Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Holding onto integrity

It's becoming more and more of a challenge nowadays to take funeral services where the person who has passed away has at best a nominal Christian faith but whose children have no faith. Recently I took a funeral where this was the case. In fact the next of kin I visited introduced herself as a humanist - a 'spiritual' one - but nevertheless a humanist. She explained that the reason I was involved was that it was thought that this best fulfilled her mother's wishes and reflected the generation she was from. When being given these two contradictory pieces of information I am never entirely sure how folk expect me to respond? Are they hoping that I will tone down the religious bit or avoid anything they would consider 'preachy'? Or are they trying to make the point that they have their own integrity and this is not for them but - albeit reluctantly - for mum? Or are they trying to provoke some kind of discussion about the existence or non-existence of God? I am never sure. But I was at least asked if I could read something from the Bible -which they acknowledged was a "wonderful piece of literature" (something I always find a little condescending) - but could I choose something that would reflect mum's love of creation (is this another example of a customer approach to funerals where I am 'hired' and therefore under contract?).

Before I continue, a word about integrity. The people I visit who talk about their integrity as unbelievers have already compromised that by calling me in to take the service. But they still in some way want me to respect their integrity at the expense of my own. Don't be "too religious" is another way of saying don't be religious at all because I don't believe in it. But just as they cannot compromise on theirs neither can I compromise mine. So far better all round, surely, would be to hire a humanist celebrant and be consistent with your own beliefs. (The fact that they charge over twice as much as a Minister of Religion should not come into it!). And don't worry about what mum or dad think because, according to your own set of beliefs, they are dead and gone along with any kind of continued consciousness or awareness.

Back to the funeral. Bearing in mind the above conversation I nevertheless took great pains to find a suitable reading and build my short address around it. The result is below and followed the much longer tribute that the family had written for the lady:

The following reading is from Genesis chapter 2 and is a summary of the account of creation we find in Chapter 1:

4 This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, when the Lord God made the earth and the heavens. 5 Now no shrub had yet appeared on the earth and no plant had yet sprung up, for the Lord God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no one to work the ground, 6 but streams came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground. 7 Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. 8 Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. 9 The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. 15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. 

Like N. my mother loved her garden. When I asked her why, her reply was to quote an old saying which I had already heard somewhere before: “You are closest to God in the garden.”

Why is that?
In the garden we see the beauty of the creation which reflects the beauty of God who the Bible says is light and love.
In the garden we see creativity, the creativity that reflects a person not blind chance.
Finally in the garden we see design, the work of the Divine Architect who is God.

My mother saw all those things in the plants she grew and in the beauty of the flowers, herbs and tress. Maybe N. sensed the same things. Maybe she too sensed the presence of God in the 
garden?

But the actual quote is slightly wrong and so in tribute to N. let me end by reading the poem by Dorothy Frances Gurney from which it is taken.
The Lord God planted a garden
In the first white days of the world,
And He set there an angel warden
In a garment of light enfurled.

So near to the peace of Heaven,
That the hawk might nest with the wren,
For there in the cool of the even
God walked with the first of men.

And I dream that these garden-closes
With their shade and their sun-flecked sod
And their lilies and bowers of roses,
Were laid by the hand of God.

The kiss of the sun for pardon,
The song of the birds for mirth,--
One is nearer God's heart in a garden
Than anywhere else on earth.

For He broke it for us in a garden
Under the olive-trees
Where the angel of strength was the warden
And the soul of the world found ease.

Now I have to concede that I had made an obvious point about there being a Creator and had given three simple proofs about His existence - the presence of beauty, creativity and design - but I deliberately tried not to be too preachy (although it is my calling to "preach the Gospel" and convince people about the truth of God's existence. This is following my own integrity!). After the service the family were grateful for the service, someone asked for a copy of the poem and generally it seemed to have gone okay. But one member of the family shook my hand and thanked me for the service and felt constrained to add "apart from the religion".  And this illustrates my point. How can I, a clergyman, whose whole calling and raison d'etre is to preach the Gospel, pray prayers, read the Bible in public and commit a deceased person into the hands of Almighty God, have done anything except mention God? Isn't the salvation of lost souls important to me? How loving would it have been therefore to have not taken whatever opportunity I had to persuade people of the folly and danger of their rejection of God? How does that reflect a loving God whose own Son took the step of dying on a cross to save them? Okay he may have seen my reference to God making the world as a slight dig at his humanist views - and if I am honest it was, kind of, in a gentle way - but to expect me to be less than I am when I have been brought in to take a religious service is surely asking too much.

But this is the way things are going right now in the funeral world. Goodness knows I am glad the days have gone where the only mention of the deceased person was their name inserted wherever the prayer book put an N. in the passages or the prayers. It is only right and fitting that something be said about what the person meant to family and friends etc. But the pendulum is swinging the other way and I can see a growing call for more services which are humanistic and religion-less as people want it to be more and more about them and the deceased than about the Creator who gave them life in the first place.

Personally I think this is a good thing as everyone's integrity will then be upheld and we can make a more clear distinction between a Christian funeral and a humanist one. I can turn up to arrange a funeral knowing that we are all "singing from the same hymn-book" (excuse the pun) and not feel under pressure to conform to something I don't believe in.

But that is still a long way off. People being who they are, and despite the growth of atheism in Britain, still seem to want to hang on to hope of an afterlife of some sort or a plan that promises them a happy ending to their lives. Very very few people want to acknowledge that mum and dad have gone forever and they won't be seen again. Even among those who say they are "not religious" there is still a belief that mum is an angel in (a God-less) heaven, or even more weirdly, a star in the sky. Dad will still, somehow, be always there with them or watching over or looking after them. The tide may be going out for now leaving debris for the likes of me to trip over but I believe it will turn again. But then I would believe that wouldn't I!

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