Strangers In A Strange Land

Near the end of serving my last church, I helped a family bury their forty-four-year old brother. But he was also son, husband, father, and grandfather. Let’s call him Sam. One of eight children, Sam met and married his wife when they were teenagers. Soon, they gave birth to two daughters. And the daughters had children.

Many at the funeral were under fifty, and quite a few were parents with kids. Throughout the service there were bursts of giggles and sudden loud cries. For the children, a sanctuary was unfamiliar, even unsettling. Like a classroom, but not; like a theater, but not. The adults around them and holding them kept oddly quiet. And maybe the children even noticed that some adults cried. Unlike the children, the adult tears were hidden by a well-placed hand, or accompanied by soft sobbing.

Yes, I’m sure for the children it was a strange experience.

And yet, I think it was more peculiar for the adults. Church, for them, was a foreign land, a country with a border they had likely only crossed at a friend’s wedding, or a funeral like this, or forced Sunday school attendance during adolescence.

Why was I standing before them? I suppose an answer could be that it was a “Methodist thing.” Sam’s oldest brother was part of a United Methodist Church in the Bay Area. When Sam died in Fresno, and with the extended family having no connection with any local church, the brother called. My church was at the crossroads of a web search, a friend’s recommendation, and an ad in the Yellow Pages.

Would you help us bury Sam? Continue reading →

A Good Friday People

Try a word game with me . . .

Yesterday, Mary was born. Yesterday, Harry died.

Replace the last word in each of those sentences with a word or phase, as Merriam-Webster’s 10th Edition says, “that have the same or nearly the same meaning in some or all senses.”

Or, more simply, replace the word “born” or “died” with a synonym.

Hey, let’s make this a contest. I’ll take “died” and you take “born.” Whoever, in sixty seconds, gets the most synonyms takes the other out to lunch.

1-2-3 . . . Go!

Met his maker. Kicked the bucket. Went home with God. Was taken by God (or the angels, or up to heaven). Crossed the Jordan. Passed. Passed on. Passed over. Left us. Left the room like Elvis. Sleeps with the fishes. Was lost.

How are you doing with “born?”

Now I’ll cheat and continue with suggestions from my handy Roget’s International Thesaurus . . .

Perished, had his last curtain call, dreamless sleep, departed, had a fatal encounter, gave up the ghost, surrendered, returned to dust, succumbed . . . and I could go on and on!

Whew. How are you doing? And where do you want to take me out to lunch?

At the last church I served, I offered a Lenten class using a resource entitled Living Fully, Dying Well. Appropriate .  . . since Lent prepares us for Easter, our momentous, mysterious and central celebration of life. Of resurrection! On Easter, we’ll joyously sing, “He is Risen!”

But, before Easter, death comes, unavoidably and uncomfortably stalking the story of faith. Or maybe not so unavoidable, since many skip Lent’s narrower side streets and dark alleys. People rarely “crowd” the church on Good Friday, when our faith tradition takes the final steps to the cross and tomb.

Thank you very much, but we prefer to ignore death. The plentiful synonyms to choose from (instead of saying “Yesterday, Harry died.”) confirm our efforts.

Humans are superstitious. Some of us think that merely mentioning the word (whisper it . . . “death”) might invoke it. If you talk to your loving life partner about writing a will then maybe he or she will soon “kick the bucket.” (A saying, according to the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, deriving from the sad act of suicide . . . “the bucket referred to is the pail traditionally used by the suicide to stand on while tying a noose around his neck. Then, with a kick of the bucket . . . “). Gulp.

It’s obvious why Advent is more popular than Lent. Birth vs. Death. And yet even that simplistic contrast ignores the Bible’s honesty. Death is part of the mythic birth stories of the Baby Jesus. Just read Matthew 2:13-19 for a reminder that there was more than a cozy manger or a few happy-go-lucky magi in the Christmas tale.

I recall asking the class members, “What was harder, talking to your children about sex or death?”

Everyone had had a conversation with children about sex. But not everyone had yet, even with his or her adult children, conversed about dying and death.

As a pastor, I am grateful for Lent’s rough, no-holds-barred journey toward Jerusalem and the end . . . and the beginning. I prepare for “celebrating” Good Friday with equal amounts of personal study, prayer and reflection as for the dawn of Easter. Death. Life.

One of the frequent scriptural reflections I use in this time of the year is the Bible’s so-called shortest verse: John 11:35. Upon hearing of his friend Lazarus’ death, “Jesus wept.” The Gospels, written by those who knew how they were going to end the story, whether it would be Lazarus’ rising or Jesus’ resurrection, don’t avoid the full truth of living and dying. Jesus wept. Death hurts. Death changes everyone.

And so does choosing life.

I typically avoid the wealth of synonyms that are readily available when I talk about life and death issues. I usually won’t say someone “passed” or is “lost.”

We are a Good Friday people along with being an Easter people. And the more we’re honest with our hopes and fears, with our longings and our losses, the more likely our faith will deepen. Good Friday silences our clever words while it bluntly, brashly invites us into some of our deepest places.