Funeral sermons may seem like a strange subject to think about and even more to write about -- but since I seem to preach at funerals often they are often on my mind. Although pastors of many years have done more, I know, I have done well over 220 funerals in the span of my ministry which started when I was ordained in 2003. For most folks, and rightly so, their contact with a funeral comes at the death of a loved one -- friend, family -- and little thought is given to the service beyond choosing a favorite hymn or piece of music. Again that is what pastors are for, that is part of the ‘job description’ if you will.
Because I live in the town in which I grew up, I am at least acquainted with many of the folks I bury. When I was full-time pastoring in my home congregation, I spoke at the funerals of people who were my mentors in the faith and while it was difficult to see them go, in the great Christian journey we shared the hope in Jesus’ words, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who lives and believes in me shall never die.” I was privileged to ‘see them off’.
But many pastors have a greater challenge in that often they are the ‘new kid on the block’. They have recently moved into a new community and they are not familiar with the relationships. In our rural communities the family ties can be legendary and soon, it seems, everyone is someone’s cousin if not in blood, at least in marriage. When I did pulpit supply in Baker last fall (2016), I was asked to preach at five funerals in five weeks. I admit to it being a little overwhelming when I had no connections to anyone. The first gentleman was 101, the second lady was 98, the other three were in their 80s. Most were frail and elderly, but that person was still -- mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, friend -- to all who attended the service. We grieve because we love, someone has written, and so everyone attending the service is declaring that love and respect. It is a daunting task.
Although I don’t really know, I think that larger churches are more accustomed to less personal references in the funeral sermon, whereas rural communities and smaller towns expect at least something personal regarding the one who has died. In Baker that required my speaking with as many people as I could to give me a picture of the person and their life. That involved family, of course, but also friends and other community members when I could find them. My method for writing funeral sermons is to try and to tell a story of the person we are remembering and then weave in scripture and the hope we have in Jesus Christ, the good Shepherd. People are sometimes hesitant to turn their loved one’s story over to an unknown person and that is understandable, but when the information comes from others in the community it seems to work.
The pastor has to maintain a certain emotional distance when conducting the service. I did my dad’s funeral in 2010. People wondered just how I could do that. I wondered myself because I was very close to my father. We were pals. But later I could feel the detachment during the service itself. The emotion would come later. I like a quotation from a book by theologian Joseph Sittler: “You know what has to be done and you know what you can do. Just do it.”
There is a piece of scripture in the Old Testament in Jeremiah. God says, “My word never returns to me unfulfilled. It always accomplishes the purpose for which it is sent.” In the end it comes down to praying for guidance in selecting Scriptures and asking for the words to say and then God does the rest and it will be well in the end.
Over the years I have come to believe funeral sermons are an art unto themselves. They need to be crafted because in this time and place we hear the words of eternal life with greater intensity. Sitting in a pew at a funeral is what the Celts call “a thin place”. We are closer to eternity here than at any other time.
It is an honor to do what I do and it is a trust.
Been about five days since I got home from South Dakota. It is that old feeling of jumping back into the frying pan -- but in a good way. Coming home always means catching up -- for me that meant mowing my yard which was in dire straits -- about ready for a herd of sheep to come through; weeding the flower beds, drive way and other places where the weeds tend to thrive especially when I'm not here to watch them; paying bills and gulping at how quickly the bank account drops; restocking the refrigerator; catching up on some correspondence; attending a city council committee meeting; touching base with friends, etc., etc., etc.
Fortunately there are some constants like a good long telephone visit with my brother. These are pretty much every week. We catch each other up on the news in our lives. We talk a little politics, reading, and religion. It is always a stimulating time.
Life is good.
I was really pleased at how well my flowers, grasses and shrubs had thrived while I was gone. They are looking healthy and some shrubs like my two hydrangea bushes especially so. I had a new porch added on to the front of my house which has necessitated some re-arranging of flowers and bushes. The ones that were transplanted still look a little shell-shocked, but I have confidence they will survive.
I think this time of year everyone suffers from a little 'yard-envy'. Everyone else's yard and/or trees and flowers just looks better than yours. I see a pretty flower bed and think -- oh, I should really do that next year. If we don't get some good rains soon, all of us will be in dire shape because there is only so long you can keep green things looking healthy without moisture. We have all 'been there, done that' in times of little or no rainfall.
This summer I also hope to trap and eliminate a lot of the paper mess in my house. I have files of family history items that no one, myself included wants, old tax records, and pictures which I am gradually wading through. Mother was not one to waste her time on photo albums. In later years she went through slides and photos and threw away the scenery shots and pictures of people unknown to my brother and myself. Then she arranged them somewhat by subject, put them in manila envelopes, and labeled them on the outside. She then handed them to me and said, "Do what you want to with them!" So hopefully this summer will be a time to sort and throw. I send photos to family members with the caveat -- do with them what you want and you won't hurt my feelings if you throw them away!!
And politics, ah, well! Six months of Trump seems like six years, but this too shall pass.
Boy! Talk about ‘deja vu all over again’ (Yogi Berra)! I’ve been trying to keep some kind of sense in my head as to what is going on in the Comey hearings, the Russian interference in our elections, and a rationale explanation for why Trump does what he does. As do most folks my age we remember the ‘Watergate hearings’. If we think this is continual media coverage now, remember the hearings?? Sam Ervin, Barbara Jordan and her monumental speech on impeachment, John Dean, Haldeman and Erlichman and the list goes on and on. The book All the President’s Men was central to our understanding of the need for a free press and the fact that no one is above the law.
Then there were the hearings during the Clinton presidency and the charges involving perjury and obstruction of justice. Ronald Reagan was tied into the Iran-Contra hearings and the testimony of Oliver North was continually in our faces. And so it goes.
I sat in the car in the parking lot of the grocery store listening to the vote on Clinton regarding impeachment. It was a pivotal moment in the history of our country and outside my window people were going about their usual chores.
President John Kennedy wrote a book entitled Profiles of Courage. One of the chapters was dedicated to a key player in the impeachment proceedings against Vice President Andrew Johnson who came to office after the assassination of Lincoln. Edmund G. Ross, Senator from Kansas, voted for acquittal in Johnson’s impeachment. He is supposed to have said, “I look down on my open grave” (meaning he was committing political suicide). He was striving to preserve the importance of the office of President.
I remember when President Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon after his resignation. He took a lot of abuse for the move and it was probably a big reason he was not re-elected president in his own right. I was glad he did it. The fingers of Watergate had reached into everything and it really seemed as though we would never be free of “the long national nightmare” if Nixon were sitting in prison.
As I said earlier, no one is above the law and there is no excuse for even bending the law; If something was done that is wrong, people need to be called to account. But, who knows? Everyone has their favorite media pundit liberal and conservative and we hear the issues reviewed over and over again until we can repeat the facts in our sleep. The case may go on to historical fame, but it may also die a natural death.
Anything like this deserves our attention and concern. A great deal of what we hear may be repetitious, but it is important to know and recognize the facts. The Constitution remains a great document regardless of the attempts to reshape it. The words, “We, the people. . .” really should be central to all that is said and done.
It is 50 days since Easter, so today is Pentecost, the high holy day when the power of the Holy Spirit entered the lives of the disciples in a rush of power and energy and life was never the same for them or for the rest of the world. That doesn’t mean that the Holy Spirit was off hiding somewhere, just waiting for God to call the Spirit into life. The Spirit is part of the Trinity and as such we read about it first in Genesis, when the Spirit of God moved over the face of the waters and creation of this world took place. And the Spirit appeared at the baptism of Jesus and certainly the Apostle John when writing his gospel recognized the Spirit in the life of Jesus. He wrote: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1.1-5 NRSV)
The Holy Spirit is pure power. Walter Bruggeman, in one of his prayers, says of the Spirit. “You summon us to life in the mist of death, peace in the midst of violence, praise in the midst of despair. Filled once again with your unruly Spirit, may we answer your summons and be part of the movement of life.
The past year our world has seen enough of death, of terror, of fear. In our own country we have watched a deconstruction of many of the principles we thought secure. And we have watched the culmination of a decade of division in the election of people to
positions of power who have no sense of history or the role of responsible leadership. No wonder the world is anxious.
That is why I am always grateful for the words of thinking and Spiritual men and women who assist me in making sense of our world as it now stands. Whether it is climate change, growing poverty and the helplessness of the poor, we are being called to a higher purpose. Regardless of where we find ourselves in the world, our age, our state of health, our economic position, we are called to the bigger story as the following author says:
We are living in times when many of the institutions in which we’ve found our identities and placed our trust are revealing their unworkability and brokenness. Unless we are grounded in a Bigger Story and Truth, the falling apart of the system could also be our own undoing. . . this new era—midwifing us to give birth to God’s Light within, allowing us to become more fully who we are. In so doing, we are liberated to move out into this broken and blessed world of ours to do the same. Adapted from Brian Mogren, The Mendicant, vol. 7, no. 2 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2017), 5.
Our times are no different than other times when power, celebrity and money take center stage. People have always been looking for leaders who give direction with purpose and compassion. While I definitely admit to times of despair and see and hear the despair of others, “the unruly Spirit” calls us to rise up and be a part of life. Morgen concluded his thoughts with this bit of poetry.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in. —Leonard Cohen, “Anthem”
On this day of Pentecost, may the power of the Spirit bring light and purpose and may God bless our struggling human race.