We get a completely new set of people

Thomas Long, writing in his book Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral, imagines a funeral for a wife and mother named Annette. The funeral he imagines is, like so many others, “sweet and nostalgic”, featuring readings of Psalm 23 and Proverbs 31, and celebrating that she “was a good woman, a good Christian”. He continues:
“we go to the grave where Annette now lies next to her husband and her parents in the family plot in the cemetery, and it will forever be this way. ‘We will always remember her,’ we say.
But of course it’s a white lie; we won’t remember her always. All of the pieces of Annette’s funeral were fine as far as they went, but the fact is, they were built on the illusion that this land is our permanent home. We get a completely new set of people every 100 years, and it will not be too many generations before no one living much remembers Annette at all. If history rolls on long enough, her church will disappear, the building will disintegrate, the congregation will be scattered, and the cemetery will be covered by the dust, the tombstones long disintegrated.
This is exactly the perspective on life and mortality that is so common in Scripture, and so uncommon today. Rather humbling, in fact, and sobering. And a perspective that even at a funeral is hard to get people to face. But that is precisely why a Christian funeral should not be simply nostalgic and sweet, but built on a more clear-eyed view not only of the reality of death, but also a firm proclamation of Christian hope. For:
“if Annette will be forgotten to history, she will be remembered by God, and she worships now in a building not made with hands. The funeral, then, should honor this land – the person Annette has been, the things she has done, the relationships she formed – but the funeral should not be consumed with nostalgia for Annette’s past nor ours, because our hope does not lie in this land alone, but in the city whose architect and builder is God.”

daily by an open grave

Eugene Peterson:

“Jan and I were visiting a Benedictine monastery, Christ in the Desert, in New Mexico. One of the brothers was leading us on a path from prayers in the chapel to the refectory where we would have lunch. The path led through the cemetery. We passed an open grave.

Jan said, ‘Oh, did one of the brothers just die?’

‘No, that is for the next one.’

Three times a day, on their way from praying together to eating together, the monks are reminded that one of them will be ‘the next one.'”

two kinds of suffering

“I sometimes use this analogy when I speak: ‘If one of you walked out of this meeting and a guy with a mask walked up to you in the dark parking lot, took out a knife, stabbed you in the stomach, took all your money, and left you in an unconscious state, you would call him a mugger. Someone would call the police, and they would try to find the perpetrator.
But if you left this meeting, drove down the street to the local hospital, and a guy with a mask came to you in a brightly lit room, took out a knife, cut your stomach open, took all your money, and left you in an unconscious state, you would call him a doctor and thank him for helping you. One is a mugging, and the other is surgery.’
Suffering is a lot like that. There is therapeutic suffering, and there is destructive suffering at the hands of evil people. The key is to be able to tell the difference between the two and to apply the right kind of experience to each.”

the art of a good death

Thomas Long, in his book Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral, takes on Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ classic On Death and Dying.

One objection: “the implication in Kubler-Ross’s work that knowledge of impending death somehow drives people rapidly up the stairway of emotional and ethical development is a fiction of the therapeutic culture.”

“The fact is that people die pretty much as they have lived. If someone has been enraged throughout life, we can expect rage at the end. A person who tries to bargain with life, family, physicians, and God on death’s door has probably tried to cut a few deals before. A person who blesses the world at death has not learned this in the last few hours of life but has been shaped to live a life of blessing. As one rabbi said, ‘A Jew is expected to die, as he has lived, with the name of God on his lips.’

The best preparation for dying a Christian death, then, is living a Christian life.”

Long notes that in the past, Christians have developed resources to prepare for death, and specifically for confronting death well and as a Christian. The prime example he gives is the 15th century Ars Moriendi tradition. Ars Moriendi is latin for “The Art of Dying”, and was the name of a pair of latin texts developed in response to the “Black Death” which was currently ravaging Europe.

The texts help the Christian to prepare for death by running through a dress rehearsal of their final moments, and of the kinds of temptations to despair that may assail them at that time. Long notes one dialogue from the Ars Moriendi in which Satan approaches a Christian dying alone:

Satan: You’re frightened, aren’t you?

Dying person: Yes, I am frightened, but I am trusting my Savior who calms my fears.

Satan: Oh really? You think you are going to be rewarded by this Jesus, don’t you? You who have no righteousness.

Dying person: Christ is my righteousness.

Satan: Oh ho, Christ is your righteousness? You think Christ will welcome you to the company of Peter and Paul and the apostles? You who have sinned over and over again?

Dying person: No, I am not going into the company of Peter and Paul. I am going into the company of the thief on the cross, who heard the promise, ‘Today, you will be with me in paradise.'”

It is striking that this comes from the 15th century (pre-reformation), and was a popular and much used devotional tool. It was also, of course, extremely practical.

Long writes, that having been versed in the Ars Moriendi, “When Christians got to their deathbeds and felt the fear and anxiety and unworthiness that almost every dying person feels, they had been there before. They possessed the language to describe the experience and to speak faithfully in the midst of it.”

prophets of a future that is not our own

“It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view. The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts: it is beyond our vision.

We accomplish in this lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is the Lord’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.

No sermon says all that should be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection. No pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the Church’s mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

That is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted knowing they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that affects far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very, very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the Master Builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future that is not our own.”

Often attributed to Oscar Romero, these are the words of Ken Untener

more than thin air and thoughts

Eric Metaxas, in Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, on Bonhoeffer’s instruction to his students while a lecturer in theology  in 1932-33:

“Bonhoeffer was not interested in intellectual abstraction. Theology must lead to the practical aspects of how to live as a Christian. Karding was surprised when Bonhoeffer asked his students whether they sang Christmas carols. Their answer was noncommittal, so he said, ‘If you want to be pastors, then you must sing Christmas carols!’ For him, music was not an optional part of Christian ministry, but de rigeur. He decided to tackle this deficiency head-on. ‘On the first day of Advent,’ he said to her, ‘we will meet each other at noon…and we will sing Christmas carols.’ She remembered that he ‘played the flute wonderfully’ and sang ‘magnificently.'”

Just one of the ways that Bonhoeffer’s faith had a wonderful practicality, an earthiness. He would later write to his fiancee that,

human beings were taken from the earth and don’t just consist of thin air and thoughts.”

Pursuing piety as it’s own reward

Richard Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal (154):

“Puritan piety sometimes re-created the counsels of perfection in monastic spirituality in what it required of the normal Christian prayer life. It was considered good for the young Christian to be challenged with the marathon records of Jesus and the saints. This could be humbling, but it could also cause the young prayer-warrior to buckle under the weight of the armor he felt bound to assume. In such cases prayer was not an expression of faith in God’s grace, but a monument erected to attract his attention. Trust was not centered on the God who constantly oversees our paths and knows our needs, but on prayer itself, which must be used as a magical lever to pry answers from an unwilling God.”

The pursuit of marathon prayer-sessions persists.

Six or so years ago when we began a monthly prayer meeting at our church (after a period without any such meetings), one of the people helping to plan the meetings – filled with sincere passion – suggested that we set aside two full hours for each and every meeting. If we’re going to pray, let’s challenge people to really pray, was the sentiment I recall. Raise the bar. Based on his passion, and following the assumption that marathon prayer is better (I mean it has to be more holy, doesn’t it?), we went for it. 2 hours, on a Friday night, all prayer, straight up.

This was diving in to the deep end, to say the least. At the time (and to this day) Jesus was still in the process of teaching us what it even meant to gather God’s people in dedicated prayer. So we were setting out a goal (2 hours in prayer) that we didn’t even know how to meet. But we were also operating on a flawed understanding of what was most necessary about prayer in the first place. Subtly, subtly, the expectation works in that prayer is necessary not because of our utter need for the presence and power of God. Rather, we begin to believe it is necessary because of what it says about us or what it provokes from God – in Lovelace’s words, prayer becomes either a monument or a magical lever.

Suddenly the focus is on prayer and how it works, rather than on the God who bids us call Him Father, and invites us in to freely ask and freely receive. But to focus on prayer itself is to miss the point. Lovelace reminds us of how Jesus rebuked the elaborate prayers of the Gentiles in Mt. 6:7 – 8, and of the simple prayer He then taught His disciples. Just think of the simplicity of the Lord’s Prayer in contrast to the serious piety of marathon prayer! Lovelace writes that Jesus’ words critiquing elaborate, marathon prayers, combined with

“the short formula of prayer which follows, might seem almost dangerously indulgent to many who have been schooled in a more laborious piety”.

Dangerously indulgent indeed. Scandalous to the seriously self-righteous. Just like grace itself.

All of this, of course, is not to dismiss the need for prayer. No indeed. But it is to say that we should make sure we understand the proper basis of all prayer and what it is we are actually doing as we pray.

In my experience, the announcement of a dedicated time of prayer is not usually greeted with anticipation, as a gift, but with a sigh, as a burden. We think, “I don’t pray well enough“. We think, “I don’t pray long enough“. We think, “I don’t really enjoy sitting awkwardly in a room, ignoring the silences“. But we think, “I know I should. So I hope I’m already busy that night“.

This isn’t just our sinful nature or lack of discipline; it’s also a misunderstanding of the whole endeavor, right from the start. We may not enjoy prayer because we are thinking of prayer as something that it isn’t. One shouldn’t enjoy seriously pursuing piety as it’s own reward.