The Company of Heaven
‘Will I be able to pray for them? After I’m gone?’
We were sitting in his battered, red F150 parked in front of the mud-brown elevation sign at the Peaks of Otter overlook on the Blue Ridge. Four-thousand feet, the sign said.
We were sitting in the cab of his truck, both of us looking straight ahead, not at each other- a position I think is the only one in which men can be intimate with one another.
Looking at Bedford County below us, neither of us had spoken for several minutes until he broke the silence by asking me: ‘Will I be able to pray for them? After I’m gone?’
David Burnett was (is) one of the saints in my life, and not because of any remarkable feat of his or his exceptional religiosity.
David was just good and kind, a Gary Cooper-type without pretense. What you saw was what you got, and what you got from David was very often the love of God condensed and focused and translated into deceptively ordinary words and gestures.
Not long after I’d been assigned to his church, David let me know that he’d like to spend an afternoon with me. He wanted to get to know me better, he said, because he thought I’d likely be doing his funeral.
David was only a few years older than me. He’d lived every day of his life in the same small town and wouldn’t have had it any other way. He’d been baptized and raised and was now raising his own two kids in the church I pastored.
Ever since graduating from high school, David had worked in the local carpet factory and had survived as the captain of the volunteer fire department, despite his slight frame. But when I first met him, David hadn’t worked for over a year. Not since his Lou Gehrig’s Disease had begun its monotonous mutiny against his body.
At first I’d suggested to David that we grab some lunch, but he blushed and confessed that the stiffness in his jaw and hands would make eating distracting for me and embarrassing for him. ‘Let’s go for a drive,’ he suggested.
He picked me at the church. He was wearing jeans that his wife had sewn an elastic waistband into and a t-shirt that was much too big for him but was just big enough for him to be able to dress himself.
I could tell he was proud that even though he could only awkwardly grip the steering wheel he could still drive his truck.
We switched places when we got to the edge of town; he couldn’t navigate the steep, winding roads that wound their way up the mountain. But we switched back again when we got to the top.
Driving through the Blue Ridge, every now and then, David would stop at places as though he were turning the pages of a family photo album.
He stopped at the spot he’d gone hunting with his Dad just before he died.
He stopped and showed me the woods he’d snuck into as a teenager with his friends and snuck his first beer.
He coasted the truck and pointed to a ridge with a clearing where he’d proposed to his high school sweetheart; he said that was the best spot to see the stars at night.
And he stopped and showed me the place he liked to take his kids camping. It was at that stop that he asked, with the V8 idling, my advice on how to tell his kids, who thus far only knew that their Dad was sick, that he walked and talked funny now, not that he was dying.
David parked at the Peaks of Otter overlook and turned off the engine, and all of a sudden the pickup took on the feel of a medieval confessional.
Staring straight ahead, David faked a chuckle and told me how he’d rushed into burning homes before without a second’s hesitation but that he was terrified of the long, slow death that awaited him.
He pretended to wipe away something in his eye besides a tear, and I pretended not to notice.
Then he told me how he’d miss his kids. He told me he worried about them; he worried how they’d do without him.
He was quiet for a few minutes, evidently thinking because then he asked me: ‘Will they be able to talk to me? Will I be able to pray for them? After I’m gone?’
It’s a good question.
I don’t think David would’ve known or would’ve cared for that matter, but in so many words his was a question that’s been a bone of contention between Christians ever since Martin Luther nailed his 95 protests against the Catholic Church into the sanctuary doors in Wittenberg 500 years ago:
Can we solicit the prayers of the dead?
Can we ask the saints to pray for us?
The instant David asked me his question I felt glad that we were sitting in a pickup staring straight ahead instead of in my office or over lunch facing one another.
I was glad were sitting in his truck because, with tears in his eyes, I wouldn’t have wanted him to see the confusion in my own, to see that I didn’t know how to answer him.
My first impulse was to sidestep his questions, to ignore the questions about the saints departed, about what they’re life is like, what they do and what we can ask of them.
My first impulse was to sidestep those questions and just offer David the reassurance that Kinnon and McKayla would be fine.
And I could’ve gotten away with it, I suppose.
But David didn’t just want reassurances about his kids. He wanted to know if he’d still have a relationship with them. He didn’t just want to know if they’d make it after he died; he wanted to know that even if he did not, would his relationship with them survive death?
Or I could’ve just said ‘Yes’ and moved on. I thought about it. I considered it.
It was a pastoral moment. He had a pastoral need. There in the cab of his pickup surely compassion trumped orthodoxy.
Rather than worry what was the right answer, what was the theologically permissible answer, I should just say ‘Yes’ and give him some peace in from his pain.
But as I said, David was a saint, one of God’s plainly good people. And the thing about saints- it’s hard to lie to them.
Of course I could’ve chosen to explain to David everything I’d been taught in seminary classrooms and theological textbooks, Protestant classrooms and Protestant texts.
I could’ve explained to David how I was taught that praying to anyone but Jesus Christ was…idolatrous; how devotion to anything else, saint or otherwise, detracts from our devotion to Christ.
I could’ve explained to David the mantra of the Reformation: how we are saved by faith alone, by Christ alone, who is our Great, High Priest therefore we don’t need any other priest, confessor or saint to mediate our prayers.
I could’ve explained to David all the ins and outs of everything I’d been taught.
And because I like to be a smarty-pants, I had to stop myself from doing so. Because even though the question was one I’d heard batted round and round in theology classrooms, when I heard the same question on David’s lips it sounded anything but academic.
Can we ask the saints to pray for us?
It’s a question that has divided Christians for 5 centuries.
After all they won’t be celebrating All Saints Day at any of the Lutheran, Baptist, Presbyterian or Pentecostal churches up and down Ft Hunt Road.
And in the United Methodist Church and in the Episcopal Church we split the difference. We remember and we give thanks for the saints, but we don’t speak to them. We don’t call on them.
And we typically don’t ask them to pray for us.
But ever since David asked me his question from the driver’s side of his pickup I’ve wondered if we Protestants have been on the right side of the question.
As it turned out, David was wrong. I wasn’t the one to do his funeral.
As it turned out, David was just as strong and determined as everyone believed him to be and stronger than he gave himself credit. He lived longer than the doctors expected and by the time he died I was serving here.
But even though I wasn’t the one to preside at his funeral service, the script- the ancient script- was the same.
Draping a white pall over his casket, the pastor proclaimed:
Dying, Christ destroyed our death.
Rising, Christ restored our life.
As in baptism David put on Christ, so now is David in Christ and clothed with glory.
Then facing the standing-room only sanctuary, the pastor held out her hands and for the call to worship voiced Jesus’ promise:
I am the resurrection and I am life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.
And then at the end of the service, after the preaching and the sharing and the crying, the pastor laid her hands on David’s casket and prayed the commendation:
As first you gave David to us, now we give David back to you.
Receive David into the arms of your mercy.
Receive David into the fellowship of your departed saints.
When we baptize someone, we baptize them into Christ and we declare that he or she will forever be a son or daughter in heaven.
And so in death we never cease to be in Christ.
The Christian community is one that blurs the line between this world and the next. That’s why Christians use the word ‘veil’ to describe death, something so thin you can nearly see through it.
It’s a fellowship that cannot be broken by time or death because it’s a communion in the Living Christ. What we name by the word ‘Church’ is a single communion of living and departed saints. The Church is one People in heaven and on Earth.
The dead don’t disappear into the ether. They don’t walk around as vaporous ghosts. They don’t dissolve into the fibers and cells of the natural world.
They’re gathered around the throne, worshipping God. They’re in Christ, the very same communion they were baptized into. The same communion to which we belong.
And so death does not destroy or fundamentally change our relationship to the dead.
We pray and, according to the Book of Revelation, so do they.
We praise God and, according to the Great Thanksgiving-our communion prayer, so do they.
We try to love God and one another and, according to the Book of Hebrews, they do so completely.
Our fellowship with the departed saints is not altogether different from our fellowship with one another.
That’s what we mean when we say in the Creed ‘I believe in the communion of saints…’ We’re saying: ‘I believe in the fellowship of the living and the dead in Christ.’
So it seems to me we can pray and ask the saints to pray for us. Not in the sense of praying to them. Not in the sense of giving them our worship and devotion.
But if we believe in the communion of saints, living and dead, then asking the departed saints for their prayers is no different than Trish, Julie and David- in this congregation- asking for my prayers for them this week.
It’s not, as Protestants so often caricature, that the saints are our way or our mediators to Jesus Christ.
Rather, because we (living and dead) are all friends in Jesus Christ we can talk to and pray for one another.
I can ask Jackson Casey, who had an eleven year old’s insatiable curiosity for scripture, to pray for me that I never take these stories for granted.
I can ask Joanne Jackson and Peg Charney, both of whom knew better than me what it was to serve the poor, to pray for me that I not lose sight of what Jesus expects of me.
I can ask Eleanor Gunggoll, who made her boys her priority, to pray for me that I never stop treasuring mine.
‘Will I be able to pray for them? After I’m gone?’
The moments passed in silence while my mind was anything but, then David, perhaps sensing that I didn’t know or wasn’t going to respond, reached for the ignition.
But then I turned in the passenger seat and, violating the man code, I looked right at him and said: ‘I hope you’ll pray for me too.’
I didn’t know at the time whether it was a good or right answer.
I do know, though, that I think of David, and his question, every time I stand behind a loaf of bread and a cup of wine and pray: ‘…and so with your people here on earth and all the company of heaven, we praise your name and join their ending hymn…’