Easter: The Story that Shapes all Stories

 

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Holy Week for Newbies

A few years back an international student from China named Peter spent his senior year of high school living with us. Growing up in an atheist country, Peter had no spiritual upbringing except to think that religion was something for silly people. After about six months of living with us (and attending church out of respect), we took a road trip to California. Peter was staring at the passing desert when he turned and blurted, “I think every hero movie is really just a metaphor for Jesus!”

I thought about Peter’s insight and realized that whether we are talking Lord of the Rings, Raiders, or Narnia; MIB, or the Matrix, an end of the world series streaming on Netflix or every Western ever, our epics are all variations on a theme. You can hear the deep voiced announcer on the trailer, “Dark forces hold the world in its’ grip. One man can deliver us. One solitary, misunderstood man.” And, just when all seems lost, a miraculous turn of events in the climactic showdown carries the day…and all is saved. And while this may have happened long, long ago, it was certainly not in a galaxy far, far away. The epics that captivate our imaginations all channel the same day: The day when God’s deliverer overcame the marshaled forces of evil, defeated the dark overlord, kicked down the gates of a prison called hell, and set a captive cosmos free.

Like a great movie, the timeline of the narrative can get complex …Time melds together: The victory may have been won, long, long ago, but it is a victory that transcends time, culture, and distance. It is a victory that is here. Now. Today.

But how does the resurrection of Jesus save us? Jesus making things right is called “atonement,” literally, “at-one-ment.” All Christians believe that Jesus’ death and resurrection saves humanity by making us “at one” with God. But how those actions save has been the subject of centuries of study and contemplation. It is a complicated thing for an infinite God to communicate an infinite rescue to finite humans. To do that takes analogy. And finite analogies, by definition, all fall short somewhere.

I live in Texas these days. Texans, as good Bible-belters, generally see the cross and empty tomb in terms of the substitution analogy. You know this analogy: God sends his son to take our punishment to satisfy the legal debt of sin to God. Please don’t misunderstand, I am not saying that’s wrong. I am simply saying that it is an analogy, and like all analogies, incomplete. The analogy of Jesus’ death satisfying a debt was first explored by Anselm in the 11th century, and developed in the Reformation. It is biblical, occurring most clearly in Paul, Hebrews, and places like 1 John 2:2, “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” This analogy works for us; Jesus satisfying the law resonates with people under the rule of law. And with today’s student loan balances, I suspect the idea of debt forgiveness isn’t going away anytime soon either.

But a penalty paid for laws broken is not the only way to understand the atonement. The analogy with a profound place in the early church was the Passover (from Exodus 12). You hear echoes of this in the ancient Communion prayers when they quote 1 Corinthians 5:7, “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.” You see this in the Eucharistic prayer of St. Basil from the 4th century, “He is the true paschal lamb…” (“pascha” being Greek for Passover).

It is interesting that the Jewish calendar had a day dedicated to forgiving sins through sacrifice, the Day of Atonement. One might expect that Jesus would have chosen The Day of Atonement to lay down his life…but he didn’t. God set Jesus’ redeeming work in motion at the Passover.  The Passover.

Same lamb. Different purpose.

Both Jewish feasts involve sacrifice. On the Day of Atonement, the lamb’s death substituted for the sinner’s death. In Passover, a lamb also dies, but the lamb’s blood isn’t applied to the doorposts to cover sin, but rather to mark relationship. The blood notified the death angel to “pass over” as that family belonged to God. The Passover sacrifice had another ritual attached: The children of Israel ate the Passover lamb, a meal of belonging and communion. Then God used Moses to deliver His people from bondage and slavery through the Red Sea, from death to life.

The problem being solved at Passover was not of a lawless people, but a captive one. How Israel came to be in bondage was not addressed. God says to the captors, “Let my people go.” 

The New Testament describes Jesus as the New Moses who delivers God’s people. The people of God, are in bondage to sin and death, so Jesus intervenes. He forgives our sins and sets humanity free. At the last supper, Jesus becomes our New (wait for it) Passover meal, our meal of belonging and communion.

Unlike the Day of Atonement, the imagery in Passover is not legal. Sin is more than a legal infraction demanding God’s justice. Sin is primarily a heart condition: a life lived out of communion with God, the giver of life. We are not sinners because we do sinful stuff, we do sinful stuff because we seek life apart from God. Life apart from the source of life is death (Rom. 6:23 “the wages of sin”). Sin is deeper than a legal consequence (like getting a ticket for going too fast); sin is a natural consequence (like skidding off the road for going too fast).

In the Passover analogy…

God’s Son enters death, not to do our time, but to destroy our jail!

Jesus entered death itself to rescue us. In the resurrection, Christ defeats death, the last bondage. In the New Passover, God Himself becomes our sacrifice. In John’s Gospel, Jesus is not only called the lamb of God, but to make his point, John actually moves the date of the Last Supper so that Jesus is killed on Passover…literally becoming our Passover lamb, slain for God to proclaim, “Mine” over you and me.

So when Jesus burst from the tomb, leaving an angel to tell the women “go find the disciples and Peter,” (Mark 16:7) the message may have been mystifying, but it was unmistakable: Death is destroyed. The evil forces defeated.

Because of the resurrection, we can live in God’s presence as designed. We can assume the vocations we were created for in the garden; image bearers of the creator, Gospel proclaimers, kings and priests, representing God to the creation, and representing the creation to God. All of this makes Cecil B. DeMille’s “Ten Commandments,” a great movie for Easter, because the Passover helps us understand what all our hero movies point to: the amazing news of Easter.

Peter understood that our great stories are but variations on a theme – riffs on the one great story, the life-changing story of stories. And you and I are not only invited to the premier, we hold complementary tickets for our family, friends and colleagues.

Living as stewards of the story

How do we live as the freed captives God declares us to be? (And as those with pockets full of tickets?)

 

First, Love God. Love God by rediscovering worship. Real worship. In worship we represent the creation to God.

Second, Love people: Love them by serving them. In service we represent God to the creation.

Prisoner, the hero has done his part. You have been released. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is not just a proof of concept, or the trump card in the argument for God. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is a proclamation: We are delivered from the evil forces. The gates are open. The chains released. That is why when we hear, “Alleluia, Christ is risen!” We cannot help but reply, “The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!”

Chrystostom’s Paschal Sermon

Gangsta Easter

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Tenebrae Reimagined

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This is a powerful, millennial friendly, holy week liturgy to put in your file for next Spring. If Tenebrae is new to you, you might think of it as a camp “cross-video”…only one that happens in your mind and with much more emotional impact.

It is an adaptation of the 8th century monastic service found in the Episcopal Book of Occasional Services. We kept what works best (candles, the growing darkness of the room, the chant and participation through responsive prayer.) However, we adapted it to utilize the benefits of technology and help it to fit our contemporary context (i.e. one evening rather than three mornings before sunup).

1. Because it uses projected Keynote slides for the readings, you can have the room actually and powerfully dark.

2. Rather than being lost in puzzling Lamentations readings, it tells the story of Jesus’ Passion completely through Old Testament messianic prophecy.

3. It has the opportunity to integrate modern sound (a terrific “earthquake” rumbles the room at the resurrection), and the best of contemporary hymnody (How Deep the Father’s Love) with the symbolism, participation, and chant. It is also quite flexible: You can use the included charts for your own cantor or play the included chant recordings. You can have your own soloist and use a backing track, or play the vocal version of the hymn within the slideshow. (You will still need candles, a table, snuffer, and a black hooded alb. You will also need a Mac with Keynote, screen, sound system, and a good rehearsal.)

4. It is clear enough and brief enough for children to remain engaged. We knew we had a winner the first time we used this. At the point of Christ’s death you could hear people quietly sobbing all over the nave. People stayed in the darkened church long after the service was over. We had to finally ask the last few to leave an hour later to lock up. As far as I can tell some 5-6k folk have attended this service.

If you use it, please shoot me an email with feedback and a photo or two if you can get one in the dark.

Blessings,

Matt+

Pre-service explanation to 800 young adults at PhoenixOne.

Surprise Endings: Superheroes, fat ladies, and hope for humanity in dark times

 

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We all love the surprise ending. One where the hero miraculously reappears and the bad guys get their due. First it was the western. Then war movies. Next came the Sci-fi, followed by adventure movies. Then it was fantasy…Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia, and Harry Potter. Now we have superheroes.

When you think about it, aren’t they are all the same plot? How is it that no matter how many times we see this story, and no matter how well we know the narrative, we keep coming back for more? Why do these movies resonate so?

It seems our hearts love the plot line that, no matter how dark the night appears, help is on the way. “Look, up in the sky…” Or as Washington Bullets coach Dick Motta famously said, “The opera ain’t over ‘till the fat lady sings.”

Perhaps it is because no matter how far fetched they are, these movies hum a melody our hearts already know…a tune, sung by that large lady of song which says, “Yes, this is impossible…but a final scene yet remains.”

I think the superhero saga is simply a retelling of the Christian story – the story that our hearts were made for.

Here is that story in a nutshell: Once there was One God – a glorious being who dwelt in perfect unity and love…a holy trinity. Not the self-centeredness of the human trinity of me, myself and I, but the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in self-existent, self-giving love. God desired to share his fullness and joy, so he/they (words fail us in the presence of such glory), created. And God, the creator of creativity, created intricately, painstakingly…lovingly. The first two pages of the Bible describes this in detail.

Then, in less than one page of script, we wreck the entire operation.

And the whole rest of this Bible, all of the other 2000 pages, tell of God’s relentless pursuit to win his wanderers back.

It’s a story of a growing hope. God starts with a single man, Adam. He moves on to a family, Abraham and Sarah’s. From there he widens his rescue to a nation, Israel. Then, finally, God throws out the lifeline to all of humanity.  This deliverance tale finds its fulfillment in the person of Jesus: God becomes one of us, lives among us as a servant. He goes to a cross as the most unlikely part of his Father’s rescue plan. The climax of the story occurs in the days we commemorate as Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.

Let me remind you of that story line: Jesus is grabbed by angry religious leaders and sentenced by a private mob under the cover of darkness. As an occupied people, his countrymen lack the ability to pronounce the death penalty. So they take him to their Roman occupiers and change the charges against him – Romans do not care about local religious rules, they re-label Jesus a traitor. Jesus doesn’t defend himself. The governor, Pontius Pilate, tries to placate the crowd by having Jesus savagely beaten. But, rather than satisfy the mob, the beating raises their blood lust. Pilate acquiesces and sentences Jesus to the death reserved for the worst criminals: crucifixion. They force Jesus to carry his cross to the hill over the highway where they execute enemies of the state. They nail Jesus to his cross and erect it between two thieves. Six hours later he is dead. But before he dies he says two fascinating things: “Father forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.” And “It is finished.”

Let that sink in: Jesus actually asks his Father to forgive to forgive his executioners. Then he says, “IT is finished.” Not “I” but “It” – his reason for being on that cross is what Jesus “finished.”

In the end, they take his lifeless body down and place him in a tomb. They seal it with an enormous stone, stamp it with the mark of the emperor, and station a Roman guard unit to protect it.

The end.

Or so it was supposed to be.

But the cosmic filmmaker had other ideas…

But why was Jesus up there anyway? What was his “it”? The power in any story is not only in the action, but what the actions mean.

Jesus was on the cross as an innocent but, we are told, most certainly NOT as a victim. Why way he there? Because you and I really do have a problem that has trapped us. One that reaches into every recess of our existence…a problem that is environmental, relational, interpersonal and existential. It is a problem we cannot avoid and will not go away.

In our hearts we know that God is perfect and holy. …And, when we are honest, we painfully aware of just how much we are not.

It’s a dilemma: A God whom the prophet Habbakuk says, “is too pure to look upon evil,” (Hab. 1:13) has a love that will not allow him to look away.  In Jesus, God manages to right what we made wrong. To ride in and save the day. “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him would not perish but have eternal life”(John 3:16).  The unlikely storyline God chose involved a cross, a tomb, and a man who wouldn’t stay dead.

It is called salvation…deliverance…rescue. We were as good as dead in trespasses, and then, As Peter said, “Christ died for our sins once for all. He never sinned, but he died for sinners to bring you safely home to God. (1 Pet 3:18)

Again, he was not a victim: This was in the script all along. Jesus’ death was the rescue plan.

But Jesus is a savior who, no matter how “over” the story appeared, still had a surprise ending up his sleeve. We know that plan worked by the Easter event – Jesus walking out of a tomb. We give it a fancy, religious sounding name, resurrection. But the shocking news was that a man very carefully put on ice did not stay that way. And, now that death cannot hold him, he holds out the hope of life to us as well. Paul said it like this: “Christ has been raised from the dead…the first of a great harvest of all who have died…just as death came into the world through a man, now the resurrection from the dead has begun through another man. Just as everyone dies because we all belong to Adam, everyone who belongs to Christ will be given new life.” (1 Cor. 15:20-22)

God offers his rescue to all. But God, always a gentleman, will not arm twist or manipulate us to accept his offer. In Terminator 2, the terrifying cyborg played by Arnold Schwarzenegger shows up to rescue Sarah Conner. She is terrified. After vanquishing her enemies, the Terminator reaches out to her with the words, “Come with me if you want to live.”

Do you want to live? Will you come with Jesus?

Will you allow his forgiveness to be yours? Will you allow his Spirit to breath new life into you? Will you allow the great author and director to give you love and acceptance…to write a new ending to your story?

John said it like this, “To all who receive him, even to those who call on his name, he gave the right to become the children of God.” (John 1:12)

Tonight, what scene are you in? Are you at the height of success? If so, you might want to resist the temptation to arrogance. You have seen this story. You know the heights are an illusion.

Are you being overcome by the adversities of life? Do times look dark? You need to know, that in Christ, you have an Aslan…A hero with superpowers, unstoppable like a cyborg. A man in a white hat who has already ridden to your rescue…

He purchased your forgiveness on a cross, guaranteed your ultimate rescue when he walked from the tomb, and offers a life transformed in the in-between.

So when all looks lost, look up. For it is not until we are at the end of us that our Super Man can do his thing.

Is it just me, or is that the fat lady I hear warming up her voice in the wings?

Or as the church says, The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!”

 

Funerals: Recovering hope in a culture terrified of death (2 of 2)

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I promise you interesting reading on a topic you were not looking for in the middle of Advent. Although not the usual topics for youth ministry and/or church planters, as advertised in part one (The obsession we cannot avoid), here is the text to our Q & A on funerals.  It will give you a glimpse into the purpose and power of the traditional burial office. It was produced by Nicholas Knisely, Bishop of Rhode Island, Bryan Owen, Rector of St. Luke’s Baton Rouge (blogs as Creedal Christian), and myself. It is available as text for websites or as a customizable flier.

Why have a funeral in a church?

One of the characteristics of an Episcopal or Anglican Church is that you will often see graves inside the church or on the church grounds. When we speak of the Church, we mean both the church militant (those who are alive right now) and the church triumphant (those who have died and ended their earthly race). When you worship in a liturgical Church you are literally and tangibly in the presence of the whole Church. A funeral in the church building is a sign that, even though death seems to divide us from those we love, the Body of Christ is never divided. As members of Christ’s body, we are still connected with those we love but see no longer. Therefore, a funeral in the church building foreshadows that day when we will be reunited with the entirety of the Body of Christ in the presence of God.

Why a burial office (prayer book funeral service) instead of a memorial?

Rather than focus on what we believe to have been important about our loved one’s life, the burial liturgy reminds all present that we are brought into a reconciled relationship with God after our death because of what God has done, not because of what we did in life. Using the burial office rather than trying to create a particular and personal memorial service is a consequence of that belief. In the burial office the gathered body of Christ expresses gratitude for God’s redeeming work in our loved one’s life, hands them over to God’s gracious care, and looks forward in hope to God’s future resurrection of us as well.

Why do clergy accompany the family on the initial consultation with the funeral home? 

It is often a good idea to have the church funeral planner accompany you to the mortuary in order to coordinate arrangements at the beginning of the planning process. The clergy/church representative is your advocate and a calm and supportive presence at a time when difficult decisions must be made.

Why is it important for the body or cremains of the deceased to be present?

Christians believe in the bodily resurrection, not just of Jesus, but of each of Jesus’ followers. We do not know what our new bodies will look like, but we do know that God is going to transform the essence of our whole selves, our minds, our souls, and our bodies. The presence of the body or cremains of our loved one is a sign to all of our trust in God’s plan to redeem and transform us in the end.

When there is a body, why is the casket closed and covered with a pall? 

Holy Scripture tells us that “to be away from the body is to be home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8). We close the casket because our loved one is no longer present-only their remains.

Once inside the church the casket is completely covered with the “pall.” As Easter people we are dressed in white in our final church service. The pall points to the reality that, whatever our station in life, we all come before God by virtue of being clothed in robes made white by Christ’s loving action on our behalf.

Why are there no eulogies?

Although there is a degree of latitude granted in some parishes, there is a longstanding tradition of not having eulogies in the burial office. This is because the burial office, rather than fixating on the past, orients our faces toward the future promised by God that is a consequence of our relationship with Jesus. It is a good thing to remember the lives of our loved ones and to give thanks for all they have meant to those who remain behind. That work of remembering, though, happens best when we can do it in conversation. Perhaps you will want to have someone speak about your loved one’s life during visitation hours before the burial office, or at the reception following.  You also have the option of having a Vigil the evening prior to the funeral as a time to offer prayers and to share memories of the deceased. (BCP, 465-466). *Feel free to speak with your priest if you wish to discuss this further.

Why is that ‘big candle’ used in the service?

The Paschal Candle is first lit each year in the Easter Vigil to symbolize Christ dispelling the darkness. As the candle is brought into the darkened church, we sing that the light of Christ has conquered the darkness of the grave. The Paschal candle is lit every time the Church celebrates a baptism. In baptism we are “sealed by the Holy Spirit” and “marked as Christ’s own forever.” (BCP, 308) The candle is lit at every funeral to remind us of this unbreakable bond and the truth that nothing in all of creation, including death itself, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39).

Why Is the church adorned in white?

The church is adorned in white because the burial office is an Easter liturgy and focuses on the unexpected joy of the resurrection, which the Church has proclaimed for two thousand years. In the liturgy, there is a beautiful phrase, “Yet even at the grave we make our song, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.” It is in the hardest, darkest times of our lives, that we insist on proclaiming our hope that “in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22).

Why does The Prayer book select certain Scripture readings to be used in the service??

The Book of Common Prayer is the result of centuries of thought and theological reflection. As the result of this intentional conversation across generations, the prayer book has provided selections from the Holy Scriptures to sustain us at the time of death. There is a certain latitude given to the officiant and the family planning the liturgy to chose favorite hymns or alternative readings, but the appointed readings have been chosen because they speak directly to the resurrection hope that lies at the heart of the Christian faith.

Why do we have Communion?

God has given us the chance to be united with those we love but see no longer through the redeeming action of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. When we share in the sacrament of bread and the wine, partaking in the body and blood of our Lord, we are united with all the hosts of heaven, and all the members of Christ’s Church of all time. We share this final Communion meal, the family meal of God’s own household, in anticipation of that great day. We will not be able to share Thanksgiving or Christmas, birthday or anniversary meals any longer with the people we have lost, but we will, for eternity, share this Eucharistic meal with them. *There are occasions in which communion may not be desirable. Discuss this with the church when planning the particulars of the service.

In Summary

Few are the times in this present age when people are aware of God’s acting to graft us in to his larger and eternal purposes. Baptisms, weddings and funerals are among those occasions. It is in those events when time and eternity touch that we and our loved ones need the truth, beauty, and comfort of the words of Holy Scripture and the great tradition. The burial office exists because the final goodbye to your loved one is simply too significant a matter to make it up as we go.

The liturgy for the dead is an Easter liturgy that finds all its meaning in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  It gives us permission to express deep sorrow over the death of loved ones.  It also reassures us that all who die in Christ share in the victory of his triumph over death.  Using this liturgy in the church for the burial of a Christian reaffirms and strengthens our faith that just as God raised Jesus from the dead, he will also raise us.

We are glad that you are considering our church for this important event in the life of your family.

Please contact the St. Jude’s church office at (602) 492-1772 to set up an appointment to plan the particulars of the ceremony.

We are planning for this to be the first of a series entitled “Your Church. For Life.” It will include Baptism, Confirmation, & Marriage, four events people look to mark in the church.logo

All of which is to say: When I die, do the world a favor. Give me a funeral.

Death: The obsession we cannot avoid and dare not admit (1of 2)

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In our rush from the church, have we begun using entertainment as religion to answer the questions fundamental to human thriving?

Our culture has almost entirely insulated us from the reality of death. Most of us are awkward with the topic in conversation and go to great lengths to avoid the appearance of nearing death with a plethora of products, services and surgeries designed to cheat aging at any coast. Our post-modern avoidant/fascination with death struck me last night at our local cineplex. The new release lists are heavy with vampires, zombies and time travel…except for the ones about super heroes with death-defying powers. When did death-avoidance become the central theme of our entertainment?

Although we may abandon organized religion, it appears that we do so at our own existential peril. In our rush from the church, it seems we have begun using entertainment as religion to answer the questions fundamental to human thriving.  Last night’s trip to the theater was instructive. The opening line to the movie The Book Thief is “Everybody is going to die someday.” The closing line of the last preview before the movie started was from The Winter Tail: “Maybe it is possible to love someone so much that they cannot die.”  Interestingly, the Christian message is precisely that there is a love so strong it will overcome death. But instead of considering that message, most of us will avoid thinking about death until we stare it in the face – literally looking down at the remains of someone we loved lying in a casket.

Our obsession with death becomes even more curious when viewed in light of our near total buffering from it. In previous generations death came earlier, more often, and closer to home-most likely even in the home. Today we have longer life expectancies, become infirm in care facilities, and enter hospitals when illness becomes terminal. Today when we take our last breath it is usually in an institution rather than in the places of our lives. (This has been covered in the press recently (NPR) and was picked up on the Episcopal Cafe.) Add to these layers of insulation, the entertainment industry. Big entertainment includes in it’s notoriously unreliable curriculum the lesson that people don’t actually die at all. They are “offed” (often quite creatively) only to appear next week on another network, perhaps even in the same time slot.

The media is merely a barometer of our desires – It packages and sells us what market research tells them we want. Having discovered our discomfort with our own mortality, it sells our anxieties back to us in the form of a seemingly endless array of zombies and vampires, with their promise of a life-of-sorts. Perhaps, though, the clearest barometer of our post-modern denial of death is found in the new Tumblr site, “selfies at funerals“. If we cannot cheat death, at least we can laugh at other’s deaths. Turn up the music, dude!

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Perhaps the epitome of our post-modern denial of death is found in the new Tumblr site, Selfies at Funerals...Turn up the music, dude!

All of this, of course, affects the church. Many Christians now have an “It’s a Wonderful Life” theology of the afterlife more akin to ancient Greek (or perhaps LDS) beliefs than orthodox Christianity – this is the popular view we “pass on” to become angels trying to win our wings by aiding the frustrated left on earth.

Contributing to this fuzzy theology is the demise of the traditional funeral. You may never have been to an actual funeral, but you have surely been to a memorial service. A memorial is, of course, about looking backwards – of “memories.” The general liturgy of a memorial is to sing a few of the deceased’s favorite songs and, to continue our It’s a Wonderful Life metaphor, share our remembrances of Uncle Billy.  Occasionally a few too many remembrances, and for too long…glossing over flaws and overstating things a bit on behalf of someone whose life might have actually left a lot to be desired. To be realistic, returning again to It’s a Wonderful Life, although Uncle Billy’s absent-mindedness was cute, it caused the family a great deal of trouble. The pastor then closes the memorial with a short message that makes some reference to Jesus’ as accounting for the deceased’s goodness and gently asking those present to consider a relationship with God in order to join Billy in his eternal home.

As heartwarming and well-intended as it is, the memorial is all about looking backwards. A funeral is all about looking forward. It is about promises and hope bought vicariously. It is about real and eternal life, new bodies, and paradise found, purchased at another’s initiation and another’s expense.

The memorial, when viewed in light of the old-school funeral, reveals a very low view of the transition between life and death, and a fuzzy view of the afterlife…both of which, when added together, diminish our understanding of the purpose of the time we have here on earth. The memorial has very little teaching on the afterlife, very little explanation of what comes next and very little of the historic Christian narrative, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” (BCP 363)

In our times of greatest loss our most profound need, besides the presence of those we love, is for the comfortable words of the faith. We need reminders of what lies ahead rather than what lay behind. We need to know that we do not stand alone at the precipice – we are surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses (Heb. 11:1). And because death could not hold Jesus Christ, neither can it hold those who are found in him (1 Cor. 15:20-23). That is why in the traditional Christian funeral we shout in hope, “even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.” (BCP, 499)

Here is where I may get into trouble with you: It may feel as if I am treading on the toes of those of us who planned the final services for our parents or wife or brother or Uncle Billy. I should say that, as a pastor, I have done more than a few memorial services myself. We sent my mother on her eternal way with a memorial service. After more theological reflection I can only say that I wish I knew then what I know now. I was the victim of a lack of theology of death and the afterlife. And, as a result, those under my leadership were limited by my lack of understanding. I now see the memorial as a far cry from a prayer book funeral.

Interestingly, while this end of life conversation was going on, three clergy in the Episcopal Church: Nicholas Knisely, Bishop of Rhode Island, Bryan Owen, Rector of St. Luke’s Baton Rouge (who blogs as Creedal Christian), and myself have been working on a question and answer on funeral practices as a customizable parish resource to give people a brief glimpse into the purpose and power of a proper funeral service. It will be available as text for websites or as a customizable flier. I will put up the text that we have worked out as a post in the next several days.

We offer this, not as a condemnation of what anyone has done, but as a resource to help us have a broader perspective on life, death, and the afterlife. The hope is that this would be a helpful planning resource for a time when you need it. The traditional funeral has the perspective of twenty centuries of Christian reflection that both blesses and relieves us of the absurdity of seeking for answers to our deepest longings in zombies and vampires. It offers a more hopeful hope. Not just for Uncle Billy, but for us as well.