The Rev Wayne Te Kaawa, the Moderator of Te Aka Puaho (the Māori Synod of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand) has helpfully produced a bilingual Māori and English resource for ministers and worship leaders who may need resources to aid them with a tangi, funeral and unveiling. It can be downloaded here.
I’ve just finished reading Reading Ray S. Anderson: Theology as Ministry – Ministry as Theology by Christian D. Kettler (a commendable introduction to Anderson’s work). Therein I was reminded of a powerful section of Anderson’s writing on ‘Contextualizing Death in a Community of Faith and Hope’ in his On Being Human: Essays in Theological Anthropology. Anderson believed that at death we are no longer in control of our body, and that at death, if not before, the community needs to take over: ‘The community – whether represented by the congregation of God’s people or a family, or a friend, or a lover of the one who has died – must assume subjective responsibility for the body in the death of a person. To allow the body to become a mere impersonal object is to commit an indignity against the person’ (p. 142).
Anderson proceeds to note that ‘that which is professional in the service of burying the dead must be continually contextualized by that which is processional’ (p. 143), and cites the importance of accompanying the dead on their pilgrimage: ‘To die without a processional which manifests that transition [to a new beginning] through the presence of the human community under the power of the divine Word is to be abandoned at the moment when one is weakest and most vulnerable’ (p. 143).
All this is by way of saying (I’m slow; give me a break!) that the latest edition of Candour has a focus on funerals. It includes the following essays:
- ‘Ministers and their grief’, by Rose Luxford.
- ‘The funeral: “the service of witness to the resurrection” vs “this is your life”‘, by Allister Lane.
- ‘Funerals in a rural parish’, by Stephanie Wells.
- ‘Funerals: issues and reflections for ministers’, by Martin Fey.
- ‘Reflections of a rest home chaplain’, by Jan Gough.
BTW: I drew attention some time back to Thomas Long’s book Accompany Them with Singing: The Christian Funeral (you can read the first chapter here). It really is an outstanding piece of work. Long also has a piece on ‘Grief without stages’ in the latest edition of Christian Century.
- Ashgate announces some new titles: Christ and the Other: In Dialogue with Hick and Newbigin by Graham Adams; Four Philosophical Anglicans: W.G. De Burgh, W.R. Matthews, O.C. Quick, H.A. Hodges by Alan Sell; Ethics with Barth: God, Metaphysics and Morals by Matthew Rose; Philip Melanchthon, Speaker of the Reformation by Timothy J. Wengert.
- Think ‘Progressive Church’.
- Ben Myers on Tomáš Halík, atheism and patience.
- Parker Palmer on writing and faith.
- Church rules on funeral rites and wrongs.
- Halden Doerge jumps back into the blogging pond with some thoughts on the postliberal theological project.
- Mike Crowl shares a nice quote from Nouwen on spiritual direction.
- Jim Gordon on welcoming Benedict XVI to Scotland, and a joyful reflection on Benedict XVI in Bellahouston Park.
- Trevor Cairney reports on Jeremy Begbie’s 2010 New College Lectures on ‘Music, Modernity and God’. For those, like me, who couldn’t be there but wanted to, there’s MP3s to come!
- Marilynne Robinson takes on bad science writers.
- Rowland Croucher shares some questions about sex that he’s been asked as a counsellor.
- Countdown to Freedom for Aung San Suu Kyi. Also, Thakin Ohn Myint, Aung San Suu Kyi’s mentor, has died.
- Myanmar’s Election Commission cancels polls in ethnic areas because they know military government proxy parties cannot win.
- Questioning Myanmar’s Electoral Commission’s definition of ‘Free and Fair’.
- Rick Floyd on When Blogs Die.
During the week I drew attention to Thomas Long’s new book Accompany Them with Singing: The Christian Funeral. Now I’m pleased to draw attention to the fact that our friends at Westminster John Knox Press have made the first chapter available free via Scribd. Thanks WJK.
There is a genuine sense in which every act of worship is a funeral, entailing acts of judgement and the declaration of God’s hope for humanity in Jesus Christ. That said, it’s really not easy finding good books about funerals (though I am always open to suggestions). And that’s why I’m encouraged by the appearance of Thomas Long‘s new book Accompany Them with Singing. I ordered my copy today, but while I’m waiting for it to arrive, here’s a few tasters:
Accompany them with singing
In a funeral, what is true about all worship, namely, that the gospel story is reenacted in dramatic form, comes to particular focus around the occasion of a death. The major theme of a funeral is the gospel story, and the life story of the person who has died is a motif running through this larger theme; perhaps more precisely, a funeral is about the intertwining of these two narratives. At a funeral, the faithful community gathers to enact the promises of the gospel and the convictions of the Christian faith about life and death, as they are refracted through the prism of the life of the one who has died.
To say that a funeral is a gospel liturgical drama seems simple and true, but this is precisely one of the aspects of the Christian funeral most obscured and crusted over by so many contemporary funeral customs. When it is clear that the funeral is a dramatic reenactment of the gospel, this shines a bright light on what a funeral is not. Despite popular misconceptions, a funeral is not primarily a quiet time when people gather to reflect on the legacy of the deceased, a devotional service dealing with grief, a show of community support for the mourning family, or even a “celebration of life.” Good funerals, in fact, do all of these things – console the grief-stricken, remember and honor the deceased, display community care, and give thanks for all the joys and graces experienced in the life of the one who has died. But these are some of the consequences of a good funeral, not its central meaning or purpose.
The funeral as drama
While it is true that the gospel is proclaimed in the words of the funeral, it is also true that the gospel is proclaimed in the actions of the funeral. The whole funeral, as an act of drama growing out of baptism, proclaims the gospel.
When a Christian dies, the church gathers to act out the story of what this death means in the light of the gospel, but it is a story that began long before the person died. It is a story that began at baptism. Since a funeral is built on the foundation of baptism, we cannot fully grasp the dramatic aspects of a funeral without seeing them in baptism as well, and it is there that we must begin.
On the banks of Louisiana’s Ouachita River, the congregation of St. Paul’s Baptist Church, an African American congregation, gathers every year, after several days of fervent prayer meetings and vigorous revival preaching, to baptize new converts to the Christian faith. The older members of the church call this spot on the river “the old burying ground,” because of what Paul said about baptism: “Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). Here, in the flowing currents of the Ouachita, sinners are plunged beneath the waters symbolically to die with Christ, to be washed clean, and to be raised up to a new way of life.
On those days when the congregation of St. Paul’s gathers for baptism, the Ouachita River is, of course just the Ouachita, but in the drama of baptism it becomes much more. It is the Red Sea, the waters through which the children of Israel passed on their way to freedom and to the promised land. On baptism day, the Ouachita is also the Jordan River, the place of Jesus’ baptism, and it is the “river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb” (Rev. 22:1) through the heavenly city. “We gather here on this old river that drifts into the sea,” said the pastor of St. Paul’s, standing hipdeep in the water one baptismal day, “because we have come back here. Things may have changed uptown; banks may have gone out; shopping centers may have closed, but this old river just keeps on. So we thought the church would come back here and tell the Lord, we thank him for this old river.”
The candidates for baptism, wearing cotton robes sewn especially for them by the older women in the congregation, “the mothers of the church,” stand on the riverbank waiting. At the beckoning of the pastor, the deacons take each of them by the hand, one by one, and lead them down into the river, as the congregation sings old hymns and spirituals like “Take me to the water; take me to the water; take me to the water to be baptized.”
When those baptized come out of the river, they are taken to an improvised dressing room, from which they emerge dressed in dazzling white “Sunday clothes,” and they go back to the river to sing and pray while others are baptized. Then the whole congregation goes back to the church building for a festive ceremony in which these new Christians are “fellowshipped into the church.”
Notice that the Baptists of St. Paul’s Church don’t just talk about their convictions concerning baptism; they act them out in a dramatic piece of what could be called Christian community theater there on the river. Baptism is about dying and rising with Christ. Baptism is about being washed clean from sin. Baptism is about being welcomed into a community of the faithful as a brother or sister in Christ. Baptism is about responding to a holy call and setting out on an adventure of faith. Every one of these claims about baptism, and more, is acted out in the drama of the baptismal service.
The same is true whenever and wherever baptism is performed. Whether it is the Baptists assembled on the banks of the muddy Ouachita or a Lutheran congregation around the font in a candle-lit church in Wisconsin or an assembly of Catholics observing the sacrament of baptism in a Texas cathedral, though the details may differ, the essential baptismal drama is the same. In the waters of baptism — river, lake, pool, or font — Christians “die” to the old self, and emerge from the waters to set out on a journey of new life. One of the earliest names for the Christian movement was “the Way” (Acts 9:2), because the faith was not understood as a set of ideas or intellectual beliefs, but as a journey down a road, a way of life. Just as Jesus came up out of the baptismal waters of the Jordan River and set out on the road to the cross, just so, Christians pass through the waters of baptism and begin to travel, following in the path of Jesus. Christians do not take this road alone, but, as the baptismal drama makes plain, they travel in the company of the saints. Those being baptized are visibly and audibly surrounded by the faithful, who pray and sing these new Christians along their baptismal way. The prayer for the baptismal journey in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer points toward the road: “Send them into the world in witness to your love,” and then names the destination, “Bring them to the fullness of your peace and glory.” The church promises in the words of the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship, “to guide and nurture [them] by word and deed, with love and prayer, encouraging them to know and follow Christ.”
A Christian funeral is a continuation and elaboration of the baptismal service. If baptism is a form of worshipful drama performed at the beginning of the Christian life, a funeral is — or should be — an equally dramatic, and symmetrical, performance of worship performed at the end of life. When Christians traveling along the baptismal path die, the company of the faithful who were there to guide them at the beginning are also there to carry them at the end. In baptism, new Christians are “buried with Christ by baptism into death,” and they come up from the waters raised to “walk in newness of life.” In funerals, these same Christians, having traveled the pilgrim way, are once again buried with Christ in death in the sure confidence that they will be raised to new life. In baptism, the faithful sang them into this new way of life; now they gather around to sing them to God in death. Just as they washed the new Christian in the waters of baptism, they now lovingly wash the body of the deceased. Just as they adorned the newly baptized Christian with the garments of Christ, they now adorn the deceased in clothes fitting to meet God and perhaps place a pall, a symbol of the garments of baptism, over the coffin. As the church has been traveling with the baptized saint along the road of faith, the church now walks with the deceased on “the last mile of the way” to the place of farewell.
The funeral, then, is not just a collection of inspiring words said on the occasion of someone’s death. It is, rather, a dramatic event in which the church acts out what it believes to be happening from the perspective of faith. In this sense, a Christian funeral is a piece of theater, but it has more in common with ancient forms of religious drama than with popular theater. The philosopher Martha Nussbaum once contrasted ancient Greek drama with more contemporary Broadway style theater. Today, observed Nussbaum, a playgoing audience sits quietly in a darkened theater, “in the illusion of splendid isolation,” and watches the actors perform on a stage “bathed in artificial light, as if it were a separate world of fantasy and mystery.” Not so in ancient Greece. Greek plays “took place during a solemn civic/religious festival, whose trappings made spectators conscious that the values of the community were being examined and communicated.” Also, the plays were performed in broad daylight and “in the round,” that is, in the midst of the community. People could look across the stage and see the faces of their neighbors and fellow citizens on the other side. “To respond to these events,” says Nussbaum, “was to acknowledge and participate in a way of life.” Greek drama, like other forms of art, “was thought to be practical, aesthetic interest a practical interest—an interest in the good life and in communal self-understanding. To respond in a certain way was to move already toward this greater understanding.”
Just so, at a funeral the congregation does not gather as an audience to hear and see a production performed “on stage” at the front of the church or funeral home chapel. In fact, the congregation at a funeral is not an “audience” at all; they are the actors, and they are themselves on stage, moving and gesturing at the right times; singing, speaking, and praying their lines in the great drama of death and life. “[A]ll Christians are performers,” claims [theologian Shannon] Craigo-Snell, “and the entire Christian life is a performance in which we attempt to enact and create the events called for by the script/Scripture. Those who sit in the rear pew on Sunday mornings are no less actors than the clergy up front.” Even those neighbors, friends, and family members who are not a part of the church but who have come for this funeral are welcomed with the hospitality of God and invited to take up powerful roles in this drama.
[HT: Faith and Leadership]
We are made for life. Everything in our humanity cries out against death. Strangely, and shockingly, we’ve come to accept the ‘fact’ of death (and even, in some cases, to benefit from it), especially when it concerns those who have ‘had a good innings’. But one of the toughest gigs is to bury a child. Only one who has lost a child can know the journey from enrapture at the news that ‘we’re pregnant’, to the birth of dreams and laughter, to losing the grip on hope, and … well, to the great emptiness.
Many of those who ‘lose’ a child – including a child in utero – feel that they want to remember rightly, to honour life, and to thank God for the life given – and taken – from them. For some, this means intentional time together with God, to give thanks, to listen, to rage, to see if God might listen, to bury the ‘body’, to protest.
About a year ago, it fell to me to conduct a ‘private’ funeral service for a child which had died in utero (at 11 weeks). Disappointingly, among all the many resources that I had at hand for preparing a funeral liturgy, I had absolutely nothing for funerals in the case of a miscarriage. I was shocked, and deeply bothered, that while I could find prepared liturgies for children who had died in infancy, or as stillborns, I looked in vain for words that might gather up the feelings surrounding the 10-20% of pregnancies that end in miscarriage. So in the end, I scrambled together my own.
The liturgy I pulled together in haste remains a work-in-progress, but rather than wait I wanted to make it available for others for whom it might be a helpful resource. Note that the couple in question had ‘named’ their child with an in utero ‘name’. It was this ‘name’ that was used in the service.
A Liturgy for a Miscarried Child
We are here together to worship God, to thank God for God’s love, and to remember [name] short life with us on earth; to share our grief and to commend [name] to God’s eternal care. We meet in the hope that while death is the great enemy, death is not the end, but the new beginning, and so may be faced without fear, bitterness, or guilt, but in faith, hope, and love.
‘God bent his bow and aimed it squarely at me. He shot his arrows deep into my heart … He has filled me with bitterness. He has given me a cup of deep sorrow to drink. He has made me grind my teeth on gravel. He has rolled me in the dust.Peace has been stripped away, and I have forgotten what prosperity is. I cry out, “My splendor is gone! Everything I had hoped for from the LORD is lost!” The thought of my suffering and homelessness is bitter beyond words. I will never forget this awful time, as I grieve over my loss. Yet I still dare to hope when I remember this: The unfailing love of the LORD never ends! By his mercies we have been kept from complete destruction. Great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh each day. I say to myself, “The LORD is my inheritance; therefore, I will hope in him!” The LORD is wonderfully good to those who wait for him and seek him’. (Lamentations 3.12–25)
‘Where shall I go to escape your spirit? Where shall I flee from your presence? If I scale the heavens you are there, if I lie flat in Sheol, there you are. If I speed away on the wings of the dawn, if I dwell beyond the ocean, even there your hand will be guiding me, your right hand holding me fast. I will say, ‘Let the darkness cover me, and the night wrap itself around me,’ even darkness to you is not dark, and night is as clear as the day. You created my inmost self, knit me together in my mother’s womb. For so many marvels I thank you; a wonder am I, and all your works are wonders. You knew me through and through, my being held no secrets from you, when I was being formed in secret, textured in the depths of the earth. Your eyes could see my embryo. In your book all my days were inscribed, every one that was fixed is there’. (Psalm 139.7–16)
Merciful Father, before you formed us in the womb you knew us as a mother. You make nothing in vain and you love all that you have made. You are the God of unfailing compassion, and you too know what it is like to lose a child. In your creative love and tenderness you gave us [name], so full of hope for the future. You are the source of all our lives, the strength of all our days. You did not make us for darkness and death but to see you face to face and to enjoy abundant life. We praise you for with you nothing is wasted or incomplete, and all things are upheld and made whole with your love. Help us to comfort one another with the comfort we receive from you through your two hands – Word and Spirit.
We pray for [name]. We ask that any trauma that [name] may have felt in those last days, hours, or moments, may be met with your healing. We pray that [name] may continue to grow physically and to mature emotionally, unfrightened and secure in your love, and thrilled about knowing you as the Ground of their being. We thank you for the promise that [name] is in your care where there is no more dying, or tears or pain. And we thank you for giving us every reason to hope that one day we might meet [name] face to face, and in that long-awaited embrace, know afresh that you are the promise-keeping Lord of life.
‘Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God’. (Mark 10.14)
‘I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Death can’t, and life can’t. The angels can’t, and the demons can’t. Our fears for today, our worries about tomorrow, and even the powers of hell can’t keep God’s love away. Whether we are high above the sky or in the deepest ocean, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord’. (Romans 8.38–39)
We believe in God, the Father Almighty,
the Creator of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord:
Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended into hell.
The third day He arose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven
and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty,
whence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and life everlasting.
Prayer of Committal
Gracious God, we commit [name] into your ever-caring and gentle love; [name] brought the promise of joy to our lives, and to those closest to us, for such a short time; enfold [name] now in your mighty and eternal life of love, in the name of the risen One who was born and died and who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit for ever.
‘God bless you and keep you, God smile on you and gift you, God look you full in the face and make you prosper’. (Numbers 6.24–26)
‘Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had disappeared. And the sea was also gone. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a beautiful bride prepared for her husband. I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, the home of God is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them.He will remove all of their sorrows, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. For the old world and its evils are gone forever.” And the one sitting on the throne said, “Look, I am making all things new!” … And he also said, “It is finished! I am the Alpha and the Omega – the Beginning and the End. To all who are thirsty I will give the springs of the water of life without charge! All who are victorious will inherit all these blessings, and I will be their God, and they will be my children’. (Revelation 21.1–7)