Sunday, May 20, 2007

R.I.P.

I've been down with the flu most of this week but even that doesn't explain why I haven't had anything to say about the late Rev. Jerry Falwell. Apparently, I'm not alone. This is from Frank Lockwood's blog - he's the religion editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - and a new entry on my "must read" list:
Where's Barry Goldwater when we need him? It's hard to get people to speak ill of the dead, doggone it. Even when it's a controversial figure like the Rev. Jerry Falwell, people pull their punches when they're discussing the recently deceased. That probably reflects well on our sociey, on our humanity, on our basic decency. But it makes life hard for journalists. When Rev. Falwell passed away at age 73, I asked our two religion reporters to call the Moral Majority founder's Arkansas friends -- and some of his Arkansas detractors -- so we could write a good local reaction piece. I was looking for a piece that would be fair. And balanced. I figured it would be easy to get local Baptists to praise him. And it was. But finding folks who would criticize him wasn't easy. We called a highly-regarded local Jewish leader. He offered kind words. "Obviously his faith path was rather different from mine, but I think of how many people he turned to God," Rabbi Jacob Adler of Temple Shalom in Fayetteville told reporter Christie Storm. Reporter Laura Brown phoned a gay pastor who disagreed with the Lynchburg televangelist on a laundry list of items. But he only offered gentle criticism. “I always saw Jerry as my brother in Christ, although I think it would have been very hard on him to call me his brother,” said the Rev. Randy McCain, a gay man who pastors Open Door Community Church in Sherwood. Read the whole blog entry - and a lot of other great stuff - at http://www.biblebeltblogger.com/biblebelt/2007/05/wheres_barry_go.html#more
It'd be so easy to take shots at the guy. And for the first couple days after I heard Falwell died, I wrote those blog entries in my head. But I just couldn't do it. And I've decided that it's more than just a case of hearing mom in my head saying, "If you can't say anything nice..." There's something theological going on here, too. Here's what finally came to me: Somebody had to preach his funeral sermon. What if it'd been me?? In the parish, I had to preach lots of funeral sermons for people I knew weren't very nice people. And even more of them for people I never knew at all. But, good or bad, they all got more or less the same sermon from me. It went something like this: First, I'd have spent time talking with the deceased's family & friends (we'll say it's a "him") and I'd have gathered up as many good stories as I could. That's how I'd open the sermon. I wouldn't lie or make things up. If they didn't say he was a "loving father," I wouldn't say it. I wouldn't idealize the guy. But I'd give them back the good stuff they gave me. There was always something. Then, after doing right by the guy, I'd pause...and smile...and say something like, "But as many good things as there were about [name goes here], we all know he wasn't perfect." Some of them would sort of shrug their shoulders and nod at me, as if to say, "Well, you got that right." I'd keep smiling at them until they all smiled back. Even those most determined to make this guy a saint would have to agree. You see, I would have heard those stories, too. And, as gently as I could, I'd give them back the bad stuff. "He had a temper...he worked too much...he was a divider when he could have been such a uniter (oops, that's Jerry's sermon)...etc." There was always something. And, finally, I'd give them the good news. I'd read one of a thousand stories from the Bible about how God's grace and forgiveness and mercy and love comes to us all, and especially to those who least deserve it. I'd read, for example, the earliest Gospel account of Jesus' resurrection. From Mark 16, the women go to the tomb very early on the first day of the week only to find the stone has been rolled away. There is a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting there; and the women are afraid. But he tells them not to be, that Jesus has been raised from the dead. And then, remarkably, he says, "Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you." Go tell his disciples and Peter...you know, the louts who deserted and betrayed him. The numbskulls who never quite got anything right, including this. How many times did Jesus warn them about what was coming and promise them that it would be ok?! And when the final exam came, they couldn't have been more unprepared. They couldn't have been more wrong. They couldn't have disappointed or wounded Jesus more. Go tell them that Jesus is alive! Go tell them that love lives and that all is forgiven and that he is waiting for them on the other end. Here's the truth, I'd say at the big conclusion of this little sermon, when the gates of heaven flew open this week...it was NOT because Jerry was such a good guy. It was because Jerry belongs to such a great God. Herein lies the problem...the reason I haven't had anything to say about the Rev. Falwell this week...and, I suspect, the reason Mr. Lockwood had a hard time finding anyone to say a cross word about him: It's hard to kick a guy, no matter how much of a creep you think he was, when you can picture him standing face to face with the One who loves us all. Damn.

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The Bottom Line

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love becomes slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." - Galatians 5:13-14