Take a Sad Song & Make it Better

The Mersey Beatitudes #2 :: Take a Sad Song & Make it Better (mournfulness)

Sermon – Service of Hope 16th September – St Michael in the Hamlet with St Andrew

Beatles themed beatitudes – I have to say I was a bit taken aback to be given words from this particular, Beatles song for this evening, I can remember as a young woman singing the na na na chorus over and over in night clubs and parties – so the phrase works but only taken out of context – “take a sad song and make it better “–

The question is how to do that. This evening I want to recognise the pain of grief and how this, impacts on us and where we can find hope…

Not sure about you but for me sad does not nearly come close to describing grief and mourning, but the words are the start of a thought process and we know that this particular Beatles song does have resonance for John Lennon’s son Julian, Paul McCartney wrote the song for Julian when he was about 5 or 6 years old and Yoko Ono came into John’s life and Julian I understand grew up without a deep bond with his Dad.

Grief and mourning are different for everyone, our mourning could be for a broken relationship, or the death of a friend, colleague, a family member, a much-loved pet – or even mourning for our own healthy body as we slip into ill health. And loss can happen at any stage of life – in pregnancy, at the moment of birth, in childhood, as a teenager, young adult, a mature person or the very elderly – and maybe our mourning is for more than one person or event …. Death or loss may have come after a long time of planning or illness or a sudden unexpected incident. In our lifetime we may face death and loss many times, and dependent upon our age, family and networks we may sadly have much experience, and each experience will leave its mark on us.

I read an article in the i newspaper last week about what we can learn from Irish Wakes. Kevin Toolis writes – Death is terrifyingly ordinary, it happens to everyone, everywhere at some time. If you breathe you die and there is nothing new to say or to write about death since the ancient Greeks and Homers Iliad… he writes that western society has striven to remove the death and dying from public sight. We have pulled the curtains across privatised our mortality and turned death into a whisper.

“Take a sad song and make it better…” I wonder if you are familiar with WH Auden’s poem – ‘Funeral Blues’ – if you ever watched the film four weddings and a funeral you may recall it….it portrays a raw grief which you may recognise:-

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message 'He is Dead'.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

Forgive my emotion as I read this… grief and mourning are both physical and emotional and it draws on our emotions as it reminds us of our own mortality….

I am older now and have lived through the pain of grief and loss many times, as many of you. That pain may be very acute for you tonight. My mother died recently, my sister and I were with her. In my experience people don’t know what to say when they meet you after someone has died. My immediate feeling was numbness – mum had carers four times a day and my sister and I took turns so that we were with her 24/7. We had said our goodbyes, we had sung hymns and read passages from the bible – we had struggled with her dementia and been the but of her anger and confusion.  The poem from Auden does not really reflect my feelings. Everyone will be different, and we may not be mourning a physical death. Listen to some words from Kamila Shamsie from her powerful book Home Fires, the story is of a Muslim family, whose father was killed fighting in the Middle East , and this part of the story  portrays the grief of a young woman whose twin brother has been radicalised and killed – “Grief changes its shape to fit your contours – enveloping you as a second skin, you eventually learned to slip into and resume your life….grief was what you owed the dead for the necessary crime of living on without them…”

but it does not end there.

Our grief and mourning may be for a personal loss but I would contend that it is much wider than this for each of us … Emily Dickinson – a particular favourite poet of mine writes

I measure every grief I meet with analytic eyes

I wonder if it weighs like mine or has an easier size

I wonder if they bore it long or did they just begin

I could not tell the date of mine it feels so long a pain… 

Jesus is up on the mountain and speaking to the people of blessing – using the words we now know as the beatitudes and the second beatitude he teaches to the crowds on the mountain is …Blessed are those that Mourn…

Everyone wants to be blessed. We want to be blessed in our families, our relationships, our businesses, and our churches. We want to be blessed in life, death, and eternity. The opposite of being blessed is being cursed—and nobody wants that.

No one knows about blessing better than Jesus does, so we want to learn more…

Jesus doesn’t say “Blessed are the happily married,” but “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” He doesn’t say “Blessed are those who enjoy good health,” but “Blessed are those who mourn.”  Jesus, speaks of the greatest blessings in places we don’t normally look.

And the beatitudes seem counterintuitive. Being poor, means you don’t have resources. Nobody wants that. But Jesus speaks of a kind of poverty that makes you rich. 

The first three beatitudes deal with our need, we are poor in spirit (Matt. 5:3) we mourn…

Mourning means to have great sorrow. But Jesus speaks of a kind of mourning that leads to joy.

Happy are those that mourn…as Kevin Toolis in his article wrote, the one thing the world tries to shun…the worldly philosophy is forget your troubles and turn your back on them. But that is not the way of Jesus.

Jesus knew mourning Isaiah tells us that Jesus was to be a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. Jesus grieves, physically and emotionally - the shortest verse in the bible – John 11: 35 when Jesus’ friend Lazarus has died… “Jesus wept”. But Jesus was not grieving for his friend Lazarus as he was going to do what many of us would like to do when separated from someone by death – he brings Lazarus back to life again.  Life after Life, the mystery of God’s love for us continues through and beyond death. Jesus deep sorrow is for Jerusalem, for the human condition – for those who cannot see or hear, recognise or accept the boundless love of God and the comfort of the Holy Spirit. Jesus weeps because the world is separated from God.

Jesus must have felt the rejection of people around him and wept because separation from God brings death.  Jesus had come to bring life, life in all its fullness, which would take him to the cross, through death to resurrection, showing God’s love with a human face, with human feelings and in a frail body like ours prone to illness and death.

We may not all be of the same mind in theology or faith, but we are united in Love.

Kevin Toolis writes about what we can learn from an Irish wake: Suppose you thought death was like a marathon that one day you knew you had to run, or you had to help others, your friends, your family, people you love. A wake is like preparing for that marathon and even training whether you fumble or fall a few times will make you not richer but wiser and more thoughtful, more human. You know that writing reminds me a lot of Paul.

We all need to find a way to recognise Gods infinite love for all creation. I don’t believe this is a task for us individually as God is community and we are not meant to be alone.  Jesus says Blessed are they that mourn for they shall be comforted. In what sense will we be blessed/ be happy – maybe in the sense that recognising our weakness and need for God’s love we reach out, we seek for something outside ourselves and God is there to give comfort. We live in a broken world we have to learn the skill of managing the pain and grief that we encounter…and sometimes we need help to handle our emotions, but Auden was wrong when he asserted, “I thought that love would last forever, I was wrong’.   Because there really is nothing that can separate us from God’s infinite love, not life, nor death, not grief or mourning, not the church nor the state nor any argument or mess we may get ourselves into. There is not anything in heaven or on earth that can separate us from God’s love. God is love – Gods love is limitless and constant, so deep and wide and high it is outside our imagination. God’s love is in our joy and in our sorrow – it is in our deepest darkest night and it is still there in the morning.

Kamila Shamsi writes: “Grief is the bridge that would allow the dead to flit among the living, their footsteps heard, their laughter around the corner, their posture in the bodies of strangers you would follow down the street, willing them never to turn around.”

As you will have noticed I am a great lover of poetry and the Liverpool Poets in particular. Brian Patten wrote a poem after the death of his mother which I would like to read as we finish. I think it epitomises the mystery of relationships in life and in death.  I have shared this often and I think it helps to understand how we can learn to live with grief and loss, how we can take a sad song and make it better…

How long is a man’s life finally?
Is it a thousand days or only one?
One week or a few centuries?
How long does a man’s death last
and what do we mean when we say gone forever?

Adrift in such preoccupations, we seek clarification.
We can go to the philosophers,
but they will weary of our questions.
We can go to the priests and rabbis
but they might be busy with administrations.

So, how long does a man live finally?
And how much does he live while he lives?
We fret and ask so many questions -
then when it comes to us
the answer is so simple.

A man lives for as long as we carry him inside us,
for as long as we carry the harvest of his dreams,
for as long as we ourselves live,
holding memories in common, a man lives.

His lover will carry his man's scent, his touch:
his children will carry the weight of his love.
One friend will carry his arguments,
another will hum his favourite tunes,
another will still share his terrors.

And the days will pass with baffled faces,
then the weeks, then the months,
then there will be a day when no question is asked,
and the knots of grief will loosen in the stomach
and the puffed faces will calm.
And on that day he will not have ceased
but will have ceased to be separated by death.

How long does a man live finally?
A man lives so many different lengths of time.

May the love of God Bless you and keep you


Annette James, Reader

Annette James, Visiting Reader