It’s time for our annual All Souls service, and this is what I plan to preach tomorrow night:
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
If you’ve ever seen Four Weddings and a Funeral, I’m sure you remember the powerful funeral scene where John Hannah’s character Matthew recites this W H Auden poem Funeral Blues, desolate at the loss of his lover Gareth, played by Simon Callow. It picks up that bleakness we feel in bereavement, and I’m sure that’s why the film made the poem so popular again in recent years.
You might expect that at a Christian service, especially one where we have announced that the theme is one of hope, I would jump straight from that to a happy picture of heaven, all lit up with LEDs and shown on retina screens.
But no. I shall talk about hope in a few moments. However, Christians are not immune from the bleakness of bereavement. However much we believe in a future full of hope, we feel that loss now. When C S Lewis wrote his book A Grief Observed about the death of his wife Joy Davidman after only four years of marriage, he said,
The death of a beloved is an amputation.
I wonder how many of you have felt like that since your bereavements? You haven’t just lost someone you love; you’ve lost part of yourself. Elsewhere, in similar vein, Lewis says,
At present I am learning to get about on crutches. Perhaps I shall presently be given a wooden leg. But I shall never be a biped again.
With those feelings in mind I chose the reading from the Book of Revelation. It’s a book some people think is weird and troubling, but at heart it’s something written to suffering Christians, and couched in code-like terms so that those causing the pain of the Christian recipients didn’t understand it. Their suffering was perhaps different from ours in that it was religious persecution. However, that persecution led to the deaths of loved ones, and in that respect we can find common feeling with them, and thus draw comfort and hope along similar lines to them.
Revelation sees a world torn apart by sin and evil, and a God who wants to put it right. He will judge the wicked and make a new world free from injustice and sorrow for those who love him. You could describe God’s project as like the renovation of a house. Our reading promises ‘a new heaven and a new earth’ (verse 1), a ‘new Jerusalem’ (verse 2), the end of ‘the old order of things’ (verse 4) and indeed ‘everything [made] new’ (verse 5).
I invite you to think of it something like this. Friends of mine have been describing recently on Facebook the renovation of an old house they own in Northumberland. Footings and block work needed to be done. The gas supply needed to be disconnected, moved and reconnected. However, if I read their accounts rightly, that didn’t happen as quickly as they would have hoped, and they had a cold night wearing extra layers of clothing. They got chilly again when the porch and utility room were demolished, and they were left without heating from 9:30 one day. They finally got gas and hot water back after three days.
God, I believe, is promising a cosmic renovation project, including the heavens and the earth, a new order of community in which to live (the ‘new Jerusalem’) and new order of life, free of sin and pain. He has already done it for his Son Jesus, in raising him from the dead on that first Easter Day. He promises renovation for our bodies after our deaths at a great resurrection of the dead.
Outside one of the chapels at Oxford Crematorium, you will find a plaque that C S Lewis had made for his late wife. He wrote an epitaph for her that is displayed on the plaque. It reads:
Here the whole world (stars, water, air,
And field, and forest, as they were
Reflected in a single mind)
Like cast off clothes was left behind
In ashes, yet with hope that she,
Re-born from holy poverty,
In Lenten lands, hereafter may
Resume them on her Easter Day.
The hope we share by faith in Jesus Christ is that an Easter Day is coming for us. As Jesus was raised from the dead, his body renovated by God, so too shall we.
Renovation projects sometimes take longer than we would like. Anyone who has had a new kitchen fitted may understand that. They can also be pretty uncomfortable, as my friends who lost their gas for three days discovered.
But they do reach completion. And in the great cosmic renovation, we can be sure that God is not a cowboy builder. We have seen his work already in the resurrection of Jesus, and he promises the same craftsmanship to us.
Meanwhile, though – what? It’s a long time to wait with that void in our lives, that amputation of a limb that C S Lewis spoke about. Is there nothing to do but wait around in our loneliness for God’s great renovation?
I think the answer is that we can actively anticipate what is to come. If we have a sense that God is going to make all things new and wipe away every tear, then we can prepare for that world. When grief comes stealthily sneaking up behind us and mugs us unawares, we can remember that life will not always be this way.
We can also live by the values of God’s new world in small ways. We can seek to bring hope to others, comforting other grieving people with the comfort we have received. We can play our little part in building for a new world where hatred and suffering do not always win.
May the peace and hope which come from trusting in Jesus Christ risen from the dead be your light in your darkness and a light for your path.
One of the most popular posts on this blog over the last year was A Brief Sermon For A Memorial Service. I preached it at our annual All Souls service at the end of October last year, and it has regularly been one of the posts found on Google searches. It seems to be something people need.
This weekend is the All Souls service for this year, and here I am posting tonight’s sermon. I hope people find this helpful, too.
‘Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.’ (Verse 4)
Tonight, we gather as people who have walked through the valley of the shadow of death. Indeed, we are still walking through the valley of the shadow of death. We have lost loved ones dear to us – some after a good, long life, some to cruel diseases and some far too young.
In walking through this darkest of valleys, we sometimes expect that at the time of bereavement we shall plunge into the darkness, but then we shall slowly climb out, bit by bit. The remarks of friends and acquaintances who naïvely expect us to have recovered after a length of time betray this unrealistic idea. I often remark that the experience of grief and bereavement is more like ‘three steps forward, two steps back’.
And it often starts before the death. Those of you who have been alongside a family member or a dear friend who received the news that the doctors could do no more know that your grief started early. Something similar is true for those of you who witnessed someone descend into Alzheimer’s Disease or other forms of dementia. You have a double bereavement: first, you lose the person, and later, you lose the body.
There is a number of emotions that we can go through in these seasons of our lives. One is denial. It can’t really be happening. I don’t want to believe this is happening. Or, it doesn’t feel real. Wake me up from this nightmare. This is just a TV show, right?
Or when we realise it is real, we turn to bargaining. Maybe we can strike a bargain with God. ‘Lord, if you’ll heal my loved one, then I’ll do things for you.’ It makes me remember the old Kate Bush song ‘Running Up That Hill’
in which she sings,
‘And if only I could
I’d make a deal with God
And I’d get him to swap our places’
And maybe when God doesn’t sign up to the bargain we offer him, we move into anger. Anger with God. Anger with doctors. Anger with our loved one, if they did something foolish. Reading recently how Steve Jobs refused potentially life-saving surgery for his pancreatic cancer at an early stage, I wonder how his wife and children have felt.
Finally, we get through to some form of acceptance. We know our loved one is going to die, or we accept that yes, they have died. We start to rebuild our lives, knowing they will never take the same shape again, because the one who has gone has left a hole no-one else can fill. It was uniquely their shape.
Given that these are typically the kinds of experiences we are having, how can I recognise Psalm 23’s affirmation that ‘Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me’?
I mean, how is God with us? We tend to assume he is remote, in heaven and far away from us. That leads us to think he doesn’t care. However, if he were with us, wouldn’t things be a bit different? The Psalmist didn’t know God physically with him, but he did have a sense of God’s presence in life, that he described as being like a Palestinian shepherd, with his rod and staff. The rod was a club that was used to fend off wild beasts and the staff was the shepherd’s crook, used to guide and control the sheep.
For Christians, admittedly centuries after the Psalmist wrote, the answers to these questions come into sharp focus in Jesus. In Jesus, God did not stay remote from us. It is not simply true, as the song says, that ‘God is watching us from a distance.’ In Jesus, he came up close. He lived in poverty and powerlessness. He died young. And it was an unjust death.
And Jesus, the ‘Good Shepherd’, as he called himself, has a rod and a staff. A rod to beat away our enemies, and a staff to guide us.
It may seem absurd to claim that Jesus beats away our enemies when we are in the presence of what the Bible calls ‘the last enemy’, that is, death itself. The Christian hope is in Jesus not only having swallowed the bitter pill of death as we do and on our behalf, it is also that he was raised from the dead. And while that seems an absurd claim to many today, it is one we back up with strong historical evidence. From it, we hold the hope that Jesus’ resurrection is the sign that we shall all be raised from the dead one day, at the end of history as we know it. Because of that hope, even this worst of all enemies cannot have the final word. Death may win a battle and cause us immense suffering and pain, but it cannot in the end win the war. Through our tears, we have this hope, and in that sense the rod of Jesus beats away the enemy of death in the final analysis.
We also get to experience his staff, his shepherd’s crook, guiding us. Jesus, from his involvement in creation to his bringing in of a new creation in his resurrection, is the one who guides us in hope through the tragedies of death and suffering. He becomes our example of how to live in the face of the certainty of death and the hope of resurrection. How? Let me go back to that Kate Bush lyric:
‘And if only I could
I’d make a deal with God
And I’d get him to swap our places’
We may not be able to make a deal with God, but ‘to swap our places’ – that actually is more realistic, strange as it may seem. The Christian hope is about the Son of God who chose not to stay in the glory of heaven but take on human flesh in poverty and suffering. It is about the One who on the Cross ‘swapped places’ with us so that death might be defeated and we might be forgiven our sins. Handing our lives over to the One who brings us forgiveness, defeats death and shows us how truly to live is to find him whose staff guides and comforts us throughout life.
So wherever we are in our grieving, I commend a life of trusting Jesus to you. Trusting him doesn’t exempt us from the trials of life and death, but in his birth he is with us, in his death and resurrection he beats away our enemies and his life, death and resurrection we find his pattern and guide for living.
I just wanted to recommend a seven-minute audio piece I have just listened to. A man called Peter Hobbs, who is forty-six, describes the death of his wife Caroline from breast cancer five years ago. He talks about the journey he has been on since, raising three children alone.
You can find the piece here. Clicking this link will enable you just to hear the first few sentences. You will need to register for a free account with Audiopot to hear it in its entirety. But not only that, you will be able also to download it. You might find it useful material in a small group or for a meeting of pastoral visitors.
It was our shared love of animals – as well as our faith, of course – that brought Debbie and me together. We were separately members of a Christian singles organisation. There are some dodgy ones out there, but we had each found a sane one, called The Network. Every few months, those members who were interested in ‘introductions’ would receive a list of several other members who might be appropriate for them, along with each person’s brief self-description.
One day, around September 1999, my name appeared on a list they sent to Debbie. She noticed I was a dog lover, and thought I might therefore be not only a Christian but also kind to animals. This was important to her, as she owned two cats she had rescued, Sam and Trixie.
I had a dog of the obscure breed I had grown up with, the Finnish Spitz. Being a pedigree, he had to have an original name for registration with the Kennel Club. My dog’s breeder was famous in Finnish Spitz circles, Mrs Griselda Price, and my parents had bought a succession of dogs from her over many years. Her tradition was to find original names with successive letters of the alphabet for each consecutive litter. She told me that one of her bitches was pregnant, and that this litter would have names beginning with ‘T’. Could I please think of a name no other dog could possibly ever have had, that began with ‘T’?
Well, where’s a minister to go at a time like that? To my Greek Lexicon, of course. I chose the noun ‘Tarachos’, which is used twice in the Acts of the Apostles. On one occasion it means ‘mental consternation’, and on the other it means ‘riot’. I thought it highly appropriate, as the Finnish Spitz is a very noisy breed. Mrs Price pronounced my choice ‘ghastly’, but proceeded to register the name for me.
When Debbie and I first met (after a protracted period of writing letters – remember that? – and phoning) the three pets didn’t get along. Yet they brought us together.
Today, that era ended when Trixie had to be put to sleep at the vet’s. That followed the deaths of Sam three years ago and Tarachos four years ago. After last night’s episode, the vet diagnosed a stroke. He gave us a range of three options: euthanasia at one end, anti-inflammatory tablets in the middle, and an array of blood tests at the other end. However, he could give no assurances that the anti-inflammatories would do much, and the blood tests might only confirm something even worse had happened to her system. We already suspected kidney trouble, since she was borderline dehydrated. The tablets or blood tests might only buy us another couple of weeks with her. With great heartache, we chose euthanasia. And when he came to administer the fatal injection, he had trouble finding a vein, because they, too, were deteriorating.
Rebekah had come with us to the surgery. She was off school with a rash, and was deeply distraught, whereas Mark, although sad before school this morning, was matter of fact about the situation. I took Rebekah back to the car before the injection, while Debbie spent a last couple of minutes with her cat. We three reunited at the car, all in floods of tears. You see, Debbie didn’t simply identify me correctly ten years ago as an animal lover: I’m a great big softie for them. So is she, and Rebekah has inherited that personality trait.
When we picked up Mark from school, I broke the news to him at home. As with this morning, he was sad but matter of fact. He was happy to talk later about arrangements for finding a new pet soon, whereas Rebekah has remained distraught.
It has been an experience trying to explain death and Christian hope to the children. They aren’t completely unfamiliar with such talk, as they are used to hearing me talk about funerals. Good Friday this year also provoked a lot of discussion about death, including Mark wondering whether he would die on a cross like Jesus.
However, whatever routes or metaphors we try, they blow holes in them. I don’t have a problem with including animals in the Christian hope. I know they aren’t made in the image of God like human beings, but in Revelation heaven is filled with more than humans and angels. There are some (admittedly strange!) animals, too. So theologically, I include them in the new creation. I’m happy to talk about them being given a new body by Father God, just as people will be in the resurrection.
But it’s so hard to avoid conversations that sound like they are giving geographical directions to heaven. However much I read Tom Wright, it’s still surprisingly easy to slip into ‘up in heaven’ language. Debbie ended up talking about all the dead animals taking a train up into the sky to heaven. She hasn’t read ‘Surprised By Hope‘. Rebekah decided she could take a hot air balloon and poke her hand through the top of the sky to bring Trixie with her new body back down to earth. If any readers have better ideas about how to explain these things to children, I’d be only too glad to hear your suggestions in the ‘Comments’ section below. Perhaps Wright should write the kiddie version.
We’ve had a family conference over fish and chips tonight (we didn’t feel like cooking our own dinner). Thankfully, with some ease we unanimously agreed that we shall buy one or more cats soon, having dismissed Debbie’s joke suggestion that we buy a crocodile. We have already tracked down a couple of local rescue centres. The cat or cats will need to be young, because we cannot put the children, especially Rebekah, through another bereavement soon if we buy an older cat. We’ll leave it a week or two before visiting anywhere. For the next week or so, we are looking after a neighbour’s pets while he is away, so we shall take vicarious pleasure in them while dealing with our loss.
Finally, I want to say thank you for the kind wishes sent through the technology of social media. While tweeting on Twitter didn’t produce any response, status updates on Facebook certainly did. At time of writing, a dozen friends have left messages on my profile since I mentioned Trixie’s death this morning. Having trailed her ill health last night, one friend commented then and enquired again this morning. Debbie has had eight or ten comments, too. Whatever people say about the value or otherwise of community across a distance via a stream of ones and zeroes, these little messages have been small oases for us today.