Saturday, July 19, 2014

Life and Death Spiritual Matters

I've been doing a lot of funerals at my church lately. Watching the families cope with death, visiting with parishioners on their death beds, and thinking about what this all means, I came up with the following list. It isn't exhaustive, but it is stuff I wish that all my parishioners considered, at least.

  • To celebrate a life-well lived at a funeral is fine; but this celebration must never be at the cost of giving ample opportunity for those who mourn, to do so. After all, spiritually, if death is not “the” enemy, it usually isn’t a friend either. Death often robs us of people we loved. Their absence must be overcome. Their love, even in their dying days, can be life affirming and precious. We will miss it. For such reasons, even in those cases where someone dies after much suffering, so that we say, “we’re glad he or she is at peace,” we ought to remember that this death may well have left a large hole in the lives of loved ones. Mourning is appropriate.
  • Another and more difficult reason we sometimes mourn the passing of others is that they hurt us deeply. Some people, when they die, stop being difficult and become difficult memories instead. We may have unfinished business with them. We may even wish that we had been kinder or more understanding or more forgiving. The mourning at funerals is not all about missing the one who has died; it is often more about wondering what to do about our wounds. Talk to a wise friend, or a pastor, or a counselor. Get those difficult emotions to a place where you can talk about them, so that they don’t hijack you.
  • Every death of a friend or relative—besides being an occasion to remember with thanksgiving and mourn the absence, ought also be an occasion for us to ponder our own impending deaths and the meaning of our lives. It is never too late to rededicate ourselves to old loves or goals, or to make a mid- or even late-course change. Don’t avoid this sort of self-examination if you want to finally come to your own death satisfied that you ran a good race.
  • Probably the most common initial response to death is denial. Denial has many forms. We use euphemisms such as “passing” and “no longer with us.” Denial makes itself known in our stubborn refusal to prepare for death by making wills, taking out life insurance, or writing living wills. Among Christians, it sometimes manifests itself in putting more emphasis on praying for a miracle than on preparing for what must come. For the one dying, denial may take the form of refusing to grapple with the truth about poor health, personal habits, or telling friends that death is on the way. In each and every form, denial robs us of our ability to finish well, to care properly for our loved ones, and to deal with our own hopes and fears. Denial robs you of fully living the life you have left. Denial robs us of the support we could receive from friends, fellow church members, and family. Don’t deny death. Instead, even if you cannot make it a friend, make it an acquaintance.
  • If you are willing to make death an acquaintance, then by all means explore the spirituality of death. What happens when we die? Is there eternal life? On what basis? Is there punishment for those who do evil? Are humans both body and soul? There are all sorts of books on these topics that bear witness to thousands of years of human thinking about these issues. We have not reached a consensus, even, as to what the answers are. But one of the mysteries of human thought and wisdom is that nearly all religions offer hope for something more, something glorious even, beyond the grave.
  • Forgive others and seek forgiveness. This is hard. All of us live with strained relations and with long running feuds. We have been hurt and hurt others. Hopefully, long before death, you will try to set these things right, asking forgiveness where appropriate and offering it freely as well. Doing so is called love, and it is the Christian way.
  • Along the same lines, since we rarely know when we will die, one of the most profoundly beautiful ways you can prepare for the unexpected death is to prepare letters of blessing to be left with your will. These letters will be for your children and spouse—perhaps others. And in the letter you will thank those people for their place in your life, and give them your blessing and best wishes for the future. Especially when death is unexpected, such letters can be a powerful encouragement for those still living.
  • The funeral is not just for those who are left alive. It is also a last opportunity for the person who has died to make a statement. You can do so by planning the funeral ahead of time. What scripture would you like read? Who would you like to speak at the funeral? What core message would you like to have the audience hear from the pastor? At a minimum, discuss this with your loved ones and write something up that you can leave with them and a pastor to help set the tone of the funeral.
  • Consider a child—an heir—named charity. And it is natural for all people, rich or poor, to want to leave a gift to family and friends when we die. Do not forget, however, the many good causes that you either did, or wish, you had supported when you were alive. When you write your will, consider adding a child called “Charity” to the beneficiaries, and leave her a share. I hardly need to add that one of the charities I sincerely hope that you will consider supporting, even in death, is this church.
  • Teach children about death, and what we believe about death. There are many excellent children’s books about death. I have always loved Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs, as well as Now One Foot, Now the Other, both by Tomie dePaola.
  • Along with teaching children about death, take them to the hospital, pray with them, and take them to the funeral. Late life denial of death is often rooted in early-life silence about death. Death has terrible power to disrupt and hurt our lives, but this power is only magnified if it becomes, for children, a topic whispered about, avoided, and never put into context.
  • Prepare an Advance Healthcare Directive, or as it is sometimes known, a “living will.” This is an act of kindness and generosity to the living. Make sure your spouse and/or trustees know about it and that you have discussed your wishes with them. Doing so can save your family from endless disagreement and conflict and can give you a measure of control over even the most difficult part of the road of life—the last mile. Making such a directive is another great antidote for denial, as well.
  • If you have elderly parents who were spiritual, and loved church, do not let their age and infirmity get in the way of their participation in church. Talk to the pastor. Insist on ongoing pastoral and spiritual care. Find ways to bring them to church or church to them. Ask for communion, if they desire it; for visits and scripture reading and prayer.

In conclusion, I want to say two closely related, substantive things about dying. First, while I cannot say with certainty what occurred to Jesus after his burial, something so amazing happened that it inspired a bunch of illiterate fishermen and women to found a world religion. Nearly every world religion bears testimony to similar hope. Second, and building on this first thing, you can be sure that the God who is with us and in us and beyond us in this life will not abandon us in death. Death may be an enemy, but Jesus’ example suggests that it is one we can face and in some measure even triumph over. Death does not have the last word--though I'm interested in knowing what you might add to this post.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Ten Commandments for Worship Leaders

            A few months ago I was asked by some aspiring worship leaders what it takes to stand up before a congregation and, well, “lead.” They wanted some advice from an old pro—me. So, after thinking about it for a little while, I came up with Ten Commandments for worship leaders—the people who greet the congregation, or pray, or introduce songs, or make announcements. It is an idiosyncratic list, based as much on my personal issues as universal truths. The list is not comprehensive. But based on the many years I've been a travelling pastor who sat in the pew for much of the service, before I preached, I thought I’d share this list of of advice I think people need to hear with my readers.

ONE: Thou shalt never use the word “just,” in worship, and especially in prayer. Worship is not “just.” It is actually a lot. Worship is special. Maybe even divine. Using the word “just,” as in “we’re just here to praise God,” or “we just love each other,” sounds uneducated, sloppy, dumb, and unprepared. Perhaps the fault here is that I'm an old English teacher. On the other hand, I've often noticed that the quality of worship leadership runs inverse to the frequency with which the word "just," gets used.

TWO: Thou shalt own your space, and smile about it. Worship leaders that slouch onto the dais, who don’t look the audience in the eye, and who frown seem insecure. Audiences catch on to such insecurity, and it unsettles them. So shoulders back, head up, and walk as if you know where you’re going!

THREE: Thou shalt not be trite, use clich├ęs, or unnecessary God talk when leading a worship service. You know what I mean. The worship leader who insists, between every song, that “this is so meaningful to me. It is such a beautiful song. God loves it when we praise him. We’re being a missional, transformational church for him,” and on and on. Words in a worship service should be purposeful, intentional, and important.

FOUR: Thou shalt remember not everyone in attendance wants to praise God at this moment. Many come to church seeking comfort for sorrows, or encouragement amid anxiety, or meaning amid the chaos of their own lives. Include songs of lament for these people. Remember, there are more Psalms of lament than any other kind. A singular focus on praise and thanksgiving excludes far too many people.

FIVE: Thou shalt offer a clear lead-in with a clear cue to start the congregation singing. Pianos and organs and choirs are great for offering these singing cues. It can be done with guitars or violins—but it is much harder. Practice makes perfect.

SIX: Thou shalt sing new tunes through, especially with the help of a choir or a soloist, once or twice before you ask the congregation to join in.

SEVEN: Thou shalt keep a reign on your emotions. Naturally, worship leaders will always be wrestling with a range of emotions and feelings as they stand before the congregation. Perhaps there was an argument with a spouse before church. Perhaps a loved one is in the hospital. Maybe you just received a big promotion at work. As worship leader, however, you must not let such emotions run away with your leadership. Remember, you are there for everyone, not merely yourself. So, think slow. Speak with assurance and purpose. Know what you are going to say. Exhibit a range of emotions that resonate with the actual content of what you have to say to the audience.

EIGHT: Thou shalt especially beware of drums overpowering all singing, and instruments drowning out the voice of song leaders. In churches with praise bands, this happens all the time. I tend to think of it as an ego issue—some musicians just have to make a statement. But that is wrong—church musicians are supposed to help people sing. They are not there to be centre stage.

NINE: Thou shalt write out your prayers. I’m thinking back to numbers one and three, above. We put inordinate emphasis on the need for unrehearsed, spontaneous prayer. I’m not sure why. Surely the work that goes into crafting prayer is good work, spiritually beneficial, and a thoughtful way of being sure that you will pray for what really ought to be prayed about. If you want to memorize your prayer, or reduce it to notes, fine. But prayer is not the right moment for sloppiness.

TEN: Thou shalt remember that aesthetic excellence is excellent. Beauty is holy. God loves a lovely song played well. Not many of us can go to churches whose soaring arches remind us of the vaults of heaven and the mysteries of God’s love. But all of us ought to go to churches where even the simplest song does the same.

In summary, worship leadership is undertaken for the benefit of the audience, and especially their desire to worship. So lead with that goal in mind.