Saturday, March 05, 2011

Lessons from a funeral (Sunday Reflections for March 6, 2011)

A funeral this past week provided me with an interesting view of “religion in America.”

A little while ago one of our members called to ask me to visit someone dying of cancer. She was his daughter’s mother-in-law and I said I would be glad to. Over the course of a few visits in hospital and then in hospice I got to know Lynne and other members of her family. She was already seriously ill so my interactions with her were limited. Nonetheless, I found Lynne and the rest of the family very enjoyable. My attention to them seemed genuinely appreciated, including conducting Lynne’s funeral.

Lynne had some church involvement in her past and considered herself Christian but had not had any affiliation with a church for quite awhile. This seemed true for most of the rest of the family, with the exception of a daughter and her husband who were very committed evangelicals. From the size of the crowd at the funeral home it was obvious Lynne had many friends who would genuinely miss her. It was repeated again and again what a kind and gracious person she was. She was a good person, who had lived a good life, which ended too soon.

I appreciated the opportunity to meet Lynne and members of her family, who obviously shared many of her fine qualities. I was glad to be of help to them in a difficult time of need. I have done similar things many times before and they are always rewarding experiences for me. Nonetheless, on almost every occasion I find myself wondering at some point what it is I’m doing. Officially I represent the church but that’s not really the capacity I’m exercising, since these are not church members I’m dealing with.

No, I’ve come to understand that I am there as a kind of generic “God- or spirit-person.” In such situations, I guide and assist people through life transitions that we recognize as spiritual events, which include things like birth, marriage, personal crisis, as well as death. On such occasions neither they nor I assume any particular religious beliefs or commitment. We relate to each other simply on the basis of our common humanity. I’m brought in because I have some training and experience in these things and—since I’ve thought about them more than most people do—presumably have something worthwhile to say at such times.

What’s become obvious today is that this is where most people are at in regards to their spiritual life and needs. As we discussed this week at our first “Living the Questions” video session, we all now understand our life as a journey, which is an inherently spiritual idea. Observing this, British theologian Don Cupitt has said that a “religion of everyday life” is rapidly replacing the old traditional religions in the modern world. (He has done some fascinating studies to show how often the word “life” is now used in everyday speech where “God” used to be, e.g. “Right now I’m just going wherever life takes me.” You’d be surprised how easy it is to come up with more examples.)

What has yet to find a place in this religion of everyday life, of course, is the church. What role does this global institution with two thousand years of history, and more tradition than any person could possibly understand or appreciate, have to play anymore? With such a religion and spirituality, why would people belong to an organization with rules, budgets, buildings and staff?

As I talk to people about belonging to the church I hear very similar responses. Most people consider themselves spiritual, believers in God (however they understand that), religious even, and often even identify with a particular denomination. When pressed, many say that they would like to go to church, that it would be a good idea, but they are just too busy or just doesn’t fit into their life right now.

I take such responses as sincere and honest. What it says to me is that church has simply dropped down people’s priority lists. People only have so much time and have certain things they want to do with that time. If we arbitrarily say that there are 20 significant things we can do in our daily life (family, work, sleep, eating, exercise, friends, entertainment, etc.), then on average church is about #23 on people’s lists. Belonging to a church, worshiping regularly, participating in its other activities, and supporting it financially—people just find themselves asking, “Why?”

As I said, I didn’t get to know Lynne very well but this church question came to mind as I thought of her. All indications are that she was a good and lovely person. She had many friends and belonged to a variety of organizations. She was surrounded and supported by a loving family, especially during her struggle with cancer. As a pastor, I was invited into her life at its end as a sort of spiritual adviser. Though I think I could have been of more help if I had been there sooner, she certainly seemed to end her life with peace, maturity and grace.

Her story is not uncommon: a good person with a real spiritual life, who does not “belong” to the church, yet has occasional need or desire for what we might describe as “religious services.” Frankly, I think this is becoming the norm but the church is having greatly difficulty adjusting to this situation or even accepting this new role. With its history and tradition, the church can’t imagine itself except as a great, divinely instituted organization, wrapped up somehow in the fate of the world. I’m afraid those days are long gone and never to return.

People’s lives today are remarkably free and, consequently, remarkably complicated. Navigating this journey called life is at the essence of spirituality, and we all seek help and guidance for it. Most of us appreciate ritual markings of special moments in that journey: birth, entering adulthood, marriage, death. In this there is a real opportunity for the church to redefine itself and be of genuine value in people’s lives. The question is whether the church can see this, not as a comedown from past glory, but as a new way to continue to enrich people’s lives and make the world a better place.

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