Over the last three weekends I have attended three very different Christian services. The first was my mum’s funeral, the second our IBI Graduation Service and the third a baptism.
Their sequence is ‘life in reverse’ – from death, to celebrating a significant milestone in life together, to a sacrament welcoming a precious new life into the community of the Church.
I hadn’t planned to write about this. I’m beginning without knowing where this is going. It may make it on the blog or into ‘Trash’ on windows explorer. If you are reading this, then you know what happened!
In IBI we are always encouraging (and requiring) students to do ‘Reflective Practice’ which is a structured process critically examining events, attitudes, and feelings with the aim of developing and improving future practice. This blog post is getting close to this – not so much reflecting on my practice but on my feelings and attitudes as a Christian who believes the creeds of the Church catholic.
First, my mum’s funeral conducted by Rev Noble McNeely in 1st Holywood Presbyterian Church, a friend and caring pastor.
I have had very little experience of death. In our technological, medicalised and commodified Western culture death is pushed to the margins of everyday life. Unless your line of work brings you into contact with death and the grieving, it is likely rarely intrudes. We are busily taken-up with the frenetic business of living. Our consumer culture promises us every possible joy and pleasure that life can offer with no ‘sell-by’ date attached.
As Dylan says, we can be taken up with the conceit that we are too good to die. Or, as Hauerwas likes to say, we can fool ourselves that our technology will enable us to get out of life alive. (Always wanted to get those two together theologically!)
Yet, as OT wisdom tells us, our lives are indeed like vapour, we are here one day and gone the next. Even though I was with her when she died, I’m only beginning to get used to the reality that my mum, such a strong, supportive and reliable presence for all of my life, is gone.
In the blink of an eye, you and I will follow.
I can only speak personally here and you may disagree, but it is only a Christian funeral service that can look death in the face and yet speak with hope. It would be easy to lapse into vague sentimentalism about our loved one living on with us through love or memories, but Christian hope is much more earthy and robust.
It tells us the specifics of a historical story. That Jesus Christ, God’s beloved Son, has looked death in the face for us. He has experienced death itself and descended to the realm of the dead. Yet, death could not hold him. As Peter proclaims in the first ever gospel sermon, the Messiah
… was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. (Acts 2:31-33)
Is such belief just a crutch for those who can’t bear to accept that this life is ‘all there is’? Is it ironically a similar form of conceit to that of which Dylan and Hauerwas criticise? That we are ‘too good to die’ and can ‘beat death’ after all through resurrection life? Is it a refusal to face the fact of our own mortality that we dream of immortality?
I can’t prove this of course, but I think not. Such hope depends completely on the historic events of Jesus’ death and resurrection, evidenced by the outpouring of the Spirit.
As a consequence, it seems to me that Christian hope, through being united to the resurrected Son in faith, has given, and continues to give, believers courage to face death, persecution and suffering.
But not only this, it calls Christians to make this life count, to live a life worthy of this gospel, not getting distracted by temporary distractions but focus on loving and serving others in whatever short time given to us.
And perhaps it is those who have faced death and been given a reprieve, who can see these priorities most clearly (thinking of someone in particular here, I am sure you can too). Life is an infinitely wondrous gift. Let’s not waste it.
CELEBRATING A MILESTONE
The second service was a joyous occasion. Many friends and family came. Current students baked a fantastic graduation cake and made delicious desserts.
Students spoke of a life-transforming experience of theological study and said nice things about staff and teachers. We sang songs. We laughed. We took many photos. We dressed up in gowns and suits and dresses and formally marked significant achievements of learning together. We acknowledged the sacrifices students and their families had made. We listened to Prof Craig Blomberg preach about ‘the real world’ being God’s inaugurated kingdom that one day will be really real and the present ‘unreal’ world will be remade anew. We congratulated students on their hard work, their teachability, their desire to learn and their passion to serve – head, heart and hands.
I think modern life has too few such occasions in which to mark significant achievement. The mixture of joy and formality at graduation is appropriate. It is a public recognition of individual success but this is not to say graduation is the end of the process. Rather it is simply a milestone to celebrate on the way.
The purpose of the learning (ideally) has multiple effects: to learn about God, his Word, what previous and contemporary Christians have thought, and to know ourselves. It means learning to think critically, to write, to articulate ideas, to lead, to communicate, to work with others, and to use God-given gifts in service of his people and the wider world.
In other words, this was a service about adult Christian faith engaging the world. It was full of life, enthusiasm, progress and a vibrant sense of how the gospel (good news) is good news for all of life.
Christian faith is not just a theory to believe in that might get you to ‘heaven’ when you die. It is, rather, an experience of living in God’s story in the here and now and participating as disciples in his mission to redeem the world which he loves.
The third service was back to the beginning of life. It was another joyous occasion.
It was the baptism of the long-awaited and cherished infant son of good friends. There was prayer, singing, music, Christocentric worship and afterwards much good food and much conversation.
The church leader was welcoming, relaxed, hospitable and articulated winsomely the case for infant baptism. It not does magically make the child a Christian, but welcomes him into the church community. His parents promised to raise him in the ways of Jesus, but not on their own. In Christianity it takes a community to raise a child.
The church leader likened it to teaching him to be a Man City supporter. He may be dressed in the kit, learn the songs, go to matches, learn about the team and its history … but at some point he has to decide for himself whether to be a Man City supporter or whether to support another team, or not follow football at all …
The parents’ job – and that of the church – is to embody authentic Christian faith for him to see, touch and experience for himself. I pray he does so and in doing so finds much joy in loving God and loving others.
As I reflect on these three services, from death – to adults celebrating a milestone in their lives – to welcoming new life into the world, I have been challenged and refreshed. From a Christian perspective, all three services reinforce one another.
Perhaps these are simple conclusions, but things seem simpler after the last few weeks.
- Life is a beautiful gift, to be celebrated with thanksgiving, beginning, middle and end.
- It is also short and not to be wasted. A gift is to be used well.
- It is to be lived in community with others. That is where true life lies. We celebrate new life together. We rejoice at milestones reached along the journey. And we comfort each other in hope at the end of life.
- True purpose is found in living life for others – for God, his people and the good of the world.
- Such a calling is anything but a life spent selfishly pursuing temporary wealth, security, pleasure and comfort. It is a call to costly self-sacrifice in whatever context we find ourselves in.
- Christian faith has a telos – an end – that reaches beyond death. Christian hope is founded on the eschatological future promised by God in the resurrection of the crucified Christ. Such future hope should profoundly shape our present
- Such hope also proclaims that death will not have the last word. That word has already been spoken by God: loving Father, incarnate, crucified and resurrected Son and the life-giving Holy Spirit.
- And so it is in him alone that we are called to trust, worship and follow in this unpredictable pilgrimage called life.
Comments, as ever, welcome.