|December 8, 2010
REMARKS AT A RECENT MEMORIAL SERVICE
Not everyone baptized as a youth into the institutional church shares its specific views about an afterlife. Many former church members have come to think of themselves as “church alumni.” They have voted with their feet and are no longer churchgoers—generally because of the growing irrelevancy of the theology of the church to modern life, but for other reasons as well. In America and Europe today there are more “church alumni” than churchgoers. Nevertheless, those who forgo confessional belief and regular church attendance still have beliefs and hopes for things to come in the hereafter.
“Hopes for things to come,” is both cautious and ambiguous. In my experience, however, at memorial and funeral services, most religious rhetoric is quite specific about the glories of the afterlife, and consists of reassuring religious folk that a veritable “mansion” awaits them “just over the hilltop.” But in truth no crystal ball exists to open the curtain between this life and the next—if any; and no one can know the nature of the hereafter—no matter how confidently they may think they do. Believing something to be so does not make it so! In any case, how could knowledge of the hereafter be verified?
Nevertheless, many non-churchgoers find in life intimations of immortality that cause them to “hope for things to come” in the unknown Beyond—where we will all wind up at some point. Facing a future break with existence as I know it, what resonates most honest with me is this: though we cannot see the other side, we can “hope for things to come.” Even the New Testament will use the word “hope” to describe the Christian anticipation for the afterlife. For example, both the resurrection of the dead (Acts 23:6) and the resurrection of the body (Rom 8:24) are described as a hope. When all is said and done and the truth candidly spoken, we all face the hereafter armed only with the faith and hopes that undergirded our living. We can only hope that the faith sustaining our living will endure our dying.
In the 1960s Tribal Rock Musical one of the characters, Claude Hooper Bukowski, sings the following words from the song “Manchester England, England”:
I believe in God,
The idea that “God believes” in his human creature is only found as a minor thread in the religious tapestry that is the Bible. The Hebrew Bible and New Testament as a whole weave a tapestry that reflects sectarian views—Israel is the chosen people of God and Christians are the new people of God. But here and there close readers catch a glimmer of a minor thread, a universalism, reflecting God’s concern for all his creatures without a preference for a particular confession or for one group over another. This universalism appears in terms of texts closely identifying God’s love with the created order of things.
For Example: “The earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord” (Ps 33:5b).
In particular, a statement by Jesus of Nazareth reflects a surprising universalism—now lost in the theology of the contemporary church:
Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you so that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven, for he makes his sun shine on the evil and the good and sends rain on the just and unjust (Matt 5:44-45).
In other words, in Jesus’ view God makes no distinctions among his human creatures but bestows the blessings of the created order on all!
Of course, Tennyson reminds us that nature is “red in tooth and claw” (In Memoriam LVI)—which it certainly is. The world is a truly dangerous place! But if one thinks of the world more broadly in terms of its regularity, productivity, and bounty, nature gives as well as it takes. Genesis (8:22) provides this thought about our little blue and white planet in an out-of-the-way solar system of the Milky Way Galaxy:
“While the earth abides, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night shall not cease.”
From that perspective the earth is God’s gracious gift to all people regardless of creeds and confessions.
In my honest moments I share the cautious belief in “hopes for things to come” in the hereafter. Koheleth, the writer of Ecclesiastes (12:7), affirmed that hope as well: although “the dust returns to the earth” from whence it came, “the spirit returns to God who gave it.” I don’t believe life is ephemeral—a tiny raft of existence adrift on a vast sea of non-being. And I share Claude Hooper Bukowski’s hope that God believes in you and I. When we come to the end of our proverbial three score and ten years, we can trust a God whose most persistent image in the Bible, among others less complimentary, is caring for “the alien, the fatherless, and widows.”
I choose to trust that image—to trust God’s graciousness, rather than trying to bribe God with human formulae for ensuring the hereafter, which in any case will not work. God will not be bribed by our creeds and confessions. In truth what else can anyone do—except trust, as Paul put it, that God is “the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort” (2 Cor 1:3)!
Thanks be to God.
Charles W. Hedrick
Posted by Charles Hedrick at 10:04am
Dr. Hedrick, for once I'll be brief: I love you very much. God bless you and the light you bring to the world for those with an ear to hear.
As I sit at my computer preparing the memorial sermon for a friend and church member, I am finding your comments to dominate what I want to say. So many church funeral sermons are full of such assurances of certainty of things which certainly cannot be known (at best) and are probably total poppycock that it is an insult to the deceased and embarrassing to the congregation of mourners. A bit of honesty mixed with our grief is surely a better tonic than a pack of silly lies.
I am so sad to read about your beliefs about heaven. God's Word is true. I find it hard to believe that you have studied so much that you have unlearned what you learned from Dr. Elliott in Greenville, Ms, so many years ago.
Charlie, you and I know that this is a slightly altered version of the memorial you did for my husband this past week; however, you left out what to me was the most eloquent, poignant paragraph, so I want to share:
Gee Charlie, I feel like I just heard a good sermon! It would be fitting to be read at your own memorial service, one that I “hope” will be far in the future.
You need a “share” button for easy sharing on facebook! GREAT piece Dad! I really enjoyed this one!
Well done, Charles. My son, Matthew,D of M, has been traveling the world delivering God's message to the secular communities. You may find it interesting to go to matthewgamble.com and read some of his work. I am sending him this last writing of yours to him.
I'm finding it hard at age 78 and in good health to believe that there is an afterlife. But I wonder if at the end of my life, I will hope that there is. I wonder if the coarseness of our society is because people do not believe in an afterlife...that maybe it has served us well for the most part.