Most days the old men sat on a bench in front of the grocers in our small country town.
Retired farmers and workers who had borne the heat and burdens of the Mallee. Drought, dust and harvest.
Now they sat, talked, reminisced and witnessed the passers-by. With time to stand with old hands on hearts to witness a funeral procession slowly passing by, making its way to the highway to a little country cemetery.
Perhaps a well-known identity. Many graves, some according to denomination, some in family graves. Others in areas unmarked, unnamed, just a place to rest.
Later the old men would leave, go down to the church hall for a church morning tea, and a wake at the nearest pub afterwards. The town had a ritual for funerals.
Shops closed as it passed by. People in the street stood still. And on the highway the bell at the Catholic Church would ring its farewell to the departed.
One particular day, unheralded, maybe unseen by the old chaps on the seat, a car passed by. The driver, a young farmer. Beside him a local minister identified by a white clerical collar.
It turned right at the highway and drove out to the cemetery to be met by the local grave digger, shovel in hand.
The boot was opened and the farmer lifted out a tiny blue coffin. Reverently it was lowered into the family grave. Inside was the tiny body of a stillborn baby son. So longed for. His mother was too weak to come that day.
No wake, no special morning tea. No church bell. No closed shops or bowed mourners.
What could the preacher possibly say? Read Psalm 23, about the good shepherd who walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death, the help which comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth when we lift our eyes to the hills as in Psalm 121, or the rooms in the home of many mansions, ready for those who love the Lord, as foreshadowed in John 14?
None of these would really be sufficient.
Instead the minister quoted the words of Jesus to his friends who tried to send the mothers who crowded around Jesus to have their babies blessed. Surely he was too busy and had more important things to say and do.
He stopped his disciples in their tracks, and said, “let the children come to me, and forbid them not. For of such is the kingdom of heaven”. And he took them up in his arms and blessed them.
How precious those words of Jesus echoing across the empty graves in that country cemetery. Words of a short service to be left with the grieving mother later.
“Let the little children come unto me, for of such is the kingdom of heaven.”
For of such is the kingdom of heaven. Words of hope to a grieving family desperately trying to cope with such a personal loss. Raw and real. Their little boy was safe in the family of heaven. And in God’s providence and fullness of time, the hope of a joyous reunion with their much loved and only son.
There are many references in the scriptures about loss and grief, about the one who bears our burdens and carries our sorrows, and is acquainted with grief. Yet nothing real about the experience of loss felt by a mum and dad desperately grieving, without answers.
The story of Jesus blessing the babies has a real message, always and everywhere, children are of the kingdom of heaven.
The words of Sister Deidre Browne are specially pertinent. “Come as you are, that’s how I want you.”
Especially the stillborn of a grieving Mallee family.
Bill Pugh is a Sunday Age contributor.
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