The Funeral of Prince Philip


Photo by Maxim Hopman on Unsplash

The sight of one of the world’s most respected and influential women sitting all alone at the funeral of her husband is a stark visual reminder that every bereaved spouse grieves alone.

Unlike Queen Elizabeth, they may have the support of family, church and friends who are part of their bubble, and may be able to sit next to them, but few friends and relations fully comprehend the searing emptiness that comes from losing a beloved life partner, or feeling that part of your soul has been ripped out and the pain will never heal, and that you cannot imagine you will find the strength to continue living without the support of your other half.

Nearly half of the married people on the planet will experience this trauma personally.  Most of them will be in their retirement years when the loss, though not unexpected, comes.  Just at a time when one’s need for company and practical support may be increasing and one’s ability to adapt to change may be decreasing.  But given the fact that bereavement is so common, it is shocking that so few of us know how to support people through it.

Even churches, which are supposedly known for their compassion and love, will often only bring round meals and offer a helping hand until the funeral.  It seems as if for many people the funeral marks the end of the transition, and life goes back to normal.

Not for the bereaved partner, who now has to cope on their own.  They have to tackle all sorts of tasks their spouse might have habitually done.  They may be lonely, as they have nobody to talk to about their day.  The other side of the bed is empty.  And yet at this time friends may be absent, not knowing what to say, or fearing that the newly-bereaved will become an emotional burden to them.  It’s sink or swim for the bereaved.

At times like these, friends and family need to be present.  We don’t necessarily have to do anything other than be there to share in the sorrow.  It’s often overlooked in all the criticism of Job’s comforters that the thing they got right was turning up.  They sat in solidarity with Job for seven days.

Many of us fear saying the wrong thing.  I think it’s an overstated fear unless you have a significant ability to be tactless: “I didn’t like him much but I know you did”.  If you’re not confident of saying the right thing, just shut and and  make a cuppa,  or help tidy up.  If you’re a bit bolder you can try giving some pastoral support.  For example, I find that the grief/loss cycle is a useful tool for helping the bereaved.  It helps them understand that they are on a journey adjusting to loss, that many others have been on before them.  It explains why their emotions can be erratic.  It gives them hope that they can survive.

God is at work in the life of the bereaved and we have a wonderful opportunity to be part of that.  He wants them to understand that his love for them is so much greater than the love they have lost.  He wants them to know that their life hasn’t ended too; in fact he still has plans and purposes for them.  He wants to pour his Holy Spirit into their lives to bring them strength and consolation.

Bereaved people may feel alone but they don’t have to be lonely or isolated.  We should be there for them.

 

Out of control?

Photo by Keppens Toon from FreeImages

One of the major challenges we have faced this year is uncertainty.  Events have been rescheduled, re-rescheduled and moved online.

Flights have been booked, rebooked, cancelled.  Churches have been open, closed, partially reopened, re-closed.  And so on.  I don’t need to tell you how unsettling the uncertainty is.

Many mission workers I talk to have found the inability to plan ahead has been particularly hard to deal with.  It has been costly, as they have paid for flights at short-notice but then not been able to get entry to the country.  It’s been emotionally demanding as they wrestle with enrolling their kids in the local education system or not bothering because they might be returning home soon.

One of the reasons this is a challenge is that we live in a structured world that doesn’t facilitate spontaneity.  I once heard a story (probably apocryphal) about a western mission worker in Tanzania who was on a bus to Dar-es-Salaam which had broken down.  As the delay grew longer he grew more and more nervous until the calm African man sitting next to him asked if there was a problem.  “Yes”, replied the Westerner, “I’m booked on a plane this evening”.  To which the African replied “Isn’t there another plane tomorrow?”  But of course, it doesn’t work like that.  Tickets aren’t transferable.  In so many ways, we are locked into planning.

A deeper and more disturbing reason for our discomfort at being unable to plan is that we like to be in control.  Or at least to have the comforting illusion of being in control, which has been completely stripped away by recent events.  Very few of us are naturally comfortable being tossed on the rough seas of life with no means of navigation, even though most of us normally have no more control than a cork in the ocean, comforted by the mere fact that we are still afloat.

Deprived of control, we are confronted with our own feebleness.  How do we respond?  We may become, like Job, angry at God because this isn’t the way things ought to be, thereby proving the faults in our own theology.  We may, like Saul, succumb to tyranny as we struggle to maintain control by our own authority, masking our weakness by bullying others.  Or perhaps, like Belshazzar, we use avoidance techniques to convince ourselves that the problem isn’t really there.

And if you think those are rather extreme examples, consider what they might look like in our day-to-day lives.  Job may represent the person who is giving up on God because God didn’t stop all this happening and has let our friends and relatives die.  Saul is the Myers Briggs J who, valuing order and stability, tries to bring order into her world by creating rules and regulations which others feel are aimed at control and repression.  And how many of us, like Belshazzar , are drinking more wine or gin than usual, or reverting to the comfortingly familiar foods of our childhood?

So how do we face the reality of living in a world in which we have no control, and continue to thrive?  Firstly, we know the One who is in control.  We may have robust debate among ourselves about how direct and extensive that control is, but few of us will believe in the ‘absent watchmaker’ of the Deists.  We believe that the incarnation and crucifixion prove that God is intimately involved in this world, and the many daily miracles and intimacies prove his ongoing concern for it.

Second, we have to learn to ‘freewheel’ a little more.  Does everything have to be so neatly planned, deftly coordinated and well-organised?  Or can we share the love of God through a chance encounter, a spontaneous act of kindness, or an expression of comfort.  How hard is for us to learn to go with the flow for a bit?  Many of us are missing the gift of the present by becoming overly concerned with the future.

Third, we need to be listening to the Holy Spirit a lot more.  We’ve already blogged about Paul and his team being frustrated in their plans.  We need to learn the difference between a good idea and the moving of the Spirit, to pray intently into everything we plan, asking not for God to bless it but whether God is telling us to do it at all.

At times like these I am thinking a lot about the Israelites in the wilderness.  They never knew when they’d have to pack up their homes and move, where they were going next, or whether they were pitching their tents for a stop of one night or three years.  All they knew was when the Pillar moved, they moved.  And in the midst of all that uncertainty and insecurity, they learned to trust God for their protection, their provision and their guidance.

The moral of the story: keeping watching the Pillar!

 

Other blogs in this series on identity:

Episode 1: Who am I?

Episode 2: What do I do?

Episode 3: What is my calling?

 

Overhelpful?

Source: www.freeimages.com

Being helpful is a notable Christian trait, though something we often carry to excess.  Even more so for mission workers.  We care, and we hope to change things.  We see people hurting and our compassion drives us to improve things for them.  We want to solve problems.  We want to make things better.  We need to see healing.  It’s a trap we can easily fall into.  One of the hardest things for compassionate people to do is sit and watch someone struggle with pain, confusion and need.

Yet as we learn the skills involved in counselling, mentoring, coaching and pastoral care, we discover that we are not there to solve the problem.  We are there to encourage, assist and if necessary equip our client to solve their own problems.  Doing it for them disempowers them, and does not help them develop resilience and problem-solving skills to use the next time they face a challenge.  At worst, it can deprive them of an opportunity to be driven to rely solely on God for their comfort and sustenance in the midst of their difficulties.

So we learn to sit on our hands, bridle our tongues, and let people do it for themselves.  It is in fact much kinder and more helpful for us to do this, because people grow as they tackle the challenges they face.  And though the problems may not go away, they might find the consolation of God in the middle of them.

We all know that Job’s friends are a good example of what not to do.  They offered advice, criticism, theology and rebuke, all to no avail.  Their words made no difference to Job, and in the end God criticised them for their approach.  But what we often overlook is the small bit of information at the end of chapter 2 – they just came and sat with him for 7 day! (Job 2:11-13).  They grieved with him, they cried with him, but said nothing.  Sometimes our presence is more helpful than our words.  The traditional English response to crisis of putting the kettle on may in fact be far more effective than our many words of wisdom and helpful actions.  Often people don’t need help, they just need company on their journey.  Companionship and company are a good place to start.  Who can you offer those to this week?

Job – the last word on suffering

William Blake: Job's vision of God

William Blake: Job’s vision of God

As we bring to an end this series looking at suffering which has taken slightly longer than was originally anticipated, it is appropriate to leave the final word with Job.  This ancient story is celebrated for its exploration of the theme of suffering, and for challenging the idea that bad things only happen to bad people, which is a persistent theology that has its current manifestation in the prosperity doctrine: if you are dedicated to God, God will bless you.

Job endures unparalleled loss, and his friends insist that it must be because he has done something to deserve it, while Job proclaims his innocence.  Clearly traumatised by the sudden loss of his family, health and possessions, he wishes he had never been born (3:3).

What we must note from this event is not the lengthy discussion (which frankly few of us ever read in full) but something that we often miss – Job did not have the opportunity of reading chapter 1.  He had no idea what what was going on, or how God was using him to demonstrate faithfulness under pressure.  All he knew was that he had done nothing wrong, yet he was suffering.  That is a condition common to most of humanity – we generally have no idea what God’s purpose is, we can only endure.

We must also remember that even in the midst of his pain, Job comes up with one of the greatest statements of faith in God found in the whole Bible:

I know that my redeemer lives, and at the last day he will stand on the earth; though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh will I see God.

Neither did Job get any answer.  There’s no indication that he ever found out what was behind his suffering.  But he did receive a revelation that put it into perspective.  For four chapters (38-41) God speaks to Job revealing God’s power and wisdom through the whole of creation, which puts Job firmly in his place.  He retracts his complaint, recognises the awesomeness of his creator.  May our suffering lead us into similar revelation of the majesty of God!

For the good of those who love him?

House of cards

Bad stuff happens to mission workers.  You don’t have to be in the world of mission for long before you hear of people who have been kidnapped, killed in car crashes, caught terrible diseases, been lynched, suffered emotional or spiritual abuse, or lost their faith as a result of what they’ve experienced.  That is the lot not only of mission workers but of many thousands of Christians worldwide, particularly in communist and moslem countries.

But when these things happen to us and our loved ones, it can make us doubt either our faith or God’s goodness, because most of us in the West subscribe to a triumphalist theology: God is in control and everything will work out.  We build our worldview on three principal tenets:

  • God loves me and wants the best for me
  • God is able to do anything to help me
  • God is fully aware of all that is going on in my life.

While each of these beliefs is true, it’s naïve to build them into a house of cards without reference to other variable factors in the way God created the world, like freewill, cause-and-effect, teamwork and prayer.  And the fact that we are in a battle with the kingdom of darkness.

The result is that when something goes badly wrong it challenges our belief system and therefore our faith.  We wrestle, like Job, with the problem of why bad things happen to good people (Job 10:3).

But a belief system such is this is based on a false premise: the consumerist view that God is there for me, and that if God doesn’t deliver to make my life more comfortable/safe/happy, he has invalidated my faith in him and disproved his own existence.

Vivien Whitfield wrote:

Can we go on trusting God even when terrible things happen and God seems absent?  Only such altruistic trust is the basis for a true relationship with God, shorn of ulterior motives.  God is to be loved and obeyed for himself, not for what we can get out of it.  God’s purposes are for the entire cosmos – not only for me; we sometimes need to be reminded of that.

If God’s purposes are for the entire cosmos, there are times when his plans may not be in our own interest.  He may ask us to do something hazardous not because it’s good for us but because he needs it to be done.  In doing so we become more like Jesus, laying down our own lives in obedience to God’s will.  There was no way that being crucified served the immediate interests of Jesus, but he chose to be obedient to God’s plan instead.  And sometimes God’s plan for us may be that God has asked us to do things that are clearly not in our own interest but enable him to accomplish something in and through us for the greater good of the Kingdom.

When we don’t understand what is going on, and why something bad has happened, we often turn to Romans 8:28: “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God.”  Taken on its own, out of context, it looks as if all we have to do is love God and everything will go fine for us.  But that is just Christian superstition.  We need to read on to verse 29 to find out the definition of ‘good’.  It means being conformed to the image of the Son.  It doesn’t mention wealth, or happiness, or safety.  In fact St Paul makes the opposite clear: this is in the context of “tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril and sword!  But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer!  How can that be?  We conquer, not because everything goes well for us, but because when it doesn’t, we don’t give up, we don’t compromise, we don’t retaliate.  We become more like Christ.   That doesn’t make our suffering any easier.  But it does, at least, make it tolerable.