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Funerals and Memorial Services

“A memorial service is for those who mourn.” How often have I said these words to family members planning a funeral or memorial service for someone they loved?

Part of that mourning is honoring the beliefs of the person who has died. If your grandmother was Jewish, you shouldn’t have a Baptist funeral. It isn’t respectful of her and her faith. At Christ Church, as at other Episcopal churches, we encourage members to let us know their wishes for their funerals. Do you have a favorite hymn that you would like sung? Did you love the archaic language of Rite I, and want it at your funeral? Do you hate “Amazing Grace,” and don’t want it sung even though it is a standard at funerals? Write it down; put it with your other papers in the file marked “Death, in the event of.” On September 17 and October 1 we will have a workshop at Christ Church that will include planning the service you want.

But part of mourning is also being respectful of the beliefs of the people left behind; those who mourn. And this is where families get complicated. Once upon a time people lived in villages. Their descendants, by and large, lived within a relatively narrow geographic and socio-cultural area. If your grandparents were Church of England, odds were that you were also. If your parents were Methodist, their friends and family probably mostly were also.

That is no longer true. The baby boomer who was baptized at Christ Church in the 1950’s might now be Buddhist. Or Foursquare. Or vaguely deist with a bit of borrowed Native American spirituality mixed in. Even if the adult child who is primarily in charge of making funeral arrangements is Episcopalian, odds are that they are trying to take into account the feelings of the Jewish in-law and the Wiccan grand-daughter.

And here is where my counsel becomes different from that of my elders in ministry. The priests I follow in ministry were often very definite: a Christian should be buried from the church, and there should always be Holy Communion at the service. My advice is different. I ask about the faith of the family members. Are there people who would feel excluded? What about the friends of the deceased who attend? I have crafted a service from the “Order for Burial” in the Book of Common Prayer using 12-Step material, for someone whose connection with the church was the AA meeting held in the parish hall. I have created abridged, ecumenical, graveside services for family of church members who are being buried at the Veteran’s Memorial Cemetery.

Does this mean I would depart entirely from the order for Christian burial in the Book of Common Prayer? No. I am an Episcopal priest, and it is my role to proclaim that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities . . . nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” If a family doesn’t want that proclamation, I will send them elsewhere with my blessing. But within that basic framework and message, there is much room for variation and respect for the feelings and beliefs of those left behind.

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Everyone Welcome*

Just about every church I pass on the road proclaims that everyone is welcome. But what does that mean? How does a person decide whether, “I will be welcomed?”

When my daughter was going to another state for college I hoped that she would attend church. [Spoiler alert: she didn’t.] She had grown up Episcopalian, and being an Episcopal priest I naturally hoped that she would attend a church in my denomination. But even within one denomination I didn’t trust that she would automatically find a compatible church home. I got on the computer and researched the Episcopal churches in her college town. What was I looking for?

Well, being of a liberal theological bent I was researching for indications of theological leanings. Links to Integrity, the GLBTQ advocacy group within the Episcopal Church, were a plus for me. Statements of belief in Biblical inerrancy were a negative. Female clergy were a plus; an all-male clergy staff was a negative. College ministry was a plus. It was fairly easy for me to learn that of the two Episcopal churches in town one, which also had an outreach to the college, was liberal and the other was conservative in its theology. Knowing my daughter’s theological and political views, it was easy for me to recommend one rather than the other.

But I am a seminary-trained minister. The product of three years of graduate-level Biblical Studies, two years of History and Theology classes, multiple classes on liturgy and homiletics. I can explain how and why the Eastern Orthodox churches separated from the Western Catholic church, and the differences between Calvinist and Lutheran Protestantism. I am not normal in my connection to religion.

I am thinking of a young man I met in a hospital, who had become a Christian at an evangelical mega-church and had no idea that the version of Christianity that he was learning was also called Protestantism, and that there were other Christians who did things differently. He knew that he was welcome at that church because he had found a welcome. But that welcome might have worn out quickly if he were gay.

My church, like others, says “everyone is welcome.” Unlike many others, we ordain men and women, and both are elevated to our highest positions of leadership. We have long ordained both gay and straight, and recently we have actually admitted it. We will welcome you and your child, and baptize your baby, whether you are married or single. If you come to this church and others in your family don’t, that is fine.

Does that mean that everyone will feel welcome? Probably not. This is a liturgical church. That means that everyone participates in the service – there are no spectators here. You don’t have to know the service – we are big on reading, and it is all printed in either the bulletin or the prayer book. But it is a different way of worshiping than you will find at many churches. We sing hymns, many of them written in past centuries using old-fashioned language. They will be unfamiliar to you at first. If you suggest that we sing a praise song you heard on the radio you will find your ideas not welcome – we are jealous in maintaining traditions. Every church has its boundaries – our openness theologically and socially is balanced by our more restrictive worship practices. Every Christian is welcome to receive Communion (and I won’t ask you before giving it to you) – but Communion is the focus of the service. Our sermons are relatively short, and tend to appeal more to the head than the emotions.

One way to think of different churches is in analogy to gardens. Some have a clearly marked and broad entrance, and then paths with signs “keep off the grass.” Some are walled, with a narrow gate, but once you are inside they are a riot of beauty. Some have carefully manicured flower beds planted with annuals; others have herbs and flowers mixed up and running sort of wild. I think the Episcopal church is like an old semi-walled garden, with a couple of shabby gates. Here is a bed of English roses planted 50 years ago. There is a Bird of Paradise recently brought from Hawaii. Over in the corner is a vegetable garden, with the produce shared by neighbors and rabbits. You are welcome to wander, to cut flowers, and to eat the veggies. You can even plant some seeds yourself, if you are careful about where you dig and don’t unearth the bulbs. Like a garden, some people stroll through once and others make a lifetime here. All are welcome.

Returning Hate with Love

This morning on the radio I heard a remarkable story.  A family and some friends were having a lovely and celebratory dinner outside on a patio: enjoying wine and food and conversation under the stars.  When a stranger came up and stuck a gun to a woman’s head and said “give me your money, or I start to shoot.”  Which they would have complied with, but none of them had any money with them.  They tried pleading with him, and got nowhere.  Then one of them, in some kind of inspiration born of desperation, said, “We are celebrating.  Would you like a glass of wine?”  And that changed the dynamic.  The stranger accepted a glass of wine.  Then some food, and in order to eat and drink put down his gun.  He said, “I think I’m in the wrong place.”  He asked for a hug.

This story was shared as part of an episode of the show Invisibilia on the power of noncomplementarity.  Complementarity is the word for the normal pattern of behavior of responding to like with like – someone flips us off in traffic and we get mad in response.  Noncomplementarity is responding to anger with a smile.  Or, as Jesus put it, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” (Luke 6:27-28, NRSV).

Noncomplementary behavior is hard.  But powerful.  It is the power of nonviolent resistance.  The power of forgiveness.  It has the power to transform situations, reconciling adversaries and creating peace.MLK photo and quote

The gospel for next Sunday tells of Jesus teaching his disciples the prayer we call “The Lord’s Prayer,” or “the Our Father.”  It includes the challenging line, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”  (In some translations “trespasses,” or “debts.”  The same Greek word can mean all three.)  Transforming fear and anger into forgiveness and love is hard.  But maybe by praying this every day, and setting it as a goal, we make it more likely that we can respond this way when it counts.