We often find preachers using language which simply doesn’t speak to us, or which makes us want to stand up and ask them to explain what they mean. Here at St Mark’s we try very hard not to make assumptions about the language we use and we try to be open to different ways of expressing our deeply held beliefs. At a recent conference one of our church members asked the speaker, “When you talk about God, what precisely do you mean?” It was one of those questions which many of us long to ask.
Our sermon series began in May when I wrestled with the concept of “Eternal Life”. My sermon didn’t make it to the website because it ended up being rather muddles, but I have now written something which I hope is rather more coherent.
Our future topics include, “Priesthood of all believers” and “Image of God”. Would you like to suggest any others?
ETERNAL LIFE – NOW AND NOT NOW…
A few weeks ago I tried to preach a sermon on the knotty subject of “eternal life”. I say that I “tried” because, in my opinion, I didn’t do a very good job of it. I had been hoping to weave a beautiful tapestry, highlighting the different colours and textures which reveal the depth and complexity of this subject. Instead I feel as though my threads got tangled and all that came out was a mess…
Interestingly different members of the congregation approached me to thank me for the sermon. Yes, it had been muddled but they wanted the opportunity to talk more about it. Some came into the chapel to talk more about it, others were unable to on that occasion. One person on seeing my consternation said that my wrestling with the confusion made it easier for her to wrestle with hers, how could I have wrapped it all up and made it make sense – it isn’t that kind of an issue.
Part of my disappointment in myself comes from the fact that this is actually an area of Christian theology that exercises me greatly. As a young child I used to have a very vivid fear of “nothing”. Sometimes I’d get scared going to sleep, sometimes it would hit me when I woke up – there were hours missing from my consciousness and it frightened me. As I grew up the fear developed. I love my senses – the smell of a sea breeze, the warmth of the sun on my skin, the beauty of a butterfly dancing around a lilac flower, the taste of a fantastic curry, the sound of a brook babbling through a quiet field…
I don’t want to think about a time when I won’t be able to enjoy these sensations. I don’t want to think about my own mortality.
And yet neither am I drawn towards the idea of my life continuing beyond death. This doesn’t fill me with hope but rather with a sense of foreboding. The thought that something recognisable as “me” will go on for ever is, frankly, the most frightening thought of all!
I say this knowing that others have very different hopes and fears. This is one of the great potentials in the Life and Death Matters Cafe. Here is a safe space in which people can share their thoughts about those things of ultimate value in their lives – within their life experience and, perhaps, beyond it.
Many of you know that I experienced the loss of several loved ones as I was growing up. By the time I was 25 I had lost two good friends, all my grandparents and my mum. I had studied Philosophy and Theology at University partly because I was so interested in different ways of considering the things that matter most to us in life. I have always been more interested in the questions than the answers – perhaps because I find that as we ask questions together we find answers to questions we didn’t even realise that we were asking.
When I think about “eternal life” I am drawn towards a quality of living in the here and now which takes seriously the possibility that “my life” is inextricably linked to “all life”.
This can be understood in a very physical way – the molecules that make up my substance don’t belong to me exclusively but existed before me and will exist beyond my life span. Some of us will understand this from a spiritual perspective that however random life may seem we experience a divine intention within life a sense that we have come into being because of love and we will somehow return to the source of all love. Some people have a very clear sense of a place to come, a new heaven and a new earth. Their hope is not entirely focused on this life but they have a very real and profound sense of something that is to come.
When I conduct a funeral service I try to take all of these perspectives seriously. I acknowledge that for some of us the end of life is just that and a funeral service is there to mark that end with dignity, respect and gratitude, to comfort those who mourn and remind them that they are surrounded by people who will continue to care for them, sometimes at least.
I provide opportunities to talk about the person who has died in a way that releases us from the fear that we can no longer relate to them at all. My own experience is that I continue to feel in a living relationship with those who have died. I can imagine my mum’s expression when I consider a particular course of action and choose whether to seek her approval or risk her criticism – there’s a playfulness in this now because, of course, she isn’t there to meet out the consequences, whatever they may have been!
I can feel my dad beside me as I feel exasperated by the Church of England and am encouraged by the way that he never really took the church too seriously. This is not just a memory, it’s more like improvisation, discovering a new relationship with my parents which requires a knowledge of the past but which is also free from the restrictions of that reality.
But I will not deny the need some people express for a sense that beyond this life we will be reunited with our loved ones. Christian theology does not endorse an eternal soul but the physical resurrection of the body. This is a very difficult concept but it is shared by Islam too. As I’ve said, I find it unhelpful to think that something identifiable as “me” will continue beyond my death but I had this view challenged several years ago when I met a bereaved grandfather on Iona. He was still coming to terms with the loss of his grandson who died when he was 7. His daughter, the child’s mother, had kept a record of conversations they’d had during her son’s illness and around the time of his death. The grandfather lent me this collection and it moved me deeply.
They talked openly about heaven. They were very clear that heaven was a good place. They helped their son to imagine that what lay ahead was not frightening by describing heaven as if it was a party. He liked parties. This was an extra-special party to which they would all be going but he would be getting there first so he would be able to prepare the favourite food of each member of the family. At first I was disturbed – surely this is a lie – but he was seven years old and what it meant was that he could talk to the people he loved the most, not about the sadness of separation but about the joy of preparing their favourite sandwich or jelly or cake! I can’t imagine a better way of living through those painful and frightening days?
At the moment we hear too much about people who have been convinced that their actions in this world will determine the life they are to lead after their death. There is a whole world of difference between comforting a seven year old and his family and convincing a vulnerable young adult that if they die in the cause of extremism, taking the lives of infidels with them, they will go directly to paradise. A Muslim friend of mine told me that her incredulous nine year old son was asking her about this and she was able to tell him directly that this was not true to the spirit of Islam.
We need to talk these things through as a matter of everyday conversation. We don’t need to hide away our differences about the things which matter most to us nor do we need to convince others that what we believe is better than what they believe. What we need are opportunities for robust conversations about the lasting values that inspire our lives and give us hope for the future, about the ways we are still influenced by those who have gone before us and motivated to care for the world for those who are yet to come.
Eternal life speaks to me of interconnectedness, of timelessness, of relationships which break through the illusion that now is all that there is, because that is blatantly untrue.
I leave you with the words of the great poet, Rilke.
All will come again.
All will come again into its strength:
the fields undivided, the waters undammed,
the trees towering and the walls built low.
And in the valleys, people as strong and varied as the land
And no churches where God
is imprisoned and lamented
like a trapped and wounded animal.
The houses welcoming all who knock
and a sense of boundless offering
in all relations, and in you and me.
No yearning for an afterlife,
no looking beyond,
no belittling of death,
but only longing for what belongs to us
and saving earth, lest we remain unused.