I’ve spent much of my ministry as a Reader in the last 12 months focusing on the funeral ministry here at St Peter’s, developing my ministry in this field alongside helping to nurture the parish’s during our recent vacancy.
Though I’ve been involved in a wide range of funerals in that year, and I’d previously had the day of training offered by the Diocese of Winchester, I’ve been more than aware that I’ve only scratched the surface of connecting with different people’s reactions to the death of a loved one.
So listening to Paula Gooder talk on ‘Beyond the grave: what happens after we die’ was another ‘must’ for me at Greenbelt.
I’ve had the privilege of hearing Paula speak before – she covered the Gospel of Mark about three years ago at the Bishop of Winchester’s Lent Lecture, and of course she’s almost a regular on BBC Radio now! I knew therefore that what she said would be very focused on what the Bible actually tells us, but that I’d need my brain to be fully engaged – along with my notebook! I wasn’t disappointed.
Paula emphasised above all that the Biblical narrative may have a variety of views on life after death, but what it definitely and repeatedly states is that it believes in the resurrection of the body. At some future point the dead will rise to a new physical existence in a new created reality.
This made me jealous. Jealous of those that saw the resurrected Jesus, that could talk about first hand; those that walked the road to Emmaus; jealous even of dear old Thomas. Thomas above all others might be able to report to the rest of us the idea of Jesus’ continuous (people could touch him) and discontinuous (people who knew him didn’t always realise who he was) as Paula described it.
You see I struggle to visualise what a resurrected body might be like; my own, or anyone elses. I know, that’s why we have this thing called faith.
Among the funerals, and attendant pastoral visits that I’ve done in the last year, no-one has asked me about the resurrection, nor have they asked me the even more difficult question that Paula focused on, that is what happens between death and resurrection?
For me the theology of God’s new Kingdom being ‘now and not yet’ tends to lead me to agree with the third of the options that Paula identified as being believable from the Biblical narrative: that is, that we are judged at the point of our death, and that we are then held somewhere waiting for the resurrection to take place – you are in heaven if you are not in hell, but you are still awaiting the resurrection.
If I were asked, as I guess one day I will be, where someone’s loved-one is after they have died, I think I am comfortable with saying that they are somewhere awaiting the resurrection when God’s Kingdom is fully revealed.
What I might say if the deceased might not have been a particularly ‘nice’ person, would probably have to dwell on the fact that it is not our place to judge people, but God’s, and that we have to trust that they are in his hands. Or is that too namby pamby?
Paula didn’t really touch on the pastoral issues of what we ministers might say at these times, but she did give us “5 minutes in hell” as she called it. It was basically a debunking of the idea that “hell” is Biblical, whereas in fact she described it as a word used by translators to explain a serious of difficult Hebrew and Greek words.
Three final ideas really struck me about what Paula said:
- She struggles to use the word ‘spirituality; in it’s common modern usage as fuzzy feelings towards God, as her understanding of the importance of belief in physical resurrection requires her to think in life of our physical body as part of our spiritual relationship with God, and that because of this she thinks we have to take our worship of God with body and with soul seriously (something that the guys at Molten Meditation have I suspect picked up on given their use of space and action – see my previous post);
- That an essential part of the God who loves us, is that he will punish people; that is, he will pass judgement on the lives we’ve lived – however uncomfortable I find that idea;
- That actually, at the bedside of a dying friend or parishioner, or comforting the bereaved, it may not matter what our answers to these big questions are; but instead we must hold before ourselves and those we minister to, the words of faith written by St Paul in Romans 8:
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
If you have experience of taking funerals, bereavement visits, or other expertise in this field, I’d welcome your thoughts and reflections if you don’t mind sharing.