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A few years ago, I attended a workshop at the Calvin Worship Symposium presented by David Taylor, professor of theology and culture at Fuller Seminary. The workshop was titled “Everything I Learned about a Truly Christian Funeral Eulogy I Learned from a Science Fiction Novel.” If that’s not the greatest workshop title ever composed, I don’t know what is (and to understand the Science Fiction connection, it’s really worth listening to the presentation in full).
In his workshop, Taylor argued that the eulogy is the only non-Christian part of a Christian funeral. It is instead shaped by the Greco-Roman practice of speaking words to honor the dead, or by feel-good popular culture references. In the eulogy we tend to say only nice things about a person – we talk about his accomplishments, her way with her grandchildren, our fond memories at his house, or her unwavering faith in God. What we don’t talk about is how he spent more time at the office than at home, or the way she made her daughters-in-law feel unworthy of her sons, or the bottles that were discovered too often in a cabinet in his home office, or how she never made space for her children to ask hard questions about God.
Which makes sense. We want to remember the best about a person. We tend to dwell on those positive things when faced with grief and loss. No one wants to speak ill of the dead.
But, says Taylor, this makes the eulogy distinctly anthropological, not theological. It is the one moment in a Christian funeral that is only about a person, and not about God. For a eulogy to be about God, it has to be a good word. And a good word, says Taylor, “tells the truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth, so help us God.” It is a word that points us to God by illustrating how God’s grace showed up in a person’s life in so many ways, over and over again. It is a word by which the hearers are assured that their own lives, messy though they might be, are held by God. To speak such a good word means that we must – through carefully chosen and care-filled words – speak the truth about the dead. We can and should acknowledge that they were not perfect. We can speak about the hard things – the addictions, the doubts, the depression, the affair, the temper, the busyness – not from a place of vindictiveness or bitterness, but so that we might give thanks for God’s faithful love to his imperfect people. To speak truthfully about a person is thus to speak about a person in love, is to love them well.
I thought of Taylor’s presentation last week as I contemplated the national days of celebration in both Canada and the United States. And I wondered what it would look like to offer a truly Christian eulogy for our countries. Of course, our countries aren’t dead. But we always say we should give eulogies for people while they’re still alive to hear them, don’t we? So what if we did that for these lands we call home? What if our national days of celebration were framed as “a day to love our country well,” which meant that we spoke a good word about our country? Which then meant that we spoke a true word about our country?
This question felt particularly pertinent as Canadians entered a holiday week in the light of the painful and horrific discoveries of the unmarked graves of hundreds of Indigenous children who died while in residential schools. We were confronted with a history we’d sooner forget, with the reality of children being taken from their homes and communities and forced to adopt white culture, language, and religion. And so many went into the holiday wondering, “How can we celebrate our country while also acknowledging this legacy of pain?”
Some wanted to cancel the day altogether. Others observed the day but held no parades or fireworks. For some it was a day of mourning and reflection. But others said, “That was then, and it wasn’t my fault. Stop making us live in guilt.”
This is a refrain I hear often, both in Canada and in the States. “That was then.” “That’s not who we are as a country.” “Why can’t we just move on?” “Aren’t you grateful for this country?” “Don’t you love this country?” Most patriotic speeches have nary a whisper of the sins of the past.
It’s a dynamic that plays out, in our age of polarization, whenever we throw our support behind a person, an idea, a place, a thing: the belief that to show love is to show love unquestioningly. That we must simply ignore those things that make us uncomfortable for the sake of the greater good we believe is being achieved; that to acknowledge an imperfection would be an act of betrayal and capitulation to the other side; that to suggest there is room for improvement would be to lose whatever moral ground we’ve claimed.
And so our love becomes disordered, self-centered, and untruthful. But if we love a place – if we love it well – we will speak a good word about it. A word which acknowledges imperfections and points to God – not country – as the greatest good, a word which orders our loves properly and asks for God to reveal his kingdom in this place, to make us agents of shalom in this place, to help us steward grace in this place.
To be truthful – with careful and care-filled words – is not to be vindictive or bitter or despairing. It is to love well. It is to point to grace.
So I wonder what it would look like if we offered truly Christian eulogies on July 1 and July 4. If instead of speeches filled with platitudes and refrains of “the greatest country ever” and calls to unwavering patriotism, we gave thanks for the things we’re grateful for and lamented the things that need to be lamented. If we acknowledged our histories and asked, “How can we be better?” If we proclaimed, in astonished wonder, the ways in which God is at work in our communities and neighborhoods in marvelous and surprising fashion. And prayed, most of all, that God might continue to show us what it means to love place, community, neighbor, and country well, so that by our love the one who first loved us is praised.