Funerals the way I learned them 60 years ago

September 11, 2014

Second in a series on rituals at the time of death

Funeral Liturgy in "Christian Worship: A Service Book," 1953

Funeral Liturgy in “Christian Worship: A Service Book,” 1953

My first instructions on doing funerals came in 1954 early in my theological studies at the School of Religion, Butler University. My teacher was O. L. Shelton, dean and professor of church administration. Prior to coming to his faculty position, Shelton had been pastor of a Kansas City church with 2,500 members. His instruction was firmly grounded in practical experience.

Although I was barely into my 20s, about half of the class were returning to school on the G.I. bill. Some had been pastors prior to serving in World War II and already had been doing funerals. Others were like me, with virtually no experience with death and little knowledge of what should take place in the rituals with which the church marked the passing of people from this life into the next.

Shelton was a skillful teacher whose pastoral experience infused his classroom instruction. Whatever our previous practices might have been, we were inclined to listen carefully to his practical and sensitive guidance. My work as pastor and my early years of teaching as Shelton’s successor (twice removed) were influenced by his counsel. Five of the principles he taught have remained in my memory.

First, base your funeral practice on one of the patterns you find in a published book of worship. Since many of my classmates were Methodist, that meant they should use the funeral materials in the Methodist Ritual. For the majority of us in the Christian Church/Disciples of Christ tradition, the book he recommended was the recently published Christian Worship: A Service Book, edited by G. Edwin Osborn. My copy, which I bought on November 16, 1955,, still bears the marks of the many times that I used it during my years of pastoral service.

Second, the sermon in the service should lift up one of the classic themes of life and death as proclaimed by the Christian faith rather than be a eulogy describing the life of the person whose funeral is being conducted.

Third, and this point is a direct follow-up of the second idea, the service should consist of scripture readings, music, sermon, and prayers. In fact, and this was an idea that surprised me but which I was willing to accept on his authority, it is unnecessary even to mention the name of the deceased in the service. As I remember his explanation, funerals had become events in which “people were being preached into heaven” and this was not their purpose.

The purpose of funerals, and this is the fourth point as I remember Shelton’s class, was twofold: to remember the deceased and to comfort the bereaved. This, he believed, could best be done by offering carefully composed, standardized prayers; hence the emphasis upon rituals in the recommended books of worship.

Fifth, funerals should be brief, never more than half an hour in length. This word of advice seemed to be consistent with what people mentioned to me when we would talk about a funeral for a loved one had died. One of the few requests they would make was, “Keep it brief.”

Normal practice for the funerals I conducted and others that I attended was for the casket to be present in the front of the congregation. When the funeral itself was over, the pastor would go to the head of the casket and the congregation would file past for their last viewing of the deceased. Then, the family and some others would drive in procession to the cemetery for a brief committal service and the first part of the actual burial.

One of the few items that students would discuss vigorously was whether the procession past the open casket in the church should be allowed. The preferred opinion was that the open casket and procession should be suppressed, on the grounds that their primary purpose was to display the embalmer’s skill.

At one of my first funerals, I came to a different point of view. The deceased was a village legend because of his mildly raucous ways. During the procession, his longtime buddy, stopped and with tear-filled eyes grasped and held the hands of his friend. It was one of the tenderest gestures I have ever seen in all of my pastoral experience.

Dr. Shelton was a persuasive teacher, and I continue to affirm part of what he taught me so long ago—especially his emphasis upon the funeral as a time to express a classic Christian theme about the meaning of life.

Almost from the beginning, however, I found myself demurring from the aggressive impersonalization of funeral services. Something more personal, it seemed to me, was needed.







Rituals at the time of death: Introducing a new series

September 2, 2014
Flowers at a Fresh Grave

Flowers at a Fresh Grave

No part of Christian liturgical practice in the United States has changed as radically as rituals when people die. As pastor, seminary professor, and family member I have given careful attention to this topic, gradually coming to significant changes of mind.

The death of my wife, Billie Lee Caton Watkins, on August 12, 2014, after 62 years of marriage and eight years with metastatic breast cancer, made it necessary to cut through conflicting ideas and practices in order to solemnize and celebrate her life in this world and to proclaim our faith that “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”

As summer draws to a close, I intend to resume regular postings on my blog with a series of columns in which I explore the changing patterns concerning funerals in ecumenical Protestant churches, outline the conclusions that I am reaching, raise questions for discussion, and suggest ideas for pastoral practice among liberal Christians in our time.

The first step in this process will be to repost previous blogs on this topic. In this way, I will refresh my own remembrance of what I have been thinking in the past two or three years. I will continue my reading of current literature that bears upon this subject and report on this material.

I welcome contributions to this ongoing series from readers of this blog. By reflecting upon our personal and pastoral experience, theological reflection, and liturgical practice, we can help our churches and their members come to renewed and healthful practices at the time that death comes.


An engaging primer on the Christian life

July 3, 2014

Sharon FrontSharon Watkins is the first woman to lead an American mainline denomination, having served for nine years as General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). She also was the first woman to preach at the National Prayer Service, delivering the sermon on the day after President Barack Obama’s first inauguration.

Early in her administration as her church’s presiding minister, a visioning team developed an identity statement that expresses the central character of this church as it understands itself in this tumultuous era of history.

We are Disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. As part of the Body of Christ, we welcome all to the Lord’s Table as God has welcomed us.

In a new book, Watkins interprets this statement in a highly personal way. The book, writes Robert Welsh, “begins and ends with personal stories and vignettes centered upon the key concepts that give us [Disciples] our identity as a faith community.”

Although I have read the book, both in earlier drafts and in its published version, I do not plan to review the book. As father of the author, I would not be able to offer a sufficiently “objective” evaluation. Instead, I am transmitting statements that are published as part of the front matter of this slender volume.

“Sharon Watkins is one of America’s great reconcilers. In my time in the White House, I saw firsthand how Sharon’s witness for Christ in the wider world knit both her own denomination and the country closer together, and helped us focus on the issues that matter most. Now with Whole, we have a powerful blueprint for unity that each of us can apply in our own areas of influence. This book is a gift; it will change organizations, and lives.” —Joshua DuBois, Author of The President’s Devotional, and former head of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

“There are leaders within the church that everyone should be listening to and engaging. Sharon Watkins…is always near the top of my list. Her deep passion for helping Christians live out their faith in ways large and small, the great wisdom she offers from decades of ministry, and the powerful vision she paints of what it means to be one of Christ’s disciples in the kind of world we live in—whether or not you belong to her denomination—makes this book a must read. Watkins brings people together, articulates a direction we need, and is one of the best voices we have for bringing faith into public life.”—Jim Wallis, President and Founder of Sojourners.

“Come and feast at the banquet prepared for you from the beginning of the world. ‘You’ means everyone, no exceptions. Turn in here and join the feast, and bring your neighbor with you. Sharon Watkins has prepared a veritable banquet—come and taste—and a tender invitation to come and feast.”—Katherine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop and Primate, The Episcopal Church.

The book is published by Chalice Press and is also is available in electronic versions.

The Twisting Flow of Water

May 28, 2014

Reviewing Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization by Steven Solomon (HarperCollins, 2010)

Solomon - WaterMy interest in issues related to water has developed during my retirement years. In part, this was because we lived for a time in the desert southwest where golf courses and lush agricultural fields luxuriated despite the aridity of the climate and where archaeological remains testified to the fragility of previous hydrological societies.

My interest in water also developed as a corollary to my activities as an open road cyclist, taking long tours through river systems drained by the Columbia, Colorado, and Rio Grande in the West and the Potomac and Ohio in the East. The writing on water that I have done has been primarily as a secondary theme within travel narratives based on cycling expeditions.

One of the reasons for giving more sustained attention to water related issues is the growing evidence that climate change has become a serious issue now rather than one that is waiting to happen in another generation. The hydrological systems of the earth are behaving in ways that are outside of our experience. Deluges, droughts, and intense fires are more common and more extreme than they used to be, and they take place simultaneously. Climatic patterns that our civilizations have relied upon are becoming undependable.

A second reason is my interest in reflecting upon the meaning of these changes from a theological and ethical point of view. Current literature tends to focus on factual descriptions: where water is found, how contemporary societies are using it, and changes that are taking place in the availability and use of water. As long as we focus on description, it is possible to reach broad agreement on water in the current global economy and political scene.

A more difficult challenge is to agree on evaluations of how well the hydrological systems are working and prospects for both the near and longer term futures. More difficult still are the challenges of agreeing on the causes of the hydrological challenges now confronting the people of the world and determining courses of action that we ought to be taking.

The first step in moving the discussion forward is to recognize the varied roles that water has played in the development of human civilization—water for drinking and cleansing, water as a means of exercising power and developing wealth, water as the enabling agent for urban society and also the source of some of the most urgent problems facing these societies, water as the substance upon which everything else seems to depend.

This is where Steven Solomon’s 500-page book Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization is the very thing we need. In a remarkably comprehensive, concise, and compelling manner, this journalist, who publishes in major American media, describes “the twisting flow of water” (quoting from a statement by Daniel Yergin on the book jacket).

In his prologue, Solomon summarizes the major themes of the book: (1) Control and manipulation of water has been a pivotal axis of power and human achievement throughout history. (2) Preeminent societies have invariably exploited their water resources in ways that were more productive and unleashed larger supplies than in slower adapting societies. (3) Water challenges on an epic scale are unfolding today. (4) The societies that find the most innovative responses to these crises will most likely come out as winners, while the others will fade behind. (5) Civilization also will be shaped by water’s inextricable and deep interdependencies with energy, food, and climate change.

The book is filled with factual information, but the facts are presented in a strong narrative manner rather than in a technical manner. Solomon depends more upon historians than geologists as the sources of information and insight. Read more. . . . Twisting Flow of Water


Straight talk about gay marriage

May 12, 2014

A review of God Believes in Love: Straight Talk about Gay Marriage, by Gene Robinson (New York: Knopf, 2012)


Paperback Edition

The thesis of this book is succinctly stated in the final paragraph: “I believe in marriage. I believe it is the crucible in which we come to know most deeply about love. It is in marriage that God’s will for me to love all humankind gets focused in one person. It is impossible to love humankind if I can’t love one person. That opportunity to love one person and to have that love sanctioned and supported by the culture in which we live is a right denied gay and lesbian people for countless centuries. It’s time to open that opportunity to all of us. Because in the end, God believes in love” (196).

In the rest of the book—all 195 pages—Gene Robinson, who at the time he wrote it was the Episcopal Church’s bishop of New Hampshire, develops the theological meaning of married love, summarizes the history of marriage in western society, explains the separation of Religion and State in the American constitutional system, and states the case for same-sex marriage as an authentic manifestation of the love in which God believes.

The author’s life experience provides the context for this book and contributes to its emotional impact: born to tobacco sharecroppers in rural Kentucky; “massively injured in childbirth” and not expected to live; nurtured as a Christian in a small congregation of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ); confessed his faith and was baptized into Christ at age twelve. His “greatest desire was to live like Christ.”

By the time he graduated from the University of the South, discerned a call to ordained ministry (in the Episcopal Church), and enrolled in seminary, he knew that he was attracted to men, didn’t like it, and loathed himself for it. After two years of therapy, he believed that he was ready to be married. From the beginning of his relationship with the woman he married, he told her of his history of attraction to men. She responded that their love was strong enough to deal with whatever might happen.

When Robinson was thirty-nine and their two daughters were still in elementary school, the marriage was dissolved before a judge and in a poignant ceremony at a church. Robinson continued his ministry, fell in love with a man, and they established a home. They established a civil union and later were married. Despite opposition from many people in world-wide Anglicanism, Robinson was elected to the office of bishop. Since the book was published, Robinson has retired and on May 4, 2014 announced that he and his husband plan to divorce.

Most of the book consists of Robinson’s answers to ten questions most often asked him over the years: Why gay marriage now? Why should you care about gay marriage if you’re straight? What’s wrong with civil unions? Doesn’t the Bible condemn homosexuality? What would Jesus do? Doesn’t gay marriage change the definition of marriage that’s been in place for thousands of years? Doesn’t gay marriage undermine marriage? What if my religion doesn’t believe in gay marriage? Don’t children need a mother and a father? Is this about civil rights or getting approval for questionable behavior?

Robinson’s answers are written in clear, straightforward, serious but non-technical language. Some of the contributions he makes are these:

  1. He provides a theologically coherent support for same-sex marriage despite the long tradition of vigorous opposition by culture and religious communities.
  2. He outlines the radically varied patterns of marriage in western society, thus undercutting the assumption that current discussions are contrary to ages-old systems.
  3. He explains the fact that in the United States marriage has always been a civil institution that is clearly distinct from the religious blessing of the union of two persons in a relationship of love.
  4. He positions the recognition of gay marriage with other movements to overcome discrimination and grant full civil rights to minorities whom majoritarian systems oppress.
  5. He draws upon a substantial body of factual data to answer questions such as the effect upon children when they grow up in homes with same-sex parents. Read more. . . . Straight talk about gay marriage


Riding around the fire mountains (all covered with snow)

May 6, 2014
Pahto—Mt. Adams

One of the Fire Mountains

People keep asking me about the bike trips I intend to take this summer. I’ve come up with an answer and actually hope that I can take the rides described below. I’m following the example of the Perimeter Bicycling Association of American (PBAA), a Tucson-based bike club that encourages people to ride around things.

The fire mountains are three volcanic peaks that are part of the skyline of my home in the Portland-Vancouver community. Two of them are frequently seen from almost anywhere in this metropolitan area. The third rarely appears at this distance, but belongs to the mythic story of this part of the Pacific Northwest.

These three circumnavigations are arranged in ascending order, starting with the shortest. My intention is to take my time for each trip rather than rushing to cover the distance in the shortest time possible. The itineraries will be the shortest routes that can be done on paved roads with motel accommodations at reasonable intervals.

These three peaks belong togtether. According to Native American stories, the Great Spirit had two sons, Wy’east and Pahto, who fought over a beautiful maiden named Loowit. Because their battle scorched the earth, their infuriated father turned all three into volcanic peaks: Loowit is Mount Saint Helens, Pahto is Mount Adams, and Wy’east is Mount Hood. Each of these peaks will be the center of a ride.

The Wy’east (Mt. Hood) perimeter ride will begin and end in Troutdale, Oregon. On day 1, I will ride south to U.S. 26 at Sandy, Oregon, and then continue up the mountain’s slope to Welches or Government Camp. On day 2, I will continue to Barlow Pass and then turn north on SR 35, to Hood River. On day 3, I will continue through the Columbia River Gorge—using the historic highway for most of the way—back to Troutdale. I hope to do this ride no later than early June.

The Loowit (Mt. St. Helens) perimeter ride will begin and end in Woodland, Washington. Although it is longer than the Wy’east ride, I hope to do it in three days, too. On day I, I’ll travel north on old roads that parallel I-5 to Castlerock. On day 2, I’ll take the Jackson Highway to its junction with U.S. 12 and continue on to Randle. My plan for day 3 is to travel south on Forest Service Road 25 and SR 503 back to Woodland. By traveling in early July, I’ll be able to rendezvous with a research team supervised by a grandson that will be stationing earthquake monitoring devises along the eastern edges of the mountain.

The Pahto (Mt. Adams) perimeter ride will begin and end in Stevenson, Washington. On day 1, I’ll travel eastward on SR 14 and SR 142 to Goldendale on US 97. On day 2, I’ll ride north into the Yakama Indian Reservation, stopping for the night either in Toppenish or Yakima. On day 3, I’ll take US 12 over White Pass (elevation 4,500 ft.) to Packwood or Randle. On day 4, I’ll go south on Forest Service 25, 51, and 30 back to Stevenson. The timing of this trip may be determined by an event in Packwood in mid September or an event in Yakima in early October.

Although PBAA has established guidelines for designating perimeter routes and recording record time, I do not plan to do so. The mountains are there. The routes are challenging and exciting. Riding around the fire mountains will be a great way to make the summer memorable.

If I feel unusually adventuresome, one more circumnavigation could bring them all together in one grand trip: Troutdale to Hood River to Goldendale and Yakima; then on to Randle and Castlerock, Woodland and Troutdale. How many miles? I have no idea, but it would really be a grand trip.

Anyone interested in doing it with me?

Civil religion: what it is and why we need it

April 28, 2014

“From Holy Week to Spring Break” is the title of a presentation that I gave to the Kiwanis Club of Portland during Holy Week this year. The president of the club and two other members are friends at First Christian Church in Portland. In my blog on April 1, 2014, I posted a précis of the talk. Here is the full text of the presentation.

During my childhood and early adult years, two religious observances were widely held in communities all across America. Easter vacation was a four-day event, beginning with Good Friday and concluding on the following Monday. Schools were closed on those two days, and business and many retail establishments were closed on that Friday afternoon. This meant that families could count on a four-day holiday. Since going to their own church on Easter Sunday was still a major practice, most families ended up staying close to home despite the relaxation of their school and business schedules.

Holy Week, beginning with Palm Sunday and concluding with Easter, was also widely recognized. Many churches used these days as times of special religious activities, which frequently included services of worship at noon or evening that were widely attended by people despite the fact that they were at work on those days.

During the years of my active adulthood, however, these religiously defined rituals of public life have been replaced. Holy Week and the Easter Vacation have morphed into Spring Break. It was easy enough for this change to occur because Holy Week-Easter vacation and spring break-spring fling have two things in common: In our part of the world they happen during the riotous rebirth of the natural world; and they provide a strongly anticipated break from the pattern of ordinary life.

One reason for the change from the religion-based festival to the nature-based celebration is technical. Schools need consistency in scheduling and they try to plan breaks to come at times in the year that are beneficial to the patterns of academic activity. Because the dating of Easter is based on the lunar calendar and the vernal equinox, it fluctuates from year to year, falling anytime from March 22 to April 25.

With that kind of variation, it is difficult to plan academic calendars. This was true even in the Christian seminary where I taught for much of my career, and we were sympathetic to the religious events that these holy days commemorated. Read more. . .From Holy Week to Spring Break



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 375 other followers