Monthly Archives: March 2009

Please stand by . . .

I am experiencing life. Life with three small children, a beautiful husband with a demanding job I often share, and another little side project I’m working on, as well as a trip involving over a thousand miles of driving with three little kids, two of whom were sick, and visiting with a wonderful step-mother-in-law and an ailing father-in-law. phew!

Man oh manohmanohman. This whole “Thinking about death” thing is dragging on and on and on. I’ve started the next installment, but it’s stalled out on the part where I need some genuine time to gather my theological wits about me, to ground my musings in some genuine scholarship. I want to do it all justice. But I don’t want everyone (all seven of you!) to forget where I’ve been or what I’m doing. So I’m poking my head up out of my hole to say “Hold on! More is on the way! I had no intention of dragging this out for three years, or how ever long it’s been. It makes it seem much more important than it is. Much more self-important than I really am.

I’ll be back. Hopefully today or tomorrow. I miss using my brain.


Leave a comment

Filed under blogging, Family Life

Thinking about death . . . (part 3)

The second funeral.

There I was, drained from yesterday’s funeral for Sherrie and last evening’s viewing for Aunt Adella: bright and early Saturday morning, walking into the church where my parents were married–where my father and his siblings, including Aunt Adella, had been baptized–hoping, praying that the morning’s mass would offer some comfort to my grief-ravaged family.  I was accompanied by my mother’s brother who had been raised . . . well most likely without church at all by a mother who felt abandoned by God and turned from him–not to mention his abusive father.  Uncle John is not very attracted to church, or God, or religion of any sort.  He’s among my prayer concerns.  So this Saturday among my prayers is that Uncle John might hear something that God would use to arouse faith in him.

I could not have been more let down.

First the ritual of the mass and the liturgy surrounding it that just hits me all wrong.  But I’m a convert, so you probably could have guessed that.  Aunt Adella’s closed coffin sat in the middle of the aisle, covered in parements, upon which the priest laid miscellaneous doo-dads throughout the service.  Ok, doo-dads sounds irreverent.  Let me try again.  At various points the priest laid things on top of the coffin, including a simple wooden cross (not crucifix), a book from which he read the Gospel lesson.  (It looked too thin to be a complete Bible, but I suppose it’s possible it was.)  I believe it was after having spoken of Aunt Adella’s baptism that he sprinkled it with “holy water,” but that may be wishful remembering and it could have been in no way related to talk of baptism.  At the end of the service the priest swung smoking incense around and over the casket.  All that was pretty ookey, for me.  But, frankly, not as ookey as Sherrie’s open casket during the funeral the day before.  So, the casket and the ritual around it didn’t set me off too far right away.

But fear not, much ookeyness (ookiness?  not really sure and for some reason my spell-check can’t seem to tell me) was to follow.  In fact, oodles of ookeyness abounded throughout the day.  Among the ookiest?  Prayers that included pleas that the “saints would take Adella and present her to the Father.”  Ok, so apparently the saints present the dead before the Father.  I must have missed that page.  Also, “May our prayers aid Adella in getting into heaven.”  Yowza.  No Amen from me on that one.  In fact I spent the whole day listening to prayers and carefully choosing to which ones I would voice my assent, lest I commit some egregious sin, say idolatry or straight-out blasphemy.  Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise, and maybe it’s just in my mainline circles where anyone tries, the Roman Church that Luther and Calvin and all the rest fought so hard against is still alive and well in many, many ways.

But really, these ookey things were not the worst of it all for me.  Really.  Afterall, I’ve already undergone my Reformation, I’ve studied enough and learned enough to know there’s a reason the Roman Church is no longer the church of the West.  No, the worst part of the day is where the rubber of the Roman Catholic theology met the road of my grieving family.  And squashed them flat.  Rather, took their flattened bodies and miserably failed to serve God in breathing life into them.  It just left them there.  Flattened and hopeless.

The tragedy, for me, began after the usual liturgy stuff–the psalter, the epistle, the Gospel reading.  It came during the priest’s homily.  It was at this point that things began to truly sadden me, even anger me.  The man had absolutely no presence.  This was the case throughout the entirety of the ritualized parts of the liturgy, but remained during the homily, the one part of the service that was context-specific.  The rest of the liturgy could have taken place on any given Sunday, as is the Catholic liturgical way.  So, with the homily I’m thinking, here’s your chance, priest:  talk to this family, bring them the Gospel, bring them the assurances of faith they so desperately need.  What do we get?  Hmmm . . . seeing that it’s been several weeks now, I might just lay out some highlights as they come to mind:

Um.  First, priest shares how on his recent vacation he began to read To Kill a Mockingbird–never having read it before as no one had ever made him do so.  Returning from his vacation with the book only partially completed, he shared with a young altar server (aka, altar boy), what he was reading and the lad was kind enough to give away the end of the story.  Ok.  So far I’m scratching my head and saying “Why?!  Why oh why are you sharing this little tale?  Why at a funeral?!”

Ohhh.  He brings on home this illustration:  my grandparents, when baptizing Aunt Adella, did so knowing how her story would end:  she would die.  Because everyone dies.  “I didn’t think my mom would ever die, such a saint she was, but of course the day came when she did indeed die.”  “I too will die someday, though hopefully at not so young an age as 56 (the age at which Aunt Adella died).”  Seriously?  They pay you to say this stuff?

—–Ya know what?  I’m being hyper-critical of this priest’s pastoral capabilities.  This goes beyond the theology of the day.  But you know what else?  I’m a trained pastor and a pastor’s wife with 10 1/2 years experience.  I know of what I speak.  And I speak of . . . er . . . bad, bad pastoral care.  Anyway . . . just wanted to put that little reminder in there.  That I’m trained in the art and ministry of funeral preaching.  I’m no amateur looking at this.—–

Ok, so on we go with the priest’s main points. . . .  So, Adella was baptized, great.  And she–like everyone must–has died.  And now she’s at peace and at rest.  So that’s the end of the story.  But in between the baptism and the end of the story, she has clearly lived a story, a life, that has touched the lives of others–there are 100 people here today who have been touched by Adella.  I myself hope I can go to heaven and meet her some day.

Huh?  “I hope I can go to heaven?”  Is that what he just said?  I’m not even giving an accurate quote there.  Because the way I wrote it, it looks like it can mean he hopes he can get to meet my Aunt Adella when he gets to heaven, like there are going to be so many people he couldn’t possibly meet everyone.  But that’s not really what he said–and my sister, who was sitting on the other side of the church, concurred with my assessment.  What he said and meant was that he hoped he would make it to heaven.  Hoped.  Hoped, as in “I hope it doesn’t rain tomorrow because we’re supposed to have that picnic.”  That’s how this priest, this man who has committed his entire life to the service of the Gospel–such is the claim of his vocation, anyway–this priest hopes he gets to heaven.  OK then.

To be fair, prior to this he had said if Aunt Adella’s death, if anyone’s death, is the end of the story, then we are a people most to be pitted.  To that I said, AMEN!  Preach Paul!  Finally!  But that was before the wishy washy words of wishful thinking with regard to our heavenly destination.

This is not Christian hope.


Filed under Christian death, theologizing

Thinking about death . . . (part 2)

In case you’ve forgotten all about it, here’s part 1.  I haven’t stopped thinking my thoughts, I’ve just had limited time to devote to writing them. And then I did get to writing them but ended up way off track. I’ve struggled to find the best way to describe my experiences and writing my thoughts. I’m going to start fresh and think simple. I’ve finally decided perhaps the best way to go about it is to describe things as I experienced them.

So, I’ll start with Sherrie’s funeral.

From the time I accidentally happened upon her obituary until I sat in the church for Sherrie’s funeral, I wondered how her family would view her death, eternally speaking. If you’ve been hanging out with me for any time at all (IRL or virtually), you have likely picked up on the fact that, for me, everything is theological. So, on my way to the funeral I started trying to figure out what would be the Assemblies of God take on the life and death of a girl whose brain never made it past infancy.

I started with what I knew about AG theology, admittedly a rather limited knowledge. I knew they were into “decisions” and altar calls. I also know that my AG great aunt is no longer convinced of her salvation as life following her husband’s death has brought her down paths she hadn’t anticipated: sharing a home with a man, visiting Atlantic City, drinking the occasional glass of wine, dancing at weddings (her companion is a good ol’ Irish Catholic). Despite the fact that my aunt is a born-again believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, she fears her life is not worthy of heaven. This fact both saddens and mystifies me.

So, if the AG soteriology–based solely on my observations of it, not any real research–requires a decision to be born-again, does not include a ‘once saved, always saved’ clause, and may or may not require a separate baptism in the Spirit (something of which I have only vague and passing knowledge), what of this 32 year-old woman whose brain function makes impossible such conversion?  To be honest, I was a little worried on my way to the church.

I couldn’t have had less reason to worry.

The funeral was officiated by Sherrie’s brother-in-law.  (My best friend from high school also married a pastor.  Go figure.)  That service was full of nothing but Good News.  Visions of Sherrie finally whole, fully developed cognitively, her body and her brain restored.  Images of Sherrie finally capable of joining in singing the songs of her beloved grandmother.  Joy-filled visions of Sherrie being greeted by her savior, her calling on his name with a voice that had been incomprehensible in life.  Those gathered spent an hour filled with the assurance that Sherrie was now fully who God had created her to be, who she would have been had it not been for the ravages of illness in this fallen world.

Now.  Don’t misunderstand.  It was not all happiness and glee.  I’ve not experienced it myself, but this blog post and further discussions about it amongst my message board friends brought to my attention that some within the evangelical community simply have no answer in the face of tragedy and grief.  They avoid it, they spiritualize it away.  That’s a reflection and post for a different day, but I didn’t want to take the chance for misunderstanding.  I wanted to take at least a paragraph to clarify that this was indeed a funeral, where there was mourning and weeping, sadness, even frustration.  People had opportunity to grieve not only the recent loss of Sherrie to death, but also the 30-plus-year loss of Sherrie to illness and brain damage.  It was all a lovely, healthy balance between grief over what had been lost and hope over what is now and is to come.

Hope.  That word represents the key to the difference between the two funerals I attended in as many days.  Hope.  Hope understood in such completely different ways.  One that brought immense comfort, one . . . well, one that did not.  One that fell far, far short.

1 Comment

Filed under Christian death, theologizing

Thinking about death . . . (part 1)

This past Friday found me at two different funerals, with a viewing in between. These exhausting and draining days left me thinking about death a lot, thinking not only about death, but death in a Christian context, that is, Christians dealing with death. I found a remarkable contrast between the two funerals and my theological criticism wheels have been spinning wildly ever since.

Let me start by saying that there is a much bigger, more important, profound element in these two events beyond my own theological musings. I in no way want to take away from the pain and grief surrounding two families. Also, as a person who knew both of these women, I too have been dealing with my own sense of grief. That all being said, however, I think my theological reflections on the days’ events are worth documenting, worth mulling over. Some background information will be helpful.

The first funeral was for the sister of my best friend growing up and through college. This sister, Sherrie, was stricken by illness as a baby (I know neither the illness or her exact age at the time) that left her brain severely damaged. She remained infantile in her development for the remainder of her 32 years, spending those years being lovingly cared for in a residential facility. As I hugged Sherrie’s mom at the funeral, extending my sympathies, her words were “It was a long time coming.” This poor mom. Her heart was shattered twice: when her beautiful baby was broken by illness, never to recover, never to develop, and when her beloved daughter died.

The second funeral was for my aunt. Like Sherrie, my aunt’s life was cut short. Unlike Sherrie, my aunt lived a full life until cancer caused her death at the still young age of 56. Aunt Adella struggled with lung cancer for 3 1/2 years. Diagnosed in Stage IV, she was not expected to live six months. Aunt Adella determined to live, and strove with every fiber of her being to do just that right up until she lost consciousness for the final time a day before she died. So determined was she to live, that despite her years of deterioration and months of agony, her death hit her husband as if she had died in a car accident: completely unexpectedly, utterly out of nowhere. No prior arrangements–power of attorney, funeral plans, cemetery plot, etc.–had been made. Upon her death, my uncle was dumbstruck and completely unprepared for what to do next. My heart aches and breaks for him.

The contrast between the two funerals was stark. The most obvious difference was denominational: Sherrie’s was in an Assemblies of God church, my aunt’s Roman Catholic. My experience of the two disparate settings in such proximity, in time as well as space, laid bare both traditions’ theological undergirdings in a way that revealed not only differences but superiority of construction in one and faulty joints, crooked pilings, and profound danger in the other. It’s the danger that leads me to name the denominations. Normally when talking about theological differences among denominations I work hard to be diplomatic, to speak in general terms, to emphasize the positives about my own tradition rather than bash the other tradition. I say I work hard, I try hard, I admit I don’t always succeed.

My natural non-confrontational (at least in this setting) inclination is to leave the denominations in question anonymous, simply to reflect on differences in traditions. However, in this case I feel compelled to name them. Really I feel compelled to name the Roman Catholic context; I think the AG perspective is not unique to AG and can be applied more universally. Today I feel compelled to name the Roman Catholic context because I found it harmful. Not “potentially” harmful, not failing to be helpful, but downright harmful.

With that as background, I will move forward in my theological reflection on the two funerals next time . . .

And with that introduction, I’m sure you’re so excited you can hardly wait!  Sounds like a thoroughly uplifting series.


Filed under Christian death, theologizing