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Omaha, Nebraska, United States
I am more and more convinced that most congregations die from a staggering lack of imagination. Let's change that. Let's imagine a creative future with God and each other together. Drop me a line on email or leave a comment if you have thoughts on God, Jesus, congregations, the church or whatever.... I look forward to our conversations.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

I walk in the garden straight to...

The first funeral of a close family member I experienced happened in January of 1987 with the death of my maternal grandfather. He was a huge influence in my life, and I remember that funeral vividly. This past week (Saturday, April 29, 2017) I went to the exact same funeral. Different person, same funeral.

The woman we buried last week was 93 when she died, but she had the exact same hymns, exact same scripture readings, the exact same song sung by a soloist (different singer, however...). Amazing. 30 years later, I am transported to a large Lutheran congregation in Duluth, MN all the while sitting in the balcony of my congregation here in Blair, NE (My colleague often does the funerals in our congregation. I am for "emergency use only" in this regard.) 

So, I got to thinking about that...

This woman would have been 63 when my grandfather died. No doubt, she would have been one of the women serving lunch. She would have respected and mourned my grandfather (everybody else did, why not her?) And she might have even said, "That was a nice funeral" for him. And 30 years later she got the exact same funeral.

And the women (and a few men now too) who served the lunch respected and mourned her passing. They said it was a "nice" funeral. And perhaps a few of them, if they could be honest, would hope that they too won't have to worry about their death for another 30 years or more? 

But did nothing change in 30 years? I mean, it's the same Bible, and there are limited options for "traditional" funeral passages, but no changes? Really??? Music didn't change? (And why do Lutheran congregations sing In the Garden, anyhow? I mean, the song is almost anti-Lutheran theology.) But perhaps there's a reason, and even more so, perhaps these scriptures will be read and these songs be sung at some funeral 30 years from now.


Because for most of us our piety is formed around events like funerals and weddings. (I've done so many weddings with the same music and scriptures and even poems and rituals that I couldn't even begin to count them all.) And this is just what it is for pietists out on the prairie. At a funeral, you get some Swedish soul music (O Støre God), a tour through the garden with Jesus, and the promise of God to make a room for you in the afterlife, preferably heaven. Top if off with What a Friend We Have in Jesus, and you are good to go. Wherever.

And it's the "wherever" that has changed the most in the last 30 years. At my grandfather's funeral there was a lot of talk about "heaven." At the one I was at Saturday there was none. Other than the songs the word never made the service. It's not that my colleague or the people at the funeral don't believe in "heaven." They all do I am sure. What they are not sure is where it is; or, for many of them I suspect, if it's even a place at all?

I mean, other than a few die-hard fundementalists and even fewer artists, no body really believes heaven is a "place" anymore. Where is it? It's tough to believe in a place when you're on the third rock from a medium sized star, someplace among galaxies and galaxies of such rocks. You could pick one, call it heaven, I suppose, but that's so arbitrary as to be worse than not picking one. So every time people hear the word "heaven" it has no meaning to them. And they move on...

For most of us these days, the word "heaven" functions like the quality of a relationship. It's similar to the difference between "loving" something and "liking" something. You love something, and that something is often more important than something you like. Heaven is a way of describing your relationship with God that is more important than other relationships. When we die we want to be surrounded by family and friends, and for believers, God too. That's heaven. At the bedside. And it ends when you do.

Heaven has meaning for people because it describes a quality of their relationship with God. A relationship that transcends time and space, a relationship that is eternal. Heaven is not a place where my grandfather or this wonderful lady "went to" when they died. Heaven is a way of being loved by God that does not stop just because you die. Heaven is God's eternal love for you. Yesterday. Today. Tomorrow.

Permit me to quote a piece of the scripture read during the funeral: Jesus says,
"Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house are many chambers..." (John 14. 1-2) God's house is God's heart, and living in one of the chambers is living in the heart of God. For 2000 years the Christians have called that "heaven." It was true 30 years ago, it was true last week, and it'll be true 30 years from now as well. Even if we don't use the word.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.