I was in need last Friday. My friend, Jannie, was suddenly and unexpectedly dead. He was gone. Someone so alive and so indicative of what being alive has come to mean to me was now gone, not living in my presence. I needed words that marked both my loss and my hope in something greater than this loss.
So, I was relieved to be in good hands at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Now, here’s the deal. I knew Jannie better than any of the speakers. There was not a detail from his life that would change this moment for me. In fact, the least helpful and least moving parts of the service were the words of the eulogy that portrayed Jannie in a flattering light over against the words of 1 Cor 13. I shot knowing looks with my friends, John and Scott, who knew Jannie the same way I did. He was admirable in so many ways without needing to make the full embodiment of so lofty a passage. I might or might not have leaned over to John and Scott and whispered, “wow, he must have gotten a lot better.”
No, words like these were of little help.
What did help, what dissolved me, what brought tears, and with them, cleansing grief and hope, were the set pieces. The words of the liturgy. The Scripture readings, the affirmations of faith, the passing of the peace. The Lord be with you. And also with you. That stuff. Those words choked deliciously in my throat throughout the entire service.
Now I know that Mrs. Landingham and Leo McGary are not real friends of mine. But these West Wing characters felt like my friends. And so when they died (on the show), it felt a little real. It felt like loss. I bring them up, and not Admiral Fitzwallace, (though I also experienced his death as a loss) (I know, I have problems) (good thing Charlie didn’t die, his participation in the show Psych notwithstanding) is that we were allowed to attend their funerals. And in both, we heard no personal antidotes or attempts to preach them into their final destiny, but we got the broad declarations of Scripture. And I was deeply moved. “I am the resurrection and the life.”
So, I might be the minority in all of this, but here’s what I think is going on. First, in that moment the words of the liturgy are larger than Jannie’s life. These words find their scale over all time and place. They are lofted and establish hope outside of our mastery or relative goodness. And because they are our best words, the one’s we’ve decided to say over and over again, they are as a result reassuring and overwhelmingly comforting.
We say them, not as a part of a sermon or as an ornament to our words. In the liturgy, they stand on their own regardless of what we have to say about them or anything else. And this is comforting.
I imagine them as a canopy creating space for truth telling underneath. And ultimately it is our ability to tell the truth in situations like this that touches our grief in hopeful ways. I’ve been to many funerals that refuse the truth, that paint a brighter picture than the actual state of things would permit. Which gives the rest of us little hope. Our hope then is that somehow we can live better or do more or perform a more praiseworthy life. But the truth of the gospel depends nothing on our performance of it. So, the deal is to respectfully and lovingly say what the truth of the situation is underneath and alongside the big statements of the gospel carried by the liturgy.
One last reflection. The songs we sang were primarily of the Taize variety. A simple line sung by the cantor. The congregational response in multiple parts. Simple words of longing and confession in spare, but beautiful arrangement. They were fit for grief, for deep feeling and longing for something more. These should be mandated at every funeral. No, “I’ll Fly Away” or “Mansions over the Hilltop” or “Days of Elijah.” Nothing happy-clappy at my funeral, please.
That is all.