Reveille United Methodist Church
Service of Remembrance
December 16, 2018
“Hey, Doug. It’s Bobby….”
The phone would typically ring in the early afternoon, and that is how the call always began, with Bobby’s soft-spoken, almost melodic voice, reaching out in that distinctly southern way of hating to be a burden. Along with his mother and twin brother, Bobby ran the one funeral home in the small, mountain town where I used to live and pastor. I knew he was calling me from his office in the front room of an old white colonial house on St. George Avenue where his family had ministered to the dead and grieving for two generations, and I knew that he had the family in the room with him, and that they all wanted to know if I could help them. In small communities, it is still common to include the name of the funeral service’s officiating clergy in the obituary, and the local paper’s deadline was 3:00 p.m. for publication the next day.
Bobby would continue the way he always would: “Someone has died, and we are making the arrangements, and the family would like a service, but they do not have a church or a pastor. I was wondering if maybe you could help them out.”
In nine years in that town, I never told him “No.”
We would schedule a time to meet, either at the funeral home or in my study at the church, and Bobby, genuinely grateful, would thank me and hang up.
“How do you do a funeral for someone you don’t know?” is one of the more common questions I am asked about my work. It is a question I had to learn to answer for myself as I began my ministry over twenty years ago. I have always had good relationships with the local funeral homes. I think they like United Methodist clergy; we tend to be kind and gracious and give even the dead without churches or pastors the benefit of the doubt.
In many ways, my experiences writing eulogies for strangers taught me how to write them for parishioners, friends, even family. I gather with the family in a place of their choosing, and then try to do two simple, yet very important things: ask good questions and listen well.
“Tell me about you mother. What was she like? What did your father enjoy doing? How did your parents meet? What kind of work did she do? Where did he serve? Did he ever talk about the war? What were your brother’s favorite traditions? What were you like as kids? How long were the two of you married? What did you like to do together? Tell me your favorite story about her.
And only after I have had that holy privilege of asking well and listening well, do I inquire about the service itself, about favorite hymns and scriptures and who would like to speak. As is the case with anyone, and the grieving in particular, one must earn the right to be heard, and one does this first by listening.
As the family answers these questions, two things happen. First, they hear, perhaps for the first time, the deceased referred to in the past tense, and perhaps for the first time, they do it themselves.
Second, and most beautifully, in a mysterious, almost sacramental way, through the amazing power of story, the dead, if only for a fleeting moment, nearly come back to life. Mom is back in the hospital, caring for her patients, like every other day. Dad is in the classroom, teaching his students. The wife is back on the train, sitting next to an empty seat when a handsome man in uniform returning from war asks if the seat is taken. The child is bounding down the stairs on Christmas, her favorite day of the year.
If the questions are good, and the family is able to talk, patterns will emerge, and discerning these patterns is critically important for what comes next. I believe that everyone’s life has in it a refrain, something that year after year, decade after decade, story after story, repeats itself: Whether at home or at work, mom was a natural teacher. Dad was a quiet man, but whenever a neighbor needed a hand, he was someone they could feel confident asking for help. Grandfather loved his country. With grandmother, there was always food, with enough left over to give away.
These stories converge into a refrain that forms a horizontal line traversing the time this person lived on the earth, and at some point, that horizontal line intersects with a vertical line, which is the story of the gospel, the story of resurrection and eternal life, the story of God’s good news for the world.
It is at that intersection where the eulogy lives, and the task of the preacher is to dwell in that place with the grieving for a while. It is a holy place where we remember the stories, remember the life and witness of the deceased, and then discover the ways in which God’s gracious presence was at work in those refrains, in ways visible and invisible. It is because of these refrains, and the hope in them, that we can even imagine worshipping God at a time like this.
I ask myself, “Where were the most obvious places where God’s grace was present in this person? What was Christlike in this life? Was the person a teacher or a healer? Was she a peacemaker? Was he a servant? Did she have a heart for the poor? Did he have a passion for justice? Was her life characterized by faith? Did he have a love for Christ’s church? When considering this life now laid out before you, where did you see the divine light and life? In what ways did the unfolding of this life reveal nothing less than the glory of God?
And then I reflect on those refrains, give thanks for them, and write.
One of the greatest privileges of my life is the profound trust given to me to tell other people’s stories. Time and again, year after year, the lives of the deceased bear witness to God’s grace, mercy, and abundant love. The greatest compliment you can pay a preacher after a memorial service is to say “That was him,” or “That was her.” The blessing of encapsulating a life well-lived is filled with joy, and I always respond by saying, “She lived that good life. I just got to talk about it.”
In Psalm 116:15, the psalmist writes “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones.” It is easy to misread this verse and imagine a God who “calls us home” because “God needed another angel” or any of the many other falsehoods that should never be said to the grieving. The deaths of those we love, even our own deaths, are precious to God because our God is the God of a love so great that we were bought with a price. God’s love is so great that our God suffered our heartbreak, our physical suffering and our physical death to vanquish them once and for all. There is no other god who can speak to death like the God of Jesus Christ, because no other god can claim to understand death like our God can.
In a letter dated February 23, 1947, the English author C.S. Lewis writes, “God could, had He pleased, have been incarnate in a man of iron nerves, the Stoic sort who lets no sigh escape Him. Of His great humility He chose to be incarnate in a man of delicate sensibilities who wept at the grave of Lazarus and sweated blood in Gethsemane.” In other words, God has indeed “earned the right to be heard” when it comes to our grief. In Jesus Christ, God has feared death, grieved death, faced death, and suffered death. Therein lies the hope that even on our worst days, we are not a people of an aloof and distant deity. We are instead, the people of the God who understands, the God who seeks to fill those empty voids in my heart and your heart with God’s mercy and grace, to fill that darkness with God’s abundant light, even on those days when it feels so certain that the darkness has overcome it.
For a period of time in my early thirties, I served as a rural pastor in a rather remote farming community with congregations that were small enough to afford me the opportunity to visit them often and know them well. There was an elderly woman there who, before my arrival, had lost her husband of several decades. She had once mentioned in passing that rainy days were always the most difficult for her, so when it rained, I would try to drive to her small farmhouse and visit her.
She was a faithful woman, yet faithful without superstition, not the kind of person who saw angels in every cloud. Yet one rainy afternoon, she told me of a recent experience, one where she was laying alone in her bed, aching with grief, trying to find the fortitude to get up and begin another day.
“And that’s when I felt it,” she told me. “I felt his embrace, the feeling of his arms around me, and I knew; I just knew it was Jesus, holding on to me, not letting me go, telling me that he was with me, and for that moment, it was enough. I just know I am not alone.”
And John writes of the coming of Christ into the world, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
This time of year is, in so many ways, the apex of our grief. Loss is so acute in a season that values family and togetherness the way Christmas does. And yet, for those who grieve, it is the source of such promise, for it is the time when we confess how, in a very specific time in human history, in a particular location to particular people, in a stable in Bethlehem of Judea, God “became flesh and dwelt among us.” The one whose name means “God is with us” meets us in all our refrains, in all that is good, and all that is broken and imperfect and painful. That is where we find our God, because it was for our sake that our Savior came; to take all of that pain, all of that loss, all of that grief, all of that brokenness, all of that darkness and infuse it with God’s persistent light.
Hold onto hope. Be open to mystery. Think about the person or persons you are missing tonight. What was the refrain in their life? What light did you see time after time? Look in those places, in those points of intersection, for the living God who dwells there, the God from whom all blessings flow. Remember those flickers of light, sometimes small, sometimes large, in which you see your life more clearly. Those refrains are holy, sacred places of resurrection hope, and God is there, in all that is good, in life, in death, and in life after death, holding us in our Savior’s eternal embrace.