Friday, September 14, 2007

Life, death, and the Communion of Saints

I've been meaning to write this for a while now, ever since Pastor Larry Brice passed away last week. (There's a good story on him here and his obituary is here.) Alas, time has been tight, and I really wanted to wait until after his funeral before I posted. Somehow a death doesn't seem "official" before the funeral, if that makes sense.

My Lovely and Brilliant Wife and I did go to his funeral service, although we couldn't stay through the whole thing. (Pregnancy is a lot tougher at 40 than at 20, and she was feeling pretty lousy after the first hour.) I don't think anybody noticed our absence; not only did they hold it at the biggest church building in town (his own church, Grace Harvest, wasn't nearly big enough), but they also had to set up a second sanctuary with a video screen for the mourners who couldn't fit. Larry was a police chaplain, so every cop in town who wasn't actually on duty was there in dress uniform. I saw people from probably every Christian church in Moses Lake. I expect there were even more than a few Mormons in attendance, because of his police work and his work with the local CPC. Lots of people loved Larry, and they were all was there to show it. Because Larry loved Jesus, and what's more, Larry loved everybody Jesus loved.

We heard testimonials from one person after another who had witnessed Larry's work for God in action. He had served the Lord faithfully as a layman, husband, and father, for decades before taking on full-time ministry work for Grace Harvest. Even in his last days, when he was so weak he couldn't get up, he was asking a fellow police chaplain if there was anybody he could pray for. Everybody had a story of how Larry had helped them, through prayer, support, counsel, or just being a good example. Faithful and loving to the end.

But it's not the end. "He that believeth in Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live." This is one of the linchpins of the Christian faith. "The life everlasting" is how it's phrased in the Apostle's Creed. Larry's passing reminded me of another phrase from the same creed: "The Communion of Saints."

That line is interpreted in different ways, but I'm speaking here of the traditional understanding of it, what Lewis called "the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners." This has nothing to do with schisms or Reformations; it's not a Catholic, or a Protestant, or an Orthodox thing. Rather, the whole Body of Christ is said to be divided into three parts: The Church Militant (on earth), the Church Suffering (in Purgatory), and the Church Triumphant (in Heaven). I'm going to leave the second part alone for now; it's kind of tangential here. Besides, I suspect a man who's been through almost a year of colon and liver cancer has had all the Purgatory he'll ever need.

It's first and third parts of the Church I'm thinking of, and how easily we forget that they're not two completely different things. We think of death as a total departure: that when a man leaves earth and enters into glory, he's gone for good and has no further connection with the rest of us. But it's not that cut and dried. They may go far away from us, but it doesn't follow that we are far away from them.

But when we try to articulate this, it comes out sounding like superstition at best and New-Age occultism at worst. Sure, we believe in life after death, but it's still death, after all. Any attempt to circumvent that is necromancy, right?

Well, yes and no. (Love those precise answers!) Man can't circumvent death himself, but Christ short-circuited it on the Cross. If we think of death not as the end, but as the transition from Militant to Triumphant (with maybe a stopover at Suffering), it's easier to see. The Church is not, as Chesterton said, limited to those members who happen to be walking around at any given time. Larry isn't gone from the Church; he's just gone from Moses Lake.

But do you really think Moses Lake is out of his sight? Do you really think he stopped loving the people he left behind? Not likely! Our Christian faith is both a vertical relationship (Man and God) and a horizontal one (Man and the rest of the Body of Christ). That horizontal unity doesn't disappear at the Pearly Gates. And a man like Larry Brice, who prayed and loved here, isn't going to quit just because he's reached the destination he was headed for all along.

When he was on earth, Larry prayed for people constantly. He sought out people who needed prayer and comfort, and he gave it to them. But then, he saw through a glass darkly. He only knew to pray for those needs that someone told him about. Today, he sees clearly, and sees many more people to pray for. he also knows what to ask God for, whereas on earth he had only the Bible and his own thin knowledge of God to guess by. Nor is he limited by the earthly restriction of only doing one thing at a time. He has all eternity, the never-ending "now." I have no doubt that he is right now watching the people of Moses Lake, of Grace Harvest Church, and of earth in general, and praying for their constant needs. And what's more, he's not praying to a God he can't see, but to one he can look full in the face and say, "Father, will You help this person?" And you can bet that He will. That's how prayer works. It's not just a two-way channel, with each individual asking God for favors for himself. It's a huge, intricate network, webbed between the three parts of the Church and the Triune God, all intersecting and interlacing, all forming a support that sustains us and shares out God's blessings in abundance.

Back in November, when Larry was diagnosed, many people prayed for him. Now there's no more need to pray for him, but I'll bet that anyone who asks a favor from him will find that petition immediately brought before a generous God. That is the communion of saints. We're all praying for each other: Militant, Suffering and Triumphant. Death can make a temporary, incomplete separation, but it can't divide the Body of Christ in any complete way. You can't stop a saint from praying. He'll always be lifting up the people of his Church. And especially those in Grace Harvest, where his heart was when he was here. Because in the Communion of Saints, death isn't the end; it's just a change of address.

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