Saturday, February 10, 2007

Unintentional syncretism

I've just finished officiating at a funeral for a former member of our congregation, a very interesting lady who had a unique life: growing up in East Berlin, being conscripted into the Nazi Army, escaping with a group of other woman soldiers to freedom in West Berlin among the Americans, marrying an American airman, jumping through all the hoops to come to America, and leading a long life and leaving behind a large family of relatives who admire her courage and tenacity to this very day.

Unfortunately, she had left our congregation many years ago during a divisive pastoral scandal. She drifted from congregation to congregation for a while. She maintained her belief in the Lutheran confession of the faith, and did so stridently, according to family members. I know this is a contradiction over and against non-attendance - but we poor miserable sinners do find all sorts of ways to mess things up.

In such a case, we can only appeal to baptism, and leave everything else in the hands of a merciful God.

Now, instead of the usual photographs of the deceased, there was a large flat-screen TV with a presentation on continual loop of old photographs and period music. The quality was stunning, and the production really captured the essence of both the deceased and her family. It was very well-done and impressive. I suppose we will see more of this, and I suspect not all such presentations in the future will be in such good taste as this one was. Technology is a double-edged sword.

The funeral home has no chapel, so the service was conducted in the parlor. There was no altar, only a lecturn with a candle.

In speaking a couple days ago with one of the family members who had requested that family members be permitted to eulogize during the service, I suggested that this could be done before the 1:00 pm service - perhaps at noon. After which time, the traditional Lutheran rite would take place with a homily designed to proclaim the gospel of Jesus into which the deceased was baptized. The relative said this would be fine.

Unbeknowst to me, there was someone else making other plans.

A relative, who is also a funeral director himself, had decided to put the Lutheran rite in the middle of other readings and several eulogies. I didn't find out about this until minutes before the service. I had hoped to not put on my vestments until the start of the Lutheran "portion of the program," but I was unable to even find a way to do this. So I was stuck.

The funeral director who served as the emcee (a very nice, well-intentioned man) gave a couple readings from a book called The Prophet by Khalil Gibran (who, it turns out, was a pioneer in the modern New Age movement). Interspersed with eulogies from friends and family were readings from the book, as well as exhortations to "breathe" and "center yourself" and to meditate and visualize. Of course, Jesus was never mentioned, and I don't recall even a generic "god" getting even a sound-bite (though I may well be mistaken). I had to keep a poker face during this contradiction to the one true faith.

He read from the Gibran chapters entitled: The Mystery of Death and On Joy and Sorrow. He also read a meditation from a Buddhist source, though I could not see the full title of the book. As you can read for yourself, the readings at this funeral service were antithetical to Christianity.

I had written my sermon yesterday, and as it turns out, without knowing what was around the bend, directly repudiated the feel-good New Age philosophy of Kahil Gibran. It is sheerly the miraculous providence of God that on this occasion certain specific tacks were taken in my proclamation. I did not have to alter or add what I had prepared to deliver from the "pulpit."

As it turns out, the family was overwhelmingly Christian, or at least it sure seemed so from the number of people crossing themselves. After the service, several people were profuse in thanking me.

Conducting a funeral for someone you have never met, whose shepherd you truly were not, is always a little dicey - and not easy. Of course, it is a difficult pastoral decision to proceed - in this case, I'm glad I did - though I would not have done so had I known what I was in for ahead of time.

I have no idea what spiritual state this lady was in at the time of her death. Calling a pastor was not a priority as she moved toward death in her illness. But when death comes, it seems that people are lulled from their own spiritual slumber, and then call upon one of our Lord's unworthy servants - and thanks be to God they do. In this case, the deceased was by all counts a staunch Lutheran - even if she was not part of Salem's flock for many years.

I can only trust that she never repudiated her baptism. I can also only trust that the living Word of God rings in the ears and the hearts of those attending the funeral, forcing out the New Age heresy, the diabolical delusions they heard as part of the same service.

And if I am to be penalized for syncretism, I should hope that it is a five-yard penalty (as opposed to the fifteen-yard "flagrant" personal foul), as it was completely unintentional.

And as the liturgy leads us to pray: "Give to your whole Church in heaven and on earth your light and your peace." Requiescat in pace.


Past Elder said...

What a tough spot to be in! And apparently just where God wanted you to be to present his Gospel. He saw you through it, right down to a prepared sermon that unknown to you was right on target for what was to happen. Amazing what can happen when we simply do what we he called us to do and trust in him for the rest!

Can't see a penalty here at all except for maybe the Latin -- the "in" takes the ablative rather than the accusative: "requiescat in pace", if you'll forgive a pre Vatican II altar boy who served a ton of Requiem Masses and funerals!

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Past Elder:

Thank you! Guity as "accused," I've repented to the ablative.

Gratias ago tibi!

Past Elder said...

Not to worry. In the "good old days" the Gospel reading started with the formula "In illo tempore" for "At that time". Which is a hoot for late Latin as so much of church Latin is -- "illo tempore" ia an ablative of time and already means "at that time", doesn't need the "in" at all.

Wouldn't Sister Colleen be proud (my high school Latin teacher)? When I took a refresher Latin course in a secular graduate school, I noticed everyone but me had the supposed Ciceronian accent, as if he left behind any recordings to tell. I used to joke with them that unlike them when I get to heaven I won't have an accent!

Rev. David M. said...

Absolvo te!

I'm guilty of some unintentional unionism on my own part at funerals. These things happen just like the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor.

Ne desperamus! Jesus was treated much worse and paid for our sins in full.

solarblogger said...

Did the liturgy not have a very sharp beginning and ending? I'm guessing it did, but if not, then maybe a statement, "The liturgy is ended. Go in peace!" at the end. Maybe then nobody leaves, but it's clear they are staying on their own decision. If there are clear boundaries between one thing and another, I don't see syncretism. Not at all. I see pluralism, which is another way of saying we don't shoot each other when we disagree. But a good pluralism suggests that you can hold parties to their contracts, and are free to complain when they do not.