Finding hope amongst grief and sadness

John Bentham was Coordinating Chaplain at the University of Nottingham at the time of his sudden and tragic death on 6th August from a pulmonary embolism. John was well known and much loved in the Diocese of Southwell and Nottingham, having trained at St John’s College, Nottingham, been vicar of St Saviour’s in the Meadows in inner city Nottingham for nearly a decade before being Chaplain for more than two decades, and had been active in the diocese including being West Bingham Area Dean. He was a prime mover behind persuading Mike Pilavachi to set up Soul Survivor as an annual youth festival, and locally he was a founding trustee of the Malt Cross as a Christian-led cafe and arts centre in the centre of Nottingham and the operating base of the city’s Street Pastors.

I knew John well; our children had been at school together, and we had twice met up on holiday as families. John has been struggling with mental health issues around anxiety, and he had come and stayed with us for a peaceful Easter long weekend earlier in the year. At the beginning of the memorial service on Wednesday, I felt an overwhelming sense of sadness at his loss, and found it hard to sing the words of the songs and hymns. This was my fourth funeral in a month, three in church and one conducting by a civil celebrant, and I had reflected on the difference between the two kinds of service on Radio 4’s You and Yours, which you can listen to here. Church services offer a message of transcendent hope—death is not the last word over human life. But they also offer a structure sense of community, where we share in words and actions that have been repeated generation after generation, and communal rituals, which provide strong containers for our loss and grief. I felt the effect of this myself, as sadness intermingled with the hope of resurrection in Jesus—though the hope never eradicates the sadness, rather giving it a wider context as the two sit alongside one another.

I reproduce here the tribute to John from Andrew Cole, the former Catholic Chaplain at Nottingham who was for many years John’s colleague, read at the service by the Pro-Vice Chancellor of the University. Not only is this a lovely tribute, but it offers a wonderful articulation of the meaning of our shared hope in Christ. This is followed by the sermon preached by my colleague at St Nic’s, Steve Silvester, who modelled for us a way of holding together our questions of God in times like this, our sadness in our loss, and our confidence in Christ.

I share these in the hope that they will be a real tribute to John, a real comfort to those of us who continue to feel sadness at the loss of such a friend, and a model to those who need to minister in similar situations.

Andrew Cole writes: I am privileged to have been asked by John’s family to give a short tribute to his work as one of the many wonderful people who have served the staff and students of the University of Nottingham as chaplains and faith advisers. Although I cannot be with you in person today I am very much with you in spirit, and I would like to express my deepest sympathy to Marianne, Alice, Henry, James, Rosie and all John’s family and friends, as those who know him and love him have gathered to remember him and to commend him to Almighty God, the Father and source of all life, whom John served faithfully as a Christian, a priest and a chaplain.

I think that John would be quietly pleased with this afternoon’s proceedings, because here three worlds which he inhabited and which he held in tension are colliding – his family, the Church and the University. He would have enjoyed the frenetic activity which led to the organising of this liturgy, the phone calls, the meetings, the conversations, the bringing together of people from many different backgrounds who have all gathered in one place for one purpose even if they have come by different paths.

I say this because for five years, during my ministry as Catholic Chaplain to the University of Nottingham, I worked with John to prepare the annual Festival of Lessons and Carols. While most people were looking forward to the summer vacation, we would sit down in May to discuss Christmas carols. Nearer the time, this seventy-five-minute long service would become all-consuming. Where will the coaches be? To robe or not to robe? To mull wine or not to mull wine? What readings from Sacred Scripture will we hear? What hymns will we sing? Who will introduce the service and who will preach? What balance is there between the different Christian traditions – and, even more trenchantly, the different musical traditions?

But that was John. He wanted this annual service – in which university met city on possibly the only time of the year when many of those who attended it would come into a church – to be right. He wanted it to be an act of worship that was inclusive and all-embracing, ecumenical and yet still rooted in the beauty of the Anglican tradition that was his spiritual home and in which he served as a priest of the Church of God, an uplifting celebration of God’s love made real to which all were welcome.

John served as chaplain for twenty-one years, from 1998 until his death; for much of that time, he was Coordinating Chaplain, the first among equals – a patriarch rather than a pope, representing the chaplaincy to the University and the University to the chaplaincy. He would gather us together for regular meetings – they were possibly too regular for some of us who really do see them as a practical alternative to work, especially when we did not get past item one on the agenda, but John could see the value of bringing people together to discuss and eventually to decide how we could work together for the common good of those whom we were called to serve. He worked hard to integrate the chaplaincy into the wider network of student services while maintaining the chaplaincy’s unique mission and ministry, which was often misunderstood. But he made sure that we were there and we had our rightful place.

During his time, the ecumenical and multi-faith dimension of chaplaincy flourished; I will always remember with gratitude his coming to preach at Sunday Mass in the Great Hall, and he was always grateful that I invited him to give the blessing with me at the end of Mass. Such gestures meant a lot to John because through them we could seek together to discern God’s will for us and come closer to one another in mutual understanding and appreciation of each other’s traditions and journeys.

John’s journey here on earth ended on 6th August this year, when he was called from this life to the eternal glory that God, in his goodness, has prepared for us; this date is significant, because it is when many Christians within the Anglican and Catholic traditions which John and I represent celebrate the Transfiguration of Jesus, when he revealed his glory as the Risen Lord in our midst. I believe that John, having worked so hard to transform the lives of so many people for the better, will himself have been transformed, ‘changed from glory into glory’ so that he can rest and enjoy the Kingdom of Heaven.

I shall miss him, because we became great friends and we nourished each other in faith. I last saw him in Grimsby, where I am parish priest, when he came to stay for the weekend, some months ago now. I did not know then that I would not see him again until we meet in the Kingdom of Heaven. It saddens me that he has gone before me, marked with the sign of faith; but it fills me with great hope that he has been caught up within the all-embracing and all-inclusive love of God, who only has one item on his agenda for all of us – that we may have life, and have it to the full.

John, thank you. Rest in peace. Amen.

Father Andrew Cole, Catholic Chaplain to the University of Nottingham 2011-2017, 4th September 2019

Steve Silvester writes: It is an honour to speak at this service. I know that there are many here who are more capable than me, those who have served alongside John over the years, and those whom John encouraged into ministry. Like John, I have ministered in this great city of Nottingham for a long time, and for significant stretches of time we served together – as Trustees of The Malt Cross, as Area Deans, on Bishop’s Council, and as honorary canons of Southwell Minster.

 When you are installed as a canon, you are given a psalm, which is associated with your particular stall in the cathedral. Mine is Psalm 27; John’s is Psalm 91, the psalm we have just heard read. 

‘Because he loves me,’ says the Lord, ‘I will rescue him;
I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name.
15 He will call on me, and I will answer him;
I will be with him in trouble,
I will deliver him and honour him.
16 With long life I will satisfy him
and show him my salvation.’

I wonder how you felt when Colin read those words. Speaking personally, I feel such a sense of shock and sadness around John’s death. With long life I will satisfy him – rubbish! He was 60, for goodness sake. He will call on me, and I will answer him. Well, where was your answer, God? John died at the weakest point in his life, when he was so fragile and alone on a psychiatric ward, before he could hold the grandchild that Alice will soon bring into the world. Call that ‘rescue’, ‘deliverance’, ‘honour’??

As a canon you are meant to pray your allotted psalm every day. I don’t know whether John managed this. I haven’t – not every day. However, your psalm does become part of you, and I have no doubt that phrases from this Psalm would have featured regularly in John’s prayers, particularly when life was a struggle. You see, you don’t need a psalm like this when life is running smoothly. You need a psalm like this when you feel insecure, when you know all too well ‘the terror of the night’, and when you sense that the cobra is about to strike. 

Interestingly, words from this Psalm feature in that very dark and dangerous time in Jesus’ life, when he was tempted. Mockingly, Satan says to him, 

‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written (in Psalm 91): ‘“He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.”’

I don’t have a great stomach for sailing. I soon feel queasy. But I have learned that when there is a swell, and when the waves toss you around, you have to keep looking at the horizon and that constant, thin flat line will keep you from being ill. And a psalm like this acts as the horizon. Look at the waves and you will be sick. You have to fix your eyes on something that is constant, unchangeable, and around which you can orientate your mind. God is good. God is faithful. God is trustworthy.

Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say of the Lord, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust.’

Look at the horizon! Barbara Brown Taylor, in her beautiful book Learning to Walk in the Dark writes these words: 

I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light… There is a light that shines in the darkness, which is only visible there.

… I wish I could turn to the church for help, but so many congregations are preoccupied with keeping the lights on right now that the last thing they want to talk about is how to befriend the dark.

Well that’s why we’re talking about the darkness now, here in church. I often think about those lovely words of invitation that we sometimes use in our communion services. 

Come to this table, not because you must but because you may,
not because you are strong, but because you are weak.
Come, not because any goodness of your own gives you a right to come,
but because you need mercy and help.
Come, because you love the Lord a little and would like to love him more.
Come, because he loved you and gave himself for you.

Like me, you may feel a great sadness when you think of John’s death, but the truth is, the only way we can come to God is as weak and in need. 

John did great things in this city, as Bishop Tony has said. His practical wisdom rescued many a Trustees’ or Council meeting. He served with diligence and courage. He battled to bring the good news of Jesus to people – especially young people – in ways that they could understand, that made sense, that were real. He was a blessing to so many people in the churches and university that he served. And John was a very proud father. To his children – you are your father’s greatest legacy! You may not know many of us, but we know all about you! He loved you so much. 

But we don’t come to God presenting our achievements. We come needing shelter, refuge, protection and mercy. And that is what He gives. ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me’ says Jesus (John 14.1). The horizon that looks so flat proves to be curved, and the way to the God Most High, who is our dwelling, proves to be Jesus. “I am the way and the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14.6)

We’re here today to thank God for John and to celebrate his life. I am pretty sure that John would not have chosen for his gift to us at this service to be a message about darkness or that he would be transfigured through weakness. But that is what he has given us.

 It is one of the most profound paradoxes of the Christian faith that we are strong when we are weak and that hope is birthed in darkness. At the centre of the Christian faith is a man who died a very sad and lonely death, in weakness and shame, but Jesus has become the way through death to life. Without the cross and tomb there is no resurrection. “New life,” says Brown Taylor, “starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark.”

It may be for some of you here today, that you came with great sadness but you can leave with hope. You came with cynicism, but you can leave with faith. You came alone, but you can leave with Jesus. Come and talk with me afterwards if that’s you. 

I want to end, if I may, by addressing John’s family and closest friends. You will probably feel a whole range of emotions – sadness, anger, guilt or numbness. These are normal emotions in any bereavement. You may be cross with John for how he tried to cope, for decisions he made. You may be left with questions and things that you wish you’d been able to say to him or do with him. It will take time for these things to work themselves through. But I hope you will also be feeling three other things. 

Firstly, love and compassion. The more you feel compassion for John the closer you will be to the heart of God and the kinder you will be able to be on yourself. 

Secondly, gratitude – gratitude for a good man, a man of God, a man of integrity, a man with faults, amongst them supporting West Ham, a man with weaknesses just like you, but who loved you and wanted the best for you. 

Finally, freedom. You don’t have to carry John. Jesus has gone ahead and prepared a place for him. John dwells in the shelter of the Most High. Let him rest in the shadow of the Almighty.

Revd Steve Silvester, Rector, St Nic’s, Nottingham.

John had always loved U2, and after the sermon we listened to U2’s version of Psalm 40.

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2 thoughts on “Finding hope amongst grief and sadness”

  1. Sad to hear, I was a member of St Saviours when I was a student at Nottingham Trent in the mid 1990s and he was a blessing to me and St Saviours


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