Funeral Words


Increasingly people want to “customise” their marriage and funeral services, believing that they need to have a direct input into what takes place on such occasions. It often presents a challenge for the pastor or minister who is responsible for conducting the worship at those important and significant moments in human experience, in deciding what is appropriate for inclusion. Some people seem to have forgotten that  a marriage or funeral service is just that, a service of worship addressed to the Almighty.

One passage which is often requested and quoted at funerals comes from a sermon by Canon Henry Scott Holland of St Paul’s.

Death is nothing at all. It does not count. I have only slipped away into the next room. Nothing has happened. Everything remains exactly as it was. I am I and you are you, and the old life we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged. Whatever we were to each other, that we still are. Call me by the old familiar name. Speak of me in the easy way which you always used. Put no difference into your tone. Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow….Life means all that it ever meant. It was the same as it ever was. There is absolute and unbroken continuity. What is this death but a negligible accident? Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? I am waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just around the corner. All is well. Nothing is hurt; nothing is lost. One brief moment and all will be as it was before. How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!

In his book, Surprised by Hope, Tom Wright, Bishop of Durham, points out that the popularity of these words reveals the widespread confusion and ignorance that exists within the church and in the wider population, with regard to death and the life to come. This passage was not the view that Scott Holland actually advocated. It was simply what came to mind, he said, when “we look down on the quiet face of someone who has been very near and dear to us”. Rather, Scott Holland viewed death as “the cruel ambush into which we are snared makes its horrible breach in our gladness with careless and inhuman disregard of us”.

Wright reckons that this piece should not be used in Christian funerals because “it offers hollow comfort. By itself, without comment, it simply tells lies. It is not even a parody of Christian hope. Instead, it simply denies that there is any problem, any need for hope in the first place.”

He contrasts this piece with John Donne’s famous sonnet, “Death be not proud” and the especially the last two lines: “One short sleep past, we wake eternally/ And death shall be no more. Death, thou shalt die.” In the Scott Holland passage there is nothing to be conquered. For Donne, death is an enemy. For the Christian, it is a defeated enemy. Donne sees life after death in two stages: first, a short sleep, then an eternal wakening. “And death shall be no more.” This is the basic and central New Testament perspective. Death will not simply be re-defined; it will be defeated. If the promised final future is simply that immortal souls will have left behind their mortal bodies, then death still rules.

But Christians say “I believe in the resurrection of the body”, believing that one day God’s sovereign rule will come “on earth as it is in heaven”. Wright points to the pictures and insights which we are given in the Book of Revelation.

“The wonderful description in Revelation 4 and 5 of the twenty-four elders casting their crowns before the throne of God and the Lamb, beside the sea of glass, is not, despite one of Charles Wesley’s great hymns, a picture of the last day, with all the redeemed in heaven at last. It is a picture of present reality, the heavenly dimension of our present life. Heaven, in the Bible, is regularly not a future destiny, but the other, hidden dimension of our ordinary life – God’s dimension, if you like. God made heaven and earth; at the last he will remake both, and join them together for ever. And when we come to picture the actual End in Revelation 21-22, we find, not ransomed souls making their way to a disembodied heaven, but rather the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven to earth, uniting the two in a lasting embrace.”

It seems as though those of us who preach and teach regularly in church have a major task on our hands in terms of helping people to understand these truths. In the final chapter of this book, Tom Wright points out the two basic approaches that preachers take with regard to preaching and applying the doctrine of the resurrection, and how that they both fail to reflect the proper biblical emphasis, thereby adding to the popular confusion. If we preachers don’t get it right and make it plain, then we cannot blame our church members for their ignorance and confusion.

Senior Winter Olympics for Cullybackey

Tobar Fold, Cullybackey, on December 27
Tobar Fold, Cullybackey, on December 27

Cullybackey is an unlikely venue for the Senior Winter Olympics, but it seems as though the local authorities, by their inaction, are trying to prepare a skating rink or an ice dance arena for those in the older age group.

By refusing to salt the footpaths and driveway outside Tobar Fold, they have created a facility which the residents of the Fold could use to prepare for winter sports, but only at the risk of serious injury. A quick poll of residents revealed that none of them had in fact aspirations for the 2012 Winter Olympics, even if it is re-arranged to Cullybackey.

Seriously, the situation can only be described as ridiculous. Access to and from the Fold is dangerous for residents and visitors alike, and someone needs to take responsibility for removing the hazardous conditions by applying some salt. Maybe some influential person will read this and take some action.

In the meantime, my elderly relative who lives in the Fold is trying to see the brighter side. “If you seen them gettin’ and in and oot o’ cars, it’s a quare bit o’ oxtercogging.” I’m not sure if oxtercogging will ever make it as an Olympic sport, but there’s plenty of opportunity to practice around Kilmakevit.

White Christmas 2009

dsc02351We don’t always have the phenomenon of a white Christmas in this part of the world, but the weather has been very seasonal in the last few days. It all adds to the atmosphere of the Christmas and New Year holidays that we find so appealing and heart-warming.


Unfortunately the snow and ice made travelling a bit uncertain and hazardous in other parts of the UK, and many people struggled to get back home for the holidays. When I returned from Belfast yesterday, in spite of my best efforts, I was unable to get my car up our driveway. Thankfully that problem has been resolved, and the driveway is now more easily negotiated.

I managed to get a few pictures of the scenes around our manse this morning which will serve as a reminder of Christmas 2009. With these pictures comes our best wishes to you and yours for a happy Christmas. May you know the blessing and joy of Christ’s presence and peace at this season.dsc023591dsc02370dsc023571dsc02365

An Apple Store Christian

photo_victoriasquareI have been in three Apple Stores in recent years. The first was located in King of Prussia Mall on the north-western outskirts of Philadelphia, one of the largest retail outlet facilities in the western world. It was incredibly seductive with its minimalism and the clean, bright, clinical presentation of Apple products.

I have also visited the basement location for the Apple Store on Fifth Avenue in New York, next to FAO Schwartz and right across from the old Plaza Hotel (made famous by Home Alone as “New York’s most exciting hotel experience…spacious and luxurious”). The NY Apple Store was equally impressive and attractive. The entrance is a glass cube, housing a cylindrical elevator and a spiral staircase that leads into the actual store.180px-apple_store_fifth_avenue

This week I booked an appointment at the Genius Bar in the Apple Store in Belfast to see if they could fix a couple of glitches on my iPhone. Not only is the Genius Bar a wonderful facility, where they promise to attend to all technical difficulties with Apple products, but the attitude of the specialists who work there is remarkable.

While I was being attended (and I was taken a few minutes ahead of my booked slot), there were five or six other customers who came to the Bar. I couldn’t help but notice the positive and encouraging way in which each customer was greeted. The specialist listened carefully as each customer described the problem they had and always responded with a positive word of assurance such as “We’ll get that sorted out for you right now” or “No problem. We’ll have a closer look and deal with it.”

Whatever training these guys received on customer care, it was clearly working. I saw at least five happy customers walk away with their problem solved or with a replacement piece of kit. I have often been in the situation of presenting a problem at a shop or garage to be told, “Oh, that’s not easily fixed. I don’t think we can do anything about that” or “That’s an expensive job. I don’t know when I could get it done.” Not so in the Apple Store!

My thought was, “Why can’t Christians be more like this? Why can’t the church be more positive and helpful?” After all, isn’t kindness and helpfulness and a positive attitude meant to be part of the DNA of Christianity? And yet so many people have a negative experience of Christians and the church. It shouldn’t be like that. We know that we are not saved by our good works, but we are not saved without them (Westminster Confession of Faith, XVI, II).

The Bible says that Christians are God’s workmanship, “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). The word “walk” suggests our common, everyday experience, not the unusual or heroic. Many of us can rise to the special occasion, but clearly God intends us to be Christlike in the mundane and humdrum activities of daily life.

Much encouragement and happiness are brought to people in what we think of as little things. It seems trifling that I feel better knowing that my iPhone now synchs more smoothly with my computer. But by helping me to accomplish that small thing, my Apple Store genius made my life better. And the woman who walked away with a new battery in her daughter’s iPod or the man who got his iPhone replaced as a result of a visit to the Genius Bar are bound to be feeling better this Christmas.

A good resolution for me for the New Year would be to try to be an Apple Store Christian. By God’s grace, in being positive and helping people with the small things in their lives, perhaps I can be more like Jesus.

Postscript: Just remembered: Patricia asked me to get firelighters. I should probably start to implement my new resolution today.

A Prayer for the Long Nights

Diarmaid MacCulloch

In his magnificently enormous book, A History of Christianity, (over 1,000 pages) Diarmaid MacCulloch makes some interesting observations on Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer. Originally written in 1549, it was revised in a more uncompromising Reformed style in 1552, and became the vernacular liturgy for the English Church in its development as “Anglicanism”.

MacCulloch points out that one incomparable aspect of the Book of Common Prayer is its language. He says that even those who distrust its theological content admire its language, and that it is evident that Archbishop Cranmer’s powerful voice lies behind its unity and the phrasing of the text. Cranmer’s genius was his ability to produce prose “which can be spoken generation on generation without seeming trite or tired – words now worn as smooth and strong as a pebble on a beach”. The words of the Prayer Book have been recited by English-speakers far more frequently than the speeches and soliloquies of Shakespeare.

Archbishop Cranmer

Even unchurched people are familiar with the words which form part of the most significant moments in our lives: “for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part” or, even more solemnly,”earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust”. Cranmer’s words are the common inheritance of all who speak the English language.

One of Cranmer’s liturgical legacies was his aptitude for writing short prayers known as “collects”. These small jewels of prayers are rarely simply his own work, but the construction and careful choice of words is his. One of the Evensong collects used throughout the year, but especially appropriate for these short days and long nights of winter, is the most memorable. It is a translation of an 8th century Latin prayer. Since the service was often taking place during the fading evening light, the prayer uses this metaphor as its basis. MacCulloch points out that it has a perfectly balanced three-fold structure: a petition of two thoughts followed by an appeal to the Trinitarian relationship of Father and Son. Cranmer replaced the Latin word for “snares” with a pairing of words, “perils and dangers”, and crucially at the end, he enriched the Trinitarian idea with the word “love”.

“Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night; for the love of thy only Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.”

On the shortest day of the year, we worship the Lord who has answered our prayer and who, in Christ our Lord, has truly “lightened our darkness”. It’s a good prayer to pray.