Fellow Traveler was downstate today, to attend the funeral of her childhood-best-friend's mom. Back when FT was a mischievous young beanpole growing up in the baby-boom Detroit suburbs, Mrs. W was a "Kool-Aid mom" -- the kind of no-nonsense but child-friendly mother whose home was a frequent gathering place for neighborhood kids.
Mrs. W had spent the last couple of years in the twilight world of dementia. In recent weeks she'd stopped eating; was getting IV nourishment and palliative care, but beginning to slip away.
FT went to visit Mrs. W not too long ago. She'd expected to spend some quiet time saying goodbye to someone unconscious and unresponsive in a hospital bed. She was shocked to find Mrs. W in a chair, in the cafeteria -- not eating, but seeming to enjoy the activity around her.
"Well," noted Mrs. W as she gave FT a head-to-toe, "you're certainly a lot meatier than you used to be."
So it was important for FT to attend this funeral -- for her friend, and for the memory of Mrs. W.
I got a call from FT midday: "You would not believe the funeral I've just had to sit through," she exclaimed. "It was awful. And the pastor was Lutheran."
Oh, geez, I thought. I've been to my share of awful Lutheran church services over the years, but I hate it when my partner the newbie experiences Lutherans Gone Wild. It's like having to explain crazy Uncle Al at the family Thanksgiving dinner.
"He didn't say 'Jesus'," FT continued. "He said 'JAY-SUS!!!' He was yelling. He said that anyone who wasn't baptized was going to hell -- that Mrs. W was saved because she was baptized, but the rest of us would be going to hell if we weren't baptized. He was pounding his fists on the pulpit. And we was going on and on about JAY-SUS and Lazarus and 'I AM'...he was out of control. And he had nothing to say about Mrs. W; nothing about her life. My friend said she wished you could have been there and officiated instead."
I'm trying to be charitable here. I'm trying to think about the pastor -- someone who'd only met the deceased a couple of times before her death; someone speaking to an unknown assortment of mourners with widely varying Christian backgrounds, trying to frame this experience in a meaningful way for them.
Nope; can't do it; can't be charitable. What in hell was this guy thinking?
A funeral is not a time to rhetorically dope-slap mourners into what we deem correct theology or praxis. It's not a time to aim a theological Uzi at a captive audience and frag them.
What it is, in my own humble layperson's opinion, is a pastor's opportunity, and privilege, to communicate both the depth and breadth of God's grace and an invitation to hope. And it's a special opportunity and privilege in a context where mourners are not high-commitment "church people"; how cool is it to be able to preach the Gospel to people for whom it's not a kind of comforting white noise of familiar Scripture verses and pious platitudes, but who might actually be startled to hear that God loves us, means us well and sticks by us no matter what, not because of who we are but because of who God is, and that this departed sister of Christ has not reached an end, but rather a beginning of "the life that is life"?
I'm just sayin'.