I missed an old friend’s funeral last week. I got the day wrong. Someone kindly sent me a copy of the order of service, but it was not the same.
It is hard to share in something that has already happened, especially when the deceased person has had a hand in shaping it. My friend had composed his own funeral service so, in a sense, he would have been very much present to it. I miss not having shared in the first few hours of his greater life, and of our collective loss.
Loss needs to be shared, and liturgy, any liturgy, needs to be spoken or sung in company if it is to realise its purpose. Funerals are a time for realising a shared loss and in doing so, bear some of the grief which those who are closest to the person are experiencing. This helps everyone to bear their particular private loss. We are only fully human when we own our grief and joy together.
Perhaps this is also true of a nation’s sense of loss, the kind of loss which is felt as a political vacuum, and which comes with a growing anxiety about absence of vision and leadership in government. The outcome of recent elections suggests that we are a nation floundering in a sea of uncertainty, grasping at the delusory straws of what seems better and safer but which, in regard to Europe, history has shown will surely lead to more division and uncertainty. A Europe divided against itself runs the risk of self destruction, or of being destroyed by others.
As a nation, we are going through a period of collective anxiety about who we are in relation to others. In the UK, this applies as much to our own internal politics as it does to where we stand in regard to our European neighbours. We are full of divisive self doubt. It is this uncertainty and self doubt which is particularly hard to bear in the weeks approaching the referendum vote. Nobody knows what our nation will feel like on the morning of June 24th, but whatever the outcome, all of us will be anxious. If the Brexit vote wins, its supporters will quickly realise that we will not be returning to an idealised past shaped by national sovereignty and a vague sense of a return to greatness. We will be facing an uncertain future.
If we stay in Europe there is bridge-building to be done, but do we have the political will to do it? And, given that in a democracy nations get the leaders they deserve, have we elected leaders who represent the best in us, and who are thereby capable and confident enough to do the rebuilding and to take that work forward into the European Union itself?
We also share in another nation’s anxiety, as it waits for its presidential election in which we sincerely hope that wisdom will ultimately prevail. In all of these situations, we need to hold together, wanting the best while facing the very real possibility of the worst outcome. This was the spirit which prevailed during the last world war, when Europe and America held together in the best way and for the best reasons. We are facing something comparable today.
Nations are made up of human beings, not of political parties or corporate vested interests, which is something politicians and war-makers seem to forget. Wanting the best for nations is not the same thing as wanting the quickest short term corporate profit, or opting for short term solutions to long-term historical problems (the root cause of mass migration, for example) whatever the human cost. Solidarity between nations does not automatically spell profit, especially if that profit comes at the expense of those not able to pay for health care and for the care and compassion to which they have a right in their declining years. On the whole, short-termism, profit and commercial solidarity do not make for human compassion or for social justice. They make for anxiety and ultimate social disintegration. So ‘Why should fools have a price in hand to buy wisdom, when they have no mind to learn?’ (Prov. 17:16). TTIP is not a good idea.
So ‘Where shall wisdom come from? And where is the place of understanding? It cannot be gotten for gold, and silver cannot be weighed out as its price’ writes the prophet, Job. This is the kind of wisdom and understanding which comes with the gentleness needed to hold a nation together in its anxiety, as we hold together in our separate losses. We do this formerly, through liturgies and acts of collective worship, but we also do it privately, through prayer, in which we sense our personal anxiety and fear for the future as part of a nation’s need for stability and peace, holding it all in the embrace of God.