In a few minutes the choir is going to sing a lovely song written by John Bell, a member of a Christian community based on Iona, off the west coast of Scotland. Philip and I went to Iona a couple of years ago. The island feels very remote now – it takes two ferry journeys and a long drive across the mountains of Mull to get there - but in the Middle Ages it was a very important place, in the middle of the seafaring route between Ireland and Scotland. It became an important centre, not just for the monks who lived there, but also for the people of Scotland, so important that they buried the bodies of their kings there. A 48 are recorded as buried there, along with 8 Norwegian and 4 Irish kings. And that’s where this song comes in. The words are modern, but the tune is an ancient one, and, according to legend, it was the tune that was played as the bodies of those kings were carried across the water to Iona, to their final resting place.
On the day we were there, the sea was calm and still, and the island was bathed in warm spring sunlight. Standing at the ferry port on Mull, looking out across the channel between it and Iona, you could just imagine those funeral boats with their precious cargo gliding serenely across the water. Hopefully you’ll be able to hear that in the music.
The song is called “The Last Journey” for obvious reasons. The image of death as a journey is one we are all familiar with. At the end of a funeral, almost always, I will lay my hand on the coffin and say,
“Go forth upon your journey from this world, O child of God
in the name of God the Father almighty who created you;
in the name of Jesus Christ who suffered death for you;
in the name of the Holy Spirit who strengthens you;
in communion with the blessed saints,
and aided by angels and archangels,
and all the armies of the heavenly host.
May your portion this day be in peace,
and your dwelling the heavenly Jerusalem.”
It’s actually a prayer that is supposed to be said as someone is dying, but I’m not very often there at that point, and, in any case, I think it is good for us all to hear it as we let the person who has died go on their journey into the hands of God, into the joy of heaven, however we imagine that to be.
We heard one vision of heaven in our second Bible reading tonight, from the book of Revelation. The writer describes a beautiful jeweled city, with gates made of single pearls – that’s where the idea of the pearly gates comes from. The gates will never be shut by day, we are told , and there will be no night, so we needn’t worry about arriving after hours! In other parts of the Bible, heaven is described as a feast, a safe lodging place, or a beautiful garden where there are streams of water that never run dry. Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem, which is engraved on his tombstone, simply envisages it as home. The message of the Bible is that, whatever it is like, it is the place where all is made well. That’s the journey we think of first at a funeral.
But there’s another journey happening when we lose someone we love too; the journey we must make, as we grieve, whether we like it or not. I’m a bit wary of talking about the “journey of grief”, partly because it is such a cliché, but also because it implies a steady progress in a particular direction. It often goes with talk about the “stages of grief” – usually listed as denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – and I am equally wary of those. It’s true that we might do all those things when we grieve, but we probably won’t just pass from one to the next, moving steadily in the right direction. Anyone who has actually grieved for anyone or anything will know that it can often feel more like we are wandering around in circles, in the dark, in a fog, with no idea whether we are getting anywhere at all, and aware that at any moment we might fall over a cliff or down an unseen mineshaft . We can find ourselves in all five stages in the course of a day. It can be one step forward and two steps back, or we can feel like we are going nowhere at all, and don’t want to either.
But there is a journey happening, however chaotic it feels. Even if we are sitting still, time is passing, and the world is changing around us. And sooner or later, we wake up in a different place, and find that our perspective has shifted, just a bit. We can’t help it. New things happen, experiences we haven’t had before. New friends come into our lives. We go to places we’d never been to with the person who has died. Life goes on, whether we like it or not. It can be quite a challenge. People sometimes feel a sense of disloyalty to the person who has died if they let themselves get engrossed in something new, and grieve all over again that they can’t share it with them. But we know that those who truly loved us would want us to be happy, to live and smile again.
Today your grief may be sharp and new, still knocking the wind out of you on a daily basis, looming large and inescapable. All you may be aware of is the absence of the one you’ve lost, and the pain of it. Or you might be at the point when you can remember that person with tender love and gentle gratitude, but know that their memory is just one part of a life that has much else in it. No one can tell you how long you should grieve, or how. It’s your journey, and it takes as long as it takes, a whole lifetime sometimes. But God’s promise to us – and you’ll hear it in the song we’re about to sing – is that God has “vowed to be near” us wherever we are, wherever we are going, forwards, backwards, or round and round in circles. In life and in death we travel with him, and find that he is there to meet us at our destination too.
THE LAST JOURNEY
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,
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.
Copyright: John Bell, the Iona Community