The Pastor's Greatest Compliment
‘Tis the season of funerals. At least for me.
In early December, I conducted the funeral of a dear parishioner, Claire Bealer. The service was not particularly “high church,” as it was conducted, in accordance with the family’s wishes, at the funeral home - in the simple, nondescript, generic chapel . Our congregation’s organist played hymns on the funeral home’s piano that the family requested - which were not chosen to reflect the texts or even the general theme of the resurrection. They were from the “old favorites” category. There was no communion, and thus I was vested merely in cassock, surplice, and stole.
The service was the standard funeral rite, spoken (not chanted), straight out of Lutheran Service Book (LSB p. 278) and the Pastoral Care Companion (PCC p. 110). I used suggested readings from PCC pp. 122-124. I read all three lessons myself. There were no eulogies.
The committal was typical for a South Louisiana burial in an old, above-ground cemetery: the casket being awkwardly carried and angled in the claustrophobic passageway, hefted by the pallbearers, and pushed inside the ancient above-ground family tomb with a heave. The wood scrapes loudly as the casket is pressed into the chamber that is so narrow, the handles must be folded down.
I follow all of the rubrics of the committal service straight out of the Pastoral Care Companion, including stooping to jut my hand into the tomb, laying it upon the casket, and tracing the sign of the holy cross one more time upon my parishioner on this side of glory. I keep my hand pressed on the casket as we pray the Lord’s Prayer, just as we do in baptisms and in commendation of the dying. This part of the service is always poignant to me: my feet standing on the ground of this fallen world in this age, but my hand extending into the tomb, into the open maw of death itself, bridging time and eternity, bearing the life-giving cross that reminds all of us of Holy Baptism and our Lord’s triumphant victory over death - even as we defiantly pray the life-bearing words of our Lord, which echo and resonate into the edifice that contains the dry bones of other family members awaiting the resurrection. It is always warm inside the grave, as the sun bakes the brick and cement of the tomb - even in winter. Our tombs remind one writer of bread ovens:
I inevitably think of this as I bury people. And it further makes me think of the Holy Eucharist.
The only modification that I often make to the service of committal (PCC p. 125) is the singing of the hymn verse on page 135. The text calls for “Abide With Me.” There was a time not long ago when every Christian knew this text (not to mention the KJV version of Psalm 23 (PCC p. 84) - which I always use as the gradual at funerals). But this is no longer true. So, since I am usually singing alone, I typically substitute stanza three of “Lord, Thee I Love With All My Heart” (PCC p. 93) which I sing to the TLH tune) - which I find to be not only a stronger resurrection text, but also especially appropriate given that we have typically just placed the “body safe in peaceful sleep” into the “narrow chamber” to await the Lord’s “reappearing” and the reawakening of the dead.
At this funeral, after the committal, while the family lingered around the tomb collecting flowers and consoling one another, a middle-aged man approached me. He shook my hand and introduced himself. He said that he had an advanced theological degree in theology from a highly-regarded university, and that he was a “low-church Methodist.” He wanted to talk to me about the service.
This is where every pastor reading this is saying under his breath, “Here we go…”
But this was not to be a scolding for being “too catholic” or some sort of fight picked over doctrine. Actually, he was blown away by the service, and had come to compliment me. But the beautiful thing is that he didn’t compliment me; he complimented our funeral liturgy. He said that it powerfully delivered Christ and held up the cross and the resurrection. He said that he was at my parishioner’s son’s funeral nearly six years earlier, and he wanted to talk to me about it then - but didn’t get the chance. He had been thinking about it all that time. He said that he found the liturgy so moving that he wanted to study it in more depth. These were unlike other funeral services that he has been to.
This is the real beauty of our liturgy: it is Christocentric, baptismal, cruciform, and escatological. Its cup overflows with hope, it does not sanitize sin and death, and it triumphantly proclaims the atonement and the resurrection of Jesus in word and in rubric.
This was the greatest compliment that this gentleman could have paid me: because it’s not about me.
I pity brother pastors who are so full of themselves that they think that they can improve on our many centuries of tradition, of Christ-centered pastoral care, of preaching the Gospel: our liturgy, with its well-worn grooves and its ever-sharp edges. Inevitably, the “do-it-yourselfers” magnify themselves and diminish the very words and ceremonies that moved this man to speak to me after the burial.
I’m reminded of a story that I once heard about the sainted Reverend Father Kenneth Korby. It seems that he and his wife attended a Mass at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Korby complimented the celebrant, telling his wife that the priest was “invisible.” The pastor is there to point everyone to Christ.
That is what our liturgy does - even in less-than-optimal circumstances. Our liturgy is a treasure - not to be gawked at behind glass in a museum, but to be handled, worn, used, and shared. It is ancient, but always contemporary, vigorous, and robust.
This was the greatest compliment that a pastor can hear: that his work indeed proclaimed Christ. It is humbling, because it isn’t properly the minister’s work, but the Church’s work: the work of the Holy Spirit, the work of Christ bought to bear to the glory of the Father.
Leitourgiae propria adiaphora non est!