November 1, 2020

Service of Remembrance- 6.30pm service – Revd Sally Bedborough

Having all chosen a stone as we entered the church….

Grief is hard; like a stone - cold and uncomforting.

CS Lewis began his book, A Grief Observed, with the words, ‘No-one ever told me that grief felt so like fear’. Grief and fear can be linked: the same cold hard stone-like feeling in the pit of one’s stomach; the fear, even the dread, of facing the future without our loved ones.

This evening I invite you to use your stone to represent your grief; bring to your choice of stone all the feelings that you have as you recall the life of the one you have come to remember this evening.

Imagine using a stone as a pillow, as Jacob did. It would be unyielding; it would be hard to imagine getting a good night’s sleep with a pillow as a stone. Very often in grief, sleep is elusive. Grief disrupts our waking hours, but distractions can be possible. Not so with the night hours; it can be a time when grief looms large and the darkness is our only company as we contemplate our loss.

But our stone can also be an aid to memory. When we have lost the company and the presence of the people we have shared our lives with, our memories can become more important than ever. Yes, the memories may be bitter sweet; they can call to mind the love and the lives we have shared, but they can also underline the fact that our loved ones are no longer with us. However, in time, memories can soften, they can bring warmth. Just as we hold our stones in our hands, transferring our bodies’ warmth to their hard coldness, so our memories, for the most part, cease to underline loss over time, and in their place they bring thankfulness and comfort.

In our bible story, taken from the very first book of the bible, we come across Jacob and he’s on the run. He’s cheated on his brother and he fears for his life. He runs away from his home and when he comes to rest, he places a stone under his head to act as a pillow. A strange choice, but perhaps a good symbol of his grief and his tortured memory of the shameful and deceitful way he’s acted. Jacob does manage to sleep, though, and in his dreams he sees a ladder that reaches from heaven to earth and there are angels coming and going up and down on the ladder. And in his dream he hears God’s voice and feels his presence with him; and God gives him a promise of land and of children – all major themes in ancient bible times. And especially he gives him this promise:

Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go; I will not leave you.

These are words to remember. Words that apply not just to Jacob and these characters described in bible times; these are promises for each of us; they are promises that hold particular comfort in times of grief, fear, loss and bereavement. Indeed, at every funeral service, I introduce the words of the opening prayer with these words: Let us renew our trust in God who has said: I will not fail you; I will not desert you.’

Maybe some of you have been in Poole Crematorium and seen that tapestry of pleated fabric that reaches from the floor to the skylight window above. That tapestry represents Jacob’s dream ladder, and with it, it recalls the promise of God’s loving presence, together with his comfort and his peace in our times of loss and distress.

Finally, Jacob takes his stone pillow – all the hardest parts of his life: his cheating and his failures and his regrets; remembering that in the midst of those hard things, God gives a promise that he will never, ever, leave Jacob. Jacob wakes and realises the turning point in his life. That even as he leaves his family behind, with all the pain that accompanies that, so he can turn to the future with renewed hope because of God’s promise and his presence.

Jacob needs to cement this awesome moment in his life by taking that very hardest thing: his stone pillow; and anointing it with oil, and then setting it up as an altar. (I noticed that in the translation of the reading that Revd Pat read to us, ‘altar’ was translated as ‘pillar’ and I’m struck by the play on those words: ‘pillow’ becomes ‘pillar’) The stone becomes a marker for a place that is a turning point. Whenever an anointing with oil happens, it heralds a new chapter; this is a new chapter in Jacob’s life and the stone altar/pillar becomes a place to return to in memory or in deed.

This is a human urge I think. To mark a place of loss or a place of change. We do it of course with gravestones, but also with wayside memorials where, for instance, people have died in traffic accidents. We do it also with what is known as cairns – these are piles of stones that have been gathered by individuals and left as an altar or as a marker of a special place; a turning place.

We might not want to be reminded of our loss, but actually, it is healthy in many ways to remember and recall lives well lived, people who we miss and whose lives we want to honour. This marking of our loss and grief; of our remembering, does bring hope as we acknowledge that our lives have been enriched and probably enlarged, by our having known, and loved and shared the lives of those we remember tonight. And this hope can point towards the future. And so our final use of our stones is to represent hope.

Already, through this service, we have lit the candle that represents grief, and in a short while, we will light the candles of memory and of hope.

As we leave this building tonight, I invite you to take your stone with you to use as you find best in whatever stage you find yourself on your grief journey. If you feel still in the throes of grief and pain; let the stone represent that heaviness you feel; or if you want to recall past times; allow the stone to be warmed by your memories; or you may want your stone to serve you in pointing to the future with hope.

Your stone may speak to you of any or all of those different states and emotions at any one time.

Above all, hear and know, along with Jacob, that God goes with you; he will never fail you; he will never desert you. Amen.