Jun. 5, 2021
The Very Rev'd Joy Rogers
Christians and death
Last week, Mother Erika wrote a piece for the enews on death and the Christian. It was a beautiful articulation of the Church’s teaching on death and an expression of the heart of the Gospel.
For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. Alleluia.
I think most of us believe that; we do not always feel it; we just aren’t sure what it really means, for us and for our loved ones—, what it might look like, how it will feel.
I had been a critical care nurse before ordination, so I thought I was well versed in the death and dying arena. One morning a parishioner, a young mother, burst into the parish office, distraught and weeping. “My grandmother is dead,” she wailed. I knew Birch had grown up on the East Coast, so practically, I assumed that travel plans needed to be made.
“Where is she, I asked? Birch looked at me. I was hoping, she said, that you would tell me. It was the only time, in thirty-five years of parish ministry, that anyone raised that question – “Where is Grandma now?”
And I think about it a lot. For it takes us right to the heart of how we understand Resurrection, what kind of power is unleashed by living a life in the sure and certain hope of Resurrection; and what does it mean for us, not only beyond the grave and gates of death, but right now, right here.
Sentimental imagery of the deceased, sprouting wings and playing a harp on a fluffy cloud abounds. There are some great jokes about the encounters of the newly deceased with St. Peter at the pearly gates.
Sometimes images of the afterlife are helpful when we engage them as metaphors. One of my favorites appeared at the death of Barbara Bush. Both Bushes often spoke about Robin, the 3-year-old daughter they lost to leukemia in the 1950’s. An editorial cartoonist for a Mississippi newspaper honored Mrs. Bush at her death with an image that went viral. Through the pearly gates comes a woman who is easily recognizable as the former first lady – with her white hair and famous pearls, and complete with halo and wings. We watch from behind a little girl with blonde curls and her own halo and wings, running toward the new arrival. ‘Mama! calls the child. Her mother opens wide her arms and cries, “Robin!”
Ponder the image for a moment—do I think that is what heaven literally looks like? Do I believe that is really what happened? No. But I am moved by the meanings and the feelings that it evokes in me. The image is an exposition of death and resurrection, an artistic vision that does not deny grief and loss and tragedy and connects it all to an experience of making something broken newly whole, of absence overwhelmed by presence, of an ultimate reconciliation born of love.
That is what I want Resurrection to mean for my life. That is how I want to feel. And it becomes clearer to me, that if I cannot yet answer the question about where is Grandma now, I can say that what is promised is really presence not place.
In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’
Of course, the disciples say no we don’t. So, Jesus tells them and us: ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. It’s about who, not where.
Keep death daily before your eyes, says a 6th century abbot named Benedict. An author of a book titled The Grace in Aging, writes: “To contemplate dying each day calls forth an instant reordering of priorities. Just like a quick and deliberate shake of a kaleidoscope, it creates a whole new patterning, a whole new view. As we approach death, a powerful inner transformation is possible.”
She describes what she calls the ‘nearing death experience.’ Nurses and clergy see that a lot. It is at the bedside of the dying that one touches eternity.
I suspect that more than death, we fear the process of dying. Most Americans want to die at home surrounded by loved ones. Instead, two-thirds die in health care institutions, often after undergoing medical procedures performed because loved ones did not know their wishes. We are reluctant to make decisions for others. We should be anxious about others making decisions for us without knowing what we want. And that is not simply about health care decisions.
Every parish priest has an experience of losing an elderly parishioner, a pillar of the church. Adult children gather and tell the clergy that rather than a depressing funeral, they will have a celebration of life for mother at a local pub. It is hard not to shout at them that Mother will haunt them forever.
My pastoral urging here, is that when you have recorded your preferences about health care, about funerals, about where your resources will go and who will make the decisions, make copies of the relevant documents, and insist on a conversation about them with your loved ones, your priest, your doctors. It might be hard, but it is a grace filled act.
I often hear people say that they want to die in their sleep. That would not be my choice—my children say that is because I need to get in a last word. I have lost dear ones, who died ‘suddenly and unprepared’—not because of the state of their souls, but the state of their relationships and responsibilities. I know that did not mean to leave those they love with the unsettled and messy state of their affairs.
Having time to prepare for death means time to tie up loose ends, to say goodbye, to say thank you to God and to those you love. Even to confront the sins that weigh you down and to seek forgiveness and healing. Last rites are the ultimate form of the sacrament of healing – and forgiveness is part of the rite; for a Christian death is the ultimate form of healing.
I think many of us are here today because we do have time – even if we cannot know how much. The ‘nearing death experience’ is part of what it means to be human. And is, in fact, a lifelong process. Keep death daily before your eyes.
Some of what we need to do is pragmatic, but important for whom and what we will leave behind.
The Minister of the Congregation is directed to instruct the people, from time to time, about the duty of Christian parents to make prudent provision for the well-being of their families, and of all persons to make wills, while they are in health, arranging for the disposal of their temporal goods, not neglecting, if they are able, to leave bequests for religious and charitable uses.
That rubric is found in the Book of Common Prayer in the liturgy for the birth or adoption of a child. But it should confront us more often. We will all someday leave loved ones, family, friends, communities. Not leaving a legal tangle or an emotional mess is part of holy dying. Holy living calls us to reflect on what matters to us, and whom—every day of our lives. A friend or a grandchild may one day be filled with gratitude at a memory incarnated in a treasured possession.
And a Will, bequests supporting institutions and organizations that have been part of our yearning to change the world means an ongoing commitment to the passions that are part of who we are, how we will be remembered; and our generosity keeps us engaged in changing the world after we die.
So, in the face of our fears and doubts, our hopes and longings, our yearning to hold close the promises of God, in all the ways we keep death daily before our eyes, I think we come to the heart of it: Where do we find Resurrection?
I meet Resurrection most often in the Book of Common Prayer, in the Burial liturgies. I have learned that every funeral liturgy evokes in me all the losses of my life and carries me to something more.
Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi.
The Law of Prayer is the Law of Belief: a fundamental mark of Anglicanism. Our theology is known in our worship and prayer. How we pray shapes how we believe. I learn that anew at every funeral I attend.
In the presence of grief, in the aftermath of anguish, in the midst of anger, I have pronounced the church's words and the promises of God over ashes and bodies, our mortal remains, in complete and utter confidence, for they are what I believe, not simply how I feel.
I have no doubt about the truth of the words, the power of the promises, no fear for the fate of the departed, no anxiety about human error, for this is God's alone to do, this movement past death, beyond my control and my comprehension, but not outdistancing human hope or trust or love.
If you want a succinct Anglican theological statement of death and resurrection, try the Prayers of the People from the Rite I burial office. It says it all with eloquent certainty. BCP Burial office, p. 480
Give courage and faith to those who are bereaved, that they may have strength to meet the days ahead in the comfort of a reasonable and holy hope, in the joyful expectation of eternal life with those they love. Amen.
Life that begins not at the grave, but at a font. Life available not as promise, but in a Person. Eternal Life, not the deity's long-range agenda, but present, real and given, God's life with a power to move us now to God and to life that does not deny death but defies it as any realm that dares to place itself beyond the power of God.
The truth that undergirds our prayer is that there is far more to life than a mere living of it, and far more to dying than death. Where is Grandma now?
The prayers of the Burial Office announce:
Grant that, increasing in knowledge and love of thee, she may go from strength to strength in the life of perfect service in thy heavenly kingdom. Amen.
That petition strikes me as our Anglican version of purgatory. We are not done yet because God is not done yet.
I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live,
I know I touch resurrection through my own departed loved ones: in those moments when mystery breaks into the ordinary round, and beauty overwhelms.
When a power from beyond disrupts fears and tears and subverts sadness with hope,
when the sharp grief of a loss and awareness of a terrible absence becomes transformed into glad remembrance and the knowledge of a new kind of presence.
I touch resurrection when my children tell stories to their children about their grandparents; when I see my father’s eyes in my granddaughter’s face, when I hear my grandmother whisper, I love you.
I touch resurrection when I plan my funeral, make a will, order my temporal affairs in service of those I love and of my passions for healing a world. And talk about it with the folk who love me.
Resurrection—more than a vision of eternity and a hope of heaven. It is the energy set loose in the world at an empty tomb, a Spirit at work here and now to open us to newness and to God. The human factor changed and charged by the power of God.
All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.