Listen To Article
by David Pettit
He remembered that they were but flesh, a wind that passes and does not come again. Psalm 78:39
“I write eulogies,” he said. “I have a book of eulogies.” We were sitting at lunch for the first time. He sat tall with a smug grin. I was a little taken back. I had, up to that point, associated eulogies with funerals and death. He followed his boast with a little chortle that struck me a bit morbid and odd. He, who would become my friend, pastor, and mentor, said that he would often write someone’s eulogy the first time he met them. He had an intuitive ability to put his finger on the pulse of a story; on the themes that can express something of what a life had been about, and where God’s presence and grace had been at work. He’s eulogizing me right now, I thought.
As pastors we are trained to interpret the scriptures, to think theologically, and to know our way around the book of church order. I have come to realize, however, that one of the most important interpretive tasks we are called upon to perform, and for which most seminary grads are least prepared, is to encapsulate a life, and to do it in the presence of that person’s family, friends, and co-workers. We stand up, smugly grin, and eulogize. But who can speak a life’s truth? Who can name the events that shaped it, or how God’s presence and purposes can be understood amidst those murky waters.
Eulogizing and interpreting the scriptures are, in my view, quite similar projects. They both require close reading. I am a Ph.D. student studying the Hebrew Bible, and what I love about those narratives is the Bible’s propensity for mixed characters. The Bible often lacks the pietistic paintbrush that the churches of my youth employed in order to talk about people of faith. And what is the Bible but a book of eulogies? Stories about people who have passed; stories that attempt to say ascribe to those lives meaning; to purport how we are to understand events. These biblical narratives attempt to express something of how God was present and how God’s purposes were being accomplished in the midst of the muddy circumstances of life, community, nation, and world. They are stories that somehow shape the responses of those who even now enter into them.
We never tell stories objectively. It is never truly about what those events meant. We tell stories to say something about what they mean, in the present perspective. It is in the re-telling and in the writing down that stories of ancient people and events get shaped into the biblical stories we have become familiar with. What is more, we read those narratives and we retell those stories to say something about our context, our lived experience and our attempts to understand what it all means. Can we find the trace of God’s grace and purposes in the murky waters of our lives, community, nation and world? It’s why we study, and why we sermonize. It’s also why we eulogize.
On these summer Sundays, I invite you to think about lives and what they have meant. To think not with a pietistic paintbrush, but to read carefully, in between the lines, and to discern how God’s gracious purposes might be present in the midst of life’s mixed realities—in the lives of characters whom we love, sometimes dislike, and about whom we are often called upon to say something meaningful.
“I hope to write my own story someday,” he said a number of years later. “Someday, before it is all over. I hope I can say at some point what this journey of mine has all been about.” An honest reader knows that ultimately, we read for ourselves—so we can sort out our own path; to experiment with perspectives and values. We want to be able to say something about what this life has been about. We want to say something about who God is—not God beheld alone on a mountaintop, but the portrait of God that emerges from the murky depths of our stories.
David Pettit is a minister in the Reformed Church in America, currently serving Calvary Presbyterian Church in Denver, Colorado, and pursuing doctoral studies in Hebrew Bible at the University of Denver.