Funeral Words

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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 ..it 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.

A Prayer for the Long Nights

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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.

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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.

Born of the Virgin Mary

357px-madonna_col_bambino_palazzo_medici_riccardi_filippo_lippiThe doctrine of the virgin birth of Jesus Christ is again criticised this Christmas, as it has been on many occasions before. This time it is receiving the attention of St Matthew in the City Anglican Church in Auckland, New Zealand. The billboard poster depicting Mary and Joseph in bed has received much criticism and the responses on the church’s website indicate that it has prompted a mixed response from many people all across the world.

The minister, Glynn Cardy, says he is seeking to remove the “supernatural obfuscations” of the belief in a literal virgin birth. He also seeks to draw a distinction between “progressive” and “fundamentalist” Christianity. The truth is that “progressive Christianity” as defined by Glynn Cardy is not authentic biblical Christianity at all.

I believe in the Virgin Birth, and so do all orthodox Christians. We believe that it is a truth which is not only clearly taught in the Bible, but that it is a fundamental plank of our faith. It is part of the Apostles’ Creed which we recite regularly. We say, “I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary…” Continue reading “Born of the Virgin Mary”

The Manhattan Declaration

This week, a woman in one of our congregations asked me why the Presbyterian Church did not speak out more clearly on moral issues. She thought that as a church we often lacked the courage to address controversial issues directly and clearly. I tried to explain that we often do make clear statements in the reports that go to our General Assembly each June and in reports to Boards throughout the year but that these do not often receive much press coverage. It may also be that we fail to communicate our position clearly to many ordinary church members.

This past week, North American Christians have spoken out on important moral issues in The Manhattan Declaration which has received a good amount of press coverage, largely because it has been signed by people from a variety of church traditions. The 4,700-word declaration issues a call to Christians to adhere to their convictions and it informs civil authorities that the signers will not under any circumstance abandon their Christian consciences. It is clearly sending a message to the Obama administration about what they are not prepared to tolerate. The drafters of the Declaration say that Christians, when they have lived up to the highest ideals of their faith, have defended the weak and vulnerable and worked tirelessly to protect and strengthen vital institutions of civil society, beginning with the family. It is a robust statement which is worth reading. Continue reading “The Manhattan Declaration”

Answers to hard questions

The Bible says that Christians should always be ready to give a reason for their faith and hope (I Peter 3:15). So it’s important that we think about the hard questions that our friends ask about Christianity and are ready with some intellectually-respectable answers. Here’s an interesting resource from “A Passion for Life” that attempts to answer some of those questions.

This particular clip is Don Carson’s answer to the painful question about hell, but there are many other critical questions that are addressed. The answer which Don gives to the question about God’s existence is also very good. I think that these direct, clear, cogent and winsome answers are helpful and instructive not only for those who are asking the questions, but also for those who are trying in everyday conversation to answer them. My children tell me that these are questions which their contemporaries ask and discuss.

One suggestion that has been made to address the decline of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland is that we re-institute the biblical office of evangelist, and train people to fulfill this role. If we were to do this, then clearly we would expect such evangelists to be skilled in addressing and answering these kinds of questions. But if every Christian is called to offer a defence for their hope, then maybe these key questions should be addressed from the pulpit more regularly. An informed and well-taught membership is critical for the health, vitality and mission of every church.