Friday, June 16, 2017

On Death and Funerals and Politics

Psalm 116:14-15, “I will fulfill my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people.  Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful servants” (NIV).

Nobody loves death.  At best, death comes when someone has lived a long, meaningful life during which he or she has been incredibly loved.  Several months ago, my extended family lost two such people in a very short amount of time.  For a pastor, I am unbelievably awkward at funerals… which is weird, actually, because calling on people who are sick or injured… sitting quietly and listening as narratives of grief come spilling out… holding hands and giving hugs and patting backs…  I’m pretty good at that stuff.  But when death actually comes, I am at a little bit of a loss.  It’s uncomfortable (understatement of forever).

In Old Testament times, the people thought little (or not at all) about an afterlife, so the highest aspiration was to pass a legacy down through offspring and to be buried with family.  You can’t say that at a funeral, because… of course… we believe in the hope of resurrection! 

Folk religion also makes it difficult to communicate truth (and sometimes even comfort) to the grieving.  When I’m standing there and I hear a well meaning parent explaining to a small child that, “Grandpa is an angel watching over them now,” it is in no way appropriate to deny that claim, yet I struggle to compose something truthful, something real, when that baby turns his or her eyes to the ceiling fan and wonders if Grandpa is spinning around on it.

I used to think it was hard to work through, “Aunt Betty is in heaven now,” because I’m not sure we have any indication that resurrection is quite so instantaneous, but I stopped worrying so much about that the day someone told me about their child’s friend who was now in Hell!

In the grand scheme of life; funerals are relatively short events.  But the things that are said have the potential to bring comfort or a need for decades of therapy.  Perhaps that’s (at least part of) why it’s so difficult to find the right words.

The second half of the Scripture for today is often used to honor the dead who love Christ, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful servants” (v.15).  I struggle with even this, because I think it paints too joyous a picture of death, or perhaps just too quick a resolution.  When these words are spoken, they are meant to comfort.  I can’t fault anybody for that (sometimes good intentions do count for something, and I think these words are a much better option than many others).  I certainly like the idea that the dead are with Jesus (we can debate the implications for resurrection, but I don’t think these things absolutely must be mutually exclusive).  We should not debate theology at funerals.  I guess what I’m saying is, we do the best we can.  Honestly, I think my best in these circumstances is lacking, but maybe that’s not unique.

I did not intend to write quite this much about funerals…

What struck me as odd, today, as I read this passage, was actually the preceding verse, “I will fulfill my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people” (v.14).  It doesn’t seem to fit, but I guess that’s because we want our God-loving lives to be all rainbows and unicorns… and flip flops… and glitter… David essentially pens these words, “I will do what God asks of me, and then I will die, and that’s good” (L, very sad paraphrase).          

In a world where the vast majority of people are seeking success... or power… or acclaim; a gospel that requires death is not popular.  But herein lies the problem.  Death is a part of the life cycle.  Death is a part of the eternal life cycle.  It just is.

I want to turn our attention from physical death for just a moment, though, because this goes deeper than coming to terms with the limited time we have to live our lives.  It’s more complicated than that, because, in fact, we are often called to do things that feel like the death of… something… on a regular basis. 

The death of a dream…

The death of a plan…

The death of the lives we wished for…

I think we have to be incredibly careful to recognize that the things to which we are called are often not for our sake but for the sake of others, which means (again, at least in part) that we don’t get to save ourselves.  We certainly don’t get to save ourselves, first. 

Again, my intent was not to go political with this post… at all… but I do think there’s something to be said for the current cultural climate that advocates for violence, irresponsibility, and neglect of the other—even the other we think has it all wrong.  And I fully understand that there are a good number of people (on every side of any issue) who have no desire to enter into charitable dialogue.  But there are also passionate people who are willing, and I think we might need to start there, with the idea that self-sacrifice is going to be necessary for peace of any kind.

Perhaps the death of the faithful is precious, precisely because it brings life to others.


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