Sermon preached by
Rt Rev John Richardson, Bishop of Bedford
4th November 2001
I have found this address is as hard as any I have done, if for no other reason that I do not know exactly what brings you here – what loved one you are remembering. Parent, partner, child, friend. Each of you here has your own story and which you will want to follow in your own special way.
My task is to share and yet hopefully not to intrude. And what I want to do first is to speak about three personal experiences of dying. And then to offer a few thoughts about what helps me in my own handling of grief in the hope that you may find such things helpful too.
If then you will forgive me for being personal I want to talk first about my mum who died not long ago, full of years and yet, in the end, unexpectedly. Mum was a woman of enormous energy. On her 89th birthday I had to remonstrate with her for playing football so violently that she nearly broke a window in her sitting room. Only days later the doctor told her that he could see no reason why she should not live to be 100.
Then she had a fall. She broke her leg and ended up in hospital. Within days her condition deteriorated to the point where I received a call at 3.30 one morning summoning me to the hospital at Tunbridge Wells.
With reckless speed my wife and I raced down along the M25 only to arrive too late. The curtains were drawn. Mum had died just minutes before.
‘I expect you’d like to be alone,’ the sister suggested. ‘I’ll bring you a cup of tea.’
So I sat there – as you have all sat, alone with my mum, lost for words, a tangle of emotions.
‘Sorry I was late; I drove as quickly as I could. Love you. Thank you for all that you have been and given.’ Then I suppose predictably a few mumbled prayers as I held her still warm body. A farewell kiss. Embarrassment about exactly when it was right to leave the cubicle.
I left to talk with the sister in the office. ‘I’m so sorry,’ she said. ‘Is there anything I can do to help?’
‘Well, yes,’ I said. ‘There are just two things. Mum left in her will that her body was to go to a medical school. Please could you arrange this, but before you do are there any organs that ought to be removed immediately and what do I do about her personal effects?’
‘I’ve a bag here,’ she said. ‘I’ll leave you to pack whatever you will. I’ll leave you too to take her wedding ring. (After so many years just a sliver of gold.) Don’t rush. There’s all the time in the world.’
So the drive back to Bedford – hollow, empty, wondering how best I would be able to cope with the church services the following day for mum had died early on Saturday morning.
As it happened, she was a woman of enormous faith, in her own way more than ready to go to be reunited with her beloved husband, my dad. But just the same, her death gutted me.
My second story comes from my days as a parish priest, this time in Bishop’s Stortford. The funeral director rang to say that two unmarried teenagers, living just down the road from me, had suffered a cot death. Please could I cope? Half an hour later I was there. For a while we talked and drank tea. At last I asked if we could go upstairs to Samantha’s room.
Together we sat on the floor. Me in the middle, one arm around each of them, staring into the empty cot. Tears flowed as for the third time they told me just how they had found her.
At last I asked ‘have you any faith?’ Mum paused for a long time. ‘I didn’t believe,’ she said, ‘but now I have to, because if I didn’t I don’t think I could go on. I have to believe that somehow God is caring for my little girl.’
My last story ended in this very chapel. A great personal friend became an alcoholic. For years he had felt inadequate and found the only way to boost his ego was with those illicit bottles of whisky which again and again he had promised his wife had gone forever.
I guess we all knew it was a lie and that one day it would end in tragedy. It did, sooner rather than later.
He left one main instruction. ‘No one is to come to my funeral.’
I was the one who was to do the honours and to do it on my own. So that’s what happened. The coffin was brought here and laid on the catafalque. For 20 minutes I stood there, quietly reciting the service, sharing my thoughts and prayers. ‘Bloody hell!’ I remember shouting just before finally I commended him and the curtains closed.
It was a bad experience – not just because Simon’s life was such a waste, but because even at its conclusion the way he was remembered seemed devoid of all hope. And it hurt.
Forgive those three stories but I share them partly to explain what I said just now that I have sat just where you sit now and so perhaps like you value a service like this to help me to travel on that long journey that all of us must make after a bereavement.
Each of us of course will be different but I guess that for all of us there will be the predictable times when we share the mix of emotions
:- Anger – why did they die and leave me in this mess with all that unfinished business
The questions too that concern the one we have lost: - where are they now, those loved ones, whose love and laughter (as well as their cussedness) meant just everything? Is death the final end? Or dare we believe that life goes on, not just in a better place but that one day we shall meet up with them once again.
To be human is to ask these questions. To be human is also to discover that there can be no certain replies. For by definition, death is a curtain behind which we cannot look. All we can do is peer through it through the eye of faith, daring to believe perhaps that all we have heard might just be true, that beyond death (as well as this side of it) there is a God who loves and cares and who at the end of life’s journey calls each one of us home to Him.
For those of us too where professional life often brings us into contact with death, such times can be additionally difficult because of the problem at a time of personal bereavement of trying to work out who we truly are.
When, for example, my mum died I found it really difficult to be on the other end of people’s love and care. My whole professional life has been about being kind to others, not the other way round.
My whole professional life has been about learning to be detached (however difficult the circumstances), not letting grief get to me.
Only so can we survive.
Yes, personal grief demands that these barriers be removed, leaving us at times not just bewildered but specifically vulnerable.
In all of this I want to end by sharing a few things which I have found helpful – as it were one poor beggar showing another beggar where perhaps we can find bread.
I am aware, of course, that I speak as a Christian – no, more than that, as a priest of nearly 30 years standing. What I say therefore you might expect me to say. But please do know that what I offer now is not offered in any spirit of complacency or arrogance but as one who over the years has sometimes had to learn the hard way, at times seeing clearly, at others not, and always as much in need of support and encouragement as the next.
My first thought is that we need each other. Services like this where we can share whatever may be our particular grief of philosophy are hugely powerful.
The death of Princess Di or the events of September 11th show just what can happen when communally we meet to weep, to comfort and to encourage one another.
So I want to say not only thank you for inviting me to share this service with you today but that I really do believe it can be an important marker on the road towards healing. Always we travel together and always we can help one another if we are able to receive and to share in the love and friendship of those who, like us, are suffering bereavement.
But a service like this apart, almost certainly we do well to adopt these practices which really ring true for us.
As a child is helped by acting out the funeral of a pet, digging a hole, saying a prayer, planting a cross or flowers so I am helped by three particular practices - ritual, call them what you will.
First there is the lighting of a candle.
In Christian terms a candle is always a sign of hope (actually within a service a symbol of the risen Christ). So, to light a candle in memory of a loved one is somehow to say that whatever our personal darkness we dare always to live with the hope not only that God is with us but that He holds that loved one safe in His care.
You may remember in the great prologue of St John’s Gospel he talks about the light shining in the darkness and the darkness being unable to overcome it. For me that is exactly right. As the candle shines on bravely in the darkness for me it stands for our belief that God will never desert us. As a reminder too that always there’s more to life than we can see.
Second I have a prayer list that day-by-day I offer to God – because (as you might imagine) I am a great God-botherer. My list is divided into two main sections – those people whom I know to be in particular need and for whom I have promised to pray for each day at 7.30 in the morning. But second those people who have died and those who mourn them.
Day after day I pray for each of these people by name, lifting them, as I believe Jesus taught us, to Him in faith, leaving them in His care.
‘Lord, those you love have need of you.’
That is what I believe, and if it be true that God is and God loves then surely there could be no more wonderful thing that we could do for those we love then lift them to Him and then have the courage to leave them there.
Third – and this I realise is deeply Christian – every time I make my Communion I use that simple act as a tryst with those I love and whom I have commended to His care.
‘Therefore with Angels and Archangels and all the company of Heaven’ we say. For me, every Communion service is both a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, but also a sharing with those who rejoice with us with a greater light and on a firmer shore.
At a time of personal loss to be able to make one’s Communion in this way can be powerful indeed, and I know that there are many for whom it has been a Godsend.
In all of this I speak of course as a Christian. But I speak as a Christian who does not claim to know all the answers but who having now reached the ripe old age of 64 dares to believe that that same God who created me and is with me always and everywhere to guide, to encourage and strengthen until that day when He calls me home. The same God yesterday, today and forever, a God who never stops loving. Who has no favourites, who loves us always and everywhere, rejoicing when we get it, and understanding when we don’t.
I want to end with three quotes. The first is perhaps my most favourite quote of all from Archbishop Desmond Tutu who once memorably said
‘In the end what matters is not how good we are but how good God is. Not how much we love Him but how much He loves us. And God loves us whoever we are, whatever we’ve done or failed to do, whatever we believe or can’t.’
For me, that expression of faith spoken by a man whose almost whole life has been one of immense pain and suffering and bewilderment is quite wonderful. I believe it offers hope to us all.
My second quote comes from a well known Bishop called George Reindorp who said in a sermon he preached at the memorial service for Sir Richard Dimbleby
‘sometimes we forget that as we wave goodbye to the ship disappearing from the harbour and out over the horizon that there will be hands to greet it on the other side.’
My third and last quote comes from a person called Ronnie Knox who wrote this
'death has come. We will wrap up all that we have done, as it were in a parcel and thrust it towards God like a bad piece of knitting for his acceptance.
'Take it Lord. I know I made a mess of it again and again this life you gave me to live. The pattern hasn’t been your pattern, and there have been loose edges everywhere. But it was meant to be like your son’s life, a sacrifice. Take it please and make what you can of it. I’ve come to the end of the skein now. That’s the Christian’s life. That’s the Christian’s death.'
It is precisely because I believe that God’s love and care is inexhaustible that all of us could look to Him in hope both for ourselves and for those we have commended into His loving care.