. He reminisces about watching hockey games in this house over fifty years ago when his uncle owned the farm and the only television in the neighbourhood.

And the auction begins!!!

And the auction begins!!!

For the next three hours, the rapid fire chant of the auctioneer will barely stop between articles held up from wagons. When the wagons are empty the crowd will follow him around the yard, from item to item like a swarm of bees or a flock of blackbirds, straining to see, not wanting to miss the final price or the opportunity for a deal.

The highlight of this sale, for some, will be the sale of the farm. There are a number of folks in the crowd interested in buying the real estate. Most have visited at least once, toured the buildings, walked the land. But, when the bidding starts, only two bidders emerge to compete for the right to the deed. The rest are out of their price range in the first moments of bidding.

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These Mennonite men seem overly interested in something on the household wagon

These two bidders represent something of a conflict playing out in rural Ontario. One of them is the neighbour down the road whose family traces its history in the area back to the first settlers. He has been renting the land here for the past five years, or so, and operates what many might see as a large, industrial style, beef farm. He already owns well over 500 acres, feeds hundreds of cattle, but feels he needs to continue to expand to stay ahead of rising costs. This property would fit well with the rest of his operation, but he will have little use for the house and other outbuildings. He is very active in the community, his church, service clubs, well known and well liked.

The other bidder is a Mennonite who would like this property for his son who is soon to be married. In many ways, Old Order Mennonites are resettling many parts of Ontario. They are building farmsteads where the original ones had been bulldozed to make room for cash crops. They are bringing livestock and large gardens; building new churches and schools; looking for opportunities for their large families. Whole concession roads have been transformed, one farm at a time, and they would really like to add this farm to their holdings. The bidder is a leader in his community, a deacon in the church and one of the first to settle in the area.

As the bidding accelerates upward there is a feeling of tension in the crowd, Could this farm really be worth so much money? The final bid sits with the Mennonite family and the auctioneer, as he had promised, stops the bidding to consult with my parents. They return and declare that the farm is now selling without a reserve and bidding is opened again. Tension increases as the battle between stability and change goes on for another $65,000. In the end, the neighbour is outdone by the seemingly endless resources of his Mennonite competitor.  With the declaration of “SOLD” and the bang of the gavel, the crowd’s tension is broken and there is a round of applause for both bidders. The neighbours go home, defeated, and the Mennonite women crowd in to inspect the house, to claim their prize. Change continued its relentless movement.

The rest of the auction was uneventful, almost an anticlimax, the main event was over. The farm would continue on as a single family unit, the buildings would be maintained and improved, livestock again would be pastured in the fields and a large garden would again be planted near the house. For all of the “return to the way it was”, however, there is also a fear for the community as we know it; the Mennonites bring their own community with them and interact only as they need to with the local village and its institutions. I wonder now, if the auctioneer and his relatives, didn’t have many of the same feelings of something slipping between their fingers, as they watched the hockey game fifty years ago in what became my parents house, part of the Dutch migration of the 1960’s.

In the next few weeks, my parents will move to their new home. Much of their stuff is gone, carried, and driven, down the driveway last Saturday. I overheard a neighbour ask my father if this was going to be a sad day. He responded very quickly with “Why should it be sad? We’ve had a good life. We’ve been blessed here.”

And so, surrounded by family and friends, an era ended, change came, and something new is begun.

A Milestone Reached

Yesterday was my father’s birthday. He celebrated with family and friends. Yesterday, however, was also another milestone for he and my mother, in fact, for our whole family. It was fifty years ago that they moved on to the farm where they live, worked, and raised their family.

Not many can claim to live in the same place for so long. While it is more common in the agricultural community than in more urban areas for folks to live in the same place for a long time, sometimes from birth to death, it is becoming much less common. We reminisced together as I visited wish him well on his birthday, about all of the folks in their circles who have left the farm over the years, how agriculture has changed, how all the one hundred acre farms are gone, how there are just plainly fewer people in the country.

The farm as it looked in 1963

The farm as it looked in 1963

I was there when they moved to that farm. They had three kids then, two more were born after the move. I am the oldest. I turned four a month after we arrived and still have some vague memories of moving. There are many more memories of the years growing up there. Most of the memories are good ones, family working together toward a goal (or a number of them), building things together, struggling together against the elements to get crops in the ground and into the barn. Growing up there, I didn’t realize how isolating the farm was with its constant demands, it’s never ending litany of morning and evening chores. Many of my peers lived the same way. It was just how it was.

As I left home for university and on to the rest of life, the farm served as something of a bastion, a solid thing which was relatively unchanging in a rapidly changing world, a way to keep in touch with the past, to stay grounded.

The farm as it looks today courtesy Google Street View

The farm as it looks today courtesy Google Street View

There was change of course. We milked cows all of the years I was on the farm. J and I bought the cows and quota back in 1989 and moved them to our farm. Mom and Dad carried on with a number of other enterprises and in recent years have rented out the land and buildings and have been enjoying their vacations and their volunteer commitments.

In two weeks the legacy will end. The farm will be sold by auction and they will make their first move in over fifty years to a cute bungalow in a nearby town. It will be a good move for them, closer to other people and services, but it will be difficult for them and for the rest of the family who have so many memories tied up in what we knew as home.