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Thursday, July 31, 2014

What Not to Say at a Funeral, and Why I Still Believe

You're so vulnerable when someone dies. Looking for a glimmer of hope in the midst of abject fear and hostility. And then somebody takes the Cross and shoves it down your throat upside down.

I feel like this often at funerals. Turns out I'm not the only one. Here's what others remembered:

" ... Heard a Catholic priest go on about purgatory after the suicide of one of my good friends"

"... the pastor son damned his father to hell in the sermon"

At the funeral of a 14-month-old twin: "God decided to reach down and pluck the most beautiful rose from his garden to take to himself."

"... he recruited a random middle-school boy from the audience to come forward and lie down on a table, covered in a sheet. He proceeded to take the kid's shoes and socks off, anointing his feet with oil while telling (a story from the Bible). The preacher then invites the immediate family of the deceased to stand around the sheet-covered teen while he lifts the boy up saying: 'Jesus made the young man live again. This is what Jesus will do to your loved one."

"____ committed a lot of sins in his lifetime. We cannot be assured that ____'s soul is in heaven. If you are concerned about ____, you have the opportunity to help his eternal soul. In the juniper year (2000) you have the opportunity to make pilgrimage and to purchase indulgence for the redemption of ____'s soul.

At the funeral of a 12-year-old: "God and Jesus needed help to get more people into the church, so they took ____."

You're vulnerable when you go to a funeral, right? And then that happens. And whatever message of Jesus, of resurrection, of hope, of heaven - might have gotten through -- it screeches to a halt. And you block out your ears from all the noise and listen only to the deafening silence in your head, thinking maybe therapy or alcohol might help.

I posted about awkward funeral moments on Facebook and I got 85 comments and in the midst of it someone, a Pastor at a church, said: "Why do we do this to ourselves?"

Why do we bother? Why funerals at all? Why not just a cremation and a nice box and a dinner at a restaurant with an open bar?

Why bring Jesus or God into it at all if all they do is steal tenors and babies and torture anyone who didn't pray the right sinner's prayer when a gunshot tore into their body at a bus stop?

That Jesus is not the Jesus of the Cross.

Jesus doesn't pluck little babies like roses and he doesn't take away loving husbands so that God has a fishing partner in heaven. 

During the funeral of your father or your mother or your sister or your child: God is not fishing with Dad or having tea with Mom or watching Friends with your sister or skipping rope with your child.

God is crying with you, weeping with you.

And through the deceptively weak power of tears and sadness, God is transforming death into life. So that the ugliness of death is transformed into the beauty of everlasting life, just as the ugliness of the Cross of Christ was transformed into the beauty of the resurrection.

There is a biblical precedent for what to say at a funeral. 

As the Roman centurion and those with him looked on to Jesus dead on the cross, they were frightened and said: "Truly this man was the Son of God."

Even in his death, they saw life. They saw God bringing new life out of death.

That's what Jesus enables us to do. That's why we have funerals. So that in the midst of death, we might see life. 

That's why I still believe. Because underneath the shouting for a Jesus who takes children and makes us accept him or burn forever, there is the still small voice of a God who brings light out of darkness, hope out of fear, and life out of death.

You don't always hear God in the words of a funeral eulogy. But sometimes God speaks anyway.

This week I went to a funeral and the pastor said that Jesus was his ticket to ride.

And I thought: what does that even mean? I never thought of Jesus as a ticket. It sounded trite, like something I could buy.

Later that week, I still wondered. A ticket to ride? Jesus? I chalked it up as something else not to say at a funeral.

Then I ran into the man who had died's daughter. She started telling me about how her dad was himself right up to the last hours of his 92 years. How their special relationship had lasted her whole life. How the man who loved to kiss on the cheek everyone he met in church was kissing the hands of his nurses on the last day of his life; making a silly face for the camera.

In those last hours, her dad had whispered something to her:

"I need my ticket."

He was reaching up, for something, perhaps remembering his need for a ticket when he rode the trains in Europe while he was in the Navy.

His daughter realized that her dad knew his death was coming. His faith in Jesus was central to him in that moment. He knew he was going. He went with his faith. 

When she heard the pastor say at the funeral: "Jesus was his ticket to ride," it all made sense. This was about her dad, about his unshakeable faith, about his belief that even though death was coming, Jesus was truly the Son of God and Jesus would bring him to eternal life. Jesus was his ticket, and it wasn't trite at all.

His daughter was moved by the service.

"I wouldn't want anything different. I'd want that exact service," she said.

I was humbled. God spoke. Words I heard as yet another thing not to say at a funeral were instead profound. God spoke anyway. Life happened anyway in the midst of death.

I guess the lesson here is what not to say at a funeral is anything that claims to explain why death happened, or how we can bring life out of death: by praying a prayer, or buying indulgences, or joining the church. 

What to say at a funeral is instead to witness to what already happened: Jesus brought life where there once was only death. And faith gives us a tiny glimpse - even a ticket, if you will - to see Jesus' life-giving power even before we die.

I guess the other lesson is a funeral is the last place you should condemn anybody at all; even the ill-advised pastor who put the kid on a table, draped a sheet over him, anointed his feet, and raised him into the air as part of the eulogy.

Seems like Jesus might be planning on redeeming him, too.

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