By Scott A. Ruthven
As an Air Force Reserve Chaplain, I was given the opportunity to serve in a deployed setting as a Wing Chaplain. The number of military personnel killed in Iraq was minimal during my deployment; however, there were still a few. The process of returning a body to the States involved the base where I was stationed. A deceased military member or military contractor is flown from Bagdad to Kuwait to be transferred to a C-17 for transport to Dover AFB, and any time the body is conveyed to another aircraft or ground transportation, a “Dignified Transfer” takes place. A chaplain is a part of the solemn transfer. My chapel team participated in every one of two dozen transfers.
A transfer is a silent ceremony filled with military protocol, precision, and respect. To participate in a transfer is a powerful experience. Everyone wants to execute with perfection; after all, this person is part of a family. A loved one was taken from this family and all we can do is give the body back with dignity. One of the lessons I learned in Kuwait is that charity in a dignified transfer shows respect to the living and the dead, which is what we try to communicate in our prayer book burial service.
Knowing that a person was killed in action carries its own weight; but any funeral raises questions about life and death. It feels so final. We live this life in its fullness, and we live life eternal with more fullness. How do we convey to our parishioners an assurance that their deaths and burials are only the beginning, not the end?
Death is nothing new to humankind, yet it still seems to take us by surprise. A Christ-centered person can be sad, lonely, and disappointed that their loved one has died, but they also have hope because they anticipate that they will be reunited again with their family and friends in the presence of Jesus. Paul wrote, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13). Thus, as Christians, we do not say, “Goodbye”; instead we say, “See you later.” How can we help our brothers and sisters have confidence when they approach their deaths?
After three decades as a parish priest and 26 years as a Reserve Air Force Chaplain, I have buried a fair number of believers and non-believers. However, I’m often struck by the struggle many individuals have with confidence in the promise of eternal life. Granted, the journey from this life to the next is one we take on our own. However, as believers, we make the journey with assurance. There is more to life than the here and now.
The death of a person is an intrinsic loss to the human family — at least to the network of relationships in that person’s life. So we, the clergy and laity of a congregation, specialize in pointing beyond ourselves to hope and faith.
I was honored to be with the family and friends while leading a committal service for Art, an old Marine and buddy. As I watched Art’s cremains being lowered to his resting place, I thought about how important it is to have ceremonies and rituals to help us bring closure to the living. But closure does not mean everything is okay and that I will never think of my loved one again.
As a culture, we want those who are grieving to hurry up and get over it. Why do we think this way? Perhaps grief becomes inconvenient with our fast pace of life. Possibly, walking with a grieving person gets in the way of all the other things that we need to do. I fear that the Christian Church has taken on this cultural “hurry-up” attitude. The Church is the one community that should willing to walk with those who are grieving while pointing to the hope we have in the Resurrection — not pushing or cajoling, instead walking and pointing.
Pointing away from ourselves to God is part of our preparation in Christian worship. In the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, there is a prayer that is titled, “The Collect for the Renewal of Life” (99). This prayer captures the heart of God. It begins, “O God the King eternal, whose light divides the day from the night and turns the shadow of death into the morning …” I have to pause at this point in the prayer and ruminate on the worldview that it communicates. The first phrase alludes to the creation story in Genesis 1-2. This is our Judeo-Christian God whose spoken Word creates day and night out of nothing. This is the same God who turns the shadow of death into the morning. Morning is a metaphor for a new beginning or a new life. God’s very nature is to be the life-giver. Our life in Jesus does not stop at death; instead, it is changed. How can our lives reflect this hope?
“Vulnerabilities are laid bare” in death, says Thomas Oden. This is where the pastoral presence of clergy can step in and provide guidance. Sometimes that guidance requires sparse use of words and heavy use of presence. At other times, guidance requires encouragement, openness and frankness, a gentle witness to God’s comfort. We can also incorporate God’s comfort with the long-standing tradition of our denomination’s way of approaching death and dying.
What can the Church do to help our brothers and sisters have confidence when they approach their death? Anointing an individual and praying for healing while knowing that he or she has a terminal prognosis can be uncomfortable. But God’s possibility of healing is real. And the need for candor and honesty is also real. That is what the Church does. We pray for healing and we prepare for dying. Sometimes our role is facilitating straightforward information and honest conversation. I have a friend and colleague, Deacon Anne, who says, “There is a point when honest discussion is needed more than anything else, and so many times people avoid this because they don’t have the information or permission to say what’s on their mind.”
How do we, as Christian communities, prepare our fellow parishioners for the transition from this life to the next? The answer is very simple. A priest/minister must teach, preach, and pastor about what it means to live a holy life and what it means to have a holy death. This concept of “holy living and holy dying” is ultimately a community effort. There are no short cuts. If clergy make this a priority, then congregations will, as well. It is not all on the clergy’s shoulders; instead, the entire congregation participates in the whole care of brothers and sisters.
Christian living is all about relationships. First, it is a relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ, the author of our salvation. Then community emerges from living out that relationship with Jesus. It takes work; it takes a conscious effort to put Jesus first and people a fast second. We are linked together as brothers and sisters through the death and resurrection of Jesus. That is why death and funerals are extremely social.
The great Yogi Berra said, “Always go to other people’s funerals, otherwise they won’t go to yours.” I had a parishioner who took the “Yogi Berra” comment to heart for theological reasons. He was passionate in his belief that funerals were social, so he would stand up on Sunday morning and announce, “Sally died this week. I know you did not know her. I did not know her either, but we’re going to be there because Sally was our sister, and we support our sisters and brothers even unto death.” And people would show up to the amazement of Sally’s family. It told them that their mother had another family with resurrection hope.
As congregations get older, a parish experiences more burial services. At the heart of a Christian burial is the message of the resurrection of Jesus as the basis for our future hope. Resurrection changes everything; it is not the end of the story, but another beginning in eternal life. Jesus’ resurrection is one of the key anchors for the Christian in negotiating life and death.
Finally, a Christian community that is living out its belief in the Resurrection is an honest witness that death, dying, and bereavement are all a part of the ebb and flow of life. Those who skirt this fact with cliché statements about heaven, or those who give death too much weight to the point that resurrection is never mentioned — both are pitfalls and detract from the confidence given by resurrection. Listen to two passages from Ecclesiastes 3:1-4 and 10-13:
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance.
The author of Ecclesiastes is not saying that we are trapped in a myriad of change. Instead, the author clarifies his statement in vv. 10-13. Derek Kidner notes that the cycle is meaningful because God is the center, and we take pleasure in the way the world was made and our place in it. “I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil” (Eccl. 3:12-13).
Verses 12-13 do not deny that there can be a harshness to life. However, the more important point is that there is a grand design. From this design, we can see something of eternity, which helps us make the most of life today with confidence in eternal life beyond the grave.
Therefore, Ecclesiastes speaks with a levelheaded pragmatism: even the wise, good, and righteous die. Thus we are not to be too wise, but enjoy and endure life. It may well be true that people could live well without hope in the Resurrection. However, the lack of faith obscures the greater meaning of life.
Ecclesiastes tells us clearly, “He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into a man’s heart.” Our faith holds fast to that promise of eternity. Embracing joy as we center our life on the Lord may indeed help us to mitigate the pain of life as we work to comprehend the grand design. From this design, we can actually see something of eternity.
As we make the most of life today, we move forward with confidence in dignified transfers or parish funerals to eternal life beyond the grave. The legacy that Christians can leave in the world is a witness to living life to its fullness with a quiet confidence in life eternal. One of the Christian’s responsibilities is to make the invitation to “lift up your heads, your redemption draws near.” It is a promise better than what we can imagine — maybe even better than most Christians can imagine, especially those who are overwhelmed and overcome with grief. No matter whether we are facing a pandemic, or a loved one’s heart gives out after a long life, this is the Church’s message. It can only happen as Christian communities are made ready to live into the cycle of life.
Scott Ruthven is a husband, dad, and grandfather. He recently retired from parish ministry, and chaplaincy (USAFR). However, Scott continues to serve the Rio Grande Diocese as Dean of the Bishop’s School for Ministry.