Where Are the Dead?


The Church has celebrated the Festival of All Saints since at least the 8th century. While there are many layers of meaning to the observance, remembering those who have died is a big part of the day. In a culture that seeks to avoid death, we embrace it and hear that “our tears will be wiped away” that “those who mourn will be comforted.” It seems a far-off promise when the wounds are fresh or when long-standing. Perhaps the tears and the mourning are all we have left to remember; maybeTruth Square with text we feel we must hang on to them to hang on to our loved ones. Where are the dead – now? The answer is revealed in Christ and the mysterious communion of saints. Christ is Lord of the living and the dead, and that knits us together in this very moment.

Facing Death with Resurrection Hope

So, I was thinking that as we celebrate this season of the resurrection in the church, I should say something about the relationship between the promise of resurrection and the reality of death.  It has been my experience that Christians tend to fall into a couple of camps on this matter.  First, we know the story of the resurrection, we know we are supposed to believe it,and we turn out every year to sing song’s about the resurrection of Jesus, but we have no sense of what that has to do with us.  Death is the final word for our lives and no matter what the Church proclaims, death is a terrifying reality.  Second, we grab hold of the resurrection and we apply all sorts of other cultural beliefs deny death.  We think that death really never applies to us because we go somewhere else.  In other words, we either give death the final word or we deny that death is 100% real for all of us.

So, I was thinking – actually agonizing – over a fresh way to talk about this and to draw us to be able to accept face death and have resurrection hope. I started to read once again my favorite theologians and preachers for some inspiration.  Then, a friend posted the article below on Facebook.  It is by one of my mentors, one of my friends, one of the teachers who shaped me as a teacher and preacher about as much as anybody.  It is written after he received word that death was close.  Realizing that I can’t speak any more eloquently than Dear Walter Bouman, I share with you his thoughts on facing death and resurrection hope.  And Walter… even in death you teach and inspire me. — Pax Christi – Pastor Tim


November 2005 issue of The Lutheran Magazine

Walter Bouman’s Death Bed Letter

Counting the last days
Walter Bouman considers his dying—and joining the saints on the other side

And now there arise the great questions: Why did you live? Why did you suffer? We must answer these questions some way if we are to continue living—yes, even if we are only to continue dying (composer Gustav Mahler).

The surgeon stood beside my bed in the recovery room. He said he had removed a large growth attached to my abdomen. There was no longer any cancer in the colon. But it had spread to the liver and lymph system, and it was stage four, terminal. From the Latin word terminus, ‘‘end of the line.” 

I remember thinking how painful it must be for this good and gentle man to have to say those words to a patient. Then I thought of Paul’s words: “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s” (Romans 14:7-8).

I’ve often taught courses on death and dying. I studied the path-
breaking book by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, On Death and Dying (Fortress Press, 1972;available from www.amazon.com). I knew the stages: denial, anger, bargaining, grief, acceptance. But I haven’t experienced them. I have some regret that I won’t see my grade-school grandchildren grow to maturity. But mostly I’ve experienced peace.

Resting in the hospital, I had time to think. I wanted to preach once more to the seminary community, and that was arranged. I also knew I would begin with the words from Psalm 90:12: “So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.”

I’m counting. I’m counting. The surgeon said I have six to nine months. A month later, the oncologist said I have six to nine months. I asked him when to start counting, April 1 or May 1? ‘‘A quibble,” he replied.

I opted for no further treatment. God has given me a grace-filled and satisfying life. It seems ungrateful to ask for more. Instead I receive hospice care and tremendous, loving care from Jan, my wife. I have no pain but tire easily. Combing my hair is enough to require catching my breath. And I have minimal appetite.

I get much joy from the music on our classical radio station. My grandchildren asked me what I thought heaven would be like. Although I have no idea, I replied, “Great music, without station breaks.”

“But you like Bach and Beethoven,” they said. “What if someone likes Led Zeppelin?”

“Then they get a soundproof room,” I replied.

I think of the good things that come with having a date with death, like no more flossing. I experienced far more anguish when my beloved St. Louis Cardinals lost the World Series in four straight games! But even when the Cardinals lose, my greatest source of encouragement is the Christian story of God, into which I was baptized in July 1929. I have bet my living, and now I’m called to bet my dying, that Jesus—not death—will have the last word.

I was moved to a private room on the oncology floor for the last eight days of my hospital stay. The oncology nurse came in several times for longer sessions on my condition and possible treatments. Commenting that she was hearing much laughter and peaceful conversation in the room, the nurse asked, “What’s going on?”

I said, “I believe that Jesus, and not death, will have the last word.”

“What does that mean?” she asked.

And so I gave her my 10-minute version of Theology 101: Jesus’ disciples were astonished to discover that the crucified Jew whom they fled in fear was actually the Messiah of Israel and the world. He is identified as Messiah by his resurrection from the dead. The gospel is not an idea, for example, that God loves us, although that is true. The gospel is good news. It’s the announcement that something good and absolutely decisive for the universe has happened. The Christian good news is simply: Jesus is risen!

Jesus will have the last word

That is good news because it means that death no longer has power over him. Jesus, not death, will have the last word. But Jesus’ resurrection wasn’t personal vindication. He has become the firstfruits of all that sleep. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all shall be made alive. He will reign until he has put all things under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. And then God will be everything in everyone 
(1 Corinthians 15:22-28).

This is a vision for the future, and it beckons us to follow it. Of course Jesus is also about the past, our past, the world’s past. There on the cross he takes sin and evil and death into God’s being and history, where it is overcome forever. But the gospel is first and foremost a vision for the future. Because Jesus is risen everything has changed radically. We are set free from serving the powers of death with our lives, fears, policies. We are set free from having to protect ourselves at whatever cost to others. We are set free from the dreadful necessity to grab all the gusto we can because we only go around once. We are set free from the compulsion to cling to every day and hour of life in this world.

This vision also applies to everyone. Paul says “all” repeatedly, and I take it that he means “all.” Theologian Robert Farrar Capon taught me years ago that Jesus didn’t come to repair the repairable, correct the correctable, improve the improvable. He came to raise the dead! The only final condition for eternal participation in Christ’s victory is that we be dead, 100 percent, gold-plated dead.

Paul exults in God’s universal forgiveness: “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all” (Romans 11:32). It’s God’s unconditional love that evokes his outburst of praise: “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable are his ways” (Romans 11:33).

We really have trouble getting it. Writer Anne Lamott quotes the pastor of “The Church of 80% Sincerity: We are capable of unconditional love, but it has a shelf life of about eight to 10 seconds. We might say to our beloved, ‘Darling, I’ll love you unconditionally until the very end of dinner.’ ” It’s God’s eternal unconditional love that distinguishes God from us (Hosea 11:8-9), not God’s infinity or presumed immortality. God isn’t deathless but beyond death.

God’s universal salvation

Difficult as it is—because I always think of it as unfair—I’ve come to accept God’s universal salvation as the final consequence of Jesus’ resurrection. I think of all the best and worst, the innocent and the guilty, Holocaust victims and the evil perpetrators, those killed in all of our senseless wars and the misguided leaders who send them into battle. Christ will raise us all—and somehow bend us into shape so we become the human beings we were intended to be.

I continue to pray a lot, mostly for people who experience worse things than I do, like chronic back pain. In the days following my diagnosis, I prayed each night that God wouldn’t let me wake up in this world. But then my good friend and colleague Anna Madsen of Augustana College, Sioux Falls, S.D., sent me an e-mail stating: “Don’t you dare die until I get to Columbus.” When Anna talks, even God listens. So I stopped praying the prayer.

Instead I’ve turned to a prayer that I first learned in German as a child. I pray the beautiful hymn Now Rest Beneath Night’s Shadow:

Lord Jesus, who dost love me,
Oh spread thy wings above,
And shield me from alarm.
Though evil would assail me
Thy mercy will not fail me.
I rest in thy protecting arm.

Many years ago I read Ernst Kasemann’s book, Jesus Means Freedom (Fortress Press, 1972; out-of-print, may be available from www.alibris.com). That has been at the heart of my religious experience. We are set free to celebrate each service of communion as the foretaste of the feast to come. This is the feast of victory for our God. Well, it’s only hors d’oeuvres on this side of the grave, but it is already a foretaste of the feast to come. This is what identifies us as Messiah’s people. In the meal, Christ gives us the gift of his offering of himself for the life of the world. There, he takes us up into his offering and shapes us to share in his mission. We are called to offer ourselves to the world, as he has offered himself to the world.

Free to love

We are free to love the church. Not the church where we all agree with each other, but the church that in our disagreements fills us with dismay, robs us of hope and often pursues agendas so contrary to what we think is Christ’s will that we want to despair. That’s the church we are free to love.

We are called to love the ELCA, which confesses that the right teaching of the gospel, and gospel-
administered sacraments alone constitutes what it means to be the church. Yet the ELCA threatens to tear itself apart over the issue of same-sex unions, an issue which isn’t the gospel that unites the church. That is the church which Jesus’ resurrection frees us to love.

We are free to imprint on our hearts and minds Paul’s words from Ephesians 4 1-3: “I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” In the last chapter of Luke, Jesus tells the disciple community to await being “clothed with power from on high.” We don’t need to be “clothed with power from on high” to join a bridge club, root for the Ohio State University Buckeyes, golf with our friends or champion causes with other like-minded people.

But we need “power from on high” to be the church, that is, to be so grasped by Christ that we can “put up with each other,” as Daniel L. Olson, a professor of pastoral care at Wartburg Seminary, Dubuque, Iowa, writes, “in a community that can sustain its unity in the midst of disagreement over emotionally charged issues, without demonizing or disregarding, excluding or humiliating each other.” Olson points out that our present situation gives the church a magnificent opportunity to be the church—to disagree profoundly over truly important matters without turning away from each other or turning against each other.

Jesus’ resurrection frees us to love the world. I think of that great cosmic and mysterious universe set in motion by the creative urge of the Father, given form through the creating word of the Son, given a life that is pointed toward a new heaven and a new earth by the aspirating Spirit. But we are free to love a more manageable world, our own small planet placed into our care as stewards of God’s gift. Such love of our world was never more in need.

I’ve resisted the temptation to say, ‘‘Stop the world because I’m getting off.” Instead I continue to care about the world, pray for it and urge all to be faithful stewards of our planet and to make the U.S. a more responsible member of the family of nations. The agenda is urgent. In a world where the gap between the rich and the poor increases daily, we need to oppose policies that condemn the poor of the world to lives of misery and early graves. We need to hold our government to war policies that adhere to the just war standards (Augsburg Confession, Article 16). We need to ask why U.S. policies have made us more fearful and feared, more arrogant and hated in the world.

Now I’m entering into the final baptism, ‘‘my beginning’s end”—the final dying with Jesus to await with curiosity the promise that God will be everything in everyone. I’m leaving the saints on this side of the grave to join the saints on the other side. Sainthood doesn’t mean that our morals or behaviors are somehow better than others. Sainthood, that is holiness, means being set apart for God’s reign.

I don’t know what heaven will be like. But my great expectation is that the Lord Jesus will be there to welcome me and that I will be fully and completely set apart for his everlasting reign.

It’s good to have time to tie up loose ends, to tell family and friends that I love them. In my prayers each day I commend myself to the unworthy and imperfect service I am able to render.

I look forward to the surprises that Jesus has in store.

Thanksgivings and Blessings

So, I was thinking my first order of business in this blog post is to say “Thank you!”  I asked for input about whether this was a helpful resource in your faith journey and your answers were gracious, affirming and informative.  Just what I needed to know as I think about what to think about in the days and weeks ahead!

Some of the feedback encouraged me to keep thinking as I have been.  So, I will continue to look around the headlines and the culture and see where faith seems to have something to say.  Some of you had some ideas for specific topics and I will work hard to come up with meaningful thought about these things.  A couple of you offered that you wanted to hear more about biblical insights, perhaps from the weekly lessons.  That makes me think that maybe a separate blog about the lessons might be helpful — weigh in on this if you think it an interesting project.

So, I was also thinking that this is Holy Week – the holiest time of the Christian year in many ways. It is a time like no other to ponder what Christ means to us in our daily lives.  It is a time to intensify our worship pattern as we gather on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and for the Vigil on Saturday at 7 PM to walk with our Lord as he loves us with every drop of life and beyond.

I am, each year, reminded of an ancient part of the observance of Good Friday called the “Solemn Reproaches.”        Each reproach begins with the voice of our Lord – “O my people, O my Church, what more could I have done for you? Answer me.”  Then the prayer proclaims some of the many ways God has blessed us and loved us.  And the people say, “Holy God, holy and mighty, holy and immortal, have mercy on us.”  It is all we really can say in response to the question.  God blesses. We rebel.  God blesses, we forget. God blesses.

Let me leave you with two of the Solemn Reproaches that stick with me:

O my people, O my Church, what more could I have done for you? Answer me.  I opened the waters to lead you to the promised land, but you opened my side with a spear; I washed your feet as a sign of my love, but you have prepared a cross for your Savior.

O my people, O my Church, what more could I have done for you? Answer me.  I lifted you up to the heights, but you lifted me high on a cross; I raised you from death and prepared for you the tree of life, but you have prepared a cross for your Savior.

Holy God, holy and mighty, holy and immortal, have mercy on us.

May the God who loves you enough to do all these things bless you with grace and mercy this week, and all the days of your life.

Pax Christi,

Pastor Tim

Jesus and the Church

So, I was thinking that it is time for me to take a stab at furthering the conversation about the cultural trend to “love Jesus and hate the Church.”  But, I am also thinking (and feeling very deeply in my bones) that this has been a week that has been about more important things than cultural trends.  On Monday, we laid to rest a blessed saint after a long battle with cancer.  Today, the congregation will host a visitation for a member, not long into his forties, who died from the same hated enemy, cancer.  Today, I learned that my seminary advisor, friend, mentor and teacher, Paul Fransen, died.   Death is around every corner, it seems.  It leaves a wake of grief and tears, pain and anguish.  And I realized as I looked at what death had brought to the table this week, there in the midst of it all was the Church.

In the wake of death, the Church gathered on Monday to sing, pray, serve some food and offer a presence in the midst of the grief and death.  Today, members of the Church will stand with a family as they weep and remember providing presence, food, a prayer and a kind word.  In the next week or so, the Church will gather in Columbus, Ohio to do the same thing to say good-bye to a third saint.  People, people of Christ, will do whatever they can to confront death with acts of kindness and hope.  I have witnessed this “non-violent protest” of death countless times in my ministry — every pastor does.  This is the communion of saints, the body of Christ, the Church being Jesus to those who wrestle with death.  So, with all its warts and foibles, I find it hard to hate the Church because no matter what you think, the Church and Jesus are inextricably bound together.  It would be no surprise to say that Jesus was “somehow” present in all these confrontations with death.  But it is the Church of Christ that puts His flesh and bones in the room, at the graveside, among the tears and pain.

Now, you know I am not being naive.  My last post on this subject owns the failures of the Church.  The problem is, if we take Jesus seriously we have to take Jesus’ followers seriously.  If scripture is to play a role in defining who Jesus is (and there is really not much in the way of alternative sources that are authoritative) one has to acknowledge that Jesus and the Church are deeply connected.  The Church is the “temple,” (2 Cor. 6:16); the “bride of Christ” (Rev. 21:2) and the “body of Christ” (Romans 12:5).  Now, temples can surely decay, Hosea’s bride was a harlot, and the body is at least physically capable of showing the marks of sin and death.  But this does not negate the relationship between Christ and His Church.  Jesus gathered flawed disciples around him – church.  In Matthew 6, Jesus said “wherever two or more gather in my name, I am with them.” — two or more, gathered = church.  In fact – and this is perhaps the biggest challenge – Jesus’ promise to be present with us comes in Word proclaimed and sacraments celebrated — acts of the church.

Perhaps the confusion rests in the definition of the Church.  If you define the church as a human institution or organization with budgets, administrative structures, policies and procedures, then we are no doubt quite far from what Jesus was talking about.  If however, you define the Church as that place, that moment, where God in Christ and the people of God come together, something much more dynamic is at work.   As Lutherans, we define the Church as follows: “(We) teach that one holy church will remain forever. The church is the assembly of the saints in which the gospel is taught purely and the sacraments are administered rightly.  And it is enough for the true unity of the church to agree concerning teaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments.  It is not necessary that human traditions, rites, or ceremonies instituted by human beings be alike everywhere.  As Paul says [Eph. 4:5,6]: “One faith, one baptism, on God and Father of us all…” (Augsburg Confession, Article VII)

This understanding of Church is not an effort to define structures or systems.  There is no mention of keeping the membership roles of an organization, nor is there concern for buildings or bureaucracy.  Contrary to what most of the culture thinks about the church, the church is not a thing; it is the encounter of God and people as they gather around the means of grace – the gifts of God.  Church is an event.  This definition guards against two things. First, it doesn’t reduce the church to a repository of dead propositions about God.  All too often the church is portrayed or presented as an dispenser or protector of some version of truth. Second, this view of the church mitigates an idea that the church (or its leaders) stand in the place of God.  This dynamic treatment of the Church also asserts that the Church matters because it is the place of encounter between God and people.

The encounter between God and people that is the Church drives God’s people out into the world where we we live out the Word and become a sacramental presence. Church keeps happening in every move we make. Certainly, it might be countered that while the event called church can at times change the world as it moves into the street, it is also true that this event called church can also all too easily end at the door of the building where the gathering happened having no impact at all on the world.  This is not a sign that Church does not happen, but rather is a testimony to the provisional character of the church – it is flawed, broken, simultaneously sinner and saint.  So, let’s not throw the saint out with the baptismal water.

What does this all look like?  Well, right now it looks like people who encountered Jesus in Word and sacrament in the sanctuary are at this moment in the kitchen arranging food for a grieving family – the encounter with God will continue.  Right now, it looks like death’s best effort to be the last word will meet resistance as people gather to pray and proclaim God has the last word.  Right now, it looks like the Church is being the people of Jesus.  You can’t have the savior without the saved; the redeemer without the redeemed; the Jesus without his Church.

Pax Christi,  Pastor Tim