I’ve been spending a good portion of this week preparing for the funeral of my grandmother. Good words are always important, I think, but especially at funerals. I feel this even more acutely when it’s the funeral of someone that I have known and loved. This morning, I was drifting around a rarely accessed bookshelf in my study and I came across a dusty old book called The Complete Handbook for Ministers. A number of books like this have found their way into my hands over the years, usually as gifts from retired pastors or people with a pastor in their family. I located the “Funerals” section and turned to the first page. There, I encountered a very peculiar section heading:
For an Outstanding Christian.
I’m not particularly proud to admit that my first reaction to this heading was a snort of unholy derision and the rather rapid return of the book to said rarely accessed, dusty bookshelf. An “outstanding” Christian?! Seriously? We have different funeral words for “outstanding” Christians as opposed to… well, as opposed to what? “Mediocre” Christians? “Terrible” Christians? “Blundering and foolish” Christians? “Bored and timid” Christians? “Passionless and uncreative” Christians? “Incompetent if well-intentioned” Christians? The list could obviously go on but I decided to constrain my adjectives to a cursory analysis of my own performance as a Christian for the first half of this week.
The phrase raised my ire not just because I interpreted it as a personal reproach. It also brought to mind the pain I’ve heard in people’s voices over the years when funerals were treated as not-at-all subtle performance reviews or post-mortem theology exams. Angry sermons exhorting those in attendance to avoid the sins and errors of the deceased. Relatives of someone who committed suicide in anguish at their loved one having to be buried in a separate part of the cemetery. The general awkwardness of conversations around fruit platters and burnt coffee… So, where do you think _____ ended up? We struggle with death in countless ways, not least in reducing it to the same crude scorekeeping calculus that we so often use to evaluate the merits of the living.
And yet. There are such things as “outstanding Christians,” at the end of it all. My grandmother, for example. I have been inundated with messages in various forms this week from people who were loved well by my grandmother, who experienced a welcome, a kindness, an expression of care, a note at just the right time, a meal, a smile, even a stern rebuke. I spent some time yesterday reading the family history that my grandmother wrote several decades ago. I was struck, over and over again, by the devotion to prayer and the Scriptures, to the simple legacy of faith expressed in deeds that her life bore consistent witness to. My grandmother was not perfect, and she would be the first to (loudly and insistently) say so. But she stood out.
I have lost my last two remaining grandparents in the past six months. I feel enormously blessed to have had them for so long and to see the witness of such outstanding women, so extraordinarily selfless and giving, so unfailing in prayer, so devoted and kind. Their Christian faith was forged in a life that was far harder than mine, in countless ways. Theirs is a legacy that I will struggle enormously (and almost certainly fail) to match. I was talking with one of my grandmothers once about some theological matter, and she deferred, “Yes, well, you’re quite a bit smarter than me, so…” I don’t think that was remotely the case, but even if it was, I found myself thinking, “Well, perhaps, but you’re quite a bit holier than me.” And when it comes to “outstanding Christians” I think that holiness—or, “Christ-likeness,” if the word “holiness” rankles too much—is more important than theological acumen. Smarty-pants theological types don’t fare very well in encounters with Jesus in the gospels, after all. Humble, simple, merciful, devoted faith tends to garner a few more words of praise from the one Judge that really matters.
I don’t think that there should be different funeral liturgies for “outstanding” Christians vs. the rest of us. I think that the death of every human soul should be an occasion for reverence, grace, and the very best words we can summon. I will attempt to find a few later this week. But some lives do stand out, and they can be both a mirror and a guide for the rest of us. If we are looking, listening, and willing to follow.
The image above is called, simply, “Harvest.” It was created by Keith Brabender and taken from the 2014-15 Christian Seasons Calendar.