All Souls Service
Lamentations 3:17-26; 31-33
In Church of England tradition, we come together over these few days at the end of October/beginning of November for a short season of remembrance. The Church has marked All Saints and All Souls for hundreds of years. It stems from the belief that there is a powerful spiritual bond between those in heaven and those living on earth. It is often said in my family that the dead sit at the dinner table long after they are gone.
This service offers us space and time to give thanks to God for the life and love that was shared, for the memories we carry and to ask for God’s help if we have unfinished business with those who have died. Not all our remembering will be of the good, sweet times as none of us are perfect and neither were they!
I am going to start with a quote from Arthur Golden’s novel Memoirs of a Geisha:
“Grief is a most peculiar thing; we’re so helpless in the face of it.
It’s like a window that will simply open of its own accord.
The room grows cold, and we can do nothing but shiver.
But it opens a little less each time, and a little less;
and one day we wonder what has become of it.”
Memoirs is the beautifully haunting story of a young Japanese girl named Chiyo whose life was a catalogue of loss, grief and bereavements. She is now an old woman and is telling her story to a writer who will publish it. Chiyo’s story is not only a story of death but of the many non-death losses we encounter in life. The loss of relationship, loss of trust, she loses her name, her status, her freedom. As she looks back on her life, she makes this comment about grief as a most peculiar thing; we’re so helpless in the face of it. It’s like a window that will simply open of its own accord. The room grows cold, and we can do nothing but shiver.
This speaks of the random nature of grief. It just happens, we have no control over it. Isn’t this true? We hear the opening bars of a much-loved song, a favourite program on the telly, driving by a special place, or seeing an item that would be the perfect gift for our person. Whatever our trigger is, it can bring that feeling of uncontrolled grief, the coldness and all we can do is shiver.
The writer of the Lamentations reading certainly is shivering; ‘my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is’. The person writing this book is lamenting the fall of Jerusalem around 587 BC and the horrors experienced by the Jewish people. Jerusalem was once the chosen city of God but has now fallen from grace because of bad behaviour. The enemies have taken over and the people who lived in Jerusalem have been exiled. The loss for the people is immense.
The reading we have here is about the author’s own suffering; he believes that God has deliberately marked him out and is now not listening to his prayer. His peace is gone. Yet at his lowest point he remembers God’s steadfast love, hesed. Hesed is the love and mercy God has towards his people; it is a long-term and loyal love. It is love that never ends. It is new every morning.
The writer has experienced this love, not just with his head and his heart but in his very soul, in the marrow of his bones. ‘The Lord is my portion,’ he says. The Lord is enough for him.
The bereavement that we are facing is not the whole story. It might be a very big part of the story right now, might feel like it has taken over the whole story for a long time. It might feel like you won’t ever stop shivering.
The only alternative to avoiding grief is to avoid love. If I want to avoid the grief I feel over my person who has died means I would have had to forfeit the love and the relationship that we shared.
I appreciate that many relationships are complicated. We should not pretend they are not. Some feelings about the person who has died might be mixed or ambiguous; maybe there is guilt or shame if you felt you didn’t do enough for them or felt relief when death finally came. We must be very careful in how we interpret relationships; especially ones that are not ours even if they are in the same family.
There can also be great temptation when someone dies to want to paint a rosier picture of them, their life and relationships than actually ever existed. We lie! We do it for all sorts of reasons; some even noble ones.
We might almost be able to fool ourselves but we cannot fool God. He knows what was said, unsaid and done and not done. He also knows the motivations behind our words and actions. He knows and loves them, and He knows and loves you. He knows the situation and is the only one who truly knows both sides.
That is because God has authority over everything. In John’s Gospel reading, Jesus is telling the disciples precisely this. Everyone (even him) and everything (even death) is under God’s control. He can raise the dead. This is not just the physically dead; but John is suggesting that those people who are spiritually dead. The people who Jesus healed got their lives back and came alive again.
This authority is not based in control or power or a malicious need to be authoritarian. It is the authority of love. God’s love is so great for his Son and for us. The idea is that God the loving father is showing Jesus the beloved Son all that he does and even greater things.
Those who believed in Jesus would be treated by God in the same way that Jesus was. Jesus died and rose again and so will we. The Bible does not give us very much information on what happens when we die. To die in a few places means ‘to fall asleep’.
Paul’s vision in 1 Thessalonians, which is based on what he has been taught, is that one day when Jesus comes back, those who have fallen asleep/died will be woken up. The dead in Christ will rise first and if we happen to still be alive when that happens will be caught up together. We will be together with God forever. This is the great Christian hope: that once this life is over we will be reunited together with God to spend eternity.
This is good news – death is not the end of the story. Grief is not the whole of the story either. We live in the in-between time where everything might seem withheld, you might be shivering in your grief, you make your own way through. Even in that, knowing that the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, there is good news for the soul that seeks him. A new dawn will arrive.