I’ve performed more than a hundred funerals, some were for people I knew, some were for important people, some had committed suicide, some had overdosed on drugs, others were for people who didn’t have a church, or a home, or even a family; all deserved the decency of a proper burial, and a prayer of blessing as they face the great beyond, the end and beginning.
This is why I shy away from traditional imagery of heaven and hell: because all good theology comes from pastoral concern, and if in pastoral concern for a grieving family and the soul of a deceased individual, my only thought and aim is the steadfast love of the Lord which never ceases, I will myself only declare a blessing, since “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
Practical confessional theology is the opposite of what we do in theological forums, seminaries, and papers: Diabolical theology (thank you Helmut Theilicke for that language). Practical confessional theology is the basic thoughts and constructs of the average person as they relate to things beyond themselves. Religion is not necessary for a practical confessional theology, but certainly in the absence of Practical confessional theology, (certainly in the presence of Diabolical theology) religion will and should decline.
But something still joins us together at the hip, we are at the graveside, I have discovered, despite our differences, unwillingly at times, united in our joint humanity - or at-least our joint mortality. And at the grave we realize that nobody goes with us through that dark gate, no friend can hold our hand beyond its threshold, no guide comes over and carries us across, and the image of the river Styx becomes deep dark, rough and very very lonely.
A colleague and friend nicknamed me “Papa Defunto” because of all the funerals I had done, but being around death has lead to some profound realizations about life. We as human beings are lonely. We long to not be lonely, and we at the same time face our existential loneliness constantly in our relational failures, our attempts at intimacy, and ultimately in the news of another death.
Death steals our hope of ever not being alone.
Being “born again” or saying the “sinners prayer” may be what “Christianity” is about, but that’s not what Jesus was about. Jesus said “Lo I am with you always” “If you remain in me and I remain in you” words that indicate not only communion, but that we cannot ever truly be alone.
I have yet to find widespread evidence to contradict my personal thought that most people have this; that Jesus is with everyone whether they know it or not, and in thinking that - I then have to act and suggest to people that he is, and that they learn to listen and feel and act, like one who has the power of deity within them, that they too are the incarnation.
I’m not afraid of heresy, the long tale of orthodoxy leads us down a path to the institutionalization and decline of a faith that once made lepers clean and blind men see. Instead I start my own theology with the heresy of orthodoxy, and the necessity for personal faith to be heterodox to some degree - giving people encouragement not to settle for being alone, but to learn how to be alive.
My funeral meditations are short and I’ve mixed and matched them to the point that I’ve got all the talking points memorized - beyond the occasional mistake saying the lords prayer or the hail Mary, the themes that we turn to from our own hearts at death are probably the themes we should live our entire life by:
Job: God is my friend and advocate, he will not turn his back on me.
David: God does not despise me, his love is unfailing, and I cannot do anything to be separated from his loving presence
Jeremiah: The Steadfast Love of the Lord never ceases and his mercies never come to an end, they are new every morning, because of his great faithfulness to me.
Paul: We frail broken pots have a treasure which is God’s presence within us, it is the light God called for on day one of creation, not he sun, not the stars, but the presence of God in our hearts
John: God wants to be where we are, and while he requests we trust him, he tells us that we already know the way
David: Even though I walk through this dark valley overshadowed on one side by doubt and despair, and on the other side by presumptuous traps, I walk through the valley, because it is only there that the streams of life giving water nourish the meadows and feed my soul, refreshing me and giving me strength to move on.
Hebrews: We have a great cloud of witnesses who watch our every step, cheering for us to do what they could only dream of, so lets not put it off any longer.
David: I can’t help, but lift my eyes up to the source of my help, because deep down I know that I could not have made it if someone had not been with me.
Paul: Love never fails/ends, every other thing we do or try will eventually be silenced, but love transcends death, and cannot be silenced.
And so the “Other” that takes away our loneliness is accessible, but identifying “others” will only distance ourselves and make us more alone - perhaps that is the ultimate outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
John lays out a very interesting prescription in 1 John 1: 5-8 - its not about prayers or religiosity, its simply about being real: If we are real and walk in the light of our realness, displaying to others that which we are afraid they might think we are, and if they do this same thing, THEN we will enjoy a sort of intimacy, togetherness, fellowship with both them, AND with God, and it is only in this intimacy that we can understand the cleansing that takes place, where our dark dirty spots are cleaned, forgiven and overlooked - and we are ultimately not alone.
Intimacy is the one thing that most acutely threatens us. Sexual intimacy having the potential to be the most intense and transcendent experience of this between consenting adults, and so we are most threatened in our own security by the notion of sexuality, and our participation. We have invented ways to demonize its expression, and as highlighted by the worlds oldest profession, it has always been the bridge between our constructed reality and our loneliness.
I believe in ethics, and so in our search for intimacy, our quest to not be alone, I believe we MUST do only that which we would permit all others to do, and I believe in situational ethics - that in some places and times circumstances would permit all people to act differently than at other places and times. We thus do not copulate in public, not because of a moral obligation, but an ethical one. We do not force ourselves upon the objects of our desire, not because it is immoral, but because we would not want to be forced upon by another.
The Pedophile is the example then, of someone who by profile seeks intimacy but unable to find it in adults, in violation of the ethical reasonableness of their actions seeks to construct a false intimacy with someone who cannot comprehend the issues of intimacy and ethics yet. Pedophilia, is the gravest form of ethical abuse, because it doesn’t take away the right of the other, but pre-empts it.
During the priest abuse sex scandal much was written about the profile of the pedophiliac, and their modus operandi. In my own experience and from studying criminal justice, I understand the basic fact that sexual arousal patterns are moldable and fluid. At some point we cement ourselves in our loneliness, seeking objects rather than “others,” for any offer of intimacy is an irresistible grace.
I’m not above irresistible grace, beautiful objects of desire, intimacy implied or imitated draws my eyes and anyone else who is honest. While ladies on a screen scream intimacy to our dopamine receptors, it is only true intimacy that we really seek. Sexual experience is no guarantee of this as evidenced by the rise of groups like the Oneida colony in the nineteenth century. Depriving ourselves of sexual experience likewise is no cure: It’s a declaration that sex, and its accompanying intimacy and relationship are too dangerous because of the risks that they will not fulfill our expectations.
And herein lies the issue of sexuality: it will always disappoint, because it is temporary at best, it is flawed, and we are bad lovers. But only by practice can we get better, and in getting better can we find our faults, and in finding our faults and nakedly writhing in the light of another, do we find that shred of dignity and intimacy that says: “Real intimacy exists, and you are on the path.”
Physical gratification at the expense of another rapes us of our own souls; but in the angst and anger and passion of need, this is often how we fulfill ourselves, no better than the criminal we condemn. But withholding beauty and vulnerability, putting up our shell perpetuates the lie in our minds that we have to take what we want, because nobody will give us what we need.
Luther said “sin boldly” and forgive my short reference, but he meant this very point. Peter tells us Paul is difficult to understand, because Paul himself was a tormented soul. He knew that the thorn he had was put there by God, and he knew he was the worst among sinners, but he also knew that there was a freedom. We can guess at Pauls freedom, or his thorn, but that is our hurting pornographic tendency - rather we have to identify our own thorn, our own freedom, and struggle through the torment - pressing on as if to win the prize.
I believe that sexual ethics and morality have been forever distorted by the people who were supposed to be its guardians and champions. St. Augustine, the Church, the Reformers, the Puritans, and especially Evangelicals. Our reaction against the propagation of a lie is to swing in the other direction. We are hurt by strong women so we seek weak ones. We are hurt by men, so we avoid them. We were told our appeal to another brought us our pain, so we hide behind habits of frumpiness, or make ourselves inaccessible and undesirable. We find ourselves hurt and rejected as social outcasts, so we find a way to come out as an insider of a different caste. For whatever reason that drives us to where we end up, our task remains the same - and it is not to become some idyllic Adam and Eve - but to honestly and ethically pursue the intimacy that is in front of us where we are.
That’s harder than it sounds. And some readers are flinching. Some readers are angry now that I’ve seemingly endorsed abhorrent behavior. And right now every reader is envisioning in their head some pornographic vision of a sex act - wipe the smirk from your face, the indignation from your voice and rise up to join the human race.
I’m coming out as a human being, deeply flawed, and wanting intimacy - I don’t want to be alone anymore. Forget what you’ve been told, what you believe, your notions of history and morality - and walk with the one who calls you by your true name.