“You will read what’s on the paper”, he says to the young woman in front of him – in front of all the people sitting, watching. The young woman, in her twenties, smiles politely and responds in a voice that seems to trail off into the immense heights of the ancient cathedral, “I know. But I was just going to read this first.” She uses her index finger to indicate the crinkled, hand-written eulogy on the pulpit in front of her – a piece dedicated to her grandmother, a woman now passed after fighting years of Parkinson’s disease. The priest, dressed in a ceremonial gown of pure and undefiled white, moves in closer to the young woman, now sharing the same air that she breathes. His look intensifies as he slowly pronounces each word of his unwavering position, “You will read what is on the page”. The priest points to the binder of laminated biblical passages previously selected in a handful of meetings between clergy and family prior to the funeral. As she stares back at him, there is a short-lived but courageous moment of pure defiance in her eyes before she turns, defeated and humiliated, to read the verses. She now knows that the moments she spent pouring out her heart into the lines in front of her have all been for naught. She takes a deep breath and takes a brief look at the audience of fellow mourners, before quickly returning her eyes to the words touching the priests rigid index finger.
But the words do not come out
She fumbles through the first few words and tears begin to roll down her cheeks as she joins with the unified sentiment of the collective that this is not the scene that a loving grandmother would have wanted for her funeral. The mood is tense. She stops in mid sentence and turns to hide within the depths of apse, saddened, bewildered, humiliated. Her brother reads her part for her as the priest concludes a job well done.
As brother and sister return to their pews, the priest continues the ceremony. For the next ten minutes the priest will explain in depth why he has chosen a particular colour of robe, a certain collection of candles, a specific type of incense – and the meaning behind each one. He will speak about the church building’s history, and the important role that donations have played in the upkeep of such a magnificent construction. With each of the priest's movements comes the reflection of light, shimmering off his white robe and purple sash – as he smiles at the mourners for how he believes that God’s glory is truly demonstrated in this place.
He will also speak briefly about a grandmother recently passed, but only insomuch as how she too assisted in the upkeep of the building through her donations.
When he finishes the drawn-out presentation, he prays. The congregation, being Catholic in majority, knows to pull down the prie-dieu benches from the pew in front of them. The rest follow suit. After the prayer and a castrato-like song that follows, the priest invites the young woman to come share her eulogy now that the ceremony is properly concluded and the time is now “appropriate”. Still in tears, she can hear the whispers of family members around her encouraging her to stand. But the humiliation and defeat is now buried deep within her, boring into her courageous heart. A few moments pass. Her husband clenches his fist and stares at the priest as if to telepathically communicate a fury for injustice. The mood is somber yet tense and the church is silent.
Finally, an unexpected individual rises from the gathering: her father.
He appears calm as he walks to the front of the church, but struggles to steady his shaking voice and his trembling hands, and looks upon the face of his daughter. He squints as he forces a smile. “My daughter”, he begins, “wanted to say something about her grandmother. Perhaps she still will.” He takes a deep breath A man better known for guarded feelings and stoic reactions, somehow finds the strength of character to reach deep within himself to express to a host of onlookers what his daughter cannot. His words are soft-spoken and delicately thought out as he slowly commences an improvised eulogy. A few minutes pass before he too breaks into unchecked emotion and cannot find the words – as his spirit cracks in the crux of the holy edifice. He, more than anyone else, is left surprised at how his stoic shell is not enough to contain the power of this moment.
His son then rises, walks assuredly over to his father and hugs him. He places his hand on his father and urges him to continue. The father indeed continues, finishes his eulogy, and not a dry eye is left in the building. If the audience now thinks it will find respite from the surge of emotion, they are mistaken, for the father then motions to his daughter to approach. In a moment of pure strength, she doesn’t wait for the permission of the priest: he holds no authority over this moment. This truth of this is felt in unison amongst the people. Instead he remains motionless, silent. She rises, written eulogy in hand, and upon joining her father, starts at the top of the page.
She reads words that bring light to a place of darkness, hope to a place of hopelessness, joy to a place of mourning.
This is story that happened a few years ago now. But in recent weeks, our Small Group has been attempting to unpack the complex topic of the state of the Church (in a global sense): stagnancy vs. movement.
When we look at the 1st Century Church, we see a body of believers engage into a movement prepared by, fueled by and led by the Spirit of God. Its a movement that history saw build disciples, mend the broken, heal the sick, and renew life in all things spiritually dead and dying. And yet, all too often when we look around at the movement of the Church, we find the exact opposite: a state of stagnancy.
Like a powerful and majestic Mustang that has been tamed, saddled and penned - the Church has found itself locked in an unnatural state of stagnancy. Once here, the world becomes smaller. Traditions trump reason. Grace is traded for a list of do's and don'ts. True heart transformation is replaced by behaviour modification. And the world occasionally visits our comfortable pens the way a family visits a zoo - interested to spectate and comment, but not to join in.
What has happened here? How did we get like this? It is a complex line of questioning to be sure, and no easy answer. But somewhere in the equation is the reality that: we've lost ourselves.
As a body of believers, as Christ-followers, disciple-makers, carries of the Cross...we've forgotten why we even meet on Sundays, or perhaps even more importantly, why we bother to identify as the Church on the other days. Perhaps "lost" is a misnomer. Perhaps the truth lies within the reality that we've traded, and traded poorly, the power of the Gospel for the that which is familiar.
No longer does the Mustang worry about wolves, bears or mountain lions but rather about when and what it will get fed. It has traded freely roaming the semi-arid hills of the Nevada grasslands for a bucket of oats and an occasional brushing.
What does this mean? From a very real story, it means that when faced with a mourning girl desiring to pour out her heart in a carefully written eulogy for her grandmother, the only official representative of the Church is faced with a choice: allow for an unexpected, unplanned and unwanted interruption break with the rituals of ceremony; or hold fast to that which he has planned for, expected and controls.
It may sound like an easier choice than it actually is. For most of us who grew up in the Protestant tradition, a breaking of Catholic funeral liturgy is little more than an afterthought. But there are times, that our own perspectives, traditions, dare I even say - dogmas - will come into a brash and violent conflict with the greater narrative that God is writing.
How do we respond? How will we?
There is, of course, the contrasting character of the father, who neither planned to, nor was emotionally prepared to, speak at his mother's funeral. And yet, the Gospel moved in the church that day, in part because he chose to join with the redemptive, sacrificial and fluid pace of that which was happening around him. As if the author of all creation had written on his heart, the very words he was given to speak.
Two men. Two very different ways of approaching the reality of the cross.
"But this is the way we've always done things," we say in protest. So be it But let us recognize that it is a poor response to the overwhelming power of the Gospel, neither moving to impress, nor to shelter itself in our traditions or denominational sensitivities. When we, as a body of believers, tie ourselves to anything but the Gospel itself, we become a slave of two masters - of both God and the things that will ultimately slow him down.
And He will not be slowed.
Instead, we need to recognize that the Gospel is here. It is real. And it is moving. We can either shed ourselves of that which could be called "mere distractions" as Lewis wrote, in joining the greater narrative that is happening all around us, moving, fluctuating, breathing as it does. Or we can seek comfort, shelter, acceptance and stagnancy en lieu of something greater.
Greater than we might even dare to experience.