My wife wrote an amazing piece in response to my recent blog post about funeral processions. She addresses the need for our pain to be seen and heard and recognized. I hope you will read it and give it consideration.
To the middle aged woman who gestured angrily and yelled as we passed…
To the thirty-something man in the power suit who honked and forced his black SUV through our line…
To the person who tried to pass us and then moved his car into our lane to block our progress…
Perhaps you don’t know. Perhaps you didn’t recognize the hearse and the flapping flags on the first few cars. Perhaps you didn’t notice that we all had our lights on and our hazards flashing. Perhaps your mama never taught you to show respect to the dead by showing kindness to the grieving.
You couldn’t know, of course, that the woman inside the hearse was only twenty years old. You couldn’t know that she leaves behind parents and siblings and a young husband and a one-year-old baby girl. You couldn’t know anything about the person in that hearse or the many people who followed. But you still could have stopped. You could have waited. You could have recognized that someone else’s pain was greater than your need to get to lunch.
Her parents saw you—you were just the first of many who will be impatient with their grief. Her younger siblings saw you—breaking the chain of cars that separated them from their sister’s body and their parents’ arms. You see, a funeral procession is not about getting to the cemetery at the same time. A funeral procession is a chain of connection, a visible sign of the invisible bond of grief. To the grieving, it is inconceivable that the world keeps going when their world stopped. They cannot understand how the rest of the world keeps spinning, not aware that it has lost something precious, when their world will never be the same. They will go through the coming weeks and months and maybe years with a hole in their gut that will be virtually invisible to everyone who passes. But for this day, this moment, they are seen. And if their grief doesn’t stop the world, at least it should stop traffic.
As a pastor, it is my job—and my honor, my blessing, and my burden—to sit with families in the midst of their pain, to hold their hands, to try to bring them comfort when the unthinkable has happened. I listen to their stories. I help them plan a service that honors their loved one. I help them choose a scripture for the service, whether they know many by heart, or know only that their loved one believed, or know only that they want something religious just in case. We create a bubble, or maybe a cocoon—a safe space where they can remember and cry and laugh and sit together in grief and anger and know that whatever they’re feeling is OK. It is heart-breaking to sit in those front pews, and it is gut-wrenching to watch those who sit in the front pews. But we are in it together—this thing called life, this thing called grief, this thing called love. And then we move from that space, together, for one last difficult act after so many others—one that nobody ever wants to imagine but always fears—to see our loved one’s remains laid in the earth. So we follow the car in front of us, knowing that we are still in it together, still bound by our shared grief even as we go out into this busy, impatient, insensitive world.
So for those of you who were so angry that a funeral procession made you a few minutes late, I have a few suggestions. The next time this happens, try not to think of the fact that you missed one rotation of the lights; think instead about what the people in those cars will miss. Try not to think of being late for your lunch date; think about the people who will never again get to meet their loved one for lunch. Try to consider that maybe you could inconvenience yourself for one moment to allow a hurting family to stay together, to show them that you see them and you recognize their loss.
I hope you can do this because one day, you’ll be the one driving with your lights on and your hazards flashing, needing to follow closely so you don’t lose your connection, don’t lose your way. And I hope the world will stop for you.
I am embarrassed by my family.
I’ve tried not to be, tried to tolerate them, tried to be accepting of their “eccentricities.” I’ve tried to remind myself that I come from them, that I used to be like them, that we share so much history. I’ve tried to tell myself that what unites us is greater than what separates us.
It is no longer true.
I was taught that we are bound by blood. Not human blood—that’s for relatives, and I’m not talking about relatives. The blood of Jesus is what makes us family. “I’m so glad I’m a part of the family of God,” I used to sing, just as I was taught. I used to sing about the “Power, power, wonder-working power of the blood of the lamb.” I believed that “Jesus paid it all; all to him I owe.” And above all, I was taught that believing in the power of the blood made us family.
But the family of God has become an embarrassment.
Too many members of this “family” will gladly cut food stamps and let children starve. Too many members of this “family” will happily support racist policies. Too many members of this “family” will joyfully tell you you’re going to hell. All while claiming to believe in “the joy of the Lord.”
Here is a great (and by “great” I mean horrific) example. A website called ChristInYou.com offers “The Twenty-third Psalm: Welfare Recipient’s Version.” Read it and weep.
Society is my shepherd: I shall not work.
It alloweth me to lie down on a feather bed;
It leadeth me beside the still factories.
It destroyeth my ambition.
It leadeth me in the paths of a goldbrick for politics’ sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of inflation and deficit spending,
I will fear no evil,
For the welfare agencies are with me.
Their generosity and their staff they comfort me.
They prepareth the requisitions that filleth my table.
By mortgaging the earnings of my grandchildren
My head is filled with mirth
That my cup runneth over without effort.
Surely, the taxpayers shall care for me
All the days of my life,
And I shall dwell in the house of a parasite forever.
That’s right, nothing says “Christ in You” like calling hungry people “parasites.”
Then there’s the church that cut ties with a group providing housing for homeless families because one of the families had same-sex parents. Apparently WWJD now stands for Who Would Jesus Deny?
Let’s not forget the Christian people at a school board meeting in South Carolina who were confronted with one lone woman standing up for the rights of transgender kids to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity. The Christians present chose to drown out this voice of compassion by singing none other than “Yes, Jesus loves me—the Bible tells me so.”
If I sound angry, I am. And for once I’m not going to apologize for it. I am angry that the voice of Christianity is, far too often, a voice of hate. I am angry that my faith has been co-opted by bigots. I am angry that nursing home residents have to be fearful about what the visiting minister might say to them. I am angry that, according to GLAAD, 75% of religious messages in the media are from anti-LGBTQ religious leaders. I am angry that when I tell people I’m a minister, I have to immediately either swear or mention my sexual orientation so they know I’m not like them—them! Another reason to be angry: I have come to view other members of the family of God as them. I was taught not to be ashamed of the Gospel. And I’m not. But I am ashamed of those who pervert the gospel of love in the name of Christ.
So, yes, I am angry. But I am too old to believe that anger is the end. Too much of the anger in our society is self-serving. It allows people (not to mention politicians) to smear their opponents with impunity, both sides claiming their cause is righteous. I’m not interested in that very much anymore. I am interested in reclaiming Christ. I am interested in reclaiming the family of God to include all God’s children. I am interested in reclaiming my own faith and my own religious experience and my own evangelism and my own voice. I am interested in singing not “Jesus Loves Me” but “Jesus Loves You” … because I already know it and maybe you don’t.
So on June 18 I will again march with my church in the annual gay pride parade. And I will again offer apologies on behalf of the church to those who have been wounded by the church at large. And I will again be prepared to confront those who come to the parade to preach judgment. And my anger will fuel my feet but it will not scar my heart, for my heart has enough scars from prior lashings.
If you see me, my heart will be singing. I will not be able to sing “I’m so glad I’m a part of the family of God.” Instead I will sing, “We are a gentle, angry people, singing for our lives.” And I will sing, “It is well with my soul.” And I will sing, “Yes, Jesus loves you”–not to silence anyone, but to amplify the song.
Everybody in my congregation knows about “the chart.” I handed it out in worship one Sunday. I use it in Bible study. I give it to new members. “The chart” is the way I explain the variety of ways we as Christians interpret scripture. You can see the whole chart Here but let me share the highlights. It starts on the left with fundamentalism and moves progressively to the right.
|COLUMN 1||COLUMN 2||COLUMN 3||COLUMN 4|
|The Bible was not only inspired by God, but dictated by God.||The Bible was inspired by God, but written by humans.||The Bible may have been inspired by God, but was largely influenced by humans.||The Bible was written entirely by humans and does not automatically reflect God.|
|The Bible has authority because it is God’s words.||The Bible has authority because it is the word of God.||The Bible has authority because we grant it authority.||The Bible has no more authority than any other sacred text.|
|The Bible is inerrant (without error) in all its teachings.||The Bible is inerrant in doctrine but not necessarily in history or science.||The Bible contains errors in history, science, and sometimes theology.||The Bible is not to be taken as fact but as opinion so errors are irrelevant.|
My congregation includes people in Columns 2-4. (Column 1 Christians tend to worship only with other people in Column 1.) When I preach, I am well aware of the variety of beliefs within my congregation. The problem is that many people outside the church don’t realize there are such things as Column 3 and 4 Christians. The Column 1 and 2 folks are the ones with the television shows and the best-selling books promising financial success to the faithful and hell to everyone else. Many people don’t realize that there are other ways of reading the Bible that are both intellectually honest and spiritually faithful. And so, if they don’t believe that Jonah was swallowed by a real whale, and that Noah lived on a boat with two of every animal on earth, then they don’t think they can believe anything the Bible says.
Which is the problem with Easter. People think that if they don’t believe in THE resurrection—don’t believe that Jesus came back to life after being dead for three days—then Easter is not for them. But the problem isn’t with Easter. And it isn’t with resurrection, either. The problem is the word THE.
As a pastor, it doesn’t matter that much to me if my people believe in THE resurrection. But it matters a great deal to me if they believe in resurrection. It matters a great deal if they believe in the power of God to bring life into situations thought beyond reach. It matters a great deal if they believe in the power of love to heal wounds, in the power of grace to build bridges, in the power of mercy to move mountains of bigotry. This is what resurrection is about. Resurrection is about new life where we thought none was possible. It doesn’t take a suspension of rational thought to believe in resurrection. It only takes a need, and a little hope.
Our country needs some resurrection. We also need more critical thinking. We don’t need more “God said it and I believe it and that settles it for me.” Replace the word God with the name of your least favorite political candidate, and you’ll see what I mean. We don’t need more blind faith, whether to God Almighty or to the Almighty Dollar or the Almighty “I can save the world” presidential candidate. We need people who are willing to think critically and realistically while also holding onto hope … hope that we are better than what we are showing the world right now, hope that we can stop the damage being done to our social fabric, hope that we can make a difference in the process. We need to hold onto the hope for decency, the hope for compassion, the hope for unity in our diversity. But since it appears that those things are nearly dead in our society, we need some resurrection.
Easter is almost here. It comes early this year. I’m glad. We need some resurrection. We need it now.
They said “Thank you.”
Over and over again. The vast majority of people. “Thank you.”
It wasn’t their usual procession before me, and not my usual gift to them. Usually when they come before me I hold out to them the bread and cup as I say “the bread of life and cup of blessing.” Sometimes that gets me a “thank you,” mumbled as an afterthought through a mouth trying to mind its manners. Sometimes I hear a soft “Amen” as they dip the bread into the blessing with agreement.
But today is Ash Wednesday. Today my first offering to them was not life and blessing but ashes and solemn reminders. “From dust you have come and to dust you shall return.” I don’t always say these words on Ash Wednesday. Some years I tell people, “From God you have come and to God you will return.” Other times I have said, “Remember that you are human.” But this year I was compelled to use the more traditional words because of a blog someone wrote about needing to hear them. Her mother received a terminal diagnosis last year, just days after receiving the ashes of Lent, and she died six weeks later. The author wrote about how she is preparing to attend another Ash Wednesday service this year, waiting to hear the words of mortality. She wrote:
“I hope the minister won’t get all progressive about it, change up the old words to soften the blow, tamper with the truth and use flowers instead of ashes, or some such thing. It will ring really false to me after last year when things suddenly got real. I might get visibly pissed, and that would mess up the contemplative atmosphere. Just give me my burnt cross of ashes and let me cling to it grieving for a while.”(Read her blog here.)
So even though I don’t know her, I did as she requested, in honor of all those for whom things have suddenly gotten real. From dust you have come and to dust you shall return. I said it to each person who showed up at noon on a weekday, the youngest of whom was probably fifty, all of us closer to the end than the beginning. From dust you have come and to dust you shall return.
I said it to them all. The lapsed Catholic. The man going through chemo. The man whose wife is. The woman who comes to our building for other meetings but not for worship. And most of them said, “Thank you.” Perhaps they were being polite. Perhaps the intimate touching of my finger to their foreheads, my attempt to look them in the eye, made them feel it required a response. Of course, earlier I had told them that they were dust and stardust, made of the stuff of galaxies. I reminded them of what miracles God can do with dust. But then I said those words. I reminded them that they are mortal, reminded them that they will not get out of this alive. And they said, “Thank you.”
I made the mark on my own forehead and repeated the words: From dust you have come and to dust you shall return. And then I echoed my parishioners, my teachers, as I whispered, “Thank you.”
I got so distracted pondering my response that I forgot the next hymn. But I will try again in my evening service. To speak truth. To look people I love in the eye and remind them that they will not live on this earth forever. And to say “thank you” for the reminder.
Click this link to hear the poem read:https://soundcloud.com/cinshop/breathe
Another day, another shooting.
Another campus / theater / mall, another shooting.
And I am sick.
I am sick of the bloodshed, the flood red
wave that crashes again and again
as if gravity were guns
and we were powerless to stop the tide.
I am sick of witness accounts and fatality counts and
“thoughts and prayers” going out
to families who vow to change the system
when we all know the system is rigged,
the Kool-Aid already swigged
in mugs that proclaim
“Happiness is a warm gun.”
I thought twenty would be enough.
I thought twenty first-graders would be enough
to make even the most trigger-happy fingers
drop their guns in horror.
But apparently we Americans love assault rifles more
like living past age six.
I thought twenty would be enough,
but we’ve had 986 mass shootings since
and I hate using a number because this poem will be wrong tomorrow.
I can’t write as fast as they shoot.
In response, our bought-and-sold leaders point fingers at our borders,
point fingers at those seeking asylum
when we cannot even seek shelter in our churches
without guns taking our breath away.
There has to be a better response than sitting in my basement writing poetry.
There has to be a better response than sitting and claiming impotency.
There has to be a better response than
But I’ll be damned if I know what it is.
Excuse the profanity
but do not excuse what is truly profane:
a nation kneeling at the altar of arsenals,
a nation praying to the god of guns and glory
I don’t know how to say “enough.”
So I sit in my basement with the baby monitor turned up
and I listen to my children breathe.
I can’t stop thinking about you. And I don’t even know your name.
We met on the playground. Your young sons were friendly and open—eager, it seemed, for companionship. My son can be a little shy, but right away he was running and laughing with his new friends. My daughter became the instant big sister to the group.
Watching them play together, I couldn’t help but notice the contrasts. Your boys, ages 3 and 5, have dark eyes and dark skin. Our daughter, age 13, has blue eyes and fair skin. Our son is in the middle, his Latino heritage showing in his brown eyes and light brown skin. None of this seemed relevant to them. They only cared about whose turn it was to be the monster and who had the better roar.
You seemed happy for conversation but not pushy. We easily could have ignored you if we had wanted to. I don’t know why I didn’t want to.
I think it was your posture that intrigued me. There was something regal about you as you sat on top of the monkey bars. Something proud. And at the same time, something beaten. Like you were a princess who lost her kingdom, or a lioness worried that she couldn’t protect her cubs.
You didn’t offer much at first—just an apology if your English wasn’t perfect because you are from a country that speaks French. You didn’t even share your name when we told you ours. Slowly I learned that you left your country because of the violence. You didn’t say so, but I know enough to realize that if you had stayed, your sons would be carrying guns before they were old enough to shave. You said you were afraid of Maine at first, afraid of you and your boys dying in the cold. You went through your meager savings in a warmer state and then headed here because you heard that we were kinder here in Maine. You had no way of knowing that the same politics driving the state you first landed in would spread here as well. And now you have nothing. Your visa has expired. You cannot work. You are living in a shelter. You have no idea when your asylum case will be heard. “We may have to leave,” you say at last, “because things have changed here.” Where will you go? You shake your head and shrug.
I look at our boys, more alike than different, and I am painfully aware of how different their circumstances. My son is currently a ward of the state, part of the foster care system. A whole tribe of people have worked for three years to get him into a safe, loving home. Our home. Your sons have nobody but you. My son pauses to drink from his smoothie, unaware of how thirsty his new friends are, how thirsty their souls are for what a smoothie cannot provide. My daughter notices there are no other cups or bottles around the playground. She gives them what is left of hers.
I try to think of how to help you. None of my ideas get past my lips because I realize how absurd they would sound to you, how truly limited your options are. So I give what I have: a listening ear, an apology for what you have experienced in our country and our state, the cash in my wallet, and a phone number to a place where you can get free clothes. I don’t know what else to do. I feel helpless. And I realize that’s what we have in common: a sense of helplessness in the face of the system. That, and a desire to protect our children from all the monsters.
As we begin to pull out of the parking lot, my daughter realizes she has an unopened bag of chips from her lunch. She jumps out and gives them to you. My son starts to cry because he wanted those chips. I explain to him that his new friends don’t have any chips, and we have more at home. I explain that they don’t have much to eat. I tell him they don’t even have a place to live. He says, “They could live with us.”
I know it’s an impractical solution. We’re still adjusting to life with four of us instead of three, and our home isn’t that big. Even as the thought occurs to me, I laugh at the absurdity. We have almost 600 square feet per person, and they have – what? A place to sleep that they can’t even call their own.
It’s an impractical solution because there are hundreds, thousands, in our community just like you. You just are real to me because I met you on the playground and our children played together and I liked you.
I came to the office this morning expecting to find a voicemail from you. The number I gave you for free clothes was at my church. You know you can reach me here. I expected you to call asking for more help. I am relieved that you didn’t because I don’t know what else to do for you. I am disappointed that you didn’t because what I gave you was so small, and I should be able to do better. I am ashamed that you didn’t because today I read “When did we see you hungry and feed you? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in?”
I can’t stop thinking about you. And I don’t even know your name.