In the time from Margaret Thatcher’s recent death to her funeral last Wednesday, I have been involved in three funerals. We hosted a funeral at the church, prior to a burial at Brookwood Cemetery, because the chapel there was in too distressing a state for the family. We have had the funeral of a church member’s mother. I am preparing for another funeral tomorrow, too: I had taken an elderly lady’s funeral a year ago, but when her daughter died younger than most, her children asked for ‘the minister who conducted Granny’s funeral.’
None of these three people was famous, and certainly not like Mrs Thatcher. Yet they all share one thing in common with her, as we all do. Death comes to us all, as today’s reading in Ecclesiastes reminds us:
All share a common destiny – the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not. (Verse 2a)
The same destiny overtakes all. (Verse 3)
“Lying here, she is one of us,” said the Bishop of London in his address, and while the trappings of a ceremonial funeral seemed designed to separate the grocer’s daughter of Grantham from mere mortals, death remains the great fact and great equaliser.
When you are younger, you may live as if you are immortal. As you grow older, reality dawns on you. It may come in the death of a friend or loved one; it may come as you notice signs of decay in your own body. The Preacher in Ecclesiastes invites us to ask this question: how do we live well in the certain knowledge of death? I offer two main thoughts this morning.
Firstly, live life well. This seems to be the Preacher’s main advice in the passage:
Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do. 8 Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. 9 Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun – all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labour under the sun. 10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom. (Verses 7-10)
You could easily interpret this along the lines of, ‘This life is all there is, so you might as well make the most of it.’ Even if you substitute the word ‘temporary’ for the word ‘meaningless’ as I’ve suggested in previous weeks, you would still be talking about ‘this temporary life’ and ‘all your temporary days’. It might boil down to little more than, ‘God has only given you this life, so get on with it.’
But that’s rather worrying, isn’t it? And this is one of those Old Testament texts where the Christian has to bring in the New Testament for a fuller understanding. Left on its own, this passage is not fully Christian. It needs filling out with New Testament revelation. Ecclesiastes reminds us of the finality of death and that we need to live life well before dying, rather than just wait for death. However, the story of Jesus Christ reworks this into a fuller picture.
What is that fuller picture? Simply put, it is one word: resurrection. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is far bigger than a promise of eternal life for all his followers (although I do not deny that!). It is the promise of a new world to come, a new creation where God makes all things new, just as he made the body of his Son new after crucifixion. It is the foretaste of new heavens and a new earth.
In other words, we are not dealing with some ethereal life, floating on clouds, playing harps. If harp playing is a requirement, then only one person in this congregation has an eternal future! Rather: it is a physical and material future, seen in the way the Risen Lord cooked and ate fish.
Therefore, to eat and drink, to love and to work well, as the Preacher suggests, are appropriate preparations for the life of the age to come. When we enjoy God’s good creation with thankfulness, we tune in to the coming age. When we love and when we work hard, despite the struggles they involve due to the presence of sin in this world, we tune into the life to come.
Sometimes we are tempted to think in life that what we are doing is worthless or pointless. ‘Why am I giving myself to this?’ we ask ourselves. We might even ask God the same question. However, that is where one of Paul’s greatest insights into the meaning of the Resurrection comes into play. It’s a verse that some of you know came to be very important to me during an extremely hard season in my life. It’s the final verse of 1 Corinthians 15, the apostle’s great chapter on the Resurrection. Just when many of us would expect him to point at the climax of his argument to God’s glorious future, he instead brings us back to this earth with a practical application:
Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:58)
Aligning yourself with God’s will ‘is not in vain.’ Death will not destroy it. Somehow it will be taken up in the work of building for God’s kingdom. If God has given you a task to do, there is an eternal purpose to it. If God has given you something to enjoy, then do so with gratitude and generosity, not with greed, for that generosity and gratitude is the grain of the wood in his kingdom.
But what is true is this: one day, the opportunity in this life to build for that kingdom will be gone. We have limited time, and as the Preacher says at the end of the passage, ‘no one knows when their hour will come’ (verse 12). So take the opportunity. Do you have an opening to good or to celebrate God’s gifts? Take it! Remember the slogan from the Robin Williams film from 1989, ‘Dead Poets’ Society’; ‘Carpe Diem’ – seize the day. In the face of death but with the hope ofresurrection, that is what the Christian will do in order to live life well, in a manner that pleases God.
Secondly, prepare for death. On the day of Mrs Thatcher’s funeral, Giles Fraser had an excellent piece in The Guardian entitled, ‘How to bury Margaret Thatcher’. If you saw a title like that by a left-wing clergyman like Fraser in a paper like the Guardian, you would probably expect something vitriolic. Not so. Fraser spoke how when he was on the staff of St Paul’s Cathedral, ‘Operation True Blue’, the plans for Mrs Thatcher’s funeral arrangements, were on the books all the time he was there. We know that Mrs T had made certain requests about her funeral, as indeed many more humble people do. But I am not talking about leaving a list of requests for the service – although I have to say that if you do so, it is helpful to your relatives after you have gone.
No: I am talking about preparing for our deaths in squaring our relationship with God in Christ, and all the consequences of it. Fraser tells of how last Sunday, the Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s, Mark Oakley, told a story in his sermon about the funerals of Habsburg royalty in Austria:
As the funeral procession approached the closed doors of the Imperial chapel in Vienna, a voice from inside would ask, “Who is it?” The grand chamberlain would read out a long list of grand titles. The voice from the church then replied: “We know him not.” The chamberlain would try again, with a shortened version, and received the same reply. Finally, the chamberlain knocks on the door. Again comes the question, “Who is it?”, and this time, eschewing all pomp and ceremony, he answers: “A sinner in need of God’s mercy.” “Him we know; enter,” comes the reply.
Here is how we prepare for death: as ‘a sinner in need of God’s mercy.’ The Preacher in Ecclesiastes writes here as if there is nothing after death:
Anyone who is among the living has hope – even a live dog is better off than a dead lion!
5 For the living know that they will die,
but the dead know nothing;
they have no further reward,
and even their name is forgotten.
6 Their love, their hate
and their jealousy have long since vanished;
never again will they have a part
in anything that happens under the sun. (Verses 4-6)
However, as I’ve already said, the Christian has received further revelation, the revelation of an empty tomb, and we believe in a life to come, preceded by a Last Judgement. We do not intend to present ourselves before God, clutching a eulogy to our lives that exaggerates our good points and airbrushes the bad bits. We are not to be the Pharisee at the temple, telling God how well we have lived for him, but the publican standing at a distance, saying, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Is that to be morbid and to be miserable? Is that to engage in what I once heard somebody call ‘worm theology’ – ‘O Lord, I am but a worm’?
No. It is to cast ourselves on the grace of God. I’m sure you know the old mnemonic for the word ‘grace’: God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense. In other words, we are forgiven through Christ’s death on the Cross and made new in his Resurrection.
Or put it this way. Here is a slogan I saw the other day on Facebook:
Grace is the face love wears when it meets imperfection.
We prepare for death by remembering that we are sinners in need of God’s gracious love in Christ. We are, as the late Brennan Manning called himself and all of us, ‘ragamuffins.’ If we come boasting of our good deeds, we shall only be exposed as the hypocrites we are.
There is no room for cover-ups. In his book ‘The Ragamuffin Gospel’, Manning tells of being in a group for alcoholics with a man who kept presenting his drinking problem as not too bad. However, the counsellor practised tough love and ruthlessly exposed his lies and deceit, even to the point of having left his daughter in a car on her own during freezing weather while he went on a bender for hours. The daughter developed frostbite and permanently lost her hearing. Only when the man had been brought to honesty about his sins and had put away his egregious attempts to present himself in a good light could redemption come.
It is the same with us before God. If we try to come as good people, decent people, valued pillars of society, God will not be impressed with us. But if we present ourselves as sinners needing forgiveness, and sinners willing to be transformed by the resurrection of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, then just as the imperial chapel was opened to the dead body of Habsburg royalty, so the court of heaven is opened to the deceased pilgrim in Christ.
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.
When Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the Moon, died yesterday, I remembered being a nine-year-old boy in a primary school hall. The whole school was assembled to watch a small black-and-white television that had been perched on the stage for us all to watch recorded footage of the momentous event.
After Apollo 11, Armstrong was famously reclusive. Not for him the celebrity circuit. In one of his rarer excursions into public, he sued a barber for selling some of his hair.
And so it was fitting to read the Armstrong family statement. Their idea about how to remember the great man seems so fitting:
“For those who may ask what they can do to honour Neil, we have a simple request. Honour his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink.”
O that others would seek a similar remembrance. ‘Honour his example of service, accomplishment and modesty’ indeed.
Tonight, one of my churches holds an ‘All Souls Service’, where we invite all the families for whom we have conducted funerals over the past year. (My other church will do the same in a fortnight.) One church I previously served also had such a service, but the Anglican rector always took that, and so I was never involved. This evening, then, is my first stab at such a service. We shall scroll the names of the deceased on the screen, while family members light a candle in memory of their loved one, and our worship group will quietly sing some music while that happens.
Meanwhile, here is what I plan to preach.
Most of the funerals I take are for people whom I have never had the privilege of knowing. I know that can create a hurdle to leap between a grieving family and me, the minister.
Tonight, I am conscious of a further hurdle. The great majority of you had your loved one’s funeral conducted by my predecessor, Nick Oborski. He has now moved to Epsom, and I came here to replace him two months ago.
What I want to share with you in these few thoughts this evening is quite personal. The Bible reading we heard a few moments ago is one that is special to me. It became special to me eight years ago when a dear friend to my wife and me died of breast cancer. Carolyn was only 41. I chose this Bible passage for her funeral, and it has meant a lot to me ever since.
The theme I want to take from it is ‘Grieving with Hope’. Let me introduce it this way.
At the risk of over-simplifying things, I notice two main trends when I visit a bereaved family to arrange a funeral. One is the distraught family, overcome with grief. The other is the family that says something like this: ‘Dad wouldn’t want us to be sad. We want the funeral to be a celebration of his life.’ One family majors on sorrow, the other on joy. One is focussed on grief, the other on hope.
Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest, who have no hope. (Verse 13)
He doesn’t say, ‘do not grieve’: he says, ‘do not grieve like [those] who have no hope’. In other words, we can grieve with hope. Grief and hope. Sorrow and joy. Grief, but not hopeless. Sorrow, but not despairing.
Paul is real about the grief and sorrow that death brings. It isn’t for nothing that elsewhere he calls death ‘the last enemy’. Death is an enemy. We recognise that in our language. When someone dies after a protracted illness, we often say they ‘lost their battle’ with the disease. You battle an enemy.
And death is an enemy. It takes away from us people we love dearly. They can never be replaced. We can never be the same. Our lives take on a new shape over a period of time, but we all miss them.
In the face of an enemy’s action, our grief is not selfish. It is normal. We grieve, because we love. The one we love is no longer here for us to love. Our hearts ache with the pain, and we grieve. Anything less is unnatural.
You may know a popular reading at funerals is a piece called ‘Death is nothing at all’ by Henry Scott Holland. I have read it at funerals, but my problem is that death isn’t nothing, it’s a real and present enemy. Taken the way they are at funerals, you would think Holland was trivialising the grief experience. But they are lifted out of context from a sermon he preached when King Edward VII died. The sermon was called ‘King of Terrors’, and he knew well the terror that death brings.
So let us be real about grief. Let us own it. We don’t get anywhere without being honest about reality. And the reality of death leads us to grief.
However, says Paul, we grieve with hope. Let’s go back to that language of death being about ‘losing a battle’. Often we may also say – although not necessarily in connection with death – that someone has ‘lost the battle, but won the war’. Essentially, that’s what Christians say about death, and why we grieve with hope. We may ‘lose the battle’ in death, but in the long run we ‘win the war’.
How can we say that?
It’s because of the next thing Paul says:
We believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. (Verse 14)
‘We believe that Jesus died and rose again.’ That’s the key. Jesus didn’t merely die. He rose from the dead. That may seem a fantastic and ridiculous claim in an age when atheist scientists claim to reduce religious belief to a delusion, but I believe there is decent historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. I don’t have time to go into it now, and besides you didn’t RSVP to a lecture tonight. However, since I believe Jesus is risen, I believe he shows the way to hope. I believe his resurrection is the winning of the war that trumps the losing of the battle in death.
It’s by trusting our lives into Jesus’ hands and committing to follow him that we share this hope. He wants to share it with everyone. But it’s a gift that needs to be received.
Let me tell you a story. When I was young, my Dad tried to explain the Christian hope in the face of death to me. Dad worked in banking, and he asked me to imagine that NatWest had ordered him to take a new post with them in Australia. How would we feel?
Well, I would be upset not to see him, I said. Much as I loved Mum and my sister, I would not want to be parted from him.
Yes, he said, of course you would feel like that. But while we remained behind in England, he would not only be working but preparing a new home and new life for us. Then, one day when that was ready, we would move to Australia and be reunited.
For the follower of Jesus, death is like that temporary parting. While it lasts, it is full of anguish. But one day it will end, and there will be a joyful reunion. This is the grieving with hope that is Jesus’ gift to all who put their faith in him.
What is dying?
I am standing on the seashore.
A ship sails and spreads her white sails to
the morning breeze and starts for the ocean.
She is an object of beauty
and I stand and watch her till at last
she fades on the horizon,
and someone at my side says, “She is gone.”
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 that moment when someone at my side says,
“She is gone”,
there are others who are watching her coming,
and other voices take up the glad shout,
“There she comes”,
and that is dying.
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.