Our Vicar’s Letter


Alone Again Naturally


One of the more unusual pop stars of the 1970s was Gilbert O’Sullivan. He was a solo artist who accompanied himself on the piano. He had a homely image and grew up in Waterford, Ireland. His chart success was largely confined to the years 1970-1975 when he had six no.1 songs.

The most unusual no.1 hit from this unusual pop star was “Alone Again (Naturally)”. The song lyric, written in the first person, is a long complaint. It starts with plans to commit suicide after being left at the altar, and ends with the death of both parents. The singer asks why it is that God has deserted him. There are parallels between this song and the psalms of lament, such as Psalm 88.  Like Psalm 88, “Alone Again (Naturally)” is notable for raising many questions but offering no answers; both are pure gloom. This fact makes it even more remarkable, because “Alone Again (Naturally)” was the only no.1 hit Gilbert O’Sullivan ever had in the land of positivity, sunshine and smiles, the United States of America.

The unrelenting gloom of Psalm 88 has led a number of theologians to suspect that it is a psalm that has lost its ending; all the other laments contain some glimmer of faith, some hint of hope for the future. But I don’t think that we have to accept that there was some failure in the editing process, and it is Gilbert O’Sullivan’s song that makes me think this way. When someone is in the depths of grief, especially early on when the tragic event is recent and the grief is raw, the whole of life can seem unremittingly black. However, this was not the case for Gilbert O’Sullivan; the song may sound autobiographical but Gilbert was not dumped on his wedding day, and his mother lived to enjoy seeing her son’s chart success.

There is another factor too that could lead a writer to omit any counterbalance to the gloom, and that is a reluctance to offer pat answers. The 1970s saw a decrease in the influence of the church and a decrease in Bible literacy; quoting the Bible in any context was increasingly likely to provoke a negative response. Admittedly, someone who is in the early stages of grief is unlikely to be open to explanations of what has happened from any source, what they need at that time may be no more than a comforting presence. And yet I do believe that the Bible has answers to questions of life and death, I just think that the time to air them is some time removed from the loss, when the bereaved person is in a position to listen.

I am amazed at the fortitude demonstrated by some people who have lost a loved one. Quite often people spontaneously acknowledge that a death after a long illness is a merciful relief. Some who have lost children accept unquestioningly that life is uncertain and that no-one knows how long they have on this earth. Others show incredible faith amidst harrowing loss. I suspect that these people have thought through the issues in advance of the bereavement.

“We all have to die.” “There is life after death.” “God will bring justice in the afterlife.” These are biblical perspectives on life and death, but some people prefer to say nothing rather than be accused of uttering platitudes. But are they really platitudes? Take the first statement “We all have to die”. This is an actual fact not an empty platitude, even an atheist has to accept that death is inevitable. The other two are statements of faith, and I would hope that all Christians would feel able to express what they believe to be true when the time is opportune.

Without life after death, this life makes no sense. When someone dies young I hear people say that this is unfair. I believe in a God of justice. I believe that God will judge us after we die, we will have to give an account to him of what we have done. Jesus said “To whom much is given, much is expected”. So the person who died young is under no disadvantage because God will judge them on the basis of the years they had not the years they didn’t have. God will put right all the injustices we suffered in our earthly life. And we will live with God for ever; whether we lived 80 seconds or 80 years on earth, both will pale into insignificance compared to eternity.

One big difference between Psalm 88 and “Alone Again (Naturally)” is that the psalmist addresses God directly, in other words he is praying, whereas in the song the singer talks of God in the third person. I often find that it is people who are farthest from God who complain the most about him when tragedy strikes.





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Parish Magazine Editor since February 2012

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