A year ago today, we celebrated Etta’s life in Cheltenham surrounded by family and friends. I don’t take that for granted now. Sam’s brother Tom led the service for us and there will never be the words to thank him. Finding the words at a child’s funeral must be so difficult, let alone your own niece’s but he did an amazing job. Here are his words spoken that day. The first sentence will stay with me forever.
Well, this is shit.
We didn’t expect to be here. We hoped, we prayed, we trusted, we waited.
Things like this aren’t supposed to happen to us, are they? They happen to other people. To the friend of a friend. To a celebrity. To someone you read about in a book or magazine. Not to us.
I remember thinking that 10 years’ ago, when my, Kim, and Sam’s mum died. And we think it again today, gathered around this tiny coffin. This shouldn’t happen to us. To our dear Emily, Sam, and Ezra.
And yet, here we are.
Why? Why has this tragedy happened? Couldn’t God have prevented it? Didn’t he want Etta to live? If he’s all good and all powerful, why did he allow it?
The Christian faith doesn’t pretend to have an easy, neat, logical answer to such questions – whether posed in terms of an abstract ‘problem of evil’ philosophical conundrum, or posed in the raw terms of a personal tragedy such as that which has afflicted Sam and Emily and, to a lesser extent, all of us here today.
The Bible is realistic – brutally honest – about the sufferings, injustices, and tragedies of life. In its pages, inspired prophets and apostles wrestle with these issues – wrestle with God over these issues – with all their pain, confusion, and frustration with the world and with its Maker plain to see.
God does not expect us to put a brave face on it today. He does not expect us to ‘move on.’ He is neither fooled nor honoured by our exchanging pious-sounding platitudes, sentimental nonsense, empty euphemisms.
This is shit. You know it, I know it, he knows it.
There are no easy answers that make philosophical sense and which Sam and Emily are going to find emotionally satisfying.
And yet. And yet Scripture does put a few stakes in the ground – does put down a few markers that, while not a complete answer to the raging questions we might be asking, do both provide some solace, some comfort, some notes of hope; and do indicate that there may be a good answer, even though it remains clouded to us and known only to God.
As Sam, Emily, Ezra, and other members of Etta’s family and network of friends start now to rebuilt their lives, to adjust to this sad reality, these ‘stakes in the ground’ may be enough – not to recover, not to move on – but may be enough to tether their hurting hearts to, to tie threads of their lives back to together with, to weave a new way of seeing the world with.
Some of those ‘stakes’ are alluded to in the liturgy and prayers of the funeral service. A stake like ‘Jesus Christ knows the pain of bitter loss first hand.’ He experienced the full measure of human sorrow, the full range and extent of emotional, physical, and spiritual pain. He knows and identifies with your grief and comes alongside you in it. He is, Scripture says, full of compassion, able to sympathise with us in our weakness.
A stake like, ‘the Holy Spirit is called the Comforter, the Encourager: he promises to be with you and to be in you to strengthen you in your Christian faith and to equip you to live out your callings in a God-honouring way: your calling as husband and wife, your calling as parents to Ezra and maybe more children, your calling to your careers.’
A stake like, ‘God is robust enough and thick-skinned enough to be yelled at.’ He can take it. Just read the Psalms of lament and the book of Job. With a personal God in sovereign control of the universe, including the details of our lives, we don’t need to ‘rage against the machine.’ We can – we should – rage against God; or, better, to God. In Scripture, you have divinely-inspired permission to tell God exactly what you feel, who you think is responsible, and what you think should be done about it. Talk to him. He wants you to, and he can take it.
But a couple more of the ‘stakes’ that the Bible puts in the ground in connection with the tragedy of loss, the suffering of the innocent, are brought out in the two Scripture readings Sam and Emily selected for this sad occasion.
Consider the Psalm Ally read a few moments’ ago, ‘The LORD is my shepherd.’ It contains that famous verse which to most is more familiar in the Authorised Version: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me.” Here is the promise that with the LORD being our shepherd, we need not fear the darkness even of death, because he walks with us through it. Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd; who by his death and resurrection, has walked through the valley of the shadow of death to the sunlit uplands of eternal life in the new creation beyond. Because of his victory over the grave, he is able to walk through that valley with each member of his people. On the 23rd December, he was able to walk though that valley with little Etta as she died in her parents’ arms.
Finally, consider the short reading from Jeremiah chapter 1. Of course, it’s not addressed to Etta directly; it’s not about her specifically. It is about Jeremiah’s calling to be a prophet. But the precious stake in the ground which the passage provides is this: an infant, a tiny baby, even a baby in the womb, is known to God.
Perhaps the saddest aspect of the tragedy of having little Etta with us for only a month is that we hardly got to know her. We got to know one or two little things about her: she was born at a minute past midnight on the 26th November 2019, weighing 7lb 8oz (exactly the same as her elder brother); she was beautiful, even despite all the major procedures she endured every day; she was stubborn and perplexing (like certain other Woolford girls) as she confounded the doctors with her struggle to stay alive; and in her short life she achieved as many university degrees as her father has.
But that’s about all we knew about her. We don’t know the girl and woman she would have become. And that’s painful. That’s a profound loss that is now and always will be keenly felt. Etta had a hole in her heart, and her death has left a hole in our hearts. We hardly got to know her.
But the LORD said of Jeremiah, and by implication says of Etta, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.”
Etta was known of God. More than that, she is known of God. We barely knew her, and for the rest of our lives we will not know her any better – but that doesn’t mean she is unknown. She is known; and known to the only Person who ultimately counts: she is known to God. God knew her in her brief earthly life, and knows her now in her heavenly life. He does know the girl and woman she would have become, and he does know the woman she will be in the new creation.
As it happens, there are two other things we do know about Etta. One is that she was baptised. In the small hours, about a week before she died, when she wasn’t expected to survive the night, she was baptised, with specially sterilised water, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Now, her baptism didn’t automatically bring about a change in her spiritual state. It wasn’t so much for her benefit at all. Instead, her baptism was for our benefit – chiefly of course for her parents’ benefit – as it was an outward and tangible sign and seal of the precious inward and spiritual truth we have just described: that Etta Grace Libi Woolford is known to God, and adopted – by grace – into his family forever.
And the one other thing we know about Etta is this: she was loved. Her parents attended her cot for between 14 and 20 hours every day (and sometimes more). They could do nothing for her; they just wanted to be with her, because they loved her. Etta was visited by scores of family members and friends who loved her; many more wanted the chance to visit. She became loved by even the doctors and nurses who cared for her.
Hers was a short life, but it was a loved life.
And so this tribute to Etta’s life, about which we have so little to say, actually says everything that I would want said in the eulogy at my funeral, with maybe 80 or 90 years’ more material potentially to go into it: here lies someone who was dearly loved by their family and friends, and who was – and is – known and loved by the LORD.