Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Being Closeted in Death as well as in Life

One of my least favorite--but most important--parts of my job is performing funerals.  I don't much care for it because as a pastor, it plays tricks with your head and your heart--you're working, but you're also often emotional and grieving as well--it is the blessing of the small church pastor that we get to know our congregants so well, and it is our curse that we miss them so deeply when they go to be with God.

And that chaos between having to do a job and needing to mourn can wrench you emotionally if you're not ready for it.  It can lay you out but good.  So burying the dead is a very tough part of the job for me, but because of its significance, I still strive to treat it with the utmost care.  I don't always succeed--I remember one graveside service very vividly where I failed to list out the surviving family as had been requested, and another family member got up and did it for me while I stood there--but I try to.

That effort is why it wrenches me inside to read a story like this one, wherein Vanessa Collier, a 33-year-old deceased wife and mother of two daughter had her funeral canceled right when it was supposed to be taking place at 10:00 am last Saturday, January 10th.

Why?  Because Vanessa is the wife of a woman, Christina Higley.  She was a lesbian who had two daughters with her wife of three years, and the video montage that was to be shown at her funeral included an image of her and her wife kissing.  The church wanted the image removed.  Vanessa's family said no, and instead held the service at a nearby funeral home.

And I completely understand the family's refusal.

Now, as a pastor, I get wanting final say over what is displayed in your church's sanctuary--there are things I wouldn't allow if asked to for someone's wedding or funeral because it wouldn't do honor to God or the church.

But the deceased's family isn't something I get to edit out of their funeral.  They aren't something (or somebodies) who the pastor gets to pretend doesn't exist, because they're going to be right there, front row center, to honor their loved one before God.

And I don't get to edit out who God made this deceased person to be--gay, straight, bisexual, transgendered, queer, any of it.  I am emphatically not allowed to play God like that.

When you try to edit out something that big of someone's life--someone you are attempting, in every other sense, to honor in their death as you commit their soul to heaven--you're not honoring them, you're honoring a fake version of them.  A version of them that you want them to be as opposed to who they actually were.  You are not committing to God's care the person, you are committing the idea of a person who never really was.

Which is not what the church is about.  It is not what the church has ever been about, or ever should be about, although I fear that is what we are about, because it is what we have done to so many living gay and lesbian people: forced them to remain closeted for far too long.  And, as it turns out, we are trying to closet them in death as well as in life.  The same destructive things that we claim to be moving away from in reaching out to our living gay and lesbian brothers and sisters are still very much present in our treatment of them once they have passed from this kingdom into God's kingdom.

But I also have friends...seminary classmates...ministry colleagues, who are gay.  I have met their spouses, broken bread with them, shared laughter and joy and sorrow alike with them.  I could not imagine honoring one and pretending the relationship with the other did not exist.  I couldn't fathom it.  It would be a lie.  And the Bible does indeed have some pretty strong things to say about bearing false witness.

So let me say this, openly and plainly: I do not, and will not, ever put as a condition of performing a funeral service that the person's sexual orientation be hidden.  Rather, with God and family willing, I would want to see sexual identity celebrated as a part of a person's divinely-given identity.  If you are in the Longview/Vancouver/Portland corridor and have been turned away from a church for wanting to have a gay or lesbian loved one's funeral there, message me.  I would be happy and humbled to officiate their funeral, despite funerals being difficult for me to do.  I cannot promise I'll be the same as the pastor or church you first asked, but I can promise that I will strive to do justice and honor to your loved one and to their innate connection to God.

Because a church that does not honor God's children is, in the end, not a church that honors God.

If this is somehow not right of me to do, may God have mercy on me.

Yours in Christ,

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