In the movie Fight Club the members of Project Mayhem, a male bonding and domestic terrorism experiment in intentional living, lose their first member, and after the founding member tells them the name of their comrade, they repeat it like a mantra. His name was Robert Paulsen.
When we stand in our parish for funerals, many people mistake the service for a simple act of remembrance. For many people, we could just chant, Her name was Mary Smith, and I suspect many families would be happy. I believe that later most would feel dissatisfied, but they likely wouldn’t know why.
A funeral service is supposed to be an act of worship directed to God, our Creator and for Christians our Abba. We offer up our loved one in a liturgy that places their life into the story of God’s creation and redemption. We thank God for who they were and are. We pray in faith and thanksgiving for the safety and home that we believe they now are. I know in an age of disbelief and worship of the self, that gets missed most of the time on the conscious level, even for many Christians. But it matters.
Take Hobo, a local homeless man who died in our community, by which I mean both city and church. He was not a member exactly, but a fixture, someone who regularly used the services of the church and joined in worship at times. He was an alcoholic and former drug user who sold drugs years ago by his own admission. He was a wreck and a holy man. He searched for God in prayer and baptismal water baths. He blessed others and kept more than a couple of our local homeless people alive in brutal weather and worse loneliness. He shared what he had.
His story is not simple as I learned over the years of knowing him. He had left behind several children by several women. His brief periods of sobriety had created hopeful dreams of family that faded as he would slip away for months at a time, eventually not coming back to reclaim the ruined dreams he had left behind. His brief work as a smoke jumper left him with skills that he used make it through dangerous times, whether self-made or not. He had taken a lot from others over the years, but he also shared what he had.
I met with him formally to hear what I think of now as his last confession and his last stand. He was clear that he had left behind alcohol and drugs in time to be clear-eyed about meeting his Lord, whom he believed had forgiven him. I believe that too, though even that is not simple.
Hobo left behind genuine friendships and saved more than a couple of lives, but he also left behind broken lives and people he would not give the time of day too, even when they needed him. I loved him the way pastors love their people, and his loss to me was real, and so was my disappointment that he didn’t father his children or husband his “wives” of whatever status.
When we gathered at Grace Church to lay his body to rest and to let him go to his Lord, it was important to many around him that he would not be forgotten. But it was more important to me to offer him up one final time with his community and the royal priesthood of the church, to name the ways that God-in-Christ came through the cracks in his life, and to thank God for him. I also prayed that God would forgive him and heal his children and the women he left behind. His funeral was not merely a remembrance, though we did remember him. His funeral was worship for the God who made him, the God he betrayed, and the God who loved him anyway and kept showing up to work in and through his life.
His life mattered to God, and it mattered to the people around him and to me. I have no idea what Hobo and God will have to say to each other when they stand face to face, but I know what my hope and faith are for him, for you, and for myself. I hope that his prayer found their intention, and I have faith he can sluff off the sins he had held on to for so long; that is, after all the point of the cross. I hope his sins fall away in the lives of those he left, and that God grants redemption to those who remain. I believe that he was set free two thousand years before he was born, and that he was searching for that freedom all of his life. My hope is that he found it.
Whether he did or not I have to leave between him and God. Between you and me, I loved him and was loved by him the way pastors and their people love each other, the way human beings love each other. He blessed me and gave me the honor of offering his life up before his friends to his Lord. He gave life, and he took life. In the end, he was more than just a name to be remembered: he was a reason to worship God in praise, thanksgiving and repentance.