Monday, 2 November 2015

All Souls: The journey

1 Corinthians 13.8-13

One of the challenges of preaching at this service is that I know that everyone here has a different experience of bereavement. That’s why, when I try to choose readings and poems for this service, I know I am likely to get it wrong for as many people as I get it right.

Many people love the *poem I read just now, (below) for example, with its calm and untroubled assurance that the person who seems to us to have gone is perfectly, safely present on another shore. These are great words, reminding us that our perspective is only one perspective. They encourage us to lift our eyes, to trust that those we love are held in the hands of God.

But the assurance it brings might not work for you at all at this moment. You might more easily identify with another poem I came across recently by the Victorian poet James Russell Lowell. Three of his four children died in infancy, and then he lost his beloved wife. After the death of one of his daughters, he put his anger into words in a poem called “After the Burial”. It’s too long to read in full, but here are a few verses from it. Someone has evidently tried to console him by reminding him that his daughter is now immortal in heaven.

All Souls' candles
Immortal? I feel it and know it,
  Who doubts it of such as she?
But that is the pang’s very secret,—
  Immortal away from me.

There’s a narrow ridge in the graveyard
  Would scarce stay a child in his race,
But to me and my thought it is wider
  Than the star-sown vague of Space.

Console if you will, I can bear it;
  ’T is a well-meant alms of breath;
But not all the preaching since Adam
  Has made Death other than Death.

Everyone here is in a different place, experiencing grief differently. Some may have lost a loved one just weeks ago, some months ago, some decades ago. Maybe you think you ought to be over it, but it’s not like that.

And grief is different depending on who it is that has died. The loss of a parent in old age is different from the loss of a child, or a spouse or a friend – no less of a loss, but a different one. The individual relationship we had with them affects our grieving too.  The death of someone we loved and trusted in an uncomplicated way brings one sort of pain, the death of someone we were at odds with, where there were unresolved, and now unresolvable, difficulties brings quite another. 

What we believe about death affects our grieving too. We may have a deeply rooted belief that those we love are safe in God’s hands, that we will see them again one day, or we may believe death is the end, or not know what we think at all.

We will probably feel very different at different moments too. I don’t entirely buy into the idea of grieving as a process which moves predictably through denial, anger, bargaining, depression and on into acceptance. My observation of the many hundreds of people I’ve seen grieving, as well as my own experiences, tell me that it’s perfectly normal to hurtle backwards and forwards through those feelings – and many more – from day to day. It’s a bit like the English weather – you can have all four seasons in one day. Often with grief, just when you think you’re getting over it, something rises up to push you right back to square one.

There are no rights and wrongs, no rules about grief. It is what it is. We are where we are. It isn’t uncharted territory; many people have been where we are when we grieve, but there’s no neat, way-marked path through this land.

So if grieving feels like a mess, or takes a long time, that’s not a sign that we are doing it wrong. It may just be a complicated journey for us. We all like to know where we are and what is what, but as our Bible reading reminded us, that’s not always possible. “Now we see in a mirror, dimly,” says St Paul. Our vision of God, of life, of ourselves is blurred and  indistinct. Or to go back to Bishop Brent’s image, what we long to see may be over the horizon, tantalisingly out of view.

So how can we deal with the confusion of grief?

The **song the choir are going to sing in a minute might help (below). It is a song from the Christian community based on the island of Iona, and it’s set to a tune which it is said to have been played as the ancient kings of Scotland were rowed from the mainland to their traditional burial ground on Iona. It’s called the Last Journey, and it’s obviously influenced by that image of the boat slipping gently across the water.

The journey through death, and through grief, is in one sense, as John Bell says, a “journey we make on our own”. It is individual, different from anyone else’s. But in another sense, the song says, we are not alone at all. Our way is woven by God. We are accompanied by Jesus, who has been through the darkness of death. The Spirit surrounds us as we travel. And in the last verse we are reminded that “Angels walk in our dreams”.  

Angels in the Bible are sometimes supernatural winged creatures – and many people during bereavement do have strange experiences which comfort them.  But the word “angel” simply means messenger, and often in the Bible angels come alongside people in human form. They don’t realise they’ve met one till afterwards. The angels who help us when we’re grieving, who bring us the message that we are loved, might be the friends who turn up with a meal they’ve made for us, or listen to us while we cry. They might be members of this Christian community here at Seal too. This is a place where you are welcome to grieve for as long as you need, in whatever way you need. We are here for the long haul.

“Now I know only in part,” says St Paul, “but then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known”. Grief is a mystery to us, unpredictable and strange – we may feel that we don’t really know what is going on at all. But the good news which Christian faith proclaims is that God knows us perfectly, and knows those we love who have died too. And knowing us, he loves us, just as we are, with a love that never ends.

* THE SHIP, by Bishop Charles Henry Brent

What is dying?
I am standing on the seashore.
A ship sails to the morning breeze and starts for the ocean.
She is an object and I stand watching her
Till at last she fades from the horizon,
And someone at my side says,
“She is gone!”
Gone where?
Gone from my sight, that is all;
She is just as large in the masts, hull and spars as she was when I saw her,

And just as able to bear her load of living freight to its destination.
The diminished size and total loss of sight is in me, not in her;
And just at the moment when someone at my side says, "She is gone",
There are others who are watching her coming,
And other voices take up a glad shout,
"There she comes" – and that is dying.


From the falter of breath,
through the silence of death,
to the wonder that’s breaking beyond;
God has woven a way,
unapparent by day,
for all those of whom heaven is fond.

From frustration and pain,
through hope hard to sustain,
to the wholeness here promised,
there known;
Christ has gone where we fear
and has vowed to be near
on the journey we make on our own.

From the dimming of light,
through the darkness of night,
to the glory of goodness above;
God the Spirit is sent
to ensure heaven’s intent
is embraced and completed in love.

From today till we die,
through all questioning why,
to the place from which time and tide flow;
angels walk in our dreams,
and magnificent themes
of heaven’s promise are echoed below.

@ John Bell, the Iona Community

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