Stephen Cottrell on Child Loss

Preached at the Saying Goodbye Service in Chelmsford Cathedral in October 2013.

Bishop Stephen CottrellI approach this sermon with great trepidation. I don’t know what to say. I love words. I love their power and precision. I love the way one word placed against another conjures new subtleties of meaning and put together well not only embody our deepest feelings and thoughts, but actually carry them forward, helping us to understand more accurately what those feelings are and where they come from and where they lead; and making thought more intelligible, more precise. Language isn’t just the naming of things. It is the way we express, and in expressing, discover who we are.

So what do we do when the words don’t come and when the words don’t don’t work? What do we say and perhaps even more painfully, what do we pray, in the face of terrible sorrow and unyielding pain. Well, here is the pathetic offering of my sermon: I don’t know.

In my ministry as a priest I have on rather too many occasions than I care to remember sat with people in the first rasping pain of great loss. For to lose a child or experience miscarriage must be like the sudden pain of burnt flesh. And also, unlike it, a pain that doesn’t go away. Years pass. Other things happen, even other children born. But the loss and the naked pain of loss is as real and as fresh as ever.

I Have hesitated on doorsteps before visiting a couple who have lost a child and thought what have I to offer, what can I possibly say that will make any difference at all, or in any way even begin to quench the thirst of their suffering. And I have also sat with those who have carried for a lifetime the sorrow of loss. And the words of comfort that I might have prepared or at least thought about beforehand stall in my mouth unmasked as mere platitudes, empty vessels.

And so I have just one thing to say this evening; the only thing that truly bears any hope amidst all the sufferings that all of us, in different ways, face; and it is this: that God knows the limitations of our language; and also longs to meet us in those places of pain, and in those feelings of loss, beyond the place that language can reach. And that is why his word, God’s word, became flesh.  And this is the central Christian truth, around which all other truths cohere; that when we Christians speak of God, we speak of a God whose own word could only reach us and only speak to us by becoming flesh. And it is in the flesh and blood, the life and death of Jesus Christ, and in this way only, that God speaks to us, and helps us map and understand and live with our sorrows, and see, in Christ, hope and meaning for our lives.

In Jesus, God shares the sorrows and the joys of human life, plumbs the depths of human experience, and dies as each one of us must surely die. And therefore when we find ourselves in places of fear, or isolation, or pain, or sorrow, God’s word has already been spoken to us in Jesus Christ. He has gone this way before us, and he is waiting for us. His cross and resurrection are not themselves isolated moments in an otherwise bland and comfortless history, but the turning point, an ever present assurance that God is with us. The sure and certain hope that in the midst of life and at the point of death we are deeply loved. We are precious to God.

Therefore, even today, even in great loss and great sadness, we can pray for and receive God’s healing. And God’s healing will not be a going back and having it differently, though goodness knows this is, of course, what we long for in the terrible confusion of loss; but in the knowledge that God was born and lived and died and rose again in Jesus Christ not only sharing our life, but showing us where life is going, then we will come to see that those whose lives have been cruelly cut short, sometimes before they have even begun, are held in the loving embrace of God’s eternity, for he is the God who gathers all things to himself and longs to wipe away every tear from our eyes.

We will all die. Healing, ultimately, is therefore not the condition of my body, its so called health and fitness, but the condition of my soul, the readiness of my mind, and the togetherness of my heart. Am I able to embrace God’s future, and therefore live with the sorrows of my life without them eating me away and poisoning my life with bitterness and rage? I need to be healed. I need to be reconciled to myself and the sorrows I carry. I need to be reconciled to God. I need to bring to God my anger and my sadness, and let him direct me in his ways of peace. Then there will be healing. Then I will be able to remember – and please don’t ever think healing is learning to forget; rather, it is to joyfully recall the one who is lost, to speak of them with delight, to own the sadness of our loss, but also to look forward to the eternal joys that God has come to show us in Christ. Indeed, he shares our sorrows so that we can share his joy.

Therefore we can say with the psalmist, “You are there!”(Psalm 139. 8); you are with me in the heights above and in the deepest, darkest depths; and with St Paul we can defiantly; declare that “neither death nor life… nor things present, nor things to come… nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate me from the love of God in Christ Jess my Lord.” (Romans 8. 38 & 39).

And, the greatest healing of all: we shall say with Christ: “Into your hands I place my spirit; and into your hands I place all those I love, and especially those I’ve lost” (see Luke 23. 46)

Excuse me, I have to go somewhere and remember.

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