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The Art of Dying

An excerpt from The Art of Dying, published in Christianity Today.

Our church doesn’t have enough funerals,” associate pastor John Stoltzfus said in his annual All Saints’ Day sermon. In his suburban Mennonite congregation, members tend to leave the area after they retire. They move into denominational retirement communities, or they head south to warmer climates. Sometimes, older members will continue to spend their summers in the Chicago area but winter somewhere in the Sun Belt. So, in his eight years as senior pastor, Todd Friesen has performed just ten funerals. Other pastors he knows who serve at churches where retired members stay in the area perform on average one funeral a week.

Such a lack of funerals, Friesen says, is a missed opportunity for spiritual formation. A funeral, he says, is like the North Star in the sky, so that a navigator knows where the ship is and how to adjust its direction to get to the destination. At a funeral, “you get these coordinates” to position yourself in life, says Friesen.

Funerals are opportunities to measure ourselves by the same stick we are using to measure others. “He was a good dad,” we say, “and a loving husband.” Or, “She took care of the people who worked for her, and she mentored other young women in church.” When we say that about another, we also ask the same questions of ourselves.

We live in a culture that has forgotten how to help people measure their days. Through medicine and science, we know more about death and how to forestall it than ever before. Yet we know little about how to prepare people for the inevitable. The church is a community that teaches people how to live well by teaching them how to measure their days. Put another way, when the church incarnates a culture of resurrection—one that recognizes the inevitability of death but not its triumph—it teaches people how to die well.

Saint Isaac the Syrian put it like this: “Prepare your heart for your departure. If you are wise, you will expect it every hour.” Funerals are one way churches can prepare our hearts for our departure. But there are many other things churches can do before that service that teach us how to wisely expect death, and to be ready for it at every hour.

Read the full article in Christianity Today.

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