Why Your Funeral Should be at the Church

and what the Church’s Job Is

This past week we buried a family member; this week we will continue to bury the homeless and homely, the rich and the wonderful saints of God.  I have done and do funerals as part of my work as a priest, but occasionally as a family member or friend I sit in the pews, and this shifts my perception.  This week left me rung like an iron bell.

This week left me sure that a good explanation of what we are doing in a funeral and why you should have one in a church are necessary, not least because we gave a Christian burial to someone who was never really a Christian, but a good human being, and I am not sure anyone there really could say why we were there.

from Whitby Abbey

from Whitby Abbey

The Exposition (Where the author takes a long time to lay the groundwork for something more interesting.)

Jesus was the Son of God, according to what we believe, right? So he comes to inaugurate and announce the coming of the Kingdom of God, or Rule of God.  That Rule is already present in heaven, hence why we pray, “May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  It is the will of God lived out.

What is the will of God? That we live as we were intended from the beginning of Creation, as God’s image bearers, the children of God.  We were to incarnate the love and care of God for the creation, and one another in companionship.  That went wrong right from the beginning, as the nightly news attests, it still goes wrong.

We are made to be God’s stewards of creation.  We were made for companionship and cooperation.  But we go grasping after power and knowledge.  This is clearly part of our nature.  The story may be Scripture but it is also an accurate description of the human condition and growth.  And just like in the Bible, we are not forsaken as we leave the Garden, but we have to find new ways of relating to God and each other.  Law is introduced after failure.

Law is supposed to reveal a larger picture, a vision of God, humanity and creation.  But we get stuck.  We have to be born again, in Jesus’ words from John.  We have to begin again in relationship to God, our separation forgiven and redeemed, set free from the bondages we inherit.  As we get set free, we become full human beings.

I grew up with the need for salvation, but not much beyond that.  This is the interesting part to me.  We get set free, or brought up in freedom if we are blessed enough to be brought up inside the Rule of God.  We get to begin again in new relationship with God.  Now we are not newborns.  We begin again with our now shaped brains and bodies, souls and habits.  We have to learn how to live as human beings in relationship to God.  We have to learn how to take care of the creation and how to love each other.

It is sad that after almost two thousand years, we still get so inspired by Paul’s and Peter’s and James’s letters.  You would think that we would keep growing up, but that too is part of the story.  In those letters we learn how they taught these new people to live into this new reality.

The Rule of God is a way of talking about the reality that God’s way is revealed in Jesus.  God’s character is love and care, and God’s vision is a healthy creation and humanity that lives in right relationship to each other.  You can see this in the Law of the Hebrew scriptures that we call the Old Testament.

The idea of God’s Rule came to be located then in the Temple in Jerusalem. That created the classical problem of the location becoming the point, rather than the reality the location represents.

So Jesus is said to be the new Temple, see the anonymous letter to the Hebrews.  He brokers God’s forgiveness and blessing, healing and restoration in his miracles.  He incarnates God as the Temple had.  The Spirit descends on him at his baptism, just as the presence of God had on the Temple.

The Gospels then have Jesus breathe on his disciples (John) passing the Spirit on to them, or sending his Spirit on them (Luke), or appearing to them to give them his blessing and authority (Matthew) telling them to go and make disciples, baptizing them into the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  This authority is sometimes called the name or the peace of Jesus or his disciples.

The disciples become the temple: brokers of forgiveness, blessing, healing and redemption.  This is the most missed turn in the New Testament by believers.  We are supposed to do what Jesus did.  Every Gospel, every letter, every thing in the New Covenant is leading to this.  As a restored humanity, we become Jesus’ body in the world.  We incarnate God.

Paul puts this beautifully in one of the passages from Romans that we read at funerals. “The world waits in eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” In the New Testament, there is no ordained priesthood.  The word that gets appropriated as “priest” in our tradition is really presbyter or “elder.”  The priest or high priest refers to Jesus and then to the church community.

We are a royal priesthood: royal because we are God’s children and heirs, priesthood because now we stand between God and humanity.  We represent God to the world and the world to God.

The Point (Where if one knows the author’s theology well, one should begin to read with some attention again.)

So it is appropriate and right for the church to bury people as an act of offering their life to the God who will receive them.  As the priesthood, we are to love as God loves and embody the grace (forgiving and redeeming love that is not earned) to the world, especially at the moments of life and death.

We should be crying out to God for grace and mercy, as the prayers of our services do, and we should be crying out to the families and friends of the deceased to not wait to receive this grace and mercy because it is available right now.  Be set free and born new to begin again and join in the freedom and life of the believer!  But also, O God, receive a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming.

I sat in the pew this week and was a little put off that the priest in charge had chosen to wear purple-black velvet vestments, a shroud of mourning worship.  But I was also shocked that he buried the deceased as a Christian, when his life was never put under the Rule of God.  There was appropriate mourning for a life cut short by bondage and addiction to drugs.  There was appropriate celebration of the signs of his humanity, a loving kindness from the depths of his being.

The priest proclaimed both mourning and hope in his sermon.  I was impressed by his willingness to tell the truth in front of people who don’t love truth.

But that is why we have funerals.  We offer our lives and our loved ones up to the God who made them, loved them, and loves them.  A God of mercy, grace, and forgiveness.  But we are remiss when we don’t offer people that grace and love in this life, before they die.  So the funeral has to be both worship and an act of love, even when love demands that we tell the truth.

You should have a funeral.  It is not an act of hubris but humility.  Our lives get placed under the story of creation, fall, and redemption.  We get held up to the one who made us, loves us, and before whom we will all stand one day, for judgement and a meal (see Isaiah and Revelation).

Your funeral should be at the church.  We are the people of God, even if we suck at it, which we do pretty often.  God set us free and made us new, but God still left us human beings.   We will probably mess something up.  But we will stand with your loved ones and hold them up and love them, no matter what.  We will love you too, in our imperfect way.  And we will offer your life to God.

I hope you don’t wait until the last day or later to run to grace and mercy, forgiveness and healing.  If you do we will be waiting with open arms and really good music.  But oh that you would find grace and mercy now.

It takes a while to unlearn the habits of a lifetime, many of us exhibit this in clear ways.  We are all still working out issues.  That is why we make such vows in our baptism.  It takes work to live in the church with other Christians.  But we are a committed lot.  We are still, after two thousand years, working out all that loving God, our neighbor, and our selves means, much less caring for the creation.  But we keep at it.  Join us.  We need you.

The Rule of God is your home.  You were born to be God’s child.  Everyone comes home eventually.  Don’t wait.

Take your place at the table, and taste the feast today.  Think about it.  God loves you and wants you to be the you that you are.  God knows you.  And God loves you.  This was Jesus’s message, and now it is ours.

Freedom in Servanthood – Finding the Right Kind of Bondage

The Bible has a number of paradoxes that cut right through the heart of our age.  I am always preparing to preach somewhere, which I love.  But I mostly preach in short form and don’t always get time to work out the more subtle paradoxes that show up. That and it isn’t okay to talk about BDSM at church.

So there is a culture of bondage in the world that doesn’t have very much to do with church.  Google search when the kids aren’t around.  People tie up their sexual partners and sometimes hurt them for pleasure.  This sadomasochistic relationship has been brought into pop culture more or less obviously by the Fifty Shades of Grey series of books.  They were so popular that these lit-porn books were being read on subways in the newspaper at least.  I did see women reading them in cars waiting to pick up kids at school and on a couple of planes.

Now, bondage isn’t a new phenomenon.  It has floated just below the surface of our porn culture for a long time.  It is one of those dark fantasies that no one admits in polite culture, and certainly not to a priest!  Yet the domination and submission game is well known in relationships where there is little leather.  Many couples play out this dynamic on more subtle levels.

I am struck that so much of the literature around bdsm (bondage submission sadomasochism) talks about the submissive finding freedom.  This parallels one of the central paradoxes of Christianity.

Freedom is the root of the word redemption.  The whole concept of redemption or to be redeemed is to be set free from bondage or slavery.  The Greek word “doulos” means slave or servant or deacon.  The word is extremely common in the New Testament appearing 127 times (Strong’s number 1401).  It is a title applied to oneself (Paul and Peter) and to others.  We are said to find our freedom in becoming servants to Jesus.

We have been set free by the cross and yet are to put ourselves in bondage to Christ.  Now clearly this is two very different ideas about bondage.  Fear not, dear reader.  I don’t think you need ropes to explore your freedom!  I think rather that many of us are looking for our freedom by doing whatever we want.  That is the cultural promise of freedom.

“Let it Go” is a popular song because it captures that adolescent search for freedom by shedding the clothes of your culture and family and wearing a miniskirt and bustier with highlights and cleavage to match.  This message is really deeply embedded in our media and our thinking.  “If only I could . . .” lies behind many fantasies and adulteries.  We go looking for the freedom we have already.

The problem is not our ability to choose.  Any of us could choose at any moment to go out and do just about anything these days, at least in America.  We are basically free.  The problem is not our number of choices.  The problem is our frustration with the choices we have made.  The problem is our frustration the outcomes our choices have given us, because one choice inevitably leads to another until we are forty looking at a life we feel like we didn’t choose.

On the other hand, the masochist goes deeply down into that powerless place and accepts it.  In that acceptance they find freedom.  Humiliation and pain are often a central part of the experience.  It is hard to not read that and hear Paul and the Acts of the Apostles in the background, the celebrations of sufferings and beatings.  So what is the difference?

There is first of all that when we place ourselves into the hands of God, we are not blindly putting ourselves in bondage to another human, a fallen creature who has both the capacity for love and violence.  We are told repeatedly in the Scriptures that we are safe in God’s hands, that we are loved, held, healed, made whole, safe.

Here it may be helpful to call up the images of the mothering nurturing God that are throughout the Bible.  But even in the male images of the New Testament there is a clear consistency about the nature of God. Jesus depicts God as Abba and then spends a great deal of teaching what that means, loving, merciful, compassionate.  Strong, powerful, even angry, but always in a protective way, endlessly forgiving wrong.  That means relinquishing our images of revenge and punishment.  The New Testament actually spells out that we are to give up our revenge and punishment fantasies.

The image of the bondage relationship is an image of the brokenness of humanity in flesh.  It is a depiction of bad theology, a God who is violent and punishing and a humanity whose job is to learn to submit to violence and control.

The image of the New Testament relationship between God and us is a God who is loving and healing and a humanity whose job is to submit to love and own the responsibilities of freedom and stewardship of the earth and each other, or to put it another way to embrace our full redeemed humanity.

I am deeply saddened by both Fifty Shades of Grey and “Frozen.”  Both portray a deeply flawed search for a controlling masculinity and submissive femininity that destroys the image of God we were created to bear.  We are called to be strong responsible men and women who are in relationships of mutual care, healing, and redemption.  Our freedom is meant to be responsible and allow us to love and heal others, to set them free.

You can’t set someone free with bondage.  Neither personally or nationally does that work.  It is bad theology, bad psychology, and horrible foreign policy.  There are times when we give up our freedom because we commit crimes.  But the longing of the human heart is to be free and responsible.  I do think there is hope in “Frozen” in that the sisters learn to love and rule their inherited kingdom.

I have hope that our culture that worships freedom can learn to love responsibly, but right now we are still singing “Let it Go” right now and trying to bind that which we can’t control.  We still see responsibilities as limiting our freedoms, personally and politically.  We don’t seem to understand the call to be children of God, who are loved and called to love, provided for and called to provide for others, whole and free by a grace that is not our own doing.

That is the bondage here.  We bind ourselves to others in responsibility to love, just as Jesus took up the cross to bear the sins of Jerusalem and the world.  We bind ourselves to our obligations, but in them we find a freedom and wholeness in identity.  It seems vital that this be a choice.  God never forces us, never ties us up, never beats us into submission.  We choose to be adult children of God who love as we are loved.

The image of this I have after looking at the Fifty Shades culture is of Tiny Hands International, a ministry that my wife and I support.  They do work around addressing sex trafficking and have orphanages in Nepal, India, and Bangladesh.  The story of men and women going into brothels and stopping traffickers at the borders to set free these girls and boys, women and men in very real and destructive bondage never fails to awaken my heart to hope and humanity, even as their reality breaks it.  Freedom and responsibility.

Tiny Hands does more than just set them free, but works to provide a life, a home, and a living for these human beings to help them get to the place where they can be fully free and responsible.  These commitments take years sometimes to live out.  I am proud that my wife, really, has kept us committed to one little girl who is not so little anymore for more than seven years.  This young woman is part of my children’s prayer life and our financial life, though we have never met and only seen each other in pictures and letters.

Her life is deeply tied up in ours, and the work of Tiny Hands and that small tie of financial commitment has meant more to my own and my family’s freedom and humanity than I can ever relate.

As a pastor and priest, I am deeply concerned about how our bad theology and search for freedom is destroying our humanity in Christ.  I am concerned as a father about what those desiccated images of masculinity and femininity can mean for my children and for those victims of violence and sexual abuse around the world.  I am concerned how my own choices have bound me and sometimes even set me more fully free.

tiny hands

Don’t worry, I don’t have Tillich’s drawer full of secrets anywhere! The articles about this subculture have been very open in psychological journals and Time magazine since the Fifty Shades books and now movie have gone mainstream.  There are lots of articles without pictures out there!  But as Uncle George says, “There’s more ways to tell who fell in the drink than falling in there yourself, I think.”

Who Has Authority in Community

In my last post I questioned the profiteer from the past who attempts to hold authority by claiming it from some external place.  So who do we give authentic authority to in community?  This may be one of the  make-or-break questions of church leadership.

IMG_1560

Some people take the room the moment they enter it.  This couple in my first solo parish had that power, or rather the wife did.  She was a presence in every room she entered, and everyone responded to it.  She could build up and destroy.  And usually she destroyed.

My parishioner was a natural born leader with charisma.  She drew attention and people to herself.  She was truly magnetic.  But she used it constantly to complain and control through negative talk.  Every story was negative unless was about her.  Every opinion was negative unless it was about her.  It was real power, and it was totally unconscious.  She destroyed community, and it was only through the balancing presence of other more positive leaders in the church community that her effects were not more devastating to the long term health of the church.

She had power, but she was given authority by those who responded to her.  In the past, I and other leaders had given her additional authority by putting her into responsible positions, thinking that this would somehow cause her to be more self-reflective and responsible.  But her power was unconscious and her ability to therefore wield it responsibly was simply missing.  I loved her, but I began to cut her off intentionally and to build insulating walls around her with people who did not give her authority until over time sickness took her out of the community.  It was passive aggressive to be sure, but I followed up with direct confrontation one on one of specific behaviors when they arose.

One person with a great deal of power can truly stop a community’s development and growth in the Spirit cold, at least for a time.  She was powerful, and we made it worse by giving her authority.

In communities, it becomes important to think seriously about authority, especially as leaders.  A natural leader has real power whether acknowledged or not.  Everyone has the potential to be a leader, but some people are just born magnets.  It is important to be self-reflective and humble enough to be honest about your gifts.  If you are born magnetic, you then have a real responsibility to be careful in community in regards to the influence you have.

Authority though is something no one is born with.  Authority is given.  It is part of the social realm that is negotiated consciously or unconsciously.  We give authority either formally with titles or roles or informally by habits and deferences.

Formally authority is given by title or role.  Because I am a priest, I have certain authority within my church community.  It is given.  I also have some remnant of authority within my larger social community, though it is not as certain as it was in the rumors of the past.  I also have some powers because of my position within the hierarchy and institutional structures, but our focus today is authority.

It is my thesis that in healthy communities we give authority to each members as they take on responsibilities.  This begins from the time a member begins to take responsibility for regular attendance and participation in the story-making of the community.  Once you begin to ask questions and show up weekly, you have begun to accrue a certain store of authority among the members.

We are in an awkward place in the institutional church today because we have regular attenders who are helping to write our communal story but are not members.  This is dangerous because without the responsibility of formal recognition we are allowing people to determine our future with us.  Dangerous does not always mean wrong or even bad, but we have to be self-reflective and intentional about how much we allow those without a stake to play key roles in our communities.

In the Episcopal church, we have traditions that are supposed to mediate this danger by insisting that people be members, baptized and confirmed and in good standing, in order to hold key offices and even perform key tasks.  In these later days, many of our churches though, hurting for active members, have allowed active non-members to step in without asking for the formal declarations and rituals of belonging.  This is understandable, but in my recent work around the church and Benedictine ethos, I have begun to question the risks of these dangers.

First off, we are not talking about hospitality.  Everyone is welcome.  The doors are open.  Come on in.  We love you.  We have to love you if we are to be Christian, much more so if we are to be Benedictine.

Secondly, we are not talking about rights.  Certain things should be true about how we treat everyone without regard to their behavior or gender or class or other distinctions.  The church has fallen down on this to be sure, but let me give a couple of simple examples so we can move on.  Anyone who comes into church should be able to expect to be welcomed, loved, and given a seat.  They should be safe and free from ridicule much less violence or mockery or hate.  This is not based on them, but rather on the ethical code of followers of Jesus.

These things are true and should be reliable in church because of what Jesus told his disciples to do and be.  It is shameful that some populations of people feel hated by the church because of our words and actions of hate or ridicule.  It is natural that some people will disagree with us and even hate us for what we say and teach, that is not the same things as actively singling out people because of who they are or what they have done.

What we are talking about is authority.  As we begin to participate actively in a community we begin to accrue authority given by the members because we are taking an active role in writing the story of the group.  This is natural and reliable in healthy communities.  That deposit of authority grows when we add formal participation and belonging.  It grows as we develop and deepen relationships and responsibilities.

In the Rule, Benedict recognizes that God may speak and often does through the youngest members or in our vocabulary the newest members.  We should be listening for God’s voice then and setting up systems and habits as formal leaders to communicate with and listen to those voices.

The question that has haunted me on my travels and reflections on the architecture of Benedictine communities is, Are there people who should not be in our chapter rooms?  I believe there are.

I have never been into the chapter room at Saint Gregory’s in Three Rivers, Michigan, though I have been on retreat there.  I am a priest in good standing in the church they belong to.  I am love them.  They love me.  I think they do anyway.  I have eaten with the brothers.   I have prayed with them.  I have sat in long silences and read their books.  But I have not been in their chapter room.

The chapter room is interior space.  It isn’t for everyone.  It is not exclusive.  It is intimate.  It is a place for the community to do its business.  In the current state of the church, we have let people who don’t have formal belonging act and live as though they do because we have no boundaries.  And so we have mistaken access and authority for love.

I am loved by the brothers of Saint Gregory’s, but they don’t give me authority.  They don’t cut me off, they just don’t let me in.  It would be a mistake for them to do so.  It would be a violation of their community norms and would bring in dangers that are too great over time to excuse.

This all seems pedantic, I guess, except that it is very relevant to our situation in the Episcopal church today.  We have left the doors open to our chapter rooms, and we have let in those who though we may love them, may agree with them, we should not be letting them write our future.

That statement seems at odds with a Western world that demands openness to all comers, and at a time when government and institutions are taking active steps to force open all doors even in church groups.  Recently colleges have begun to deny access to campus to groups that insist on a dogmatic statement to lead.  The spirit of the age is inclusivity, but when have we gone too far?

It is vital to think and act carefully as stewards of God’s world and Christ’s community.  Here we must carefully discern whom we allow to hold authority.  Can we draw lines carefully? Or must all lines be erased?  More and more who the church is and what our future will be is being written by those who have not committed to Christ or the local community.  I am the first to say that as a pastor I have members who are central to our community who are not members.  But I am more and more deeply troubled, not because I need to control who becomes members, but rather that those who have not committed to the future are helping determine it.

In the larger Episcopal church we have let advocates and supporters write legislation and underwrite controversies with little reflection as to where the money comes from or who is holding the pen for our tomorrows.

If we are to live into a Benedictine vision of leadership we must lead by being willing to commit to people, to loving wildly, and to creating places to hear the voices of our communities, and communicating how to become members, giving authority liberally to those who commit, and to closing the doors that need to shelter those who are trying to hear the voice of God.