Today, is the day of yet another funeral. I used to detest funerals. Pop died when I was 12. I didn’t go to his funeral. It was too morbid. I couldn’t face death. Then, Mom, his wife, died just a couple of years later. I thought I was old enough to deal with it.That was my first funeral. I still remember looking at her body in the casket and thinking “That’s not Mom.” I saw her body as a shell that a sea creature abandons and moves on to the next one. This whole funeral thing was even worse than I imagined. Why do people even do it? I found an excuse to skip every funeral for about the next 30 years, up until my father-in-law passed. His spirit had left his body months before his body stopped working and I had to be there for Tywana. So, I got through that one. I go now. I do it for the ones who remain to support them.
Since then, there have been an innumerable amount of funerals. I’ve been to three funerals for teenagers, old people, strangers (relatives of friends). And, now it’s the Aunts and Uncles who are passing. Aunt Betty just over a year ago, Uncle Jack a few months ago. Today, it’s Aunt Carol. There aren’t many left. But, there will be more.
Tywana and I planned to get there during the family visitation time, but we got a late start and pulled into the parking lot at 12:58 for a 1:00 start. In hindsight, that’s not bad because the scheduled hour long service is going to turn out to be two full hours.
I was raised Pentecostal. I believe this is one of the reasons for my panic attacks at an early age. They started in church. Maybe it’s because my grandfather passed in church while giving his testimony. I always found it disturbing that if you weren’t safe in church, literally standing up and praising God, there must be nowhere where you were safe.
I wasn’t going to write about the funeral because I was always taught if you don’t have anything good to say, don’t say anything at all. I was certainly thinking about it during the service, how this tradition was so formative to me, how far I have grown away from it, but out of respect, I was going to let it lie. But, as I exited the church after the exhausting two hours, , Jean, said “I can’t wait to read what you write about this.” I can’t let her down. So, this is for you, Jean.
I need to start by paying all respect to those there and their traditions. Whatever works for you and makes you a better person, I am all for. None of us has a full handle on the truth. God is revealed to each of us in unique ways. And each tradition has its drawbacks and its strengths. The service was probably just what my aunt would have wanted, what her family wanted, and it fit the needs of the people in attendance. The thing I love about Pentecostal funerals is they are full of joy, genuine joy. Everyone there knows that Aunt Carol went Home. They are all happy for her. Aunt Carol died the way a saint should die, in full confidence of where she was going. She held court. She summoned a handful of people to her bedside to pass along words of prophecy. She was going to place where the ravages of cancer would not reach her, where she would never have to worry about money again, and to the place where Jesus and Uncle Walter were waiting to greet her. In her own word, she was “ecstatic” about her upcoming trip. When someone goes Home, we celebrate for them. And, maybe, we mourn a little for ourselves.
My cousin Marty, a pastor kicked off the service with some great stories about growing up with Aunt Carol, giving me an insight into her I really didn’t have. Then, his brother David, did a musical tribute. As David said, Marty doesn’t try to play music and David doesn’t try to preach. Seeing her children honor her each in his unique and God given way was special.
Then, each of several preachers was supposed to give a 2 minute tribute to Aunt Carol. I know from my experience growing up in the Pentecostal church Pentecostal pastors have absolute no sense of time. Not one was less than five minutes long. The first guy started with “Never hand a preacher a microphone.” before starting a minute long pre-amble. He had warned us and he had set the tone.
More music- a blood Jesus medley. Here was medley of the songs that used to creep me out growing up. “Power in the Blood” being the worst one. “There is power, power, wond’rous working power, in the blood. The blood of the Lamb.” The images came flooding back. Little dirty, despicable Brian that God literally cannot stand to look upon, shivering at the foot of God’s throne, but covered in thick, red, gooey blood of Jesus. God reluctantly saying “Oh, you’ve been covered in the blood of Jesus. I guess He saved you from my wrath. Come on in.”
Fifty years of growth helped. Meditation and deep breathing techniques have paid off. When I saw the lyrics to the first song pop up, I thought I might have to leave and spend the next several minutes in the restroom. I waited for the panic attack. But, I got through it. OK. We’re in the home stretch. Now, it’s just the eulogy to go and we’re outta here. Uncle Jack’s service was prompt and ended on time, per his explicit instructions. Aunt Carol had that same sense of order. Maybe they’ll honor her wishes. Ha!
The pastor rises to give the eulogy. He gives a few kind words to Aunt Carol, then it’s into the same sermon I’ve heard hundreds of times. Some of these people have probably heard it thousands of times. We were lost miserable sinners before God chose to find us, give us faith and save us through the blood of Jesus. What I didn’t know growing up is this would be called Calvinism, but we’re not Calvinist. We’re a strange mix of Calvinism and Arminianism. We talk about eternal security, but most don’t really believe it believing you can “backslide” and lose your salvation. We don’t believe that God predestines who is going to be saved. You have to respond to the call and you have the choice, but we also don’t believe you can take “credit” for having responded. You have the responsibility if you are lost, but not a real choice. He tiptoes dangerously close to eternal security, with the caveat that he’s going against tradition now. He says that once Jesus saves you, no one can snatch you out of His hands, using Jesus words. He says that even when you get tired of walking with Him and try to walk away, He holds onto you. He points out that some us here have tried to walk away, but we didn’t as evidenced by the fact we’re still in church. But, I would guess if we weren’t still coming to church would have successfully escaped.
He talks about being chosen by God for salvation, Again, he’s getting close to Calvinism. Some are chosen, some are not. We’re the lucky ones. So, we should praise God, literally, right here and right now. He invites us to get up and praise God for choosing us and he does a dance.
Many years ago I read a book called “The Transcended Christian”. The author, Daniel Helminiak, began studying other traditions and doing his own spiritual exploration. He spoke of sitting in church and translating the songs and the sermons in his head into the language he now speaks. This book saved Christianity for me for a long time. I’m sitting here making my translations of the pastor’s sermon. How does this fit with what I believe? Well, I agree with the pastor that gratitude is an important part of being human. Every faith tradition I have studied agrees with that. As hard as it is being human sometimes (most of the time?), it is a blessing to have been created. And, while we are co-creators, we did not create ourselves. Appreciating what we have and giving thanks is important. God doesn’t want our groveling. God doesn’t need our praise. God doesn’t even want it. It’s a natural outpouring. It shouldn’t be forced. If someone tells you to get up and shout for Jesus, what does that mean to Jesus? What does that mean to you? Gratitude, like love, cannot and should not be coerced.
As far as being chosen goes, many Christians are grateful to God for saving them because otherwise they were headed for Hell. Even more so, they are grateful to God for saving them because you know God doesn’t save just anyone. In fact, God does’t even save most. Most will escape God’s love. Arminians at least believe God loves everyone and some just happen to escape God’s love. Calvinists believe that God only loves a few. The rest of us were literally created for destruction. My belief, yes, we are indeed chosen. We are indeed fortunate beings. We do owe praise to our Creator. But, we were chosen by virtue of our birth. The Buddhists say that it is indeed a rare blessing to be born an human. This is the source of my gratitude, not that God saved me from a snare He put me into in the first place.
I’m beginning to wonder if he pastor remembers why were are here- to honor Aunt Carol and her family. We have all heard this sermon many, many times. We know you know the Bible. You don’t need to recite every verse from the New Testament that you can remember. The pastor makes several head fakes at closing, Then, he does indeed finally close, but not before doing an altar call. No good evangelical pastor is going to close without an altar call. This might surprise some who read this, but I am not going to be critical of this. If you truly believe that anyone who does not “give his life to Jesus” is bound for eternal torment, you should be giving altar calls every minute of every day. You should dedicate your entire being to saving as many from this unimaginable fate as possible. You should not sleep or eat until you’ve told as many as possible what waits for them if they die without making this important decision. But, pastor, here, in this place, you are preaching to choir. No one comes forward.
It’s over. I survived it. After a stop at another church for a meal, we head back to Mom & Dad’s house for desserts- plural.
In a weird turn of events, I end up alone in a room with my Uncle Robert. By this time there are probably twenty people in the house. But, of course, they are all in the kitchen/dining room area. He and I are in the family room. Uncle Robert is my father’s twin brother, a stoic man, in the Smith tradition. He never served in the military, but he’s always seemed like a military man to me. My Aunt Betty made her transition about 16 months ago. They were married 58 years. Since that time, I’ve seen Uncle Robert soften. I’ve heard him express himself in ways I’ve never heard. I have a bond with him that we did not have before. We’ve both lost our girls. He has no doubt where Aunt Betty is. His gratitude for their 58 years together is immense and he expresses that to me as we sit there. He’s grateful for the way she faced her cancer and that she did not suffer. The clock stopped at 58 years. But, he has those 58 years and he cherishes them. We agree that dying is not a bad thing, but the separation of death sucks. His faith in God is unwavering. He spent three months living with my parents after she passed, but now he’s in his own place, for the first time in his adult life. He never learned to do laundry or cook. These are new skills he’s challenged to learn at rapidly approaching 79 years of age. They had four kids, a house full, by our standards. Now, it’s quiet. This is the nature of life. If you live long enough, that house full of kids grows up and moves out. One spouse has to depart before the other. And, we are left to pick up the pieces and figure out “What do I do now?” As he tells me he is patiently waiting for God to take him to the next place, to show him what to do, I’m thinking about my life with the girls being gone. The house seems so empty at times, and it is when Tywana’s not here. But, I do have her. Maybe I need to show more gratitude for what I still have and stop focusing so much on what I have lost.
I go into the kitchen to grab some desserts. My cousins are here. Not so much Aunts and Uncles anymore. Uncle Robert and Dad are the last of Mom’s seven children who made it to adulthood. My sister had made quip about us being at the “kids’ table” during dinner. We’re not kids anymore. They say until your parents pass, you never feel fully like an adult. Being 56 soon and having both parents still here is a real blessing, but I”m certainly no kid anymore. We all marvel at how old we are now. My cousin Keith’s son is 49. We talk about getting together for a “happy occasion” and say we’re going to make that happen, knowing full well we will not. I’m sure we will all be together for the next funeral. But, you know what? That is a happy occasion. Going Home. The only thing that sucks is we can’t all go together.