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Minister's letter

Thoughts funereal!

Many of our regular readers will be sorry to learn of the death of Margaret Smith, whose funeral took place on Thursday 8th February. Margaret passed away in January, at the age of 90. Although Margaret was unable to attend worship during my years as minister, she is very well remembered, having served both as a Sunday school teacher of long standing, and as a deacon of the church. Lucy (Moore), Mary (Hughes) and Margaret made up a fondly recalled trio of Heath Street friends. It was good to gather to mourn Margaret's death, celebrate her memory, and entrust her body and soul to the keeping of Almighty God. I've been asked to write up for the newsletter the thoughts I shared on this occasion, something that seems appropriate for this lenten season!

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I think it must be a common feeling at funerals. The nagging awareness of a slight disconnect between the rather flamboyant grandeur of the religious language coming from the front, and the relatively modest scale on which the average human life is lived. This feeling probably has very little to do with disbelief as such. The problem is not that we don't believe in these big religious themes, just that it's somehow difficult to get them into emotional focus.

Like most who plan and lead funerals, I always end up wanting to keep the grand perspectives in. Without the eschatology, the general resurrection, the consummation of all things in God in Christ, the wiping away of every tear from every eye and so on, I would feel something had been left unsaid, and the most important thing at that! But even at its most exciting, our everyday existence rarely seems to match up to the cosmic perspective of the Bible verses that frame most funeral services, while our last days very often see the kind of narrowing of scope Jacques Brel documents in his heart-breaking song Les vieux: "Du lit à la fenêtre, / puis du lit au fauteuil, / et puis du lit au lit...".

The text I had chosen for Margaret's funeral was Jesus' raising of Lazarus. One conversation there might, on a first reading, suggest that the Lord has very little patience for this sort of reaction:

"Jesus said to her, 'Your brother will rise again.' Martha said to him, 'I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.' Jesus said to her, 'I am the resurrection and the life...'."

I suppose it all depends how the exchange is read. For a start, what does Martha mean by "I know"?

Just conceivably she might be launching into an impromptu miniature credo - (Martha) (looking to the heavens with Hollywood certainty, eyes glowing with other-worldly fervour...) "I KNOW!".

However, when my reply starts with "I know", what I'm actually suggesting is often something rather less exalted - namely that what you just said didn't need saying!

I hear Martha fending off what seems to her the excessive religiosity of Jesus' reply. "Yes, Lord, I'm very well aware of that, I've not forgotten my catechism (Death of Brother... see under Last Day). But the last day is - well - the last day... Whereas today..." Is Martha being a bad girl (again)? Should faith in an eventual resurrection, however distant, have smoothed her furrowed brow? Dried her tears before they were even shed? Or ought she to have known what was coming next, and when Lazarus eventually did 'come forth', should Martha have been the only one who wasn't surprised?

Perhaps - were it not for the fact that when he arrived at the tomb, Jesus too wept.

Jesus' tears indicate no lack of faith in God's big plans for the cosmos. But they do suggest that all that can wait. For God too, incarnate in Jesus, the reality of death crowds out - for however brief a moment - sublime pictures of future triumph. Jesus meets Martha in his tears - even Martha in the troubled state of mind that fends off premature consolation. In the shared moment of grief, tears have their rightful place. When, on the last day, the Father finally wipes the tears from every cheek, the upturned faces will include his Son's.

It's often said that the fact Jesus cries give permission for us too to be overpowered by grief. Perhaps especially the grief we feel for a life cut short like Lazarus'. And that's true. But it also gives permission for us to be honest if, even in the face of death, we just can't quite connect our lives in their smallness with the grand cosmic sweep of the Christian story. If the grand panorama of resurrection can momentarily be displaced by tears, even in Jesus' eyes, it's hardly surprising that we find it hard to see how our small story fits into this big picture.

Margaret's faith was real and strong, and of course we prayed together in faith. But I'd be lying if I said our conversations were distinguished by their religious intensity! And as for the Last Things, the general Resurrection, or the coming day when God will be All in All, I'm not sure we ever quite got around to discussing them. Does this exclude us from those promises? Surely not! The basis of our faith is not what we talk about with one another, any more than salvation rests on what we manage to feel or imagine when we attend one another's funerals! Faith and salvation rests on, and in, the God who makes and keeps promises. Jesus the maker and keeper of the promises of God is in the midst of his people, not only in the extremes of their grief but in the smallest of their sadnesses. He is the Lord in Whose keeping are the most exalted of cosmic outcomes, and the most outwardly undramatic of human dramas, the most private of private lives.

So as again today we hear in faith those astonishing promises, we can hear with a confidence that is based not on what we might or might not manage to feel, but in the same Lord who wept by Lazarus' grave, the Resurrection and the Life, the Lord Jesus, Whose sure and certain intention it is to keep His word of promise to Lazarus, to Margaret and to us all.

With love,