Today I attended the funeral of a senior member of my Christian church community. Our pastor asked me to look after the final prayer because of my long relationship with the man.
It was a privilege to help those there to acknowledge and thank God for the deceased’s life and the way Christian faith had shaped his life. His family and church friends recognised some attractive reflections of Jesus in him: the faithfulness of his lifelong and loving relationship with his late wife who by their children’s common view had several complex “issues” and lacked Christian faith; the generosity of a life of service, first to his family settling in a new country, then working as a window cleaner till age 68, and finally volunteering with the Royal Society for the Blind for almost 15 years (which gave him an Order of Australia Membership); and finally the quiet and strong but good-humoured Christian faith which gave him stability and standards throughout his life.
It was a wonderful thing to be asked to bring all this together and to thank God for the real difference Christian character shaped by faith can make.
A month ago I attended another funeral, also of a long-time friend, but with much of the above missing in his life. No integrating belief other than in having a good time. A man who loved his wife but whose children and friends had nothing much to say at his funeral other than that he’d had a lot of fun, had a lot of “toys” and had done a lot of travel. It’s not necessary to say more than this.
Also on my mind at present are two sets of parents, again one Christian and the other agnostic, each of whom are seeing one of their children go through a hellish time in their battle against cancer. Through much of my life I have given pastoral care and support to people of all ages and stages of life, in church, hospital and elder-care contexts, but I have never had to work with people going through what these two families are with their men. Again, I need say no more.
But once again, I have been deeply affected by the contrast in the pastoral support I can give. In some respects what I can do is similar. In the face of an aggressive malignancy and no-holds-barred treatment, everyone feels just so very helpless, vulnerable and angry. Whatever our personal beliefs, when serious illness or disability strike, there is nothing we can say to change the present, and we have no knowledge of the future prospects.
But when Christian faith is part of the situation, there is something to build on. Not that I can prove God, Jesus’ resurrection or what the Bible says about my future. But the Christian story does offer a bigger picture, a standard by which to measure our lives, a framework for discussing the meaning of good and wrong, life and death, God and myself and the judge of goodness and truth, and a coherent collection of pictures and promises to reassure and comfort.
I believe what I suspect most fair-minded people believe: that faith is just that: the result of our decision to trust and build on somebody or something bigger than me. I have had a wonderful marriage of almost 44 years and have enjoyed safe and harmonious family life from birth. How so? My parents were God-honouring Christian people who despite their imperfection were able to pass on their way of integrating their faith, life and work. In Helen I met somebody of like background and we’ve committed ourselves to love, respect and trust each other – just as we did God.
As I’ve grown up I too have learnt that life is complex! Today even more than before, I have wanted to be fair-minded, honest, understanding and accepting. This has sometimes caused me to feel something of an outsider among more “strong-minded” Christians, but I’ve also been heartened by people who value honesty, openness, passion, depth, and respect.
One thing more than anything else has continually puzzled and saddened me – although I also suspect I understand the answer.
Why do so many people decline or reject a faith relationship with God as we know God through the life and teaching of Jesus Christ? Why choose to live with our values and life goals set not by the God of Jesus Christ, and rather by chance, fate, or a commitment to uncertainty or a lack of commitment to anything other than self? Why do people allow themselves to stumble over the sometimes loud and ugly imperfection of Christ’s followers and close their mind to the strong positive impact Jesus Christ and his many dedicated followers have had on our world and personal lives?