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Monday, 2 November 2015

Discover & explore: Bereavement (All Souls)

St Stephen Walbrook held a special Discover & explore service for All Souls today. This service explored aspects of bereavement with readings, music, prayers and reflection. The Choir of St Stephen Walbrook and the Choral Scholars of St Martin-in-the-Fields joined together to sing pieces from Fauré's Requiem and the service ended with an opportunity to light candles in memory of loved ones. Here is the reflection that I shared during this service:

Psalm 23 is a picture of life. Our lives contain both times of refreshment and joy – those times by the still waters and in the green pastures – and times of trial and loss – as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. These times of joy and times of trial are our common experience of life. But this Psalm says more. It says that God is with us in all of these experiences. He leads us beside the still waters and walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death. He can do this because in Jesus he has experienced human life for himself. God understands and will be alongside us in our grief.

How can that be, particularly when grief involves a whole mix of different emotions at different times – anger, sadness, love, guilt and numbness – which mean that it is a very individual experience? All we can really do, as a result, is to share our experiences of how it has been for us. That is what Alfred Lord Tennyson did in his poem ‘In Memoriam’, a sequence of lyric poems written over a 17 year period which comprise a requiem for the poet's beloved Cambridge friend Arthur Henry Hallam, who died suddenly of a cerebral haemorrhage in Vienna in 1833. Tennyson then wrote memorably again on the subject of death in ‘Crossing the Bar’ after he had survived a serious illness. Shortly before he died, Tennyson told his son whom he had tellingly named Hallam to "put 'Crossing the Bar' at the end of all editions of my poems". Just as Tennyson memorably shared his experience of God with him in his grief, I would like to do the same.

My younger brother, Nick Evens, died on 11th November 1999 in a plane crash in Kosovo. He was on a UN commissioned plane taking relief workers into Kosovo to work on reconstructing the country following the conflict there. Nick was part of Tearfund’s Disaster Response Team. He had been in Kosovo working with Kosovan villagers to rebuild homes, had returned home for a short break, and was returning to continue work on the rebuilding programme.

The plane went off course as it neared Pristina Airport and crashed in nearby mountains. I remember taking a phone call from my parents who had been notified that contact had been lost with the plane and feeling absolutely unable to accept or comprehend the news. This was something that simply could not be happening.

My father and I were flown to Rome by Tearfund to wait for news together with the families of the other 23 people who died in the crash. After a few days we were flown to Kosovo to see the crash site for ourselves. On arrival at Pristina Airport we were loaded into helicopters and flown the short distance into the mountains and over the site of the wreckage. This was the worst moment for each one of us. As we saw the small pieces of the plane strewn over the mountainside we knew exactly what had happened to our loved ones and were faced full-on with the reality of their death.

When we returned to Pristina Airport, some refreshments had been organised for us in a tent and members of Tearfund who had worked with Nick had travelled to the Airport to be with us. We sat and listened as they told us about the effect that Nick had had on the Kosovan people with whom he had worked and also on other members of the team as they had valued his friendship, support and advice. As they talked, the tears flowed; theirs and ours and, I believe, God’s as he was with us at the time enabling us to express our grief. But, as they talked, I also had a growing sense that Nick had gone into God’s presence and had been welcomed with the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” In that moment I glimpsed something of the glory into which Nick had entered and that glimpse continues to sustain and strengthen me in my loss.

Over subsequent days, I heard many more stories of the way in which Nick’s life had influenced others and over the years since I had seen the way in which the inspiration he provided has led others to continue the work that he began. Young people whose lives were turned around through the youth project that Nick worked for have continued his youth work and his charitable work in Uganda while Nick’s involvement with Tearfund inspired another member of our family to join their Disaster Response Team. In these ways, the stories about Nick that begun to be told at Pristina Airport have continued to be told and in the telling my sense that God is alongside me in my grief and that Nick has been welcomed into glory has grown.

My experience of grief suggests that it is as we cry out in our grief that God meets with us. He is alongside us through his Spirit and will speak for us in groans that words cannot express. We should not be afraid of tears, of memories or of stories, as they are an expression of the love we feel. As we share our grief together we may catch a glimpse of the glory that waits to be revealed to us and into which our loved ones have entered and that glimpse can sustain us as we re-enter our everyday lives. In these and other ways God offers to lead us through the times of trial until we come to live with him forever.


Gabriel Fauré - Libera Me.

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