Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Funeral Service

(I know I still have to finish the story I started in January.  But in the meantime, this).

It is odd to write the order of service for one’s own funeral.  But I want to do so.  I hope now is well before my death.  I am not doing it because I am expecting to die soon, or have reason to believe I have some terminal illness, beside the terminal illness of being mortal.  I am doing it because I hear so much from funerals, or from those close to someone who just died, with which I do not resonate.  One of the main things I hear is talk about what the deceased is now doing, as if the person is still alive, just moved to a new zip code.  It is like talking about a friend who moved out of state.  Usually, those still alive talk about the dead person moving to a location where they can and are doing all the things they most enjoyed while alive.  For example, if the person liked chocolate, they are now at the great Nestle’s factory in the sky, breathing, eating, and swimming in chocolate.  Or if the person liked Detroit Tiger’s baseball, they now have permanent first row seats behind the dugout in the great Tiger stadium in the sky.  Of, if those alive are particularly religious, they speak of the deceased as now walking and talking with Jesus, the Apostles, great heroes of ancient Israel, or at least other recently deceased close relatives, certainly in a much better place now than when they were alive on earth.  Those are certainly comforting beliefs, on the assumption that you believe that those who die go to a better place.  And on the assumption that wherever they go, they are conscious, healthy, physically much like we are now but with many fewer physical limits.

I am not so sure about any of that.  My thoughts are much closer to those of Socrates.  Near the end of Plato’s Apology where Plato represents Socrates before an Athenian jury giving his defense (the meaning of the Greek word apologia) of his life, mission, and practice, Socrates speaks about death.  He says “there is good hope that death is a blessing, for it is one of two things: either the dead are nothing and have no perception of anything, or it is, as we are told, a change and a relocating for the soul from here to another place” (Apology 40c).  It is initially a bit odd to hear Socrates say this.  Socrates is famous for claiming to know nothing of great importance, and for not claiming to know something when he didn’t in fact know it (I’ve heard many people mis-report it as Socrates being famous for claiming that he knew nothing).  Sure, he knew his name was Socrates.  He knew he lived in Athens.  He knew where the market was.  He knew his mission in life was to examine and question himself and others to see if he and others cared more for virtue and wisdom than for power, possessions, popularity and pleasure (Apology 29e-30b).  But one thing he claimed not to know, and this too in the Apology, was whether or not death was a good thing: “No one knows whether death may not be the greatest of all blessings for a man, yet men fear it as if they knew that it is the greatest of evils.  And surely it is the most blameworthy ignorance to believe that one knows what one does not know” (Apology 29a-b).  So how can Socrates assert “there is good hope that death is a blessing”?

Look at what he says: “either the dead are nothing…or it is…a change.”  That is what is called a tautology: death is either the end, or it is not the end.  If it is the end, there is no conscious self, no person to experience anything, neither pain nor pleasure, joy nor misery.  What is there to fear?  At death, one just ceases to exist.  There is no pain, no misery, no anguish.  There is just nothing.  But if death is not the end, that could be a blessing only so long as the continued existence is a desirable one.  Socrates thinks it will be a blessing for him because he will be able to continue his mission of examining and questioning himself and others to see that he and they care more for virtue and wisdom than for power, possessions, popularity, and pleasure.

My beliefs about death are a hodge-podge blend of Socrates’ beliefs with some of Christianity’s beliefs.  At death, I expect to stop having conscious experiences.  I will be dead.  I am not sure that I will be anywhere.  If I am anywhere, I expect to not be conscious of being anywhere.  In the Christian bible, at 1 Corinthians 15.18, it speaks of those “who have fallen asleep in Christ.”  It is speaking of those who have died and (somehow) belong to Christ.  It refers to them as asleep.  Not conscious.  Not fishing the great trout stream in the sky.  Not conversing with the saints and prophets.  Asleep.  It sounds to me a lot like Socrates’ first option.

But it doesn’t end there.  The end is not the end.  It goes on to speak about a resurrection of the dead, and that “in Christ will all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15.22).  It says this will happen not at my death, or at anyone else’s death.  It will happen at the end of all things when death will be destroyed, annihilated, ended (1 Corinthians 15.24, 26).  When death is done with, there will be “the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power;  it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body” (1 Corinthians 15.42-44).  Do I understand all that?  Do I understand any of it?  No and no.  But it sounds to me a lot like Socrates’ second option, a change to another sort of conscious existence.

Where I depart from Socrates’ conception of a change to a continued conscious existence is that I think it won’t involve continued enjoyment of the kinds of activities I enjoy now.  Here, I follow St. Thomas Aquinas.  He distinguishes two senses of the concept “happiness.”  There is first the happiness that we humans can enjoy now.  It is within our power to experience human happiness by living a virtuous life, the chief virtues being moderation, justice, courage, and wisdom (in Latin, temperantia, justia, fortitudo, sapientia).  In addition to this happiness we can achieve on our own, there is a happiness that is our supreme good (in Latin, the summum bonum).   This, thinks Aquinas, we cannot achieve solely on our own but require the infused virtues of faith, hope, and love (in Latin, fides, spes, charitas).  This happiness, the highest happiness, is experienced in the eternal life (with perhaps rare glimpses of it in this life) in the vision of God, in beholding the full presence of God.  Of that Aquinas says “happiness is the perfect good, which lulls the appetite altogether, else it would not be the last end [he means the ultimate goal of life], if something yet remained to be desired….This is to be found not in any creature, but in God alone….Wherefore God alone can satisfy the will of a human….Therefore God constitutes a human’s happiness” (Summa Theologiae I-II, 2, 8).  For me, that clearly has to come in the life to come, because I almost never experience it here.  I want God, and a good Chianti.  I want God, and a nice bike ride.  I want God, and a relaxing fishing trip.  I want God, and an invigorating conversation with a friend.  Or, more often, I want all these other things but not God.

In layman’s terms, upon the resurrection of the dead when I enter the heavenly kingdom and am in the fullness of the presence of God, “which lulls the appetite altogether,” there will be nothing I want, nothing else I want to do.  I will be worse than the cartoon version of a man encountering a beautiful woman: mouth agape, eyes fixed, drooling.  Go for a bike ride? No interest.  Go trout fishing? Are you crazy? Eat a stunningly good northern Italian meal? Not for the life of me.  My appetite is anesthetized.

When I am dead, I’ll be dead.  I am not sure I will “be” anywhere.  If I am somewhere, I won’t have any conscious experience of it, and I certainly won’t be alive.  I will be dead, awaiting the resurrection.  The resurrection will put me in the full presence of God, wanting absolutely nothing else.  For me, that is the Christian hope.  It is something I believe, but do not understand.

So I write the order of service for my funeral.  I will not deliver the funeral sermon.  I cannot be trusted to speak frankly about myself, in such a way that would be comforting for those who care deeply about me and are still alive.

A.      Responsive reading of Psalm 23:

(Leader) The LORD is my shepherd,
(Congregation) I lack nothing.
 (L) He makes me lie down in green pastures,
(C) he leads me beside quiet waters,
(L) he refreshes my soul.
(C) He guides me along the right paths  for his name’s sake.
(L) Even though I walk  through the darkest valley,
(C) I will fear no evil, for you are with me;
(L) your rod and your staff,
(C) they comfort me.
(L) You prepare a table before me
(C) in the presence of my enemies.
(L) You anoint my head with oil;
(C) my cup overflows.
(ALL) Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD  forever.

B.      Praise song: Matt Redman, “Blessed Be Your Name” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Qp11X6LKYY

C.      Hymn:  “In the Garden” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yzzqhaLl_8w

D.      Congregational recitation: The Apostle’s Creed

I believe in God, the Father, Almighty, 
Maker of heaven and earth. 

I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, 
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, 
born of the Virgin Mary, 
suffered under Pontius Pilate, 
was crucified, died, and was buried; 
he descended into hell. 
On the third day he rose again from the dead; 
he ascended into heaven, 
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father, Almighty, 
from thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead. 

I believe in the Holy Spirit, 
the holy catholic church, 
the communion of saints, 
the forgiveness of sins, 
the resurrection of the body, 
and the life everlasting. AMEN.

E.       Praise song: David Crowder Band, “Everything Glorious” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=81dK2Vu1IUs&ob=av2e

F.       Congregational recitation: The Heidelberg Catechism, question 1 and answer:

(Leader) What is your only comfort in life and death?

(All) That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ.  He has fully paid for all my sins with His precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil.  He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by His Holy Spirit He also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for Him.

G.     Hymn: Owl City, “In Christ Alone” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ipl-rLRxOrs&feature=related

H.      Reading from the Epistles:  1 Corinthians 15. 20-44:
    But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.  For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man.  For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.  But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.  Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power.  For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.  The last enemy to be destroyed is death.  For he “has put everything under his feet.”
    But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?”  How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies.  When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else.  But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body.  Not all flesh is the same: People have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another.  There are also heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another.  The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor.
    So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power;  it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.

I.        Reading from the Gospels: John 14. 1-3
Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me.  My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.

J.        Sermon (please, no more than 15 minutes)

K.      Song in response: The City Harmonic, “Manifesto” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o_6JQDsbtlM

L.       Benediction:
The Lord bless thee, and keep thee: The Lord make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee:  The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.  (Numbers 6:24-26)

1 comment:

  1. You cannot go wrong when you remain faithful to God's word and the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us. Wonderful scriptures.