Friday, 30 June 2017

What Happens When We Die: A Humanist End or a Christian Beginning?

I have often wondered what it must be like to be a humanist/atheist and to attend a humanist

funeral. I never have been to one and I'd be fascinated to do so. It seems to me that the finality of

a humanist funeral must be unbearably difficult. All of us, at some point in our lives, have lost

someone very close to us. It is deeply painful and the effects of such loss can be felt for years

after their death.


The regularly repeated phrase that 'death is part of life' is true, and it is so important that we are

able to talk about it without fear. Unless Christ returns before the day of our death, we are all on

course to die. That alone sounds desperately final, perhaps even hopeless. But as Christians we

know that the opposite is true, that death is the beginning of eternity. There is hope even in the

darkest times of the mind and emotions. That is what God's character is truly like; hope for the

hopeless, hope that out of darkness a light will shine out and expand our vision to something

beyond ourselves.


I found this in a sample humanist funeral service talking about the life of humanity as being like

a tree:

"The death of each of us is in the order of things; it follows life as surely as night follows day.

We can take the tree of life as a symbol. The human race is the trunk and branches of this tree,

and individual men and women are the leaves which appear one season, flourish for a summer

and then die. I too am like a leaf on this tree and one day I shall be torn off by a storm, or I shall

simply decay and fall and mingle with the earth at its roots. But, while I live I am conscious of

the tree's flowing sap and steadfast strength. Deep down in my consciousness is the

consciousness of a collective life, a life of which I am a part as to which I make a minute but

unique contribution. When I die and fall, the tree remains nourished to some small degree by my

manifestation of life. Millions of leaves have preceded me and millions will follow me; but the

tree itself grows and endures." (file:///C:/Users/user/Downloads/Leaflet_8__-

_Example_of_a_none_religious_cremation.pdf).


Unfortunately, the closest the above gets to looking beyond the here and now is reminding us

that we belong to a long line of humans in history on which we make our tiny mark and then like

a leaf, in death, fall to the ground not to be seen again. The only hope we have, in this humanist

case, is that we might do some good in life in order to have a small impact on the sap of the tree.

The moral: be as good as you can be for one day you will be no more.

A Christian funeral offers us something so much more than this, something so much better. Let

us continue with, but change the meaning of, the tree analogy.

The roots:

Let's begin with the roots of the tree. The roots give the life to the tree, they keep it going,

feeding it and sustaining it. The root for Christians is first and foremost Jesus Christ himself. It is

he that gives life, it is he that welcomes us into the family of God's people, it is he that gives the

church its meaning, its reason for being, its life.

The trunk:

I suppose the trunk would therefore be the Church – not the local church, not simply St. Mary's,

but the worldwide universal Church made up of Baptists and Pentecostals, Lutherans and yes,

Anglicans, Jews and Gentiles who recognise that Jesus is the Christ and follow him in their lives.

The Church's foundation to which we belong is Jesus, he gives us life and reason and so we, as

the Church, receive our life from him, the root.


The branches and leaves:

I was sitting outside writing this, the sun shining and the wind blowing through the leaves of the

trees. Trees grow up and they grow out. Up and out. They grow up towards God and his

heavenly dwelling place, and they grow outwards, embracing the land and air around them. If we

are to see ourselves as the branches and the leaves, it means that out of the tree that is the

Church, and from the root do we come. We grow towards God; our eyes and the goal of our

existence are not here, but Above, and so we press on, as the apostle Paul says, towards the goal

to win the prize which Jesus has called us heavenwards (Philippians 3:14). We are not leaves

simply waiting to drop off the tree, we are branches growing up towards God, towards eternity.

But more than that too, we are called to live for others too, to grow outwards as well as upwards.

It has been mentioned many times that as Jesus Christ hung there on the Cross at Calvary, his

arms were outstretched as though embracing humanity, lovingly. We grow outwards, realising

what Christ has done for us, and responding by telling others of this amazing news!

But here's the major difference: we don't fall from the tree. The life-giving power of the root that

is Christ, is eternal. In the spiritual sense we are evergreens that never die, but sustained for

eternity, to live. It is not a hopeless life where one day death will be as a leaf falling to the

ground, decaying and becoming nothing, but rather that Christ offers us continued, perfected life

in the unending presence of God.


As we are faced with the wonder of this truth, we are also faced with an alternative, which may

cause shock and discomfort, but nonetheless must be engaged with. Christ Jesus came to win

eternity for his followers, but what if he is rejected? What happens if we do not follow him?

What if those within the Church sit idly by, unconcerned by those walking outside it without

hope, without Jesus, what if we do not speak of the Gospel with those who so desperately need

it? There is an alternative to the tree that belongs to the Kingdom of God, and that is where the

leaves do fall, and are lost and blown away, the unbearable reality of eternity without God. God

could have saved everybody, but then we would be left with no decision to make, no ability to

take responsibility for our own decisions; we could charge God with treating us like robots,

unable to make choices ourselves, relying on him to make us do what is right. Instead, he longs

to be chosen, to be followed and loved by our choosing to accept his greatest gift of all, the

sacrifice that brings us eternity with him, the death that brings life, of Jesus the Son.

We therefore suggest, as Christians, that you do not need to be satisfied with trying to do your

best in life to be good, to have a purpose. If you feel like life has been tough and there has been

little good, this doesn't mean you that you have no hope. Rather, I submit to you that the love of

God goes so far that even if you have messed up, and badly, like many of us have, you can still

have a place on that everlasting evergreen tree of Life, if we just turn to Christ, accept his love

and offering of himself for us, repent, turn away from what is ungodly and turn towards him to

live Godly lives. We remember that it was not that we had to first love him, but that, while we

were still sinners and therefore still, in essence, enemies of God, he first loved us and sent his

son for us (1 John 4:10; Romans 5:10).

Christian faith is good news. You do not need to just be a leaf that withers and dies and has no

hope and no future, but instead you can have eternal life, where there is no more pain, no evil, no

sadness, nothing but joy once life on earth ends. This is what we offer in a Christian funeral. I

urge each of us to consider where our lives are heading, and how sure we might be, if we believe

it, that there is no potential life after death. As the 1984 Church in Wales Volume 2 Prayer Book

puts it in a funeral, "In the presence of death, Christians have sure ground for hope and

confidence, and even for joy, because the Lord Jesus Christ, who shared our human life and

death, was raised again triumphant and lives for evermore. In him his people find eternal life,

and, in this faith, we put our whole trust in his goodness and mercy."


If this has raised any questions for you, please do get in contact with one of us clergy, and we

will be more than willing to discuss these with you further.


May the blessing of God and his love, peace, and hope, in life as well as death, be with you and

those you love, now and always.


Written by Revd Joel Barder

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Rector's Christmas Message


Dear Friends,

 

Christmas Humbug?

 

One of the most famous characters in all of English literature must surely be Ebenezer Scrooge - the most celebrated miser of all time! In his novel A Christmas Carol Charles Dickens writes of him,

 

"The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, made his eyes red, his thin lips blue, and he spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice."

 

His surname has come into the English language as a byword for miserliness and misanthropy and the story of his redemption by the three Ghosts of Christmas (Ghost of Christmas Past, Ghost of Christmas Present, and Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come) has become a defining tale of the Christmas holiday in the English-speaking world.

 

Perhaps the most famous thing of all about Scrooge is his take on Christmas itself  – he despises Christmas and dismisses it all as "humbug", and subjects his clerk, Bob Cratchit, to gruelling hours at low pay, even on Christmas Eve. He rudely refuses his nephew Fred's Christmas dinner invitation, and turns away two charitable workers seeking donations for the poor.

 

Although we cannot share Scrooge's approach to life, and we are so pleased at his reformed character by the end of the book, I cannot help but find myself thinking of Scrooge's word humbug at so much of what goes on during November and December under the heading of Christmas. There is a mountain of humbug-ness at Christmas under which is almost completely lost, buried and hidden the very heart of its meaning and purpose – the Birth of our Lord Jesus.

It is so natural that Christ's birth elicits in us a great sense of celebration. Such joy MUST be celebrated in as many ways as we possibly can, and as splendidly as we possibly can. But Christmas celebrations tend to have a life of their own and run away with themselves, forgetting the very thing they are meant to be celebrating!

 

This appears to be not just a modern problem, and perhaps Charles Dickens' concern in his 1843 book was to bring us back (with Scrooge) to the true meaning and purpose of Christmas celebrations – the Birth of Jesus and the love and peace and redemption He came to bring.

 

In A Christmas Carol it is the three ghosts who convert and redeem Scrooge. That is just a fanciful story, of course. In our case, in real life, it is Jesus who comes to bring us redemption, and we pray that He may be born not just in Bethlehem 2000 years ago, but that He may be born in our modern bewildered and suffering world now, and above all that He may be born in our hearts.

 

So let us make sure that we celebrate thoroughly the Birth of Jesus – and let us celebrate it like the world does – thoroughly, endlessly, excitedly, extravagantly, and with exuberance – making sure, though, that our celebrations are not empty humbug, but that they have a wonderful point to them. Let us make sure that enthroned on top of all our celebrating, for all to see, is the Birth of Jesus. 

 

Our clergy team wish you all a Christmas empty of humbug, and full of love, joy and peace in Christ!

 

Andrew.