In the church, we often speak of the communion of saints, of being part of a great cloud of witnesses. Mostly, we think about that cloud of witnesses as being invisible to us; they are the children of God who have lived in all times and in all places. Once in a while, though, that communion of saints becomes visible in an undeniably powerful way.
On Tuesday, I was one of a few hundred people who gathered to commend our friend and colleague, Ben Ahles-Iverson, into the arms of our Heavenly Father. Ben was only 37 years old when he died a week ago. I knew him for just half a dozen of those years, as a friend and colleague in ministry. Ben was known by church members in the area as the pastor with the amazing singing voice. Our congregations worked together on joint worship services and fundraising events in support of the ELCA campaign to fight malaria. For several years we were part of the same round robin preaching group for Lenten services. Ben and his wife Mara regularly joined our weekly text study group. I remember Ben never being content with easy answers as we discussed the scripture passages for the week. And I remember the charming delight he took in sharing with us the latest antics of their daughter Elizabeth. When a pastor was going to be away, Ben was one of the first to volunteer to be on call in case of emergency.
In the days since he died, I’ve learned more about Ben as I have read Facebook posts and other reflections by friends, colleagues, and especially by those who knew him when he was at Wartburg Theological Seminary. On Tuesday, nearly a hundred of those friends, colleagues, and classmates were part of the congregation that gathered for Ben’s funeral. We cried. We laughed. We shared Holy Communion. We remembered. And we sang. Oh, did we sing!
At the end of the service, clergy were invited to join the family in gathering around Ben’s cremains for the prayer of commendation. One of Ben’s seminary professors began the prayer. A moment later, without planning or intention, there were nearly a hundred voices joined in this prayer that we have all said so often in our own congregations.
Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant Ben. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive him into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen.
As those words flowed from some deeply ingrained part of my memory and joined with the voices of colleagues, I could imagine the very same prayer being prayed by generations of pastors with countless families as they took that painful but important step of commending a family member into God’s loving care. This is the great cloud of witnesses. This is the communion of saints.
Photo credit: Jacob Sorenson ©2018