Last night, I conducted my eight Ash Wednesday service. I still feel like an utter novice at it. It feels like I am playing make believe, engaging in rites and rituals that I have no business attempting. Last night, incredibly, I forgot my lines (“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return… except, when you forget, evidently!). Each year, I make a mess of producing the ashes. I dutifully save last year’s branches from Palm Sunday, but in the process of burning and oiling them I usually end up with a chunky mess filled with inconvenient strands of palm branch. One year, on a particularly windy Ash Wednesday, I almost burned my back deck down. I’m only half-joking. All in all, not the most impressive Ash Wednesday record. Read more
Posts from the ‘Death’ Category
Some further thoughts on death…
At the conference I attended last week, our attention was drawn to an article from a few years back where Thomas Lynch, an undertaker, was interviewed about changing funeral practices in the postmodern West. We are increasingly uncomfortable with actual bodies at funerals—too morbid, too grim a reminder of our own inevitable fate—so we deal with them before the service, often in private ceremonies attended only by close family and friends. That’s if we even have a service. Many don’t anymore, preferring to slip away quietly, not wanting to burden people (financially or existentially) with their death. Others prefer a “celebration of life,” which often amounts to an extended eulogy with only saccharine references to God and the afterlife or none at all. This is how, increasingly, we are choosing to die and to deal with death, both inside and outside of the church. Read more
Death has been on my mind a lot lately. Not my own, necessarily, although I do think about that more than I probably ought to. But just death as a phenomenon. Both of my grandmothers have died in the last six months. Several people in my orbit could well be approaching this threshold. I just returned from a pastors conference about death, funerals and the Christian hope. Death has been a hard thing to avoid lately. Read more
Funerals often produce interesting conversations. Especially when the funeral follows the tragic and unexpected death of the matriarch of a massive family with deep history in and connection to the local community. This was the case with the funeral for my grandmother last week. There were so many interesting conversation topics—everything from the ethics of assisted dying to eccentricities of family history to Trump to atheism to, of course, the life that my grandmother lived. But one theme that popped up over and over again, indeed seemed to weave its way through most of the others in some form or another, was a deep sense of nostalgia. Read more
I’ve been spending a good portion of this week preparing for the funeral of my grandmother. Good words are always important, I think, but especially at funerals. I feel this even more acutely when it’s the funeral of someone that I have known and loved. This morning, I was drifting around a rarely accessed bookshelf in my study and I came across a dusty old book called The Complete Handbook for Ministers. A number of books like this have found their way into my hands over the years, usually as gifts from retired pastors or people with a pastor in their family. I located the “Funerals” section and turned to the first page. There, I encountered a very peculiar section heading:
For an Outstanding Christian.
My grandmother died this morning. Suddenly and in tragic circumstances. She was ninety-two, but probably in better health than many people thirty years her junior. She was still very much full of life and love. Her loss feels massive in a way that I can’t really articulate. She was the anchor of our large and unruly herd, the glue that held us together. She was the common, persistent, faithful thread that wove through all of our lives. Read more
There are days when the weight of human cruelty and carelessness seems almost too much to bear. I’m not speaking about the vicious climate of our political discourse or the endless shouting and posturing the dominates our news media—the wearisome, grinding tedium of left shouting at right and right shouting at left. This, too, is excruciating, but I’m thinking more prosaically today. I’m thinking of the middle school playground, or the creaking and groaning marriage, or the toxic workplace or the chaos and confusion of the dementia ward or the high school cafeteria. I’m thinking of the endless weaponizing of words, the myriad ways in which we are inhuman to one another in our everyday lives. Read more
I mentioned Christian Wiman’s latest book in my last post. It’s a marvelous read animated by one central question—the question of all questions: “What is the central hunger and longing that drives our peculiar species?” As always, Wiman expresses our options in such compelling ways: Read more
Grant that I, Lord, may not be anxious about earthly things, but love things heavenly; and even now, while I am placed among things that are passing away, hold fast to those that shall endure…
I read these words in my prayer book this morning. I have prayed these words before, at times rushing past them mechanically, at times supplying a quick inventory of the things in my life that tend to make me anxious, at times pondering the heavenly things that I ought to be loving instead of the earthly things that so easily take hold of my fickle affections. But I’ve never spent much time on that middle clause: “even now, while I am placed among things that are passing away.” Read more
I’m in Saskatchewan this week for a speaking engagement. Of course, no matter where I go, all anyone is talking about is last Friday’s horrific bus accident, which claimed the lives of fifteen members of the Humboldt Broncos junior hockey team. It is a story for which there are barely words. It’s made headlines around the globe. Not surprisingly, here in the Saskatoon area (about two hours from the crash site) it’s ground zero. The grief is raw and palpable. Hockey culture runs deep in each of Canada’s prairie provinces. Many people (myself included) have personal experiences of blasting down wintry roads in terrible conditions to play a hockey game. But in Saskatchewan, a sparsely populated province where vast distances often must be traversed to get from town to town, hockey culture is a different level altogether. Hockey binds these far flung communities together in a way that few things can. Read more
Two recent conversations have me thinking about what I want to be when I grow up.
The first was with a recruiter for a Christian university over coffee a few days ago. I asked her about common questions that she gets from parents considering post-secondary education for their kids. She sighed, and listed off what was an unsurprising itemization of the requisite programs and degrees that would get their child the right kinds of jobs in the future. We mused about how little interest students (or educators) seem to have these days in things like virtue or being properly formed as human beings. Education is about dumping facts into brains so that these brains can then go out into the world and make money. You can figure out what kind of a person you want to be on your own time. Or not. So it seems, at any rate. Read more
Therefore God lifted him high,
and granted freely to him
the name above every name,
so that in the name of Jesus
every knee would bend,
in heaven, on earth, under the earth,
and every tongue constent.
So began today’s morning reading in the prayer book that I sometimes use. The words are familiar, as they represent an alternative wording of the famous Christ hymn of Philippians 2. Many scholars believe that this hymn represents one of the earliest liturgies of the early church, possibly even going back to a few decades after Christ’s crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. It thus gives a fascinating window into both how the early church worshiped, who they understood Jesus to be, and what it all meant.
Therefore, God lifted him high… Read more
“I have a complaint to make.” The comment was made by a member of our church who periodically drops in on me Tuesday mornings. The twinkle in his eye and the grin on his face signaled that this “complaint” was more of an observation or a conversation starter than an actual grievance. “We must have been the most “crossed” church around on Easter Sunday morning,” he said. “I counted at least four!” I thought back to our service and found that I couldn’t disagree. Read more
I was precariously winding my way through snow-covered streets in my neighbourhood a few days ago, trying to keep moving so as not to get stuck. At one point, I glided through and unmarked intersection coming out of an alley, and just as I crossed the sidewalk I noticed a young man less than a meter from my side window. I wasn’t going fast—certainly not fast enough to do any kind of damage—but it still felt like a bit of a close call. Read more
I did a very embarrassing thing this morning. I purchased Def Leppard’s latest album. This is not the sort of thing that any self-respecting human being of the twenty-first century ought to admit to, I know. A quick glance at my recent purchases in iTunes reveals a much more acceptable (I hope) repertoire: The Lumineers, Mumford & Sons, Basia Bulat, Radiohead, Of Monsters and Men. This is probably a more accurate gauge of where my musical tastes have drifted over the years. Def Leppard is the paradigmatic example of the unimaginative late twentieth century glam rock that was the soundtrack of my small-town high school experience. They were big hair, big power chords, soaring engineered harmonies, and mawkish power-ballad-y lyrics about love biting or breathless paeans to endlessly getting rocked or adrenalized or something. In response to the screaming query from 1988’s massive hit “Armageddon It”—Are you getting it?—I can only reply, “Yes, yes, apparently I really am a-getting it.” Or I just got it, at any rate. Read more
I was warned, this afternoon. Me and a few hundred others who had gathered for a funeral. Me and a few hundred others who sat, silently, grimly, in a cavernous and spare sanctuary while a stern man in a black suit stood in an elevated pulpit and admonished us with grave fingers wagging. I was warned that death was coming for me and unless I renounced the ways of the devil and repented of my worldly pride and attachments, that my fate would be a fiery and tortuous one. I was told that there was nothing good in me and that I could never stand before the righteous judge of the earth. I was told that God has his elect and we must never question God’s ways. I was warned to keep watch for the temptations of Satan because Satan likes to provoke criticisms and doubts during times of death. Read more
I seen the body, you know.
She’s maybe ten years old, a beautiful little girl with a blonde hair and a black dress. She has tears in her eyes and her face looks tired from crying. Her uncle is gone. There was a head on collision and a fire and then the descent of all kinds of family from all kinds of places and then the shedding of rivers of tears and now a church and a service and the long goodbye begins… Read more
I read an article a few days ago… one of those articles that asked people what they liked or didn’t like about the church… what they expected or didn’t expect from their pastors… what they wished for more of… or less of…. Some of the words that came up frequently were words like “honesty” and “authenticity.” Ok, then. Well, in that light…
When I was younger, I imagined that people who inhabited the “pastor” role had some specific set of skills that made them uniquely suited to sift through the wreckage of human pain that they encountered. I imagined that they strode confidently into rooms where people were coping with tragedy and death and doubt and loss and grief and crushing pain and anger and fear armed with just the right words for the job, just the right bible verses, just the right insight into when to give someone a hug and when to give them space, just the right prayers, just the right ability to project just the right combination of warmth and decisiveness and spiritual authority (whatever that might mean), just the right combination of attitudes and attributes to make bad situations somehow better.
And then I became a pastor. Read more