Saturday, November 07, 2015

Holy living, holy dying. Part 1

All Souls Tide...a fitting season for a clergy study day on funerals. Lots of excellent material, delivered by the ever - splendid Sandra Millar,  who really could sell snow to Eskimos.  I'm confident that all present will have gone home pondering the mission potential, the vital importance of building relationships, both pastoral and professional, and feeling encouraged that, despite prevailing g secularism, many people do still want us to speak of faith, to give an account of the hope that is in us.
I enjoyed a fresh chance to engage with material I had first encountered at the national conference, Taking Funerals Seriously, but I drove home reflecting in particular on what might be termed "holy living, holy dying".
The room was shocked into deep silence when Sandra reminded us "We are all going to die". Despite the ample evidence, despite all our attendance at deathbeds and graveside,  I am not sure that clergy are any better at believing this than anyone else. We know it. Of course we do. But it is unbelievably difficult to actually imagine a world of which we are not part, a future for our family that excludes us. Years ago, during ordination training, we were invited into a meditation on our own death, and it proved to be one of the most profound and important experiences of training, provoking deep deep sadness, many tears, but an ultimate stillness.

"Teach us to live so we may dread our graves as little as our bed" wrote Thomas Ken in a verse redolent with an appropriate fear of Judgement. Yesterday, my thoughts went in a slightly different direction, thinking on how the way we live will shape the way we die. I long to live generously, with open hands and heart, though I fear that too often my hands are clenched, to hold on in case there turns out not to be enough. Of what?....Time? Life? Love? Who knows?
But if I could live my aspiration, then maybe I could make a gift of my death too.

 A priest I knew did just that, deciding against treatment that could only prolong, not cure. He talked and preached openly on his hopes and his fears, and as his body weakened he seemed stronger day by day. His journey towards death was rapid, and he died on Easter Sunday, as his congregation packed the church to sing of resurrection, with all the shining alleluia of the day. His funeral was a profound and powerful statement of transcendent hope. There were so many there, it was impossible to see much of what was going on, but his coffin was loaded with sunflowers, and as it was carried out their warm gold was a like a wave of joy, rippling through the congregation. The choir sang Handel "Hallelujah! For the Lord God omnipotent reigned.  The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ, and he shall reign for ever and ever. Hallelujah!" and at that moment I am convinced that we all knew this for truth.

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