We knew Alfred was in pain. A prison sentence behind him and a lifetime of wanting just one drink ahead of him, he worked at odd jobs and tried to stay out of trouble. But trouble clung to Alfred, and, fearing he would never outrun or out drink or out last the pain, he killed himself one June night in his mother’s house.
The liturgy, with that simple gesture and those few words, turns us round.
We gather at St. Mary’s on a bright Tuesday morning for his funeral. We gather without words of wisdom or comfort for the family. We are fearful ourselves, and bereft. We have heard the harsh whispers in our own heads, whispers inviting us into darkness. We have watched children dance with despair, the steps leading them closer and closer to a ledge from which the drop is steep, the rocks sharp, all the long way down. We wonder if we can catch this pain, breathe it in and incubate it in our bodies, spreading it to others we love. If Alfred’s mother, that wise and good woman, can reap such bitter fruit, what hope have we?
People murmur to one another, “Did he shoot himself?”
“No,” the reply comes back, “He hung himself.”
We flinch from the words.
The presider sprinkles the coffin with holy water and says,
In the waters of baptism Alfred died with Christ and rose with him to new life. May he now share with him eternal glory.
The liturgy, with that simple gesture and those few words, turns us round. We are mourning Alfred as a suicide, indeed, we have carried that as his name into the liturgy; the church reminds us that he is a baptized child of God. “Baptized, chosen, forgiven,” these are his names. The church speaks Alfred’s true names, forgotten it seems by him and ignored by us, but graven on God’s heart.
Then a lector stands to read the words from Lamentations:
My soul is deprived of peace,
I have forgotten what happiness is;
I tell myself my future is lost,
All that I hoped for from the Lord.
The thought of my homeless poverty
Is wormwood and gall;
Remembering it over and over
Leaves my soul downcast within me.
The words were Alfred’s, the cry his. His is the “wormwood and gall,” his life the destroyed home, and so he weeps, “I tell myself the future is lost.” Not, “the future is lost,” but “I tell myself” it is lost. Written in the days after the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple by the armies of Babylon, Lamentations is a wail from the rubble, a scream from the ashes. Long before anyone would write or speak of severe depression, these poets knew the terrible weight of a “soul downcast within me.”
But then came the words of remembrance and hope we must come keep for one another, the words we trust others to keep when we have laid them down as too heavy, or, worse, too light, the words scattering like dust when we try to grasp and hold them.
But I will call this to mind,
As my reason to have hope:
The favors of the Lord are not exhausted,
His mercies are not spent;
They are renewed each morning,
So great is his faithfulness.
We see the evidence of Alfred’s despair. It is in the faces of his family, the lines that have become creek beds for the tears to run. Still, we, the assembly — Alfred’s brothers and sisters in Christ — stand and say for him what he could not say for himself: Though our hope might be exhausted, “the favors of the Lord” are not. God’s mercy is “renewed each morning/ so great is his faithfulness.” God is a deep well; never spent, never dry.
My daughter says the funeral liturgy calls us out. She says it demands to know, “Do we believe, no, are we ‘convinced’” as Paul says
That neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord.
The liturgy bids us turn towards the One who never turned away from Alfred, who never turns away from us. The liturgy bids us look from this death to the life into which Alfred, and we, are baptized. The liturgy bids us lift pour downcast eyes from the coffin which binds us to the cross which sets us free.
The funeral liturgy calls us to kneel in our helplessness and then to stand, supported by the strong arms of God.
Abide with me! Fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, oh, abide with me.
– Melissa Musick