Good Funerals & Neighbors, Troubled Times
By LeRoy Lawson
The Good Funeral: Death, Grief and the Community of Care
Thomas G. Long and Thomas Lynch
Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2013
A Tale of Two Cities
First published in 1859
The Neighboring Church: Getting Better at What Jesus Said Matters Most
Rick Rusaw and Brian Mavis
Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2016
The Good Funeral is about the importance of funerals in “getting the dead where they need to go and the living where they need to be.” Authors Thomas Long and Thomas Lynch like this maxim of Lynch’s father so well they made it the theme of their book.
Lynch is a funeral director and poet; he excels in both professions. I’ve written about him before in this column. Long is a pastor/professor. I required his The Witness of Preaching as a text in my seminary teaching days. Together these insightful, resourceful authors published a book I wish I had read as a young minister. If I had, I’d have cared for grieving families and their deceased loved ones with greater insight and skill.
When asked what I miss most about the pastorate, I always answer, “the funerals.” Nothing scared me more in the beginning. I didn’t realize then that walking with people through this trauma is a pastor’s greatest privilege. I was just afraid I would get things wrong.
Unfortunately, the authors’ lament, when it comes to funerals, our fast-food, tranquilizer-gulping, endure-anything-but-discomfort culture gets a lot of things wrong. The minister’s role has been diminished in favor of audience participation and personal anecdotes. Often the deceased are absent from their own services. We have grown anxious in the presence of the body, afraid of silence and tears and expressions of genuine grief, so we sanitize the proceedings and pretty much scrub the sacred out of them.
Funeral director Lynch identifies the four essentials in this final drama. He says, “The corpse, the caring survivors, some brokered change of status between them, and the disposition of the dead make a human funeral what it is.” The Good Funeral treats each of these essentials—and so much more—in a volume designed for professionals but helpful to all: funeral directors, “the clergy” (the authors’ broad term for professional religious leaders), and everyone faced with what to do—and why to do it—when a loved one dies.
I like the title, by the way. Some funerals really are good. This book explains what makes them so.
Rick Rusaw and Brian Mavis’s The Neighboring Church should not have been written. That is, no one should have had to write it. What is more obvious to Christians than that we’re supposed to love our neighbors? Jesus’ entire body of teaching can be summarized in one two-part commandment: Love God and love your neighbor. Period. Who doesn’t get it?
Well, for one, I don’t. For another, my church doesn’t. If my great sin is that I’m too busy to pay any attention to my next-door neighbor (what’s his name?), my church’s is that its many programs are designed to get people into the building and not to get us Christians out of the building and into our neighborhoods.
What is so convicting about The Neighboring Church is the simplicity of it. Just be neighborly. No new programs are necessary, no new staff member needed to run those programs. Instead the book asks me to pay attention to my neighbors—to really pay attention, to learn their names, to just be friendly. No, more than that. To be a friend. Modern American suburban conveniences (in-house entertainment, air conditioning, garage openers, etc.) conspire to isolate us from one another. The result is beautiful neighborhoods without neighbors.
Good neighboring is not about making converts. So what do you do when your neighbors spurn your evangelistic attempts, who make it clear they have no intention of going to church with you or to accept Jesus? You love them anyway. Love isn’t about making converts. Good neighboring is never manipulative; it is not a means to an end. It is the end itself. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” You don’t give up on yourself. You don’t quit loving your neighbor.
I’m embarrassed that when I was a pastor I didn’t pay enough attention to my neighbors and I didn’t lead our members to act on this most fundamental Christian virtue. It’s too late for me to do anything about it as a pastor, since I’m no longer leading a church. But it’s not too late for me to become a good neighbor. That’s my assignment now.
I’ve confessed before that from time to time I have to have a Dickens fix. Not too long ago Joy and I spent a few weeks in both London and Paris. We have children in London. Their flat has a guest room, so we favor London over Paris, where the rents are expensive and we don’t know anybody with a guest room.
But we spent a week there while Joy took a painting class. To get a better “feel” for the city, I picked up A Tale of Two Cities. It’s not Dickens at his best, but it’s good enough to still be in print after more than a century and a half.
Set in these two cities, London and Paris, in the years leading up to and during the French Revolution (1780–90s), the novel depicts the desperation of France’s lower classes, trampled beneath the heartless aristocracy—and also depicts the heartlessness of these same peasants, now victorious revolutionaries. This must not have been easy reading for Dickens’s fellow Englishmen, as he draws many parallels between the evils perpetrated on French soil and those rampant at the time in England.
But there is light in the darkness, light personified in Lucy Manette and her gentle physician father, her husband Charles Darnay, their flawed but ultimately heroic friend Sydney Carton, and Jarvis Lorry, the dedicated bank officer whose devotion to business does not overrule his compassion. There are also the villains, of course, most particularly the infamous Defarges who are as bad as the others are good.
As always with Dickens, his characters are really caricatures. And as always, they are unforgettable.
You can’t forget the novel’s opening lines, either: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness. . . .” These could be the opening words of a novel set in our own times, couldn’t they?
Neither can you forget the novel’s conclusion, when the guillotine looms for Sydney Carton. He is preparing to die to save his friend’s life. He has at last found meaning in personal sacrifice: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”
Between the novel’s opening and closing lines is told the tale of two cities in tumult, with all the blood and thunder and deception and violence and kindness and courage and sacrifice that characterize all of history’s turning points. Including our own.
LeRoy Lawson serves as international consultant with CMF International.