Tag Archives: Funerals

A psalm or two

Reading : Psalm 23; Psalm 139 verses 8 – 10

“Familiarity breeds contempt” – it’s true, as many of us know to our cost. Familiarity can convert something so that it becomes almost meaningless. That is the danger of Psalm 23 – the Shepherd’s Psalm – and possibly the reason why in the latter years of my active pastoral ministry I had to force myself to choose it to be sung at a funeral service, or when some other occasion demanded it as a matter of tradition. Another reason for its over-use: it was possibly the only hymn with which a good number of folk, not associated with church, were familiar. Many times the choice was left to me to choose for those families, and almost inevitably I took the easy way out: The Lord’s my shepherd. (Tune: Crimond). I understand it is a different scenario today. Post-Billy Graham’s crusades the song, How great Thou art may have supplanted the 23rd Psalm and similar hymns and songs. Depending on where you live, the “Anfield Anthem”, You’ll never walk alone, could be the one to demonstrate the modern trend. One thing is for certain, choose those two (for example) and the presiding minister is assured that theirs is not the only voice to be heard singing!

Why did I force myself? Why not forget it, leave the Psalm in retirement between the covers of the Hymn Book? Use something not so well-known, something that would serve the purpose equally?

Cover image of Derek Kidner's commentary on Psalms 1-72.Why? Because I believe it still to be a great psalm, misunderstood, misinterpreted, maybe – but a great psalm. A quotation to support my claim – “Depth and strength underlie the simplicity of this psalm. Its peace is not escape; its contentment is not complacency; there is a readiness to face deep darkness and imminent attack, and the climax reveals a love which homes towards no material goal but to the Lord Himself.” ( Derek Kidner.)

Alongside this psalm stands another I find equally helpful: Psalm 139, especially verse 8: “If I make my bed in Sheol (world of the dead; perhaps – paradise) you would be there.” The corresponding verse in the Shepherd Psalm reads “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for you are with me.” Move on to verse 10 and Kidner says, “Verse 10 appreciates that God’s long arm is moved by love alone.” The two verses complement one another. The Psalmist is speaking of overcoming the worst that anyone may experience, not only death but hell.

Hell is not confined to the land of the departed!

Coping with grief

“Mary stood crying outside the tomb.” The Gospel of John 20.11

Mary Magdalene by Bellini Image credit: Yorck Project

Mary Magdalene by Bellini
Image credit: Yorck Project

Many clergy will not forget the first funeral at which they officiated. I remember mine and how ill-equipped I was to deal with it. Granted I was young and my life story scarcely begun. A young woman was widowed in tragic circumstances. The death of her husband was tragic and unexpected and she was angry; angry at the injustice of it; angry with God. It grieved me to watch her hurting. At the time, I did not appreciate that God allows for our anger. I spent time talking to her, reasoning with her, assuring her of faith’s promise to us when we find ourselves trying to negotiate the journey through “the valley of the shadow”; trying to remember what I was taught in theological college about the pastoral care of my “flock” who were broken-hearted and sorely grieving – to no avail. On reflection she had ample cause to be angry with me.

“The patience of Job” is a saying in vogue more likely by the elderly than any others, many of whom would be surprised that Job is not always as patient as the saying makes him out to be. I hazard a guess; there might be surprise to be informed that the story of Job is to be found in the Old Testament. The story of a man’s desperate cry for relief; a man for whom life had ceased to have meaning. Stricken with physical and mental anguish he could find no reason for his fate. He wishes he were dead. Instead of giving birth to him, he wishes his mother had miscarried or that he had been still-born. “Why did I not die at birth, come forth from the womb and expire?” (Job 3: 11 -12) Job had friends who, hearing him curse the day he was born and the night of his conception, tried to help him – to comfort him. Job was asking: why is God doing this to me? The friends thought it would help best to explain why God was doing it. That was their mistake. It was also mine! Like Job, my friend was not ready for, or interested in, a theological rationalisation of her dilemma. In those early years of ministry I learned that, to share another’s grief, words are often futile and unnecessary. A quiet, caring presence can be more therapeutic, more of a blessing than a well-intentioned homily.

Among the close friends of Jesus there was more than one Mary. His mother was Mary AND there was the interesting and enigmatic character – Mary Magdalene (Mary Magdala). From a historical point of view the information about Mary Magdalene (as indeed for the other Marys too) is slender. Who was she? What was her background? How did she become the close, intimate friend of Jesus? What role did she have in the disciple group? Interesting questions and equally fascinating suggestions, some of which were listed in a report in the Methodist Recorder of a BBC television documentary focussing on the life of Mary and hosted by Melvyn Bragg. Questions were asked; answers sought. Was she a prostitute? Was she a wealthy widow of independent means? Did she have a mental illness? Did she wash Jesus’ feet with her tears? Which of the speculative answers circulating throughout the centuries are fact rather than fiction, if any? Truth is, we cannot be certain – Mary remains somewhat of a mystery! Once upon a time I was perfectly content to hold to the idea that she was both a one-time prostitute and the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. Today? I don’t know – it’s a topic about which I keep an open mind. Biblical scholars assure me of one thing about of which I can be certain: to Mary belongs the glory of being the first person to see the Risen Christ.

On the first Easter Morning, Mary goes to the garden and the tomb where Jesus was laid to pay her respects to her Master and Friend. She stands outside the tomb weeping. The tomb – empty! Jesus – absent! The scene preserved in the gospel portrays her as bewildered, distraught, broken-hearted, afraid. The full story of the Resurrection told by the Gospel writers indicates unmistakably how much, and how deeply, she would grieve for him. We are able also, reading between the lines and using our imagination, to monitor Mary coping with her grief. And some minor certainties emerge from Mary’s story. They can help us cope when it is our turn to grieve.

What are they? There is no shame in grief. Questions lead to answers. Doubt can pave the way to faith. Fear is not sin. Tears are allowed. And the major one? Mary Magdalene came to her disciple friends with her glorious news and testimony: “I have seen the Lord” she said. Mary was anxious to have a factual explanation of what happened to Jesus whom she mourned deeply. Mary stood weeping outside at the tomb – there stood with her One who conquered death and turns the night of mourning into the morning of gladness. The Risen, Living Lord, who doesn’t argue or even preach – who says, “PEACE BE WITH YOU.”