Handling sadness in church
In 27 years of ministry I cannot remember a week quite like the one through which I have just lived. In the space of six days there have been two sudden deaths in the church where I work. Both have left behind a shock-wave of sadness and grief. Yesterday it fell to me to mark the passing of these two men – one a former church member and the other the husband of the church’s Families’ worker. The deaths would have to be acknowledged with everyone, of every age, present in the service – with the particular challenges that presented. As I anticipated that moment, I tweeted the following over breakfast. Would it really be so?
Today the church will bear the burden of sadness between them and lift hope on the shoulders of faith
— Richard Littledale (@richardlittleda) October 11, 2015
In the end, it was. There was shock, sadness and heartache in abundance – but they were expressed in the safe place of worship amongst a group of people committed to one another. That same group who burst into spontaneous applause when a little girl returned to church after a serious illness swam through yesterday’s emotions like a shoal of fish guided by some unseen lodestar.
What about the children, though? They had heard me announce the deaths at the start of the service – but what else should I say to them? Should I ‘carry on regardless’ and tell some uplifting story? In the end, I decided not to. Not only that, but I decided to talk about dying. Sometimes we tie our children up in unnecessary knots by using the euphemisms which adult language has developed. Here is what we did.
At the front of the church we opened the lid of the story box which I usually use only to discover that it was full of rubbish. We took a little time to get out all the bits of rubbish and pile them up.
In amongst the rubbish was one precious item – a small stone bearing the natural image of a cross which I had found on a beach in Somerset last year. When I asked how many stones there might be on a beach, one little boy suggested the huge number ‘seven hundred thousand million’.
Looking at the stone, and remembering how it had been hidden amongst so many others – we remembered the rubbish from which we had taken it. In a horrid week, full of nasty things like people dying, we have to look for the presence of God. He is there – somewhere hidden amongst all the rubbish and nastiness, if we look hard enough. The children nodded solemnly and we prayed together, hands joined. A little later their parents heard these words from a text written by one of the people bereaved:
We don’t have to ask ‘where is God in all this?’ We see it in every message and text over the last 36 hours and we’ve seen it in every generous act over the last 4 months.
Together we sang, and prayed – and then the mellow notes of a solo cello led us into the song below:
I thank God that the church did indeed lift hope on the shoulders of faith.