Balancing between this world and the next

In last week’s article, I mentioned a question my daughter asked before her great-grandmother’s funeral.  “If Grandma is in heaven, then why is her body still here?”

She posed the question while we were on the way to the wake.  Since this would be her and my son’s first funeral, my wife and I explained what they needed to know and what to expect.  Yes, Grandma died, but she is in heaven with Jesus.  Yes, we can be sad, but we will still celebrate her life as we worship God in Grandma’s  Catholic church.

Her specific question, however, recalled my seminary days when our professors gave us some advice on these things.  “Be honest,” they said, “and explain your theology as literally as possible.”  Easier said than done.

I also found myself wrestling between two theological extremes as I sought to articulate an appropriate answer for her.  The first extreme emerged from a more evangelical point-of-view.  This was the theology of my upbringing and still remains an important part of me even today.

This perspective sees the spiritual world as the only valuable and “good” world, pitting it against a this-wordly, flesh-oriented sinfulness that exudes all creation.  In fact, the spiritual world is so superior that we Christians need not worry about how we treat the environment.

I was reunited with this theology when I drove behind a Hummer with a Christian fish sticker a while back.  Here was an ancient symbol–the Ichthus– Christians once used to communicate with one another during the height of Christian persecution under the Roman empire.

At that time, Christians consisted mostly of underprivileged and peasant classes (one ancient writer, Pliny, called Christians of this era the “dregs of society”), whereas the empire represented people of wealth and power.

While the fish continues to subvert power by declaring Jesus’ eternal promise of resurrection even in the face of the empire’s power, a Hummer, for all practical purposes, is a symbol of that very power and privilege.

(Before I lose you here, let me say that I’m not one to pick on people with fancy cars–Trust me, if I had a lot of dough, I’d be a proud owner of a 19-mpg Porsche.)

Driving behind the Hummer, despite my silly musings, certainly reminded me of the conflict that exists in putting two radically opposing symbols, one of self-annunciation in the name of Christ and the other of self-gratification in the name of prestige, together on one piece of machinery.

More significantly, a Hummer also seems to communicate that this world is not worth saving.  After all, who cares about carbon emissions when this world is  fleeting away before our eyes?

The second extreme is a more liberal perspective that seeks to combat this type of spirit-vs.-world perspective.  Liberalism, a product of the scientific revolution of yesteryear, downplays the spiritual realm so much that it barely acknowledges the spiritual realm at all.

It opines that this life is all that exists and any hope in an eternal, spiritual existence with God is a foolhardy dream.

A recent article on funerals printed in a liberal Christian publication pushed this notion.  The author’s words made me feel that my hope in Grandma’s union with Jesus in heaven is a mere “Gnostic denial that the person has died.”

In other words, since I cannot know for certain that Grandma’s spirit is with God, then why spend the time talking about it as if it is literally true?

As I drove to Grandma’s wake, I simply stuck with my professors’ advice.   I didn’t go the way of the Hummer, the fish, or liberalism.  I simply told my daughter that Grandma’s spirit is with Jesus in heaven even though her body is here because today isn’t the day when we all get new bodies from God.

There will be a day when God makes all things new; but, until then, we have to care for Grandma’s body–and all God’s creation–because it is as precious in the sight of God as heaven itself.

My answer balanced both my evangelical and more progressive leanings.  It left enough room for me not to be a hypocrite if I ever choose to purchase a tank of an automobile some day; and, most importantly, it allowed all of us to grieve and celebrate, mourn and rejoice.

Worship gives expression to our deepest grief and our exuberant gratitude

Several weeks ago I had the honor of officiating a memorial service for a dearly beloved friend and churchgoer.  His family sought to balance his request to have a simple service with the need to accommodate all the things of which he was a part, such as the military and the Masons.

What was a special honor, however, was the fact that we conducted the memorial service at our church.  More often than not, funerals and memorial services are now carried out at the funeral homes instead of traditional church buildings.  It is certainly more convenient that way, but it was nice letting the departed come back home to church one more time.

When I conducted the service in the church, I was reminded that a funeral or memorial (no matter where it is held) is, above all things, worship.

We think that worship is too flippant or celebratory a word to use in service of someone who has passed on.  We reserve worship, or at least the use of the word “worship,” for the living.  It may seem to border on disrespect to talk about our remembrances of a lost loved ones in the context of worship because, for all involved, evoking such memories feels like anything but worship.

Worship, however, is appropriate and precisely what happens in a funeral or memorial service.  It is worship, and the service itself should be designed as such.  We know instinctively that the service is for the grieving family as well as a time to say our goodbyes, but saying goodbye is but a part of acknowledging the fact that the passing of a loved one is a way of saying hello to God.

Truth is, when Christians come together, no matter the occasion, we come before God in worship.  Worship is the correct context to voice our deepest grief as well as our exuberant gratitude.  We grieve the fact that we will miss our loved one, that we will never hold his or her hand, get a phone call from him, or even see her at church.  But we are thankful that death does not have the final say.  In the words of the late Cardinal Paul Shan Kuo-Hsi, “Dying is falling into the loving arms of God.”

Worship also serves as a safe place to express our anger and our despair over the circumstances of death.  It’s one thing to frame a memorial service as worship for someone who has lived a full and vibrant life; it’s another thing entirely to come together by force because of a sudden or premature death.  I have yet to do a memorial service for a child or infant, so I have no authority to speak from experience here.

What I do know is that worship does not preclude or exclude our anger and resentment any more than it expresses our deepest grief.  The psalms express anger in meaningful, worshipful ways–“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” was the very prayer our Lord uttered at his own death (Psalm 22:1).  This psalm comes before Psalm 23, which acknowledges that we have to walk “through the valley of the shadow of death.” There is no way around our grief and all that grief entails.  Worship empowers us, anger and sadness and all, to at least take one step in front of another.

What better way to bring the fullness of our emotions at at time of loss than in the womb of a church sanctuary?  At a recent funeral for my grandmother, my eight-year old daughter asked: “If Grandma is in heaven with Jesus, then why is her body still here?”    There is nothing like coming into the presence of stained glass, acolyte candles, and a communion table to find the permission to ask such hard questions, to let us speak hope to despair and victory Christ’s promise of eternal life to fragile life.

Worship is the place in which God “makes us lie down in green pastures and leads us beside still waters” (Ps. 23:1)