The Substance of Faith

The Substance of Faith

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Praying for the Dead – A Baptist Look at “All Saints”

One of the Civil War dead buried at Rome's Myrtle Hill Cemetery © Joel Snider

One of the Civil War dead buried at Rome’s Myrtle Hill Cemetery
© Joel Snider

This was the post most often read on this site in 2017.  I’ve updated it slightly due to it’s popularity.  I hope it is a help to those who read it.  

I inherited a tradition at First Baptist, Rome that recognized recently deceased church members each year on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend.  A couple of years prior to my retirement, Keith Reaves,  our Minister of Worship, began to make the case that the Christian Year already had a Sunday designated for the observations: All Saints Sunday. We already observe, what I call, “a modified Christian year,” including Advent, Lent, Holy Week, and Pentecost.  Adding All Saints Sunday would allow us another point of contact with Christians around the world who also honor sisters and brothers in Christ who have died.

As a life-long Baptist I had never participated in an All Saints worship service.  I had a general awareness of the day, but knew I needed a more complete understanding if I was to lead in worship that day.

Quickly I discovered the difference between All Saints and All Souls Days.  All Saints honors those who have died in Christ.  All Souls is more of a  Roman Catholic emphasis and focuses on concern for those in purgatory, awaiting full status in heaven.  All Saints Day is actually November 1, no matter what day of the week on which it may fall.  Since many protestant and other mainstream churches like ours do not worship on weekdays, we followed the practice of using the first Sunday in November as “All Saints Sunday.”

From my role as worship leader, the most significant responsibility I felt was how to design a morning prayer which was pastoral in spirit and theologically sound.  Across the years I’ve heard people pray aloud for and to deceased relatives ( I found the later quite disturbing). The easiest solution would simply be to correct people and remind them we pray to God and that, without a purgatory in our theology, there is nothing we can intercede for on behalf of the dead. But…. such an approach is not very pastoral and does little to address the deep human need that expresses itself in such prayers.

I’ve heard prayers of thanksgiving for deceased loved ones – thanks that is completely third person and prayers that call for God to remind the deceased that they are loved and missed. I’ve heard prayers requesting that the family on earth would not be forgotten.  Children ask God to “bless” deceased parents and siblings with the same language they use for living family members.  I imagine parents who have lost children privately ask the same.

I performed some internet searches in order to gain a theological perspective.  Clearly, opinions fall into two camps: Roman Catholics\Mormons (who pray for the dead)  versus protestants and most other Christians (who don’t).

I do not have a complete theology for an All Saints Sunday that incudes prayer for the dead, but, as a pastor, I tried to address the human-need side honestly, while addressing theological concerns soundly.  Here is the pastoral prayer I offered during my first observance of All Saints Sunday.  I hope it is helpful to any who express grief and hope by praying for deceased loved ones:

Eternal God, we, your children living our days measured by clocks and calendars, confess that we are anxious about death.  We still fear our own deaths for we find it hard to conceive of a life not measured, not constrained in the same way as the life we enjoy now.  We fear what we cannot imagine.

Therefore, place Your Spirit upon us.  Remind us of the promises that You have kept throughout our years.  Lead us now to hold fast to the promises we have not yet seen fulfilled.  How foolish we feel to think your promises are good for this life, yet might not hold true for life beyond the grave.

May those who rapidly approach the door to eternity not fear death.  May they find comfort, courage, and sustaining faith in our presence as we minister Your love to them.  May our faith be an asset to them as they prepare for their journey.  Let us not add worry to any soul because of our own anxiety.

While we give no thought that our prayers for the dead change a thing – our love for those gone from our sight causes us to lay them before you: children gone too soon, spouses missed much, parents honored still, friends and family with whom we had unfinished business.  We ask that by your hand, our love might reach across eternity to them.

Through Christ our Lord…

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