1 Cor 13.8-13
At the heart of this service is an act of prayer, when we read the names of those we have loved who have died and light candles for them, remembering them before God and one another. I hope all the other aspects of the service are helpful too, but I know it’s that central act of prayer which is the focus, the moment that’s most important tonight.
But what is it we’re doing when we pray tonight?
That’s a question that may be difficult to answer, and all our answers would probably be different.
For a start, the people we grieve were all different. A prayer for a much loved parent who died peacefully in extreme old age will be different from a prayer for someone who died before their time, or in tragic circumstances, or with whom we had a troubled relationship.
Grief changes over time, too, and so the prayers that express it change. I hesitate to say that time heals, because sometimes it doesn’t feel like that at all, but the desperate, raw prayer that screams at God in disbelief when we first hear of a sudden death isn’t the same as the prayer we pray once we’ve lived with that reality for months or years. That doesn’t mean our love has changed; it is just that the human body can’t sustain that first, intense level of shock and sadness forever, even if we wanted it to. As we mull over our memories repeatedly, they gradually become part of the warp and weft of our life, familiar, quieter sadnesses.
And, of course, we may understand prayer differently because we have different ideas about God. Some people here may picture an old man with a white beard when they pray. In fact the Bible doesn’t very often describe God like that, but somehow it is the image that seems to have stuck with people. For some that traditional image may be benign and comforting, for others it may seem forbidding or distant. It usually depends on the messages we received in childhood. Some may see they person of Jesus in their mind’s eyes when they pray. Others may be praying to something far less definitely formed. They may see God as light, love, peace, mystery. Sometimes when people pray after a death, it is really those they mourn who they’re talking to. Many people carry on holding conversations with those who’ve died for a long time, if not forever. It is perfectly normal. When you’ve been talking to someone every day for decades, it would be odd if you could suddenly stop doing so simply because they’re not physically present. I am sure, too, that there are people here who aren’t really talking to anyone – divine or human – but who still value the time to remember and honour their memories.
What are we doing tonight when we pray? Many things, and most of them we can’t explain. Fortunately, though, no one is going to ask you to, because Christians believe that there’s no exam to pass before we pray, no special technique we need to master, no right or wrong way to do it. It’s just a matter of turning up. Prayer is just us, as we are, being ourselves in the presence of God. We don’t need to understand or articulate it. We just have to turn up.
“That will be heaven”, said the *poem I just read, “to stand like the sunflower turned full face to the sun”. Evangeline Paterson sees heaven as being like a perfect act of prayer, being in God’s presence and “never turning away again”. And in God’s presence everything else is present too. Even the “circling planets hum with an utter joy”, she says. And it seems to me that if “the circling planets” are in on the act, then surely, those we mourn are also there, joining in the song.
Heaven, for Evangeline Paterson, is a perfect act of prayer, when we are one with God, and one with all that God has made, including those we love. So maybe that means that our very momentary and imperfect times of prayer can give us a glimpse of heaven too. Our Bible reading tonight reminded us that heaven is where we finally see as we are see and know as we are known, fully and joyfully. We may not be there yet. We may feel far off, but in prayer, we can get a glimpse of that moment, an echo of that perfect peace and perfect oneness, which will sustains us until we “never turn away again”.
In a moment the choir are going to sing a song from the Iona community to lead us into our act of prayer and remembrance. “Listen Lord; Listen Lord, not to our words but to our prayer” runs the chorus. It is easy to get hung up on words – the words we pray, the words we use to talk about prayer – but these will, at best, always be frustratingly imprecise, never quite saying what we really mean. What matters, this song remind us, is not the words, but the prayer itself, simply turning up, and trusting that God – whatever we mean by God - has turned up too. The fact that we are here is enough, with our memories, joyful and sorrowful, with our thanks, with our regrets and our fears. This is our prayer. The God who hears what we can’t say, and knows what we can’t express will do the rest.
*Evangeline Paterson's poem can be found in "The heart's time" by Janet Morley, p.156, but a Google search will probably lead you to it as well.