Les Sheppard passed into the spiritual world in early May this year, after coping with Parkinson’s Disease for many years. A celebration service was held at the Brisbane New Church on Sunday May 18th which Les had asked, whever it came, to be a happy party. So it was, with chips and lollies for the children and laughter-filled joy among the grown ups.
In remembering Les, try to remember his passion and his vision and his different approach to things, sometimes a bit hard to handle but always well-meant, and based on his own love for the Lord, for the Lord’s church and its people, and for the truths of the Writings.
This commemoration contains the address by Rev. Ian Arnold, given at the celebration, and also my own Presidential greetings that were sent on behalf of the whole Church and which were read out by Christime Kendrick, one of the national Board directors, who was present with her husband Tim.
Just two days after Les’s passing, and at his and Bev’s home in West End, I was leafing through his Bible. It’s not that I hadn’t held it in my hands before but this time I felt freer to browse it more closely. In places it is heavily marked and annotated, and one of those places, marked as heavily as anything else in it, are these verses from Matthew’s Gospel, Chapter 16:
“Then Jesus said to His disciples, ‘If anyone desires to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what is a man profited if he gain the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?’”
Les treasured his Bible. I was going to say that next to Bev it was the love of his life. But no, it was the underground water reservoir and system from which he drew not just in his relationship with Bev and his family, but in all things he was involved with and with all people he had dealings with.
Born into Methodism, his mother having particularly strong Methodist convictions, Les developed an attachment to the Bible from early on; an attachment that was always there and which was given scope to really come to the surface and to blossom and flower once he became involved in Church leadership and as a Pastor. It’s what a lot of people remember about Les’s ministry, here in Brisbane or in his Church travels and work across Australia, also in England and in America, his focus on the Bible, his love for it and our need to read it. Ten or more years ago he campaigned on behalf of the “One Year Bible”, divided up into 365 sections, the idea being to read it all the way through in one calendar year; and quite a few of us signed up for it.
We never know, do we?, what is beneath the surface in other people’s lives. Here was Les, product of a Technical School secondary education; not shy of getting his hands dirty; passionate “rev head”; world traveller at a time when we were agog at inter-continental travel, so rare was it in those days; entrepreneurial, man of the world and successful business man; but ticking away there, all the while, was this love, this fascination, this attachment of his to the Word of God, here in the Bible.
There was a time in his life, as I can remember, when Les tried to hold it at arm’s length, to ignore it, to push it out and away from the immediacy of his everyday life, interests and concerns. But he didn’t succeed. In the end it won him over completely and became emphatically and obviously centre stage for him. As in this past year or so, when he couldn’t read it himself he loved it when others read it to him. He knew it well and if distressed about not being able to read it himself he found reassurance in being told that it was there in his mind and memory anyway.
In the words of the Doctrines of the New Church, “People have communication with Heaven through the (Lord’s) Word.” (DSS 113). Again, when a person reads the Word sincerely and prayerfully “the angels attach themselves to them and take delight in them.” (AC 9152) And that’s really beautiful. I believe Les was in heaven when he was reading the Word or listening to it read to him.
Talk of heaven was of course an absolutely constant theme for the Lord Jesus Christ. He all the time spoke in similes about it, comparing it – for instance – to a grain of mustard seed which starts out so small but grows so large. As to who is greatest there He pointed to the forgetfulness of self, or innocence, as seen in little children. And He talked about it as His “Father’s house” where, if we want it, a place is prepared for us all. He warned one young man of the danger of his attachment to the things of this world and urged him to let go of them. Then, He said, “You will have treasure in heaven”. (Mark 10:22). And it is a similar theme here in these words in his Bible which Les so heavily marked.
My own experience is that passages in the Bible which unusually or persistently catch my attention – as this one did Les – are ones that speak to me of some issue I need to attend to, mirroring back to me some inclinations, or even faults and shortcomings in myself that I need to face up to and overcome.
We all know Les was upfront, incisive, strong when it came to his agenda, never short of a strong opinion and readily directive. But as I reflect on these markings of his here in his Bible I get a very real sense of Les working through these words of our Lord in relation to his own life. Denying ourselves, taking up our cross, and losing our life to find it.
What, I have asked myself, did these words mirror back to Les? Les knew full well that the life we are to lose – as we have the opportunity to do in this world and as an essential part of our being heaven-bound – is the life of self-promotion and self-interest, ego driven, controlling and way, way, too much focussed on life in this world and getting on here. It is a battle ground and I very much have the impression that, within, it was for Les also; perhaps even intensely so. A real battle field, Les wrestling within himself with these traits identified by the Lord in these words. Denying ourselves, taking up our cross and losing our life to find it.
And let’s hang on to this, friends: if as a Minister or Pastor you are not, yourself, out on that battle field, struggling and wrestling, conscious of your vulnerabilities and of the inclinations that throw a dark shadow over you, you cannot effectively convey the significance and importance of it to others, or come alongside of them in their struggles and battles. Les did both, because he could, indeed, speak and preach on these verses and what they mean from the heart; and he was remarkably and reassuringly sensitive and compassionate when he could see those around him – young people, especially, or older people – involved in the battle. He never stood apart, frowned, or judged. And, such is my conclusion from knowing him for many years, he was never shocked – just accepting of where people found themselves. Almost certainly from reflecting on himself, as from anything else, he was too aware of our human weaknesses to be otherwise. And we loved him for this.
Well done, Les for helping us feel there is hope for us.
Well done, for bringing God down out of the sky into our experiences of life as they unfold for us.
Well done, friend, for connecting us with a God of compassion, patience and understanding; and for doing it from a conviction that came from deep within you and from your heart.
President’s message on behalf of the national church
You are celebrating Les today with a service and a party. That sounds wonderful and I know it was what Les specially wanted, for the children but for everyone. I wish I could have been with you but I can’t so I’m sending some words to be said. Les was the President of the national church from 1995 to 2001 and I followed him in that role and he ordained me as President. This makes it very special for me. However, I am writing on behalf of the whole of the New Church in Australia, on behalf of many people who were helped by Les, inspired by him, who listened and watched him at quite a few church camps and who saw him as a good minister and a personal friend. The tributes have been coming in and I have been touched by what people have said.
There is one very important thing I must mention about Les. At a conference in 1997, he was President and in the chair at the meeting and he put forward a proposal that the church allocate $150,000 for the work of the College – it was still a small affair back then. The Conference heard him and voted in favour and as a result of that the College quickly grew and led on to the training and ordination of several of our ministers. So thank you Les.
The church sends its love, joy, appreciation, thanks, admiration and consolation to Les and Bev and all their family. We all know full well that Les will be doing great things in heaven now he has got his energy back and may he always serve his Lord with all his heart. Les and Bev, may the Lord bless you and be with you and keep you together in his heart.
And this from David Moffat
“Les was instrumental in bringing my family back to Australia in 2000, and in working to establish the Canberra group. He provided constant support – and challenge – in my early years here. I can only echo the sentiments already ably expressed about the impact he has had upon the New Church in Australia.”