I have to admit that last week was one of the more grueling weeks of the 2018-19 year. I was moving non-stop from Monday morning until the men’s Bible Study group last night. From morning until evening, every minute was pretty much accounted for. I suppose I wouldn’t even bother to mention this if it weren’t for something that happened earlier in the week that pretty much doubled the weight of the calendar’s challenges. Although, in the right frame of mind, what occurred bore valuable lessons well worth sharing.
The story begins with a funeral—and it was one of the most contentious circumstances in all my years as a pastor.
The first of the facts is that much of the funeral was pre-arranged. It was to be a Lutheran service coming to its conclusion in a Lutheran cemetery. The Bible readings and hymns were all selected years ago. I was present when they were chosen. I assisted in the choosing and I wrote them down. The funeral home handling the burial details had them recorded, too. It was also decided at the time that I would preach and preside at the funeral. And why wouldn’t I? I’d been regularly tending to this person’s spiritual care for over a decade, and in many ways, was counted as an extension of the family.
Thankfully, these plans went pretty much unscathed. And the one change that was eventually made to the plans—the fact that Pastor Pies did the preaching—was more than appropriate. He’d cared for the deceased for plenty more years than I.
And so, the trouble began as it relates to who and what we are as Lutheran Christians and what that actually means when it mixes with the “however the spirit moves you” flavor of Christianity trending in America.
If you know anything about Our Savior in Hartland—which I’m assuming many of you do—then you know it is a confessional Lutheran church of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. We hold to the historic rites and ceremonies as the best means for carrying and communicating the Christian Gospel for faith. The person being buried was a lifelong and devout LC-MS Lutheran Christian and a longtime member of this congregation. One would assume that with such well-established and careful intentions by the deceased and her pastor, the funeral event would be fairly easy for the extended family to navigate, and one might think that the contours of Lutheran doctrine and practice would be an assumed rudder for steering the funeral ship through rough waters for a group of people stricken by grief.
But the essential dilemma is that the one representing the family was by no means Lutheran, and throughout the process desired that I know it.
For example, the derogatory word “sanctimonious” comes to mind. Along with a few choice expletives and a couple of times of hanging up on me, I was called this pretty straightforwardly as I treaded as carefully as possible, doing my best to hold to our doctrine and practice. But still, through every careful explanation, I was told that all this congregation really cares about is its doctrine and holier-than-thou fluff, which was further explained as being something “no real Christian cares about. Real Christians care about people, not doctrines.”
Unfortunately, it only got uglier from there. Statements like “I hate your stupid doctrines” and “I hope your dog dies” were words crassly stitched into the conversation’s fabric.
Yes, someone actually wished for the death of my dog. I suppose it’s a good thing I don’t have one.
Anyway, herein is the first lesson I think we can learn.
I know that to many in mainstream evangelical Christianity, a traditional Lutheran funeral service can seem a little stiff. This is true for various reasons, one of which being that we don’t see a funeral as a free-for-all therapy session in the face of grief. It’s a time to hover with the preeminent and saving truth of the Gospel. With that, we’re not ones to let anyone and everyone get up in the midst of the service to speak about whatever as it relates to the deceased. It’s not that eulogies are bad. They have their place. It’s just that between the Invocation and Benediction of a Lutheran funeral service, something else is to occur entirely. We are to be laser-focused on the Gospel of eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ. The fluff of the world gives way to the sturdy underpinnings of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins and the hope that comes for facing the last enemy, which is Death (1 Corinthians 15:26). This means we hold to the belief that little Susie’s poem about auntie would be better suited during the viewing or while folks are fellowshipping at the luncheon. It’s not going to happen during the service.
We also don’t give room for anyone and everyone to assist with the liturgy or do the Bible readings. We believe as the scriptures teach, that pastors are the ones called to stand in the stead and by the command of Christ in these things. Pastors are, as Saint Paul says, stewards of the mysteries of God (1 Corinthians 4:1). With that, if Cousin Sally wants to be a part of the service, at the most it’ll be to sing a solo stanza from a pre-determined hymn.
Speaking of hymnody, we don’t typically allow secular music to be played during the service, either. Why? Mainly because of the first point I made, but also because it’s just flat out dangerous. Frank Sinatra’s “I Did It My Way” may have been a beloved song for many in the family, but like it or not, it preaches a theological message that is about as counterintuitive to the Christian message as it gets.
A funeral is a holy event, and if the pastor is doing his job, he’ll get in between the world’s things and the Church’s things—for the sake of the people. He’ll protect and encourage the rites and ceremonies—the words and motions and places and times that make sure that everyone in the house of the Lord knows nothing less than that God is unquestionably present and at work for our good. Doctrine and practice, the rites and ceremonies of a funeral, all are in place to communicate an unclouded Gospel and provide genuine comfort.
The last of this—and you’ve probably guessed it already—is that in a traditional Lutheran funeral, God pretty much does all the talking. He has the first and last word on everything. He does this through the reading of His holy scriptures. Through the preaching, He showers His merciful love on heartbroken listeners like a torrential rain on a drying landscape. Even the hymns we sing and prayers we pray are a resonation of this bountiful relief found only in the risen Savior, Jesus. There’s no room for the world’s transient attempts at comfort in the face of Death. They’re completely out of their league in this regard—an atom-sized splinter of import in comparison to the saving message of Christ and Him crucified and raised so that Death would be defanged and we would live eternally.
That’s the first lesson—the world says, “I want it my way,” while God intends something far more substantial.
There are at least two more lessons that come to mind. But before I share them, I ask you to be prepared to really contemplate them—to really think about what I’m saying. I say this because in our radically individualized world, far too often will folks believe they’re thinking something through, but in reality, they’re merely rearranging their personal agendas in order to build better defenses around what they already believe and want so desperately to continue believing.
I’m asking for you to really think about this stuff.
The second lesson is that, while I won’t assume to speak for you, I’m guessing that any one of us would expect pastors—no matter the denomination—to take their ordination vows seriously. A Lutheran pastor intends to keep to the doctrines and practices to which he has subscribed just as a Baptist, Methodist, or Pentecostal would. With that, I can assure you that even as I’d never expect for a pastor from another denomination to come into my church and tell me how things ought to be done, I’d never step foot into his church expecting him to abide by Lutheran practices. If I were to engage in such behavior, it would only expose the cracks in my character as opposed to revealing another pastor’s seemingly offensive practices. In other words, he’s not the jerk. I am.
This stirs a final lesson.
Basic human courtesy is still a thing among Christians, right? I mean, it still exists, yes?
I know that plenty among the Christian ranks expel a lot of energy critiquing the doctrine and practices of other congregations or denominations. No denomination is immune from engaging in such banter. Every Baptist has his Lutheran joke. Every Lutheran has his Baptist joke. Trust me, I get why this happens. Doctrine and practice matter, and denominations differ greatly on some pretty significant things. I do my fair share of speaking to this very topic during the Sunday morning Bible study here at Our Savior. I want my people to know the differences. Saint Paul makes that very point in 1 Corinthians 11:17-19. In my efforts in the public square, I do the same thing. I take every opportunity to show how bad doctrines producing bad practices has the potential for harming the efforts of the Church Universal as we attempt to face off together with the princes of this world. In both of these forums, plenty of folks have shared with me that when they see something happening in a church that is clearly unfaithful, they cringe with a desire to fix it. And again, rightly so. Once more, Paul was concerned about these things among the churches and pastors. He wasn’t messing around when he instructed Timothy to watch his doctrine and life (practices) closely. By doing this, Timothy would save both himself and his hearers (1 Timothy 4:16).
Still, as much as any of us might find concern for a church’s handling of its own doctrine and practices among its own people, it remains a basic human courtesy to keep your commentary to yourself while right in the middle of it, especially if you find yourself in a situation where you are the recipient of the church’s efforts. Your silence in those moments doesn’t mean you approve, but rather that you have the ability for discerning self-restraint. Talk about it as much as you want with whomever you want after it’s all over, but in the midst of it, be respectful. Prove by your silence in that moment the integrity of the words you may find yourself using in the next. Plenty move forward in these circumstances bent on establishing proper piety, but fewer these days are making their way to an opponent with that piety immersed in the tenderness of humility.
I dare say that such self-restraint is an incredibly important asset that serves very well in any and all conversations, especially those designed to communicate critiques across theological borders.
I suppose in the end, there are plenty more lessons we can learn from this situation. Suffice it to say that this is enough for now.
As I said, I pray you will consider these things, and if anything, you’ll understand why pastors hold the line in this regard. Don’t shout and swear at him. Don’t wish dreadful things upon him. Give him the benefit of the doubt that he’s not trying to be offensive. He’s just trying to do his job. He’s just trying to be faithful.