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Last week I presided over my sixteenth funeral since taking up post as pastor of Second CRC two and a half years ago. The fifteenth funeral had taken place two weeks prior. Funerals come in batches, it seems, especially when the dreariness of a Midwest winter sets in.
The fifteenth funeral – and six others before it –concluded with military honors. I had never experienced a military service before coming to Second. In my southern Ontario CRC community, most people old enough to have served in World War II would have done so as Dutch citizens. And there aren’t many in our circles who have been involved in more recent conflicts. A quick google search for “Canadian Military Funerals” comes up with a few government websites, but not a whole lot of information as to what this service actually looks like. My only experience of military honors was therefore what I saw on West Wing or NCIS.
Now I have a unique vantage point for these ceremonies, sitting up on the stage, facing the congregation, having just concluded the religious service. I watch as the rifle guard processes down to salute the casket, then march to their posts just outside the front doors. I watch the color guard meticulously unfold the flag and hold it taut. I can see who in the congregation is saluting the flag and am always surprised at the number of veterans in the room. I see the bugle player standing just outside the door as he plays Taps, and I see the tears streaming down the faces of the family in the front row. Facing the doors, I’m slightly more prepared for the guns to fire than everyone else. I follow each honor guard member as they shuffle out of the pew to salute the coffin, hands raised and dropped in interminable slowness. Interminable slowness seems to define military services, actually. Precision, purpose, and reverence are the orders of the day. Nothing is to be rushed.
As I watched these rituals unfold a couple weeks ago, I thought of a passage in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, another funeral of sorts. The Rev. John Ames recalls being with his father one day as the community cleaned up a burned down church. People worked in a warm rain as they hauled off the intact pulpit, made piles of the once-pew kindling, and dug for Bibles and hymnals, all the while singing familiar hymns and shooing children out of the way.
Ames says, “When they had gathered up all the books that were ruined, they made two graves for them, and put the Bibles in one and the hymnals in the other, and then the minister whose church it was – a Baptist, as I recall – said a prayer over them. I was always amazed, watching grownups, at the way they seemed to know what was to be done in any situation, to know what was the decent thing.”
It was that final line I thought of as I watched these men, one hand raised in salute, the other gripping a cane, honor their comrade. This was the decent thing. These actions and movements and slow, steady, purposeful rituals that have been shared by thousands of men and women across the country, throughout the decades.
I thought about this line again as I watched clips of the basketball games played on Sunday afternoon just hours after the news of Kobe Bryant’s death. The Rockets and Nuggets held extended moments of silence before the game. The Spurs and Raptors, and Pelicans and Celtics each took 24-second shot clock violations in tribute to Kobe’s No. 24 jersey. Other teams took 8-second backcourt violations as a nod to Kobe’s No. 8 jersey. It was a way to honor one of their own, someone who meant so much to the game, so much to them. It was the decent thing to do.
I don’t watch basketball. I know the name Kobe Bryant but I wouldn’t have been able to tell you what team he played for. But darned if I didn’t tear up watching these tributes being paid around the country on Sunday afternoon.
I’m also not an American. I feel a little awkward at these funerals as I hold my hand over my heart when the flag is presented. But I have yet to make it through a military funeral without crying.
And I think this is in part because we can recognize when something is the decent thing to do, and there’s something moving about decency. In a world where we often feel like we’re muddling through, trying to do the right thing, not wanting to offend, constantly sorting through information and trying to make informed decisions and figuring out how to live together, there’s something beautiful about the rituals we share, the rituals we’ve agreed on, the rituals that just feel right. When we can be a part of something together, regardless of our opinions or ideologies, as we honor someone, or something, or some place, that brought us all together.
“Strange are the uses of adversity,” Ames writes, paraphrasing Shakespeare. “I remember my father down on his heels in the rain, water dripping from his hat, feeding me biscuit from his scorched hand, with that old blackened wreck of a church behind him…Grief itself has often returned me to that morning, when I took communion from my father’s hand. I remember it as communion, and I believe that’s what it was.”
My first funeral was a terrifying ordeal, but I’ve now come to appreciate funerals immensely. In part because I get to preach about resurrection hope. And because I love ham buns and Ryke’s cake. But also because for that forty minutes, we get to participate in a decent thing. A ritual that time has tested as the right thing to do. And for that moment, we get to be in communion with one another, and the saints who have gone before us, and the God who uses adversity in strange, and sweet, ways.
Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (New York: Picador, 2004), 94, 96
William Shakespeare, As You Like It. “Sweet are the uses of adversity which, like the toad, ugly and venomous, wears yet a precious jewel in his head.”