Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Starting with some things about death

I realized that my existing blog has been taken over by my prayers writing project, so here's a second blog for all sorts of things I have thoughts about.

Three years ago I preached a sermon at the unusual 'Service of Thanksgiving' we have here at the University of Sheffield for people who have donated their whole bodies to medical science. Back then I preached this.

This time though, having learned quite a bit about respecting the gift to the Christian chaplains of having a Christian service to lead, I wanted to be less theological and not sermonize, but rather pay attention to the term 'address' given in the order of service and to be more inclusive of everyone there. When I say gift, I mean that the service is gift given by the Faculty of Science's Bio-medical Science department and the many schools of the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health who choose this method as a way to create a moment for the bereaved families as well as hundreds of students and many staff to all be in the same room to give thanks for the donation.

Here is the reading, first, that I base my address on which follows after. The reading is a translation by my dad, which I find most inspiring.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-16
There is a moment for everything,
a time for every activity in the world.

There is a time for giving birth, and a time for dying;
a time to plant,
and a time to uproot the plant.

There is a time for killing, a time for healing;
a time for tearing down, a time for building.

There is a time for tears, and a time for laughter;
a time for mourning, and a time for dancing.

There is a time for making love, a time for not making love;
a time for kissing,
a time for not kissing.

There is a time for searching, and a time for losing;
a time for keeping,
and a time for discarding.

There is a time to tear, and a time to mend;
a time for silence,
and a time for speech.

There is a time for loving, and a time for hating;
a time for war,
and a time for peace.

But what profit is there
in all these activities?, I asked when I studied the activities that God gives humans
to busy themselves with.

Every activity he has made
is beautiful in its own moment.
But the totality
he has cloaked in darkness,
so that we can never discover the full meaning
of all the activities
he has created.

What I do know
is that there is nothing better for human beings
than to be happy
and enjoy themselves
as long as they live.

When we eat and drink and find happiness
in all our activities, that is a gift from God.

I know too that whatever God does
will recur for ever; there is no adding to it, no taking away.
It is a closed system, and it is awesome.

Whatever happens
has already happened before,
and what has happened before
is what is yet to happen.

In its turn, every activity is
summoned back into existence by God.

Acknowledgement text: Biblical translation by Professor David J. A. Clines (Professor Emeritus of the University of Sheffield), by permission.

Address at the Service of Thanksgiving 
University of Sheffield 
Octagon Centre
Wednesday 11 November 2015
Jeremy M S Clines

There are many ways in which our service today is extra-ordinary. It is extraordinary, because as we prepare ourselves for when someone we love dies, we draw on past experiences to figure out what it will be like. Even if we haven’t grieved before, we can make use of the stories of others to try to imagine how we are going to survive. Most other stories are not going to include one of these services of thanksgiving, for most there is a funeral very soon. So it’s extra-ordinary for quite a number of you, who are grieving and who have this occasion as one of the ways to deal with the most final kind of farewell we face in this life.

I know too, even more extraordinarily, that for a few of you, that the whole idea of deciding in advance to donate one’s own whole body after the end of one’s life for learning and research becomes a family thing. That is, that one person’s decision in a family to donate can inspire others who love them to do the same and make a donation wish too. As with organ donation, planning a possible purpose for our mortal remains after our death is another way of taking care of things as well as we can.

There are though many other reactions to today and the things that are extraordinary about it. For some of you, by today being extraordinary, it is too much to bear and you’ll here to get through today, but will be glad to not have too many reminders. For some of you, the details of today fade into insignificance even as they happen because you are thinking of the person you love, rather than the events that accompany the time after they have died.

For the students and staff who are here today this is an extraordinary moment too, since this service is a profound moment but also reflects each person’s sustained commitment to reverentially learn and teach and research in a way that is made possible because of the planned for gift of people who have now died.

What we do get from today is a Christian service, full of a message of hope of a God of love who shares in our sufferings and who has even experienced death and gives us shows us a path of faith in God and a way of life that goes beyond death.

We also find in this service some very beautiful and poignant music and we get some time to reflect, to find, perhaps some consolation in our grief, we even get chance perhaps— even in a small way—to celebrate the person’s life we are here to commemorate, we are here to remember and give thanks.

I would encourage all you who have lost someone to remember some detail about them today both here at the service but also in conversation, to think of, to speak, even to write down a particularly joyous or quirky or funny or annoying detail from that person’s life. Or to recall something that has changed in you because of them, or something that is changing in you now because of them. I pray that’s something you can make space for in today.

But what we don’t get from today is many answers and that’s one of the hardest things about our gathering this afternoon is that we gather, all conscious of questions that can be answered and questions that won’t be. Someone very close to me, who has been through a particularly acute grief, regularly speaks of the relief she won by sifting out all the questions she had about death and loss and gathering them into the piles of questions: that could be answered; could be partially answered, had no answer and the ones always with no answer.

‘No Answer’: was the accidental title given, for simply futile reasons, to the Electric Light Orchestra’s first album when issued in the United States. ELO formed five years before the Sex Pistols, in 1970, in Birmingham. Maybe what led to the confusion was that ELO had already released the album in the UK with the album title of Electric Light Orchestra, but when a United Artists Records executive phoned up the UK to find the album title’s name—thinking that they only had the band name in front of them—no one answered the phone, so they wrote down ‘No Answer’ in their notes. It was only some time after the album was released that the futile name surfaced (ELO are still going, though, unless you’ll settle for the tribute band playing Sheffield next week, you need to go to Oberhaussen, Germany next May).!

‘No Answer’ was a temporary situation, after a while a better answer was forthcoming and the name got changed: there's chances we get a better answer to our griefs, overtime, but not always. Sometimes there is never an answer. There's a fairly extraordinary piece  that echoes those moments of having no answer of all, it's called ‘The Unanswered Question’, which speaks of our questions that won’t get at answer, in this life at least. It was written by Charles Ives back in 1908, and I know about it because I’ve played in a couple of performances of it.

In the piece, ‘The Unanswered Question’ rather than everyone being up on stage, as our Chamber Choir are here, there are three scattered groups. Strings who create a druid-like drone of long-term and ancient thought, but then, often concealed in at a distant a lone trumpet firing off a question, which a third group, a group of flutes try to answer, but the flutes fail, and the trumpet asks a second time, and a third time, each time the flutes become more agitated in their reply, more flummoxed at their inability to give a meaningful answer. The trumpet persists a further three times, and the flutes become more erratic and disjointed until, with their sixth reply they admit defeat and fall silent. The trumpet asks the question a seventh and final time and the druidic drone of the strings continues for a while before all falls silent.

The writer of the book of Ecclesiasties, which we heard from today, grappled with the answerable and unanswerable questions of life. The writer asks the questions of why we exist and what the purpose of life, in God, is. In the reading we heard, from chapter three, the writer isn’t fatalistic but is rather sifting the closed system of life and defining what can be answered from the unanswerable.

The unpredictability of the way we navigate our way through life and through grief is laid out in a kind of order in the reading, but the list keeps the refrain going simply of ‘a time’ ‘a time’ ‘a time’, not saying which time or in which order though the writer is confident much of the list will occur, inevitably, since that’s what life is. What is also helpful in that writing is to include dying in the list. We can, at times be prone to leave dying off the list altogether as simply separate; but learning through grief and learning from death and dying help us understand what it is to be alive and to be human and to have faith, far better than if we leave the topic far away from ourselves.

What is also helpful for all of us to remember in all of our griefs is there is no pattern and order to the way we find our way through grief. It takes longer than we like and we may be completely out of sequence with the others around us who are grieving too.

There is a time for our grieving, and there’s also a time in our grieving to let our grief speak of love. It’s because we love that we grieve and when our grief cries out, it is crying with many emotions, but crying because we love and we cannot stop loving the people that we have …, we have…,

I was going to say the people we have lost, but we haven’t even quite lost them, because as we remember them today we can remember how much of their life is written into our life and how they are still changing us.

Living and loving is a closed system and it is awesome.