we held our second "Journey On" service, to which we'd specifically invited all those we'd encountered via funeral ministry in the past year. 80 letters went out, but 80 service sheets proved distinctly inadequate, and my guess would be that more than 100 people finally appeared in the church. We used the same liturgy I'd put together last year, drawing heavily on the wonderful words of Dorothy McRae McMahon, and I preached on Isaiah 43, which seemed to go down very well.
But what I'm left pondering is why these people, who so appreciated the space, the opportunity to pray, weep and be held last night, have such low expectations of the Church that most of them don't dream of darkening our doors at other times? I had some good conversations over a glass of wine afterwards, and have alot of visiting to do in the next few weeks, but I wish there were some way of connecting more regularly with people who are clearly not ill-disposed towards church, nor unconcious of their needs...
I wish, too, that I'd known the identity of the unhappy lady who left immediately the service ended. Neither the vicar nor I recognised her, and she was so very distraught. Please take a moment to pray for her, if you will.
Meanwhile, here are my thoughts on Isaiah; I found it quite a struggle to avoid preaching another funeral sermon, but was reasonably content with the end result.
Last week a group of us from St Mary’s spent 4 days in the Lake District. It was my first proper visit to the area, and I’m longing to go back, though I have to confirm that my worst suspicions about the gallons of water needed to make lakes were amply realised.
It rained, and rained, and rained some more.
We went exploring by car on Monday as the surface water grew deeper, the unexpected fords more regular and in several valleys it was simply not possible to determine whether we were looking at well established tarns, or patches of floodwater that had only appeared that morning. Then my navigator suggested that I take the next turning left, down a fairly steep gradient. I signalled and duly left the main road, only to find myself at the top of what appeared to be a river in full spate. There was literally nothing to suggest that there was actually a road there at all; water swirled all around me, carrying piles of autumn debris and small stones rapidly down hill….but I was assured that my route lay through the flood. It was a steep and narrow road, and Volvo estates are big cars, so I wasn’t too keen on turning anyway….and besides, my passengers were sure that this was a huge adventure. I wasn’t. Actually, I was terrified. The force of the water just seemed too great, and I couldn't see the end of it, even though my brain told me that logically, once the gradient levelled out, the flood would drain away and things would be manageable once again. I was praying some rather fervent prayers as I crawled down the hill, though,- having to trust that the course I was steering would keep me on the tarmac that I could no longer see, that the rising water wouldn’t short the car’s electrics and bring me to a halt, that we’d get through the whole thing unscathed.
Clearly, I’m here to tell the tale, but it did strike me that the whole experience was quite close to that which Isaiah highlights, and indeed to the journey through loss and grief that so many of you are taking. You’ll have seen other people dealing with bereavement, so you know that theoretically survival is possible…but you know too that your own journey is unique, as unique as the relationship that has been interrupted by death, as unique as the people involved. And some days it may feel as if it’s not something that you’ll get through at all.
But the God who spoke so reassuringly to his people through the prophecies of Isaiah is still alive and active in the world today. He does not promise that it will be easy going…he does not even say “IF” you pass through deep waters, but “WHEN” for, having lived a human life as Jesus, God knows all the sum of pain and heartache that we may endure. He knows our overwhelming feelings of grief, of confusion, of being adrift without the usual landmarks of our world. After all, this is the same God who hung on the cross and cried “Why have you forsaken me?”
God knows all this, for he has been here too.
More, he promises, he will stay with us through the process.
There is something wonderfully intimate in his assurance that he has called each of us by name…that we belong to him, each one of us precious children whom he will never allow to sink without trace.
And that promise holds good, too, for those whom we’ve lost. The last verses of our reading give a picture of a wonderful reunion of Father and children, from all the furthest corners of the earth, and from all the ages
“Everyone whom I called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made”.
The Christian belief that God made us for relationship with Him means that we don’t have to fear that any of us will really be washed away, whether by our experiences of mourning or by the reality of death. It does not miraculously clear the road ahead of us, but it does offer an assurance that the journey has meaning, for it is leading us to a place of safety, a place where God’s loving welcome awaits us all.
But in travelling on, we acknowledge that we are changed by the route we have taken…that the relationships and experiences that lie behind us make us the people whom we are, for better or worse. We may be moving towards a kind of healing, but we will never be the same people. It’s important to remember that for Jesus the place of resurrection was not the same as the place of crucifixion, and that what happened there was not resuscitation, a restoration of pre-existing normality. Even after Easter, nothing WAS ever the same again. The risen life was new and utterly different from what had gone before…and so we too will find ourselves in a different, unfamiliar landscape, which may not feel much like home at first.
Then is the time to remember that our present, as much as our past and our future, is safely held in God’s hands…That when we struggle on our journey, he is always willing to carry us, and that having called us by name, he will never let us go until we too are safe home at journey’s end.