Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Faith Works 10-27-07
Jeff Gill

Are Ye Able, Said the Master

“Are ye able when the shadows/
close around you with the sod,/
To believe that spirit triumphs,/
To commend your soul to God?

So sings the last verse of “Are Ye Able,” a classic Protestant Christian hymn written by Earl Marlatt in1926. In seminary at the time, he went on to teach at a number of Methodist institutions himself.

This week of observances for the eve of All Saints’ Day, or “All Hallows,” means that the creepy and crawly signs of Hallowe’en will be all around.

Many folks who wouldn’t be caught dead (ahem) walking through a cemetery will turn their front lawn into one. People who know nothing of the Latin phrase “Requiesat In Pacem” will scrawl R.I.P. on foam boards painted aged grey.

But what’s the deal with “the shadows” closing ‘round you with the sod? Ick. Sounds like a horror movie plot, “Buried Alive.”
Doesn’t it?

Perhaps this season of growing chill and grinning pumpkins, mocking darkness and death, is a good time to do some – theology! Ah, I scared some of you, didn’t I?

Theology is just thinking through our beliefs, making sure the implications of our ideas trace out in accordance with the Bible and point towards God.

What happens to us when we die? There’s a major point of interest for believer and non-believer alike. When you hear people talk about the soul and death, you tend to hear language that points to arrival in Heaven at the moment of death (when that is would take another column). Along with that understanding is the growth of a sort of “folk belief” that the recently departed are “angels.”

That is all a fairly recent way of looking at death, actually.

For much of the history of Western Christendom, the theology of death went like this – when you died, your soul went into the care of God, but your awareness and subjective reality essentially went into the ground, where your corpse was the “index” of what would, at the Last Judgment, be your resurrected body, where the physical and spiritual was reunited, judged, and given their eternal reward before the Judgment Seat.

This is why reverence for tombs and graves, and superstitions about corpses and relics, occupied such a large part of ancient thinking. The body was waiting, as was your soul, for the end of Time, and we the living, passing by the churchyard gravestones, waited with them. There is much medieval and Renaissance art depicting the drama of the Last Trump, when graves and tombs would open, the seas would give up their dead from the vasty deep, and saints would clatter back together from their sanctifiedly scattered situations, drawing their various bits and the faithful found nearby to the Valley of Jehosaphat near the Golden Gate, where the sheep and the goats would find their proper fold.

Granted, even in this perspective, from the decedent’s point of view, no “time” would pass between their passing and the end of “Time,” but pastoral allusions to the immediacy of one’s trip to stand at the foot of the Great White Throne became a sort of Ongoing Judgment, with each one’s death an end of time in itself, with eternal disposition on demand.

I’d argue that another pair of side effects of this shift is the lack of respect for cemeteries generally (just a bunch of cast-off husks, right?), and the rise of a devotional focus on the place, the moment of death. You’ve seen them from simple roadside small white crosses to elaborate six-foot tall engraved crosses surrounded by vigil lamps once only found in graveyards and a mound of flowers, stuffed animals, or Buckeye-logo pinwheels.

Why this new trend? Well, if the moment of death is the moment of arrival in Heaven and the culmination of God’s final answer, then the moment of death becomes much more a focal point for the living than the “resting place” (think about that term, right?) for the body.

Paul speaks of the power of the bodily resurrection, which may not be too tied to where your trimmed fingernails or knee-replacement joint goes, but does seem to say that God is interested in the whole person, and the spirit is manifested in a body, and the body is entwined with the soul, and you really can’t see God’s purpose fulfilled in one without the other.

Which is why that 80 year old hymn asks us to consider the long sleep awaiting Gabriel’s trumpet blast to truly end, and then . . .

Lord, we are able, our spirits are thine,/
Remold them, make us, like Thee divine./
Thy guiding radiance above us shall be/
A beacon to God, to love and loyalty.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he thinks a Jack-o’-lantern is an interesting way to think about a soul shining out through a body! Tell him your story of faith at work at

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