Recently I was reintroduced to the type of Christianity that I had completely forgotten existed.
I sat on the pew of a funeral home chapel, surrounded by close and distant friends, to honor the life of Justin Whittington.
For some ignorant reason, as I followed my mapquest directions to a location on the nethermost side of Prattville, I prepared myself for a funeral service like the ones I've always been to. I expected to hear words of comfort, to sing gentle songs of hope, and to close my eyes and pray for Justin's peace.
I knew something was wrong as soon as I pulled into the parking lot. Outside the funeral home, there to pay respect to their friend who had died from cancer, were more than a dozen people puffing away on cigarettes. It seemed an outright slap in the face that so many young, healthy people would stand around willingly sucking the lives out of themselves when Justin had fought so valiantly for his.
We walked inside, hugged, sniffled, and when Sarah Beth arrived she began to cry in such a way that started a chain reaction. Tissues everywhere. We wandered slowly around and looked at pictures from his childhood and we even laughed a little at some of the more precious ones. Then we went in and took seats inside the chapel.
I shouldn't limit my outrage to the fact that I'm Episcopalian. I dare say most of my Church of Christ friends from childhood would have been equally offended and horrified by the choice of hymns, the tone of voice, and the downright exploitation of the death of our friend. Some fat, slow-speaking men in cheap suits with offensively thick Southern accents decided to literally ram doctrine into our faces. [If you'd known Justin, reader, you would understand how little sense it made.]
I was reeling, offended, and felt a wash of negativity roll over me at a time when everyone in the room, myself included, was seeking solace, peace, and comfort. I failed to see why anyone would subscribe to this awful version of following Christ and, more importantly, why they would see fit to lambaste an unsuspecting, mourning crowd with it.
When I think of Christianity, I don't think of these types of people playing hard, mathematical piano music to equally depressing hymns. I think of my peaceful, laid back church - full of loving, happy people - and the peace and joy that swells within me as we all hug and pass the peace each Sunday. I think of my stoic, gentle grandmother with her head bowed in choir robes as she walks in the procession. I think of the babies who yammer during the Eucharist and of their young parents looking back sheepishly and apologetically, not realizing that their children just put a smile on everyone's faces.
I realize that because I have this version of Christ in my life that I completely forgot that a negative sort existed. Of course, this should completely explain my ardent confusion when people are so hostile toward Christianity itself.
I leaned over to my friend and said, "Justin would have hated this" just as the preacher was explaining "this is what Justin would have wanted - he would have wanted us to say these things to you today at the hope that the end of his life could bring someone new to Jesus." The audacity made my face burn and a new, different sort of tears well up in my eyes. We both said, "no he wouldn't" just audibly enough to elicit agreement from the people around us. We were all floored.
She leaned over to me, pointed, and said "this is your faith, too" and I almost hit her. No it is not I horse-whispered.
Here was a time set aside for remembering the life of a person and also for giving love and comfort to each other. His girlfriend and her father were given time to stand and say wonderful things - she even played his favorite song by Journey. During their words and throughout the song we smiled; thank goodness there were at least a few moments of genuine respect. Thank goodness someone actually paid attention and knew what Justin would have wanted at his service.
I hesitated before writing about this for a number of reasons. I didn't want to say something negative about Justin's funeral service at the possibility that someone might infer that I was saying something negative about his wonderful, long-suffering, loving family and friends or, worst of all, Justin himself. I am not.
I was certainly not the only one who walked out of that chapel feeling far more downtrodden than when we had entered. Talking about his life later over drinks, telling stories, laughing - that was where we finally gained our catharsis... which is the way I think Jesus would have preferred it anyway.