I had a dream this morning in which, by some implausibly simple process, I became an ordained minister. I was pleased to consider the prospect of writing my first sermon. It would be a funeral sermon, because I think they could be better.
There are occasions on the Christian calendar when the church is piquant with empathy and compassion for the (generally tragic) human condition.
Christmas, for example, can be heart-rending. When I sang in the choir a few years ago, (Bach and Handel, not the contemporary composers of guitar and Christian rock that have displaced all vestiges of genius), I struggled to get through the cantata without dissolving into tears. I learned to sing and cry simultaneously, tears streaming down my cheeks.
That was in the old church building--charming, historical, intimate--where I felt the Spirit's embrace.
The Pentecost was a powerful occasion. We picked a paper star out of a basket, our own star with our own special word on it: Joy. Friendship. Laughter. Perspective. Love. Endurance. Faith.
I got Joy one year. That was a great year. Another year, Resilience. That sucked! No one wants Resilience, or Endurance, or Persistence. Or Enlightenment. (Can you imagine? Best not to know.)
It's not like the church couldn't get deep, dark, compassionate, and even morbid.
Every Sunday, we shared our joys and concerns, from the birth of a grandchild to the suicide of an honors student. We prayed in thanks and asked that those who were suffering be comforted.
But we did more than just pray. People did what you might call God's work, or the work of Christ. It was what they believed was the right thing to do; it reflected their commitment to relating to others with compassion and good will.
When my father died, I called a member of the congregation whose daughters had looked after my dogs. I wanted to ask if they would look after them again, because I had to go to Boston for my father's funeral.
"We'll take care of it," she said. "Don't worry about a thing. Just go."
That was such a gift to me, such an incredible relief. I could go to Boston without worrying about the pets I was leaving behind.
I haven't been to church for a couple of years.
I had started going for the first time, regularly, as an adult in my early forties. For several years, I attended every Sunday. But things were always changing, and I fell out of step.
I responded conservatively to the congregation's pursuit of a new, larger church building. I loved the old, small, drafty, leaking, decrepit church with its hundred-year-old stained-glass windows, so fragile that moving them became a high-risk and very expensive surgical operation.
I liked the new pastor, but others found her too forward-thinking, too political, too immersed in social justice issues and global conflicts in far-flung places. She wasn't a good fit for them, I suppose; but I was disappointed. When she left, I left too, and never returned.
I miss the early years in church: The Spirit's embrace, the soaring music of the choir, the candlelight on Christmas Eve, the sermons that framed my personal struggles--my clumsy, chaotic life--within the pathos and cadence of the whole human condition.
In the context of that rich and gorgeous tapestry, I do find the sermons at funeral services to be remarkably dry. Are the Catholics more open to obsequious grief? I suspect they are; the Irish express grief so beautifully. But perhaps their funerals go off script; I haven't attended that many.
The language of death has changed in my lifetime. People used to say that a person had died or passed away. Now, they say that a person has "passed."
I find this ironic: Society has never been less religious, but to say that a person has "passed,"would seem to suggest (unequivocally) that they have moved on to some other place. A better place? Maybe. I don't suppose the agnostics or atheists are prepared to commit to a destination. Nor am I, for that matter.
My mom visited us recently. Even though I no longer attend church, we still have discussions about faith. I rather shamelessly have it, and she views even the thinnest religiosity as an intellectual weakness--or, at least, something that doesn't make sense.
From my point of view, faith cannot be experienced rationally.
I recently learned (from NPR) that a specific part of the brain lights up (on an MRI) when we feel ourselves in the presence of the Spirit (however you want to define it). Whatever lobe rules reason, rhetoric, and Reformist funerals is not equipped to embrace the mystery and wonder of a spiritual experience.
So, my mother and I have more or less the same conversation over and over. (I don't mind.) It's similar to the sermon from the pulpit at Reformist funerals, in that it focuses on the question of death, exclusively, as though death were the Alpha and Omega of all religious feeling and motivation.
Did I believe in life after death? Eternity? Heaven? Hell?
I go to bed every night in the hope of losing consciousness. When I am old or sick, I will be ready to sleep for a long time.
Prior to 1965, I was not alive.
I am not the same person now that I was when I was a baby. Who was I then?
What is the before life? Where was I then?
Honestly, I don't think about it much.
Nor has death, or its alternative, been central to my spiritual feelings; and it wasn't my motive for going to church.
What resonated most for me in church were the sermons that made sense of the little things.
A good sermon addressed the day-to-day struggles, like feeling alone with my troubles.
A good sermon had everyone nodding their heads and clasped in the Spirit's embrace.
A good sermon, like great literature, poetry, music, art...can take the lead of ordinary suffering and create something that soars and reflects back to us the sublime honor that it is to experience human consciousness.
A Reformist funeral celebrates the Kingdom of Heaven and God's sacrifice of his only Son so that we can go to Heaven when we die...
But what about grief?
When I lose a loved one, it pains me deeply. When a friend has lost a loved one, I want to grieve with my friend.
Grief is the one aspect of the human condition that the Reformist Christian church can't seem to accommodate.
Maybe it's a Midwestern thing.
The women from the congregation do their best to make up for what the sermon lacks. I'm talking about lunch. And honestly, they get me 85% there with that abundant buffet of warm and lovingly prepared comfort foods and gooey chocolate desserts... I take a paper plate and sigh with profound relief--deeply grateful for the meal I am about to receive.
When I die, if anyone is sad that I am gone, let my funeral be an occasion for tears, remembrances, laughter, and eating. Speak of it as an ending, and not a beginning. Treat it as a fond farewell.