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David Bowie, Lazarus and resurrection

Along with thousands of others around the world I was moved yesterday by the news of death of David Bowie.  My condolences and prayers go to his family and his close friends.

As many others have said, his songs are part of the soundtrack of my life and my generation, especially those from the 1970’s and 1980’s.  I was 15 when Ziggy Stardust was released: the Jean Genie, Rebel Rebel, Suffragette City, Life on Mars, Drive in Saturday and many others run around in my mind without invitation.

The many tributes in the media yesterday helped me to realize the breadth and power of Bowie’s contribution to the world.  He helped us grapple with the mysteries of life and love and joy.

I was drawn by Lazarus, the title of the song he released on Friday.  It’s not the first time that death has featured in his songs.  One of the things which makes Space Oddity a great song is what happens to Major Tom.  Ashes to Ashes takes its title from the funeral service.  Ziggy Stardust ends with death as a consequence of fame: “When the kids had killed the man I had to break up the band”.

But Lazarus is different.  Tony Visconti describes the Blackstar album as a parting gift.  The song’s theme is death and dying. I hear it first as a reminder to everyone of mortality.  Death is one of the last great taboos of the modern age.  Hundreds of years ago, people would keep a human skull in the hearth to remind them of the precious gift of life and the reality of death.  Lazarus is David Bowie’s momento mori: a reminder that we will all die.

The song and the film are about wrestling and struggling with death: a raging against the dying of the light.  Bowie seems to be reaching out for something beyond but not quite able to grasp it.  “Look up here I’m in heaven” he begins.  “I’m so high it makes my brain whirl”. In one scene we see him dancing, celebrating still the joy of life on the threshold of eternity.

Lazarus reminds me of the frustration with death in the Old Testament.  This life is so good and textured.  Surely there is something more.  The prophet Isaiah speaks of the shroud of death cast over all peoples.  Ecclesiastes talks about God putting a sense of eternity into human minds – we reach for something but can’t grasp it.

In the video, David Bowie seems to be reaching out for life on the very threshold of death.  Lazarus is the name of a man in the Gospel of John.  He dies in the prime of life. Then he is set free by Jesus when he has been in the tomb for three days.

In John’s gospel the raising of Lazarus is part of a bigger and greater story: the story of the gift of Jesus Christ to the world to bring life.  Jesus died but he was raised from death on the third day.  In Christ, God offers resurrection, a new beginning and new life to everyone.

I hope that this David Bowie’s final song, Lazarus will help many people think afresh about mortality: about the reality of death, the struggle and the joy.

I hope that those who hear it will ponder the story of the original Lazarus, the resurrection of Jesus and all that the life of Jesus Christ means for the life of the world.

Everything changes with the belief that Jesus Christ rose from the dead.  I look at my own death in a different way and the death of those close to me.  The whole of my perspective on life is transformed.

Thank you, David, for the music and for this final song.  Rest in peace.

David Bowie’s Lazarus video can be viewed via this link.

Grave Talk

Some of the hardest conversations we will ever have are about death.  How do you begin even to raise the subject with those you love?  How do you talk about your deepest hopes and fears, your dreams for your life, your pain and anxiety, your concern for those around you?

Talking about death isn’t easy for anyone these days.  Earlier generations didn’t share our hesitation.  There is a line in the old Prayer Book which says: “In the midst of life we are in death”.  For my grandparents generation that was true.  Life expectancy was shorter.  Most people would experience death in their family more often.  The dead were buried in the centre of the village.  Talking about the end of life was natural and normal.

Nowadays, no-one would dream of building a crematorium in the town centre.  We build them on the edge of town, hidden behind trees. They are often disguised to look like libraries.

But whatever your religious beliefs, death is part of life.  All of us will die.  And all of us will come face to face with the death of those we love.  Most people care very deeply about our life enduring in some way.  Most can identify with a verse from the Bible which says that God has put eternity into our minds[1].  We yearn for something more, but we can’t always articulate what that something is.

The NHS now encourages patients who may be near the end of life to have an honest conversation with their GP about dying.  That has to be a good thing.

Last week the Church of England launched a new initiative called Grave Talk.  Grave Talk is an invitation to anyone in the wider community to come and have a conversation with others about bereavement, death and dying.  Grave Talk is offered in a café style environment, over tea and cake.  There are question cards on the tables to help people begin the discussion about death and dying, about funerals, about the journey of bereavement.

Grave Talk sits alongside the normal, regular ministry of Church of England clergy and lay ministers taking funerals in every community in the land.  Many people still opt for a Church of England minister to take their funeral even though they may not be regular churchgoers.  A funeral taken by a Church of England minister will always have a theme of hope, based on the Christian belief in resurrection from the dead.  The Church and its ministers offer care both before and after the service from within the local community.  Every funeral service is different, unique to the person who has died but bringing the great resources of Christian faith.

Grave Talk offers a way that people can think about these things in conversation with others long before they become a personal issue.  I hope that many churches and many people in this Diocese will take up the idea from time to time.

As we are honest about the end of our lives, so many other things begin to fall into perspective.  As we face the possibility of our own ending, so there is often a new beginning, a question, an enquiry about faith and life and meaning.  A search begins which will often lead us back to God.

The Church has been helping people in our communities to reflect on questions of life and death for countless generations.  Through all of that reflection the faith of the Church remains the same.

In the words of St Paul, used at every funeral service

“I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 8.38-39).

In Christ, there is no need to be afraid.

+Steven


[1] Ecclesiastes 3.11, RSV translation.