"Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." (Hebrews 11:1)
Early this past Saturday morning, my step-father, the Rev. Martin L.Cox, Jr., died with my mother and my youngest sister at his side. He fought a valiant battle against leukemia which included an experimental treatment at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York City - about two hours from my hometown. The plan on Friday was to transport him to hospice much closer to home and so my sister and mother were going to travel with Marty in the ambulance. The ambulance was delayed, however, until Saturday, and he didn't make it through the night.
May he rest in peace, and rise in glory. He was a good man and a gift to our family. But this post is not a eulogy. There will be time for plenty of "good words" about Marty, from many directions.Most of them I think will boil down to this: "well done, good and faithful servant."
This post, however, is a rumination on the faith of my family, from generation to generation - and what that means to me in a time of loss. Faith is not, as I understand it, primarily about a set of "beliefs." Over time, beliefs change - if we remain open - based on new information and on new experiences. But over time, faith deepens. It matures like wine. Faith is not a list of beliefs, but an assurance and a conviction, according to the writer of Hebrews. I think the closer synonym to faith is trust - not belief. And trust is the antidote to fear.
Nothing has the potential to make us more afraid than death, our own and the deaths of those whom we love. But faith allows us to say, as "The Burial Office" in The Book of Common Prayer puts it, that "to your faithful people, O Lord, life is changed, not ended; and when our mortal body lies in death, there is prepared for us a dwelling place eternal in the heavens." (BCP 382)
Instead of gathering the family on Saturday as planned to say our goodbyes to my step-father, we found ourselves instead sitting in my mother's living room planning his funeral. My mother was raised in the Lutheran Church, but became a United Methodist when she was married to my dad. The faith she has is strong, but it's not her's alone. It was passed on to her by her family and a community of faith. (St. Paul's Lutheran Church is in fact just across the street from Hawley United Methodist Church where we four kids were raised. )
I'm the oldest, and along the way found myself drawn to the Episcopal Church, where I have been a priest for over two decades. My youngest sister is a lay Episcopalian who is involved, among other things, with music ministries in her church. My brother and other sister are members at Hawley United Methodist Church - both sing in the choir (with my mom.) My brother is also the lay leader of that congregation. I share these bits of information not as items on our resumes, but to make it clear it's not just that Rich and Marty are pastors. Faith matters to all of the members of my family. And all of our children are, like us, "church people." So far no one in that generation is ordained. But faith matters to the grandchildren too - from oldest to youngest, and even in a world where "young people don't seem to connect to the church anymore." Our young people do!
Now faith is not about going to church every week. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen. But faith has to be practiced. Over time. That requires community. You can be a good person on your own, and you can even be a not-so-good person who goes to church. But I don't know how you can be a person of faith who doesn't practice that faith and I don't know how you practice faith without a community to hold you up when you are down, and hold you accountable when you are wrong.
In one sense, you might make the case that faith is practiced over thousands of years so that when death comes to our doorsteps, that we are prepared both to grieve and to make our song at the grave, alleluia!
Sitting in my mother's living room, three generations of Christians, we suggested hymns and sang some of them. Sitting in my mother's living room we chose readings from scripture - calling them out and reading them aloud and "voting" on the ones that seemed right to this particular death at this particular time. We possess the skill set as a family to do this work with relative ease.
As a longtime pastor I know that we are not unique, but in our culture I know also that this is increasingly rare. And I don't mean the so-called secular culture. I mean the church culture that is sometimes more consumer driven than it is about making disciples. The skill set for doing this hard work is harder to find than it once was - maybe as recently as a generation ago. Finding a Bible in the house - finding the prophet Isaiah - knowing where chapter sixty-one is - these are not skills that can be assumed anymore.
There is no judgment intended in this post about those who don't possess these skills. As a longtime pastor I try to extend hospitality to all and to judge no one, lest I be judged. I don't share this post to shame anyone else or to say that my family is somehow "better." But I share it in the old-fashioned meaning of the word "testimony" - that I know what I saw on Saturday in my mother's living room and it was good.
And it goes beyond the skills for this work of dealing with the death of a loved one. What I'm trying to speak of are the practices of faith that give one something to draw on in times of uncertainty and loss. Faith isn't something we can add water to in the moment when we need it. We go to church, we connect to a community, so that we are ready - not just in the moment when loss comes to us but as members of a body who also are there for others when they need us in their times of loss.
There really is no judgment intended in this post. But I see my work as a priest to be about "equipping the saints" for ministry - and no ministry is more existential than facing death. I saw in my mother's living room a family where faith has been practiced over time - so that in this unique moment in time we have a common language (even across denominational and generational lines) and a sure and certain hope in the resurrection. That doesn't mean there aren't times of doubt. But doubt isn't the opposite of faith; fear is. Faith does mean that we can help one another to not be afraid, and remind one another of the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen.
As a pastor, I can do a funeral for someone who only rarely came to church. I can do that in the funeral home if necessary. I can find readings and choose some music and hire a soloist. It's part of what the church can do for people who are grieving and it can be holy work. But it's different when families have a deep well from which they can draw, and while I love my family I also don't think we are totally unique. I've had other moments like the one I had Sunday, in other living rooms.
The Church needs to be relevant, to be sure. But the Church that seeks to be relevant to every passing fad is always in danger of becoming disconnected from the saints who have gone before us, those who from their labors rest. The Church is always being made new, to be sure. But we also have deep, deep roots that sustain us in times of loss.To notice that from time to time is a great blessing.
I think we Christians move through Lent and Holy Week and remember that we are dust, and then sing those early morning alleluias on Easter and proclaim that Christ has won the victory as practice, not unlike practicing for an Olympic sport or practicing the piano. We go to Church even in those ordinary Sundays after Pentecost and we listen to sermons that stimulate faith (as well as those that put us to sleep) over years and decades, so that when it comes time for us to sit in a living room and face death, we have something to draw on.
We don't connect to faith communities out of duty, guilt, or obligation, but so that faith can be practiced, and deepened, and strengthened, over time. So that it can mature like a well-aged wine. Always with God's help.