Thursday, September 15, 2011

Preparing for death

I recently finished reading Eugene Peterson's memoir, The Pastor. It was excellent! So nourishing to my soul, and both encouraging and insightful at the same time.

Toward the end, I was struck by the immense profundity of chapter 35, entitled, "Good Deaths". Here is an excerpt:

"Jan and I were visiting a Benedictine monastery, Christ in the Desert, in New Mexico. One of the brothers was leading us on a path from prayers in the chapel to the refectory where we would have lunch. The path led through the cemetery. We passed an open grave.
Jan said, "Oh, did one of the brothers die?"
"No, that is for the next one."
Three times a day, on their way from praying together to eating together, the monks are reminded that one of them will be "the next one."
And I was reminded that there is a long tradition in the church's life that the pastoral vocation consists in preparing people for "a good death." That tradition does not flourish in the American church. The widespread "denial of death" (Ernest Becker) that suffuses American culture now permeates the Christian church. But death, whether as metaphor, "I die daily," or as physical fact, "Blesses are those who die in the Lord," is given a lot of attention in our scriptures.
Resurrection does not have to do exclusively with what happens after we are buried or cremated. It does have to do with that, but first of all it has to do with the way we live right now. But as Karl Barth, quoting Nietzsche, pithily reminds us: "Only where graves are is there resurrection." We practice our death by giving up our will to live on our own terms. Only in that relinquishment or renunciation are we able to practice resurrection.
Eugene Peterson, The Pastor (New York: HarperOne, 2011), pp. 289-290.

I find that assertion both a high bar to reach for, and at the same time a gentle truth that causes me to rest a bit. And I find the idea of the pastoral vocation as preparing people for "good deaths" a fitting and apt description of what I am called to do, what I try to do with every encounter with my congregation's members, every prayer on their behalf, and every word spoken in proclamation of Scripture.

What will carry us from this point to the point of our consummation with Christ's glory? How will we live in light of the hope— or despair— that is ours based on our great need for something beyond ourselves, and Christ's redeeming work to meet that need? These are the ideas that permeate preparing for a good death.

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