Designing Christmas flyers. Planning Sunday’s service. Taking the funeral of a still-born child. Helping at the youth club. Just an ordinary day in vicar-land.
One of the privileges and responsibilities of being Anglican is the funeral ministry, which goes largely unseen by the majority of people. A funeral can contain a variety of emotions, most of which we British attempt to stifle in an attempt to show some decorum and not upset Aunty Rita.
Generally speaking we the public don’t know what to do with funerals. We have a picture in our mind that they should be ‘proper’, sort of ‘churchy’, i.e. straight-laced and a bit dull, and preferably cold. But if mentions of God could be kept to minimum because we’re not really religious, please.
Last week I took the funeral of a still-born child, and there isn’t much that sums up sadness like a mum & dad grieving for the loss of a child they were never able to parent. There isn’t much that sums up hopes being dashed than the death of a child before it is born. Usually in a funeral you can at least call it a celebration of life, you can remember some good things even in the bleakest of lives; but not here. Only hopes, never to be realised.
I told someone I was taking the service, and they said “I wouldn’t know where to start. What on earth do you say?” That is an excellent place to start, I said, because the Bible is not a textbook of trite answers to life’s problems and we are not inadequate if we have nothing to say. That is when we lament.
So I thought I would offer what I did say in my address to this young couple grieving the loss of their first child and so much more. Maybe it’s not what you would have said. It’s not a treatise on death and maybe it’s too simple. But it’s a start. I began by reading Psalm 139.1-18.
I wonder what you might want to say to God at a time like this. And I wonder what God might say back to us. Much of the Bible is a record of people’s conversations with God, and you may be surprised to know that there is an awful lot of ranting at God, and an awful lot of lamenting. Lamenting when things have gone wrong, grieving for things that have been lost. The Psalms are full of people opening their hearts boldly before God. This shows us that this is a good thing. God is not fragile, and God knows that you are hurting. And he encourages us to get those feelings out into the open.
The bible also tells us God’s response to our lament, which isn’t to tell us to ‘pull ourselves together’, ‘deal with it’ or ‘move on’. No, God’s response is one of love. God’s response is what we remember at Christmas – that God is not a distant God who remains distant, but God became a human, yes even a fragile human baby – so that he could dwell with us in amongst our pain and our sorrow.
When Jesus grew up, we read about him at the grave of his friend Lazarus, where Jesus wept. Jesus knew sorrow. Jesus saw pain and sorrow all around him and Jesus knows that not every story has a happy ending. This is how realistic our faith is. There is no escapism in trusting Jesus. As Jesus wept at the grave of his friend Lazarus, so he weeps with you.
But as Jesus stands with us in our pain Jesus also leads us through the pain of death to the hope beyond. As Jesus died and was raised to life, so we believe that we die and we are also raised to new life. Baby x has gone from this life, which is what we are here to mark and that hurts; baby x is with God. But may it be some comfort for you, and give you some hope, that God is with you right now. There is a hope for you two, for your lives together and for your love for each other which baby x will always be part of; hope that comes from Jesus who is the way the truth and the life, and who offers us life in this world and the next.
So there we are. I’m big on lament. One of church’s lost disciplines.