Vale of TearsAppendix One - A Funeral Exequy
Appendix One – A Funeral Exequy
I GAVE THE FOLLOWING TALK at a funeral reception recently after a friend’s mother died. It pulls together many of the themes I have touched on in more depth elsewhere in this book and I include it in the hope that it will be of interest as well a spiritual resource.
For obvious reasons, I have removed specific names.
“We have just heard truly wonderful tributes about your mother. May they go some way to compensate against the profoundly shocking time you have been through. After fighting such a long and intense battle for your mother’s life, when her prospects for recovery hung in the balance and lurched between promise and decline, you are bound to have many emotional ups and downs.
You have found it hard not knowing until very near the end if she was going to make a full recovery, or whether she was about to go and be with the Lord. You were torn between the shadow of an oncoming death that you were determined to withstand at all costs, and recognising that death is also the “gateway to everlasting life.”
For many long weeks you rode the tempestuous waves of two oceans surging against each other – and now that the raging storm has passed, you have to adjust to the different demands of a flatter sea in the aftermath of your loss.
Now is the time to give expression to your accumulated grief. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this: grief is every bit as valid an emotion as love and joy. This is what C.S. Lewis wrote in A Grief Observed following the loss of his own beloved wife, after only a few short years together.
Bereavement is a universal and integral part of our experience of our love.
It follows marriage as normally as marriage follows a courtship,
or as autumn follows summer.
It is not a truncation of the process, but one of its phases.
Lazarus’ house was the nearest thing to a regular family home that Jesus knew. When Mary and Martha sent news that their brother was desperately ill and at the point of death, I wonder what they would have thought if had they overhead Jesus say Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you might believe. (John 11:14)
Mary and Martha reproached Him for the delay, pointing out that he would not have died had He been present. Jesus knew perfectly well what He was about to do, but when He saw the sisters’ grief, it affected Him deeply.
The shortest verse in the Bible is simply this: Jesus wept (John 11:35). They are words full of depth and power and meaning.
Whenever we hear in the gospels of Jesus feeling compassion, we mentally prepare ourselves for something special to happen. When He saw a funeral procession at Nain, He raised the widow’s only son from the dead.
When He saw the crowds as sheep without a shepherd, He took pity on them and multiplied the loaves and the fishes in order that they should not faint from hunger on the way.
Compassion, like grief itself, is an intense emotion. The Greek word could almost be translated as a “gut ache.” In all our distress, He too is distressed (Isaiah 63:9). It is right for us to feel things deeply, and then to go a step further and to turn those feelings into prayer, for God is only ever a prayer away.
There was so much wisdom in Jesus’ decision to wait – but then comes that wonderful moment when the Father shows Him that the time has come to act. Are there any greater moments in life than when Heaven breaks through and Jesus comes to our rescue after some particularly long and searing trial?
To the joy and amazement of many, Jesus called Lazarus back to life, even though he had been four days in the grave. The Pharisees, who were too set in their ways, and too proud in their hearts to follow the Way that Jesus was showing them, became still more determined to do away with Him.
When the two of you were about to get engaged, you made the effort to travel a thousand miles north to come and visit us in Shetland. Even though you had never been to these remarkable islands before, you sensed how special they were, and immediately felt a profound spiritual connection with them. Every homecoming is precious – especially in a place where, until the coming of powerful modern fishing vessels, it must always have been a great relief to see loved ones returning safely home after long and dangerous trips on the wild northern waters.
“Hamefarin” is the delightful Shetland word for homecoming. The word is used particularly to describe people returning to their homeland after being off the island for many years. For many there is a profoundly spiritual quality about this “hamefarin” – the sense of returning home to roots and families.
Over the years, many Shetland folk left their beloved island home and went to settle in places such as New Zealand and Nova Scotia. Typically, these people imbued the next generation with a deep sense of love for their homeland. They taught their children the dialect, the culture and the music. At the slightest opportunity they would take their fiddle down from its peg and play – first to their children and then in the wider community. They told their children such vivid stories about the islands that when they themselves visited the islands, they often experienced a profound sense of coming home.
What can be more precious than such a “hamefarin”? It is not only the homeless who pine for a secure and stable home. Now that this grief has come your way, you are finding yourself longing to return to the way things were, and to people and places that bring you comfort and joy.
As surely as your mother’s roots went deep in her faith, and you are exploring yours, there is a spiritual belonging that anchors the soul and that makes sense of everything else – even though the ups and downs are bound to continue as grief carves its path through your life.
Sometimes this river will be in full spate but sometimes it will be much quieter. You have needed to strengthen your “riverbanks” during these past few difficult weeks in order to protect yourself. These walls will remain up for some time to come – rather like the London flood barrier. They are part of God’s divine anaesthetic, enabling you to bear the unbearable and to tide you through these darkest hours. Later, they will not be needed, or, at least not to the same extent, and then it will be right to let the barriers down. To continue sheltering behind them would keep others whom you need to be close to at a distance – and maybe even the Lord Himself.
The truth is that we need each other in order to recover. The concepts Simon and Garfunkel lauded in their song “I am a rock, I am an island” were profoundly mistaken. They celebrated that they had no need of love or friendship, for friendship causes pain.
I love the music, but I cannot agree with the sentiments. Life is too rich to shut ourselves off from our life source. We are not a rock or an island; we are human beings made in the image of God with a deep longing for love, laughter and acceptance.
May I take this opportunity, therefore, to spell this message out: your grief will take as long as it takes to recover from. Don’t be dismayed if other people become impatient, and assume you ought to have got over it by now. Since when did God ever deal with “oughteries?” Each of us has our own set of memories to celebrate and to negotiate our way around. You are bound to experience backwashes and eddies as the river of grief surges along, but you will benefit greatly by making the effort to stay close to those who are willing to accompany you on this journey. As Gregory the Great put it,
When we are linked by the power of prayer, we, as it were, hold each other’s hand as we walk side by side along a slippery path, and thus it comes about that the harder each one leans on the other, the more firmly we are riveted together in brotherly love.
Lean together into the pain. It is rather like a birth, where positioning and breathing are so important. With every difficulty, lean together into the pain. There will always be a way forward. The closer you are linked together, the better you can hold each other along life’s way. There comes a point, however, beyond which each one of us must journey on alone, like Reepicheep in the Voyage of the Dawn Treader, courageously sailing on alone to Aslan’s country.
The more we look to Jesus, and seek to lead lives worthy of our calling, the more we will look forward to that final journey. After all the careers and achievements we laboured so hard to develop have reached their conclusion, we will discover that they are not the things that matter most when we make the final transition and stand before the Lord Jesus, either as our Saviour or our judge. He is not that interested in what sort of car we drove, or where we reached on the career ladder – but He is interested in whether we received His love deep in our hearts, and shared it with others.
Those who are in Christ and have preceded us to Heaven will be there to greet us. A few weeks before your mother made the final journey home, she had a dream in which she saw Jesus coming for her, flanked by Mary and Joseph. I had a strong sense then that her earthly pilgrimage was nearly complete. I knew then that I needed to help you to let her go. Years ago I came to understand a remarkable truth: that what we sow does not come to life until it dies. So often it is only as we let go that God moves to accomplish His most precious work.
Let me read some of Paul’s teaching in the fifteenth chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians. I’m taking it from Eugene Petersen’s inspiring paraphrase, The Message.
Friends, let me go over the Message with you one final time – this Message that I proclaimed and that you made your own; this Message on which you took your stand and by which your life has been saved. (I’m assuming, now, that your belief was the real thing and not a passing fancy, that you’re in this for good and holding fast.)
The first thing I did was place before you what was placed so emphatically before me: that the Jesus, the Messiah, died for our sins, exactly as Scripture tells it; that He was buried; that He was raised from death on the third day, again exactly as Scripture says; that He presented himself alive to Peter, then to his closest followers, and later to more than five hundred of his followers all at the same time, most of them still around (although a few have since died); that He then spent time with James and the rest of those he commissioned to represent Him; and that He finally presented Himself alive to me.
It was fitting that I bring up the rear. I don’t deserve to be included in that inner circle, as you well know, having spent all those early years trying my best to stamp God’s church right out of existence.
But because God was so gracious, so very generous, here I am. And I’m not about to let his grace go to waste . . .
Let’s face it – if there’s no resurrection for Christ, everything we’ve told you is smoke and mirrors, and everything you’ve staked your life on is smoke and mirrors. Not only that, but we would be guilty of telling a string of barefaced lies about God, all these affidavits we passed on to you verifying that God raised up Christ – sheer fabrications, if there’s no resurrection. . . . If all we get out of Christ is a little inspiration for a few short years, we’re a pretty sorry lot. But the truth is that Christ has been raised up, the first in a long legacy of those who are going to leave the cemeteries . . .
Some sceptic is sure to ask, “Show me how resurrection works. Give me a diagram; draw me a picture. What does this “resurrection body” look like?” If you look at this question closely, you realize how absurd it is. There are no diagrams for this kind of thing.
We do have a parallel experience – in gardening. You plant a “dead” seed; soon there is a flourishing plant. There is no visual likeness between seed and plant. You could never guess what a tomato would look like by looking at a tomato seed. What we plant in the soil and what grows out of it don’t look anything alike. The dead body that we bury in the ground and the resurrection body that comes from it will be dramatically different . . .
This image of planting a dead seed and raising a live plant is a mere sketch at best, but perhaps it will help in approaching the mystery of the resurrection body – but only if you keep in mind that when we’re raised, we’re raised for good, alive forever! . . . The seed sown is natural; the seed grown is supernatural – same seed, same body, but what a difference from when it goes down in physical mortality to when it is raised up in spiritual immortality! . . .
In the same way that we’ve worked from our earthy origins, let’s embrace our heavenly ends . . . With all this going for us, my dear, dear friends, stand your ground. And don’t hold back. Throw yourselves into the work of the Master, confident that nothing you do for Him is a waste of time or effort.
When the Sadducees, who understood nothing about the realities of eternal life, came to Jesus and asked Him a potentially tricky question about whose wife a woman would be if she lost her husband and married his brother, Jesus cut right through their argument.
You are making a serious mistake because you know neither the power of God nor the Scriptures. God is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – He is the God of the living. Matthew 22:29
In the aftermath of loss, many long to make contact with their loved ones, perhaps to reassure themselves that they are in a safe place. I am sure that your mother is living now with Jesus, where there is crystal clear clarity and perfect continuity, and this is therefore not a temptation for you, but it may be for some who are here today. As a result, many end up visiting spiritists and mediums, not so much because they want to know the future, but because they want to revisit the past. To say the least this is most unwise because it brings us into contact with spirit powers that God specifically tells us to steer well clear of.
God does not want you to be endlessly looking backward, because people who persist in looking over their shoulder usually bump into things! Although it may seem far away and remote, there will come a moment when you realise that you really have begun to move on.
Reflect and Pray
Let’s pray together.
Jesus, Author and the Finisher of our lives:
You aren’t impressed with celebrities and
You don’t despise the grieving,
but You do draw close
to those who set their hearts
on seeking You.
Comfort all here today who are mourning.
Open our hearts to a deeper sense
of coming home to You,
for seeds once planted in our hearts
have the power
in the most surprising ways –
and Your love is only ever a prayer away.