Answering God – 40 Days with the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers)
Day 29 – Monday after 5th Sunday of Lent
Are you able to contemplate your death and the death of those closest to you?
Accepting the fact of death, we are freed to live more fully.
In bereavement, give yourself time to grieve.
When others mourn, let your love embrace them.
(Advices & Queries #30)
From the Scriptures:
Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.
Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
When clergy of my era used to go on a traditional led retreat – 4 or 5 days of silence in a convent with 2 or 3 addresses a day from a Retreat Conductor – you would be able to bet your stipend, not that clergy gamble, on the fact that the first address would begin with the words, ‘Consider you baptism’ or ‘Consider your death’.
Apart from being predictable and unhelpful, both were futile quests. After all not many of us were very aware of our surroundings at our baptism, and clergy tend to set their minds on heaven rather than how we get to go there…
As our world continues to face the threat of Covid-19 today’s Advice about contemplating the death of those around us and our own death has suddenly become very urgent. During a pandemic there is much fear and shock as the News reports of how bad the situation is in other nations and there is almost a relief that it is ‘over there’ and not ‘right here’. We fool ourselves that we are safe. Then a person in your county dies, or someone in your town is rumoured to be in hospital and facing death. Then it gets very very real when the next death reported is someone you know personally, with whom you have worked, or talked or had a cuppa.
For me that time was last night with the passing of New Zealand born Felixstowe resident John Hood. A former member of the Police Team that I Chaplain and all-round good guy. Winner of the Star of Suffolk Award for Bravery and an old fashioned Copper cast in the mould of Dixon of Dock Green. He will be mourned by many and his name mentioned in the Press and on the Radio today. John always wanted to be at the front of things facing challenges. He revelled in demonstrating the Haka to anyone who had the patience to humour him, but this is one thing I wish he had been able to take a back seat for. He will be missed but, sadly, many are yet to follow him.
We are at a very different a place as a human race in our relationship to death and dying than we were four weeks ago when I started writing these reflections. Some will have had plans for their funeral and their death and have chosen their casket and flowers, their eulogisers and their music, others will have made no plans. Some will have set money aside so that their final gift to their family would be that the funeral bill was already paid, others would have been told, ‘Don’t worry Mum. We’ll make sure you have a good send-off’. All of this planning and preparation has become, as the writer of Ecclesiastes says, as vain as ‘Chasing after the wind’. Sadly, it’s too late now…
Today’s Advice is urgent as contemplating death brings life into focus. Our task is not to think about what will happen when we die, which we will come to everyone be it in this current crisis or in the fullness of time. Our task is to heed the advice of Dame Cicely Sanders, founder of St Christopher’s Hospice;
You matter because you are you, and you matter to the end of your life.
We will do all we can not only to help you die peacefully, but also to live until you die.
Our focus now more than ever, though it will be very difficult to tear our thoughts away from the news of rising death tolls, and put our energy into the business of living and loving and looking for the Life after life. We must refuse to start living a death but instead decide to live until we die.
We live in frightening times and that is why the words of the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews ring true. We worship a God who has destroyed the power of death and we are to rejoice and proclaim freedom to ‘those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death’.
This is not the time to go on a Bible-bashing Crusade about the need for repentance, although some have and more will be proclaiming this junk ‘gospel’. Now we must, ‘in bereavement, give yourself time to grieve’ and, ‘When others mourn, let your love embrace them.’
I have only been the minister at one funeral since the people of the United Kingdom have gone in to Lockdown. It was hard and raw, overflowing with tears that could not be wiped away and hugs that were empty and unfulfilled. Things will not improve and I will not be surprised if in the next few days only the minister and the Funeral Director will be allowed to attend a funeral. That is if funeral services are permitted at all.
We will need to find other ways to tend grief, both our own and that of others. Of necessity it will be deferred to a time when this present peril has passed. When that happens, many, and rightly so, will find that a time of relief and celebration. For others the joy will be empty as they have lost someone with whom they usually celebrate and all they have to show is unhealed wounds.
Then, dear friends, let your love embrace them.
The One Who Love us Best comes to us showing the wounds of death to demonstrate the Life after life. Our task will be to be ‘Imitators of Christ’ in this most painful act of love and use our own pain and grief to bring healing to others.
My God, I am yours for time and eternity.
Teach me to cast myself entirely
into the arms of your loving Providence
with a lively, unlimited confidence
in your compassionate, tender pity.
Grant, O most merciful Redeemer,
That whatever you ordain or permit may be acceptable to me.
Take from my heart all painful anxiety;
let nothing sudden me but sin,
nothing delight me but the hope
of coming to the possession of You,
my God and my all,
in your everlasting kingdom
(Suscipe of Catherine McAuley)
1) Read slowly the note from ‘Advices & Queries’ above again
2) When I laid out these reflections this ‘To Do’ was going to be asking people to plan their own funeral. If you feel led to do that please do. What may be a more immediate task today would be to find a way to let your love embrace someone in grief. This is unlikely to be an embrace but could be a phone call, a small gift or a card in the post, a candle set in your window to burn through the dark night.
Quotes from ‘Advices & Queries’ are copyright © The Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain, 1995, 1997 and 2008
Scripture quotations are copyright © New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition, copyright 1989, 1995, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Prayers from ‘Prayers for Hard Times’ are copyright © Becca Anderson 2017
These Reflections, ‘Answering God’ are copyright © Andrew Dotchin 2020 – and may be reproduced without charge on condition that the source is acknowledged