All Souls Service at St Swithun’s Martyr Worthy 2019 – Bereavement and the emptiness that God does not fill by Revd Alex Pease

Just under 60 of us attended our annual All Souls Service this evening at St Swithun’s Martyr Worthy.  As a body, we stood with those who have lost people that they loved and shared in some small way in their grief (and our own) and remembered them.  We sang the Lords My Shepherd, Abide with me and Great is thy faithfulness.

We read out the names of those we loved and have lost and lit candles for them.

Revd Alex Pease gave the following talk:

We are all here today to remember someone who we cared very deeply about: A relation or a friend; someone we spent days, weeks, months, and years with.  Perhaps, someone who helped give us our identity, like a parent; or someone with whom we have had close companionship for so much of our lives, like a husband or wife; or someone who was our future like a son or daughter or grandchild. And yet each of whom are now separated from us by the vast chasm that death appears to be to us all.

We may feel anger at a lack of justice or regret about conversations we failed to have and experiences which will be denied us and them; at opportunities lost.  We may feel anger at God for allowing it all to happen.  We may feel separated from the rest of humanity by our experience: ‘how can the world keep turning’ ‘don’t you know that they are gone?’ we may say in our hearts.  We may feel that others just don’t get it; don’t really understand where we are.

I know that some of us will be thinking that so much of what is said by well meaning people just has no chance of helping as, what CS Lewis calls, the “sudden jab of red hot memory” brings us back to the realisation that he or she is gone…as Lewis continues “all common sense vanishes like an ant in the mouth of a furnace”.  We may be thinking…’how can I possibly get through this?’ ‘will life ever be normal again?’ ‘will I ever be happy again?’

I think part of the problem is that our friends and relations want to treat our bereavement like a wound which will heal; that we will “get better”; that we will “get over it”. Sometimes, much of what is said to us in our bereavement does not resonate, because ‘getting over it’ seems to involve denying the ones we have lost.

As some of you will know, this time last year I had the enormous privilege of marrying two wonderful  young people.  The bride is a close school friend of my youngest daughter.  The wedding was held at one of the colleges in Cambridge.

The whole service was so beautiful.  Everyone so happy.  In fact, the groom said to me that he had never been so happy in the whole of his life.

A few months later, I attended his funeral….

The reason that I mention this is that I recently received an email from the bride in response to mine on their anniversary…She said that she had been sent a passage from one of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s writings, and whose thoughts on marriage I had included in their wedding address. Bonhoeffer, you will remember was a Lutheran pastor imprisoned by the Nazis during World War 2 and ultimately executed by them. My friend feels that this passage resonates for her and I read this out, in the hope  that it will resonate for others.

Bonhoeffer writes:

“There is nothing that can replace the absence of someone dear to us, and one should not even attempt to do so. One must simply hold out and endure it. At first that sounds very hard, but at the same time it is also a great comfort. For to the extent the emptiness truly remains unfilled one remains connected to the other person through it. 

It is wrong to say that God fills the emptiness. God in no way fills it but much more leaves it precisely unfilled and thus helps us preserve – even in pain – the authentic relationship. Furthermore, the more beautiful and full the remembrances, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude transforms the torment of memory into silent joy.  One bears what was lovely in the past, not as a thorn, but as a precious gift, deep within, a hidden treasure  of which one can always be certain.”

But how can we feel gratitude….if we have no-one to express our gratitude to?  No-one to thank, for that precious relationship, that precious gift that we were once so privileged to enjoy, that wonderful person we loved so much?

The Book of Lamentations, from which we have just read an extract may have been written by the prophet Jeremiah in about 586BC and is set after the sacking of Jerusalem by the Babylonians which caused terrible suffering bereavement and destruction.  Many of the Jews struggled with how God could possibly have allowed this to happen to his chosen people. And yet the poet writes (as many who are bereaved might feel):

I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them and my soul is downcast within me. Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope. Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed for his compassions never fail They are new every morning: great is your faithfulness. I say to myself “The Lord is my portion therefore I will wait for him”

As we seek God at moments of red hot stabbing memory, even seeking him in our anger and despair, as we seek him when our hearts cannot carry common sense, we will begin to know that his compassions never fail, that they are new every morning, and great is his faithfulness


Lamentations 3:17-26

I have forgotten what happiness is; 

18 so I say, “Gone is my glory, and all that I had hoped for from the Lord.” 

19 The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall! 

20 My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me. 

21 But this I call to mind,  and therefore I have hope: 

22 The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; 

23 they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. 

24 “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” 

25 The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him. 

26 It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord

 The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (La 3:17–26). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.



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