During my final year of seminary, as 1983 began, I heard a taped sermon that transformed my life—an all-too-rare occurrence.

The sermon by William Sloane Coffin at the Riverside Church in NYC begins with words I would never forget: “As almost all of you know, a week ago last Monday night, driving in a terrible storm, my son Alexander – who to his friends was a real day-brightener, and to his family ‘fair as a star when only one is shining in the sky’ – my twenty-four-year-old Alexander, who enjoyed beating his old man at every game and in every race, beat his father to the grave.”

10 days after his son died in a wreck, the father preached this sermon to his church January 23, 1983. You can search the sermon online; you can download the audio through his archives site.

As a pastor and hospice chaplain for 35 years, Coffin’s words still ring true: “When a person dies, there are many things that can be said, and there is at least one thing that should never be said. The night after Alex died I was sitting in the living room of my sister’s house outside of Boston, when the front door opened and in came a nice-looking, middle-aged woman, carrying about eighteen quiches. When she saw me, she shook her head, then headed for the kitchen, saying sadly over her shoulder, ‘I just don’t understand the will of God.’ Instantly I was up and in hot pursuit, swarming all over her. ‘I’ll say you don’t, lady!’ I said.”

“For some reason, nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn’t go around this world with his fingers on triggers, his fists around knives, his hands on steering wheels. God is dead set against all unnatural deaths……. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.”

Since 1983, I have imagined being in hot pursuit, swarming all over many funeral consolers. With all the best intentions to protect God or insulate pain, I have overheard each of my top twenty list of deadly things to say to a grieving person. 

When you put your personal grief into words, what do you think, write, or say? Which cultural comments have not been helpful to your grief work and journey? What expressions and actions have brought you transformative comfort? 

5 thoughts on “William Sloane Coffin

  1. Great sermon by Reverend Coffin and words of wisdom for us all to heed. Thanks, Wally.

  2. Working part time in a busy funeral home I seldom are supprised by what I hear and by what I see. Grief is a unknown thing to many and very few pastors are at visitations where the greatest pastoral work can be done.

  3. I met William Sloan Coffin in 1984 on a wooden bench on the side of a small softball field in rural Vermont without knowing who he was. I was told his name was Bill and that he was a famous preacher. But I knew he wasn’t Billy Graham so that was that. It was just the two of us as I asked him where he had gone to seminary, if he had gotten a church after that ( no chaplain at Yale), did he have a church now ( yes Riverside in New York), was it a big church (yes) and did he like it there( he gave numerous reasons why he did). He then graciously asked about me perhaps wondering what rock I had crawled out from under. But in our several encounters after that he seemed genuinely happy to see me. Many times I have wished I could have spent more time learning from him and his brilliance.

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