Russ Dean: Hope this matters ...
Amy and I are preaching through Ecclesiastes 3 this summer: For everything there is season, and a time for every matter under heaven… Sunday’s text is, “A time to be born and a time to die…” It must be a hazard of the job, but someone always seems to be dying, which makes me think a great deal about living. Am I making a difference in the world? Will anyone even remember me? Do I even matter?
Several funeral homes call me to conduct services for people who don’t have a pastor. (So … if they don’t have a church, don’t even know a pastor, why would their children want a total stranger to conduct a service?) I’m still trying to figure that one out – but I believe everyone deserves a Eulogy (literally, a “good word”) when they die. So, they ask, and I always answer. (And the funeral home pays a small honorarium, let’s be honest. I am still paying for college tuition!)
Some years ago I was asked if anything had surprised me, good or bad, about being a pastor. I don’t remember what I said about the bad (there probably was something!), but what I said about the good was that I had come to enjoy conducting funerals. Don’t misunderstand, I get no sadistic thrill from people dying, and I’m not callous to the human pain – I can get choked up for a total stranger almost as quickly as for a family member. But…
I love telling people’s stories.
For these funerals, as with all church services, I speak with family members and invite their reflection. “Since we never met” (I said just yesterday) “tell me about your father. What was he like? Give me his story.” Tomorrow I will basically read back the words of a son and a daughter, frame those reflections in a running narrative, use some literary spit shine, and wrap it in a touch of theological comfort, and if past history is any predictor, the family will glow.
“Thank you for telling his story! That sounded just like him! I could just see him!” Sometimes they say, “That was so (pause)… beautiful… fun… enjoyable… I feel so (pause)… good. I’m not supposed to feel good at a funeral, am I?”
I think we are. Yes, we grieve – but life is worth celebrating. There is a good word that can be said about almost every single person who passes before us.
The writer of Ecclesiastes was more than a touch cynical about life and death and everything in between. “All is vanity … what do people gain from all their toil…all things are wearisome … there is nothing new under the sun … the people of long ago are not remembered … and the same fate comes to the righteous and the wicked …”
It would be easy to focus on the cynicism and to choose the theology of Billy Joel’s old lyric, “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints, the sinners have much more fun!” – but there is a deeper truth to this odd scripture than that. The book is part of the Bible’s wisdom literature. It’s not traditional wisdom, all the “prosperity gospel” stuff that you can also find in the Bible (“love God and God will bless you,” etc…) It’s unconventional wisdom that says even though everything seems like vanity, like there’s no meaning or purpose to anything – still, God is in it!”
So, for folks who have no pastor, which often means they have little experience with conventional religion, I often read Ecclesiastes 9: Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart (which sometimes makes them smile, like, “The Bible says daddy’s drinking wasn’t so bad after all!”) God has long ago approved what you do. Enjoy life with the spouse you love… that is your portion in life… Whatever your hand finds to do, do with all your might, for there is no work… or wisdom in Sheol (the place of the dead) to which we are all going…
I used to think “eat, drink, and be merry” was a slogan for sinners. As it turns out, it’s part of the Bible’s great wisdom. So, here’s my eulogy for tomorrow as well as my synopsis for a whole summer of preaching: “Work – Play – Love – Pray,” because G.K. Chesterton, the English writer and theologian, rightly noted, “You matter. I matter. It’s the hardest thing in theology to believe.”
Find some way to love life – and live like you matter – because one day I may have to tell your story, too.
(Dr. Russ Dean is a graduate of Clinton High School. He and his wife, Rev. Amy Jacks Dean, also a CHS graduate, are co-pastors of Park Road Baptist Church in Charlotte.)