My mother-in-law died suddenly in May 2002 at the age of 82. The sheriff showed up at the front door holding her wallet and keys, and notified BigBob that the neighbors had called 911 earlier in the day when she did not answer the phone, doorbell or open the shades.
To say that we were shocked is an understatement. The day before she had driven #1Son to school after he spent the night at her house with her.
We knew some of her wishes, but not all. She had indicated a preference for cremation and no viewing, plus she had made clear that she did not want a schmaltzy organ-with-loads-of-vibrato sort of funeral service. Past that, we had to figure out how best to say our good-byes and celebrate her life. To be perfectly accurate, BigBob, as her only child, had that responsibility. Our role was to support him.
At that time, we were members of a church so I immediately called the pastor over to the house to meet with BigBob and help him plan. We sat around the kitchen table, sharing stories about her. He asked each of the boys what they remembered best and would miss the most about Grandma.
And as he talked with BigBob about what kind of service, if any, to have, these words resonated with me: “The service is for you, your family and friends. It isn’t for your mother. Sure, the service is a way of celebrating and giving thanks for her life. But it is really for you so you should be guided by her wishes, but also do what is best for all of you and will help you move through your grief.”
Those words came back to me a couple of days ago when I discovered this article:
Texas Megachurch Cancels Memorial for Gay Navy Vet
Saturday, August 11, 2007
ARLINGTON, Texas — A megachurch canceled a memorial service for a Navy veteran 24 hours before it was to start because the deceased was gay.
Officials at the nondenominational High Point Church knew that Cecil Howard Sinclair was gay when they offered to host his service, said his sister, Kathleen Wright. But after his obituary listed his life partner as one of his survivors, she said, it was called off.
“It’s a slap in the face. It’s like, ‘Oh, we’re sorry he died, but he’s gay so we can’t help you,'” she said Friday.
Wright said High Point offered to hold the service for Sinclair because their brother is a janitor there. Sinclair, who served in the first Gulf War, died Monday at age 46 from an infection after surgery to prepare him for a heart transplant.
The church’s pastor, the Rev. Gary Simons, said no one knew Sinclair, who was not a church member, was gay until the day before the Thursday service, when staff members putting together his video tribute saw pictures of men “engaging in clear affection, kissing and embracing.”
Simons said the church believes homosexuality is a sin, and it would have appeared to endorse that lifestyle if the service had been held there.
“We did decline to host the service — not based on hatred, not based on discrimination, but based on principle,” Simons told The Associated Press. “Had we known it on the day they first spoke about it — yes, we would have declined then. It’s not that we didn’t love the family.”
Simons said the decision had nothing to do with the obituary. He said the church offered to pay for another site for the service, made the video and provided food for more than 100 relatives and friends.
“Even though we could not condone that lifestyle, we went above and beyond for the family through many acts of love and kindness,” Simons said.
Wright called the church’s claim about the pictures “a bold-faced lie.” She said she provided numerous family pictures of Sinclair, including some with his partner, but said none showed men kissing or hugging.
The 5,000-member High Point Church was founded in 2000 by Simons and his wife, April, whose brother is Joel Osteen, well-known pastor of the 38,000-member Lakewood Church in Houston. Now High Point meets in a 432,000-square-foot facility in Arlington, near Dallas.
Wright said relatives declined the church’s offer to hold the service at a community center because they felt it was an inappropriate venue. It ultimately was held at a funeral home, but the cancellation still lingered in some minds, she said.
The article describes a series of events and behaviors that are horrifying on many levels. The conduct would be egregious in the secular world, but in a Christian community, it is beyond outrageous.
The pastor explained that the church would have appeared to endorse homosexuality, a sin in its eyes, had it proceeded with allowing the funeral to take place on the premises.
When did homosexuality get elevated to top spot in the hierarchy of sins? Did I miss a memo on this?
We all sin. So taking the pastor’s logic to its illogical conclusion, no funeral can ever be held in that church.
If allowing the funeral of a sinner to take place there constitutes an endorsement of that individual’s sin, what is their attitude toward worship? Do they welcome gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgendered persons to worship on Sunday? What about individuals whose skin color differs from theirs?
And in worship, when the pastor declares that all who confess and repent are forgiven, does he add “. . . unless you happen to belong to the GLBT community”? What about liars? Tax evaders? Thieves? Gossip-mongers?
Jesus went over to Levi’s house one evening and sat down to dinner among a bunch of — gasp! — sinners.
The religion scholars and Pharisees saw him keeping this kind of company and lit into his disciples: “What kind of example is this, acting cozy with the riffraff?”
Jesus, overhearing, shot back, “Who needs a doctor: the healthy or the sick? I’m here inviting the sin-sick, not the spiritually-fit.”1
In order to model Jesus’ behavior, we need to look past each others’ sins and see each and every person’s inherent worth. If Jesus came to invite the sin-sick, are we called to do less? Of course not.
The pastor totally missed the point: Jesus gave up his very life for sinners. All sinners.
The pastor claimed, “It’s not that we didn’t love the family.” I couldn’t disagree more vehemently.
Just like my mother-in-law’s service, the funeral in question here would have benefited those left behind to mourn, not the deceased.
So what did the “principle” have to do with the gentleman who died? Nothing. How could abiding by some principle have any impact upon him? It couldn’t, of course.
The behavior at issue, based on principle, could only have an adverse impact upon the family and friends of the decedent, even though their sexual orientation was not being called into question and, indeed, had the same relevance as did the deceased’s orientation: None. So they were the only folks harmed by the pastor’s conduct. After all, their deceased family member was gone by then and oblivious to the goings-on here.
So where’s the blessing?
What does all of this have to do with Blog Your Blessings Sunday?
I’m thankful for the opportunity to observe, discuss and learn from incidents like the one in question. The fact that it was publicized gives us a chance to think about what we would do in a similar situation. We should be sensitive to these issues and how other folks feel about them. We can model Jesus’ behavior, exhibiting acceptance, warmth and tolerance toward each other.
We don’t have to agree. We do have to tolerate and respect folks with viewpoints that are different from ours.
From my perspective, the sexual orientation of the decedent could not have been more irrelevant. It doesn’t matter in the least what that particular pastor or his congregation/denomination think about homosexuality. That’s the lesson we can all learn from that pastor’s mistakes: The past had an opportunity to provide care and comfort to the survivors. And that is indeed an invitation from the Holy Spirit to model Christ-like behavior. How we respond to that invitation is our decision. We have free will. In this instance, the pastor in question’s R.S.V.P. was “Regret that I won’t be able to attend” when it should have been “Count me in!”
The Good News
We are also invited to respond appropriately to the pastor’s conduct.
Our reaction to the pastor who handles this situation so abominably should not be to shun, chastise and abandon him. Because if we respond in that fashion, we are hypocrites.
Rather, in situations like this, we should model the behavior we expected, but did not receive from, the person who harmed us. When we can do that, we are achieving maturity in our faith.
“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ lend to ‘sinners,’ expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”2