Friday, February 27, 2015

Prayers for Deceased Christians: Why not?

In response to inquiries regarding last week's question about prayers for deceased Christians, this week's article addresses follow-up questions on that same topic:

Q:  If it is permissible for Christians and their churches to pray for their deceased fellow Christians, then why do so few churches do so?  Even though it’s not wrong to do, is it wise?

The reasons prayer for deceased Christians is so rare among churches are many, but a few stand out most prominently:  because of an incomplete view of eternal life, because of its abuse in the past, and because of the potential for it to cause confusion. 

We Americans have often had handed down to us a mythology that we merely “die and go to heaven,” and that the story ends there.  However, Scripture’s description of life after death is much richer.  Jesus and St. Paul describe Christians as at rest with Christ following death, but that it is not how they will stay forever.  Instead, they will be resurrected on the last day to live again in the body in a new creation free from this life’s sorrows and sufferings. 

Some who recognize this truth of the Resurrection of the Body have chosen to pray as an expression of their confidence that it will one day happen and they will be reunited in real, physical life with their fellow Christians who have died.  However, for those whose understanding stops with a heavenly rest, they would see it as useless or even profane to continue praying concerning those who already rest with their Lord, therefore they do not contemplate the possibility of doing so.

There is also a history of abuse of prayers for the deceased.  For example, at the time of the Reformation, one of the points of contention was concerning purgatory and the use of prayers, indulgences, or masses to advance the deceased person to a better state after death.  Even though both sides continued to use these prayers, the Reformers rejected both a belief in purgatory as well as the idea that prayers offered after death caused any change for the status of the deceased, while the Roman church defended both ideas.

Some have also mistakenly thought that a person who ended their earthly life destined for eternal punishment could still attain salvation after death through the prayers and offerings of the living.  This is an idea that has been almost universally rejected in Christian theologians in all times and places, but because of misunderstanding or influence from other religions, has occasionally crept into the minds of some Christians and the life of the church. 

Because of these abuses, many Christians after the time of the Reformation have chosen to exercise additional caution by avoiding this kind of prayer entirely.  Instead, they chose to limit their prayer to prayers which give thanks for the blessings that the Lord granted to the deceased or for the blessings that He gave to others through them. 

Fear of causing confusion to those who are unfamiliar with the church’s history and theology has also been cause for avoiding prayers for deceased Christians in the church’s recent life.  Because the visible, audible action of what is done in the church is often more accessible to the average Christian than the abstract words on the page of a theological explanation, Christians who place a high value on clearly communicating the truth about Jesus have often preferred the safer route of foregoing these sort of prayers over the risk of giving their fellow Christians or those outside the church the false impression that it would be possible to offer assistance after the fact to a condemned soul who had died. 

Paul writes twice in his first letter to the Corinthians that even when certain things are permissible among Christians they are not always helpful or wise, and that may be the case regarding the wisdom of engaging in this practice among Christians in our time and place. 

The wisdom of making use of this freedom by Christians will ultimately depend on the spiritual maturity of those within a given congregation and the presuppositions that exist in the community it serves.  It may very well prove that one pastor and congregation will determine to take up the challenge of safeguarding against abuse and confusion as they engage in this practice while another may conclude that these risks exceed the potential benefits and choose not to exercise their freedom to do so. 

Whether a given congregation or family determine to pray or not to pray, the key element when approaching this question is to properly understand the foundational Scriptural teachings about death, resurrection and salvation, and choose what will best communicate timeless truth into the particular time and place where they live and serve.  

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

May we pray for the deceased and why?

For this week's newspapers, I addressed a question about praying for our fellow Christians who have died:

Q:  Are Christians allowed to pray for people who have already died?  If so, why would they do so?

God frequently invites His children to come to Him in prayer for the things they need.  He also invites Christians to pray for one another, and not merely for themselves.  In many quarters of Christianity, it is recognized that God’s Church is not enclosed within a boundary that limits it only to this physical world, but that the souls of the faithful departed are also just as much a part of that Church. 

The Church’s liturgies recognize this when they make statements such as that we worship “with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven,” or when funeral liturgies pray for God to “Give to Your whole church in heaven and on earth Your light and Your peace…”

So, just as the Church itself is not limited to the souls of the living, prayer is not necessarily bound by that limitation.  However, it is a practice to be approached with caution, because of the subtle ways in which it could go astray. 

For example, in segments of Christianity which believe there are potential destinations for the deceased other than eternal rest and eternal punishment, such as a purgatory, it is common to offer prayers in order to speed the deceased’s trip from such middle states into the Lord’s presence.  For those of us who do not hold to a third destination such as purgatory, it would be inappropriate to offer prayers that seek to change the destination of deceased persons, since it is held that their reward or punishment are already determined, based on verses like Hebrews 9:27 and the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke’s Gospel.

We often teach about prayer that there are things which God has forbidden that will not be granted through prayer, things which God has promised, which He will grant whether we pray for them or not, and things God has neither promised nor forbidden which He will answer in whatever way is most beneficial for us, since His wisdom is higher than our own.  For Christians who do not believe in a purgatory, yet still find it allowable to pray for their departed brothers and sisters in the faith, it falls into the second of those categories. 

Just as children might ask their parents for things the parents had already determined to give, Christians might pray that God would fulfill the promises that He had given in Baptism and His Word to forgive the sins of those who trust in Him and grant them eternal life, in light of the fact that they still await the Resurrection of the Last Day, even though their destination is already secure. 

We pray similarly in the Lord’s Prayer when we pray that God’s name would be holy, His kingdom come, or that His will would be done.  These things will be done even without our prayer, but we pray for them anyway – not to change God’s intentions, but because we believe our Father’s promise and acknowledge it through prayer. 

This is similar to what we do when we confess our sins and receive forgiveness or when we receive the Lord’s Supper.  Christians do not build up a debt of sin, which they periodically purge by Confession or Communion.  Instead, they who rely on Jesus already live in a state of perpetual forgiveness, but continue to receive from the Lord through these acts, because they are the thing to which He has attached His promise. 

Likewise, because our Lord has promised these things and invited us to pray, we pray for the things He has promised, even for those whose souls rest with the Lord, but still await the fullness of eternal Life which will come at the Resurrection. 

Christians are not required to pray for their departed faithful in order that they receive the Lord’s promises, nor are they forbidden from doing so because their reward is already secure.  Instead, they trust what the Lord has promised for them, and many choose to express that trust to their Father at His invitation to prayer in anticipation of the day in which both those presently alive and those previously departed will be reunited in eternal, resurrected life. 

Part 1 of a two-part answer on this topic.  Check back soon for the conclusion of this answer.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Do Pastors Really Only Work One Day (or One Hour) per Week?

For this week's newspapers, I answered a reader's questions about what pastors do during the week:

Q:  What does my pastor do for the remainder of the week after the Sunday service is over? 

We’ve all heard the joke about pastors working only one hour a week, but hopefully it’s just a joke to the people who say it, because it is certainly not a reflection of reality.  In fact, due to their many commitments in the congregation and the unusual hours in which they must fulfill them—ranging from evening meetings with congregational boards to giving counsel to couples or individuals during most people’s “after work” hours, to the frequent emergency calls to the hospital or the bedside of a dying member—many pastors actually find it a challenge to devote adequate time to their families. 

One of the primary tasks of the pastor’s work week is preparing the sermon and service for the upcoming Sunday.  If a pastor followed the commonly-accepted formula that college speech professors dictate for preparing a public speech, the pastor would spend one hour of preparation for each minute of the sermon.  In the real world, pastors often rely on their education and experience to prepare more efficiently and most report spending 10-20 hours in sermon preparation (or 20-50% of their working hours).    

Unless a congregation has a professional musician on staff or an administrative professional devoted to the task, he is probably also responsible for planning all of the other elements of the service, scheduling those who will perform them, and distributing the materials necessary for them to do so. 

Because the pastor is often the primary staff member to occupy the building in smaller congregations, he may also spend many of his office hours answering phones, responding to correspondence, researching information requested from the congregation’s records, sorting mail, and other administrative and office tasks—or in passing on messages to part-time staff who perform them—beyond sermon preparation and service planning. 

If he teaches weekday or Sunday Bible classes or instructs youth, he will spend about 2-5 hours of preparation per hour of teaching if he is writing his own material, and an hour of preparation per hour of teaching if he is using curriculum purchased from a Christian publisher. 

In rural areas like ours, there is also the element of travel.  When frequently-visited hospitals are an hour away and the drive to the hospitals where congregation members receive more specialized care may be up to 4 hours, pastors spend a significant amount of time traveling.  A visit to a member in Rochester or Iowa City will easily occupy a full day for the pastor.

Pastors will frequently have responsibilities to the denomination to which their church belongs or to the district and regional bodies of that denomination, which equates to additional meetings and travel.  Additionally, much like other teachers, doctors, and other professionals, a pastor who takes his work seriously will devote time to keeping his skills current and expanding his knowledge.  This could take the form of single-day classes that are nearby, but often involves week-long conferences in another part of the country. 

The descriptions above all assume a traditional full-time clergy devoting the vocation’s statistical average 50-52 hours to congregational work, but it is becoming more common, especially in rural congregations, for pastors to serve multiple congregations, or serve the congregation only part-time, while working in another vocation as a supplement for the portion of compensation the congregation cannot provide.  This requires adjustments and choices to be made, both by the pastor and the congregation, to adapt for the reduced flexibility and shorter hours of this arrangement while maintaining the best possible degree of pastoral care in light of the circumstances.