Within the last week, I've been to two funerals.
As Kurt Vonnegut wrote over and over again in Slaughterhouse-Five, so it goes.
One funeral was for a 97-year-old member of my congregation. There were wonderful stories, great remembrances of her zesty life, laughter, tears, scripture, hymns -- everything that helps a community of faith accompany someone to the edge of mystery. The service was in our sanctuary, where this fabulous woman had spent a lot of time over her decades of membership.
The other service was for the 40-year-old son of a friend -- a friend my wife and I happened to be with in the hospital just when her husband died there in the mid-1990s.
At her son's service, there were wonderful stories, great remembrances of his zesty life, tears, scripture and special music the son himself had chosen. There was, however, nothing I would call a community of faith to accompany the young man to the edge of mystery.
Instead, there was an eclectic collection of people who were connected with his life in various ways -- from the Boy Scout troop he helped to lead to people who knew his mother through her work at a hospital. As his mother explained -- and as I knew from some conversations the son and I had had years ago -- he was a man who struggled with traditional faith, though he was in many ways a deeply spiritual fellow.
And the service was not in the sanctuary of a house of worship. It was, rather, in a funeral home in a small town on the edge of our metropolis. The space in which we all sat was neither special nor sacred to anyone. It was just utilitarian space.
That, compared with the service in the sanctuary of my congregation, left me feeling a bit sad and empty. Oh, we properly celebrated and gave thanks for this young man's life, but a theology of place was missing.
Well, until I reminded myself that all ground is holy ground -- even that on which sterile auditoriums of funeral homes are built.
* * *
Should pastors become close friends with members of their congregation? Probably not. And M. Craig Barnes, the new president of Princeton Theological Seminary, makes that case well in this piece. He's right that you can't be a pastor to someone as well as his or her close friend. It's a lesson that both clergy and parishioners need to remember. (Well, probably it's OK for clergy to be Facebook friends with parishioners, but as we all know being a FB friend requires no commitment at all. Heck, you don't even have to know your FB friends.)
* * *P.S.: My latest National Catholic Reporter column now is online. To read it, click here.