Grief and the Surprising Warmth of Hope

luke-payn - Hope springs eternal

‘Hope Springs Eternal’ by Luke Payn for Art at Advent 2014

A couple of years ago I picked up a book in Waterstone’s. I’d forgotten about it, but it has been siting, perched on a shelf and it came fluttering down to my mind the other day. ‘Grief is the thing with feathers’ is an imaginative, half-poetic conversation between a father and his boys on the death of their mother, his wife. Grief comes to stay in the form of a crow who seems to have the desire to care for them, and Mary Poppins and Nanny McPhee style, only to stay until they no longer need him (p7). The rasping sound of the crow cuts through the peaceful stillness and announces all is not well. Hearts have been broken and the blackness of the crow, the sound of the crow reflects their mood.

There are moments of profound insight in Max Porter’s work. Where is the noise when grief comes to stay?

“Where are the fire engines? Where is the noise and clamour of an event like this? Where are the strangers going out of their way to help, screaming, flinging bits of emergency glow-in-the-dark equipment at us to try and settle us and save us?” (p13)

Grief is too quiet, far too quiet. It is an emptiness and Henry Scott Holland in a sermon called ‘The King of Terrors’, preached in St Paul’s Cathedral in 1910, talked about how the long silence tells us that death is not nothing at all. It is so much more and the silence, with its announcement of absence, tells us this.

The boys do things to miss their mother more. They make a mess so that it isn’t cleared up and that makes them see she is not there, gives physicality to the absence of physicality. Even absence needs to be present and by small acts of disruption they show they want to miss her and keep wanting her (p49). For the dad, the physicality of missing becomes ever present. “The whole city is my missing her.” (p50) The crow becomes a symbol of the presence of grief in the absence and the silence. It is not just emptiness, but is a filled emptiness that yearns and aches. The rasping and fluttering means it has form in the formlessness of death.

Amidst the “perplexing slow-release of sadness”, the dad finds that he is also surprised by moments of enduring warmth. And he observes that “if crow taught him anything it was the constant balancing. For want of a less dirty word: faith.” (pp105-106) And so it starts to enter into something deeper than just wallowing and being overwhelmed by the power of grief. The balancing becomes a gateway to letting crow go so that grief becomes less noisy in the silence and less ever present. Clouds do break and shafts of light come through.

It is at this point that we have to move from the poem if we want to find overt religious insight. The poem expresses well how grief makes its presence felt and makes us accept its presence and depth. This is not easily brushed aside and as with Purcell’s deeply heart-rending aria of ‘Dido’s Lament’ from his opera ‘Dido and Aeneus’, it haunts and cuts deep into our soul. Dido’s lament, beautiful as it is, is actually one of abandon as her love sails away and she prepares to die. It is one of despair. But within it there is a powerful refrain of the simple plea ‘Remember me’. That remembrance will turn the silence into a presence bathed in the surprise of the enduring warmth. It looks for a treasure box to know that all that was is not lost but held deeply in a place of valuing and loving. ‘Remember me’ is the plea to not be abandoned and lost for ever.

This evening, in a moment, candles will become for us signs and symbols of a profound hope and treasuring, light and the surprising warmth. All is not lost and we are not abandoned forever, even if it might feel like it for a while. When we light these candles we do so with hope and faith, trusting in God’s enduring love and goodness. For nothing can separate us from the love of God, not even death, for the love of God holds us and brings that balance that crow needs to dawn so that he can fly away. This is a service to be reminded of the power of God’s love and the resurrection through his son Jesus Christ. We have come here in a profound hope and trust in God.

This trust in God is a theme that was captured in our first reading from the Old Testament book of Lamentations.

“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end, they are new every morning… It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.” (Lamentations 3:22-23, 26)

The surprising warmth is a sign of that steadfast love, the salvation that comes and quietly makes itself known. It comes in so many subtle ways and we become aware of it.

This evening we can hold the loss, treasure the memories that need to be treasured, but ultimately place all of life before the enduring redemption that comes through Jesus Christ. From the reality of loss, of the aching and silence comes the new day dawning. All of our lives are held in this grace and it is in this faith and trust that we remember.

So, in a moment, come forward to the chancel and light candles in hope and faith and trust in God’s goodness. Even if there is an aching that endures, the crow brings the balance to our sights and it comes through the surprise of warmth and daylight. Life is good and God is good. For those of faith nothing is lost, all is held in the love of God, who is the source of our life and the goal of our life. That is the power and gift of faith which keeps hold of us and sees us through the darkness and aching silence of grief. As our first reading put it:

‘The Lord is my portion’, say my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him’. (Lamentations 3:24)

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Service of Remembrance and Thanksgiving, Sunday 18th November 2018

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About Revd Canon Ian Black

Ian is Vicar of Peterborough, Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral and Rural Dean of Peterborough. He previously served for 10 years in Leeds, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes 10 miles north west of Canterbury. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian is married with two sons. He is the author of three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). His latest book is 'Follow me: living the sayings of Jesus' (Sacristy Press 2017). He has been writing online since the mid 1990s.
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