Kate Bowler There are some truths that we need to stand on, truths that are wider and deeper than the trite platitudes that we here at the Everything Happens podcast love to debunk. These are the truths that help carry us through the most unthinkable of moments, truths that we can find ourselves wrapped inside of, comforted by, rest against. This is Everything Happens. And I’m Kate Bowler. Today I wanted to talk to someone about what true things we can say when the world seems to be absolutely coming undone. When we lose people we love. When the unexplainable happens, what can we say then? And who do we trust to do that kind of truth telling? My guest today is Thomas Long. Reverend Dr. Long is the Bandy Professor Emeritus of Preaching at Candler Theological School at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. And he got his Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary, began his ministry at a Presbyterian church near Atlanta, and has apparently not suffered from being that Presbyterian. This is some pretty peak Presbyterian content here. In 1996, Dr. Long was named one of the 12 most effective preachers in the world, and he is the author of Accompany Them with Singing: The Christian Funeral, The Witness of Preaching, and coauthor of The Good Funeral with a friend of the podcast, Thomas Lynch. Tom, I’m so happy to be speaking with you today. Here we are at last.
Tom Wonderful to be here. Thank you for having me.
Kate Oh, my gosh. Oh, it’s my pleasure. I wanted to start by asking you a question about why? Because we spend so much of our lives doing things and we don’t always know why. Well, I guess most people, but people who say they are called to things have to know the why. So, I wondered if we could start there. How did you know that you were called into ministry?
Tom Well, I was pre-med in college and was heading to be a physician. And there was in our little college town, a minister on the campus church who was standing tall for racial justice. This was in the sixties, and he was paying the price for it. This is in a South Carolina town, and he was a profile in courage to me. And I thought that’s a life worth living. I began to interrogate myself and felt tugged into the ministry.
Kate You say something. You’re such a beautiful writer, and everyone who sees your name on a book should buy it. You say really funny things like “Why am I a Presbyterian minister? Because I was called, dammit!” and that made me laugh so hard. You’re like, “We’re not dazzled by starting salaries or green Honda Civics.” Most of what we end up being conscritped into by something other than ourselves is not particularly glamorous. But it it seems like it goes right to the core of even just maybe a person we hoped to be.
Tom Yes. And there is pain and confusion about it, but there’s also deep satisfaction because I think God calls us to our telos, to the the blossoming of who we were created to be. And that’s deeply satisfying. When I decided to go into the ministry, I went home to tell my parents, and my father took it calmly, but my mother immediately burst into tears and she wanted a doctor for her son, not a minister. And she was inconsolable for weeks. And finally, a very pious friend of hers wrote a note and said, basically, “cut it out.” And she paraphrased scripture. She said, “the Lord hath need of him, lose him and let him go.” And my father said, “Wasn’t that written about an ass?”
Kate That’s exactly right. I forgot that. That’s so funny. Yeah. Someone needed that donkey.
Tom That’s right.
Kate We have a lot of people in this community who are called into very emotionally expensive professions. They’re teachers and social workers and health care workers. And just like the soft- hearted servers of all kinds. And you wrote something I thought they would love. You said, “God, it seems, has everybody’s number and is constantly making calls, summoning us all beyond ourselves to some holy vocation.” Clergy are simply the visible icons of what is secretly true of all mortals.
Tom Yeah. Yeah. And I think the irony is that when we’re called to places of sacrifice and tender service that you mentioned, we found there pools of great blessing that we find ourselves receiving the mercy that we go to give.
Kate Oh, that’s beautiful. It’s not just for the outfits then? Every pastor or priest friend I have is just most of their outfits make them look like enormous triangles.
Tom We got to work on the haberdashery here.
Kate It’s true. It’s true. There’s such a deeply aspirational quality to the things that we love. Like, we’re sort of nudged into becoming as we do it. And never does that seem more obvious to me when pastors or chaplains are called to do and say impossible things. And that makes me think about funerals like, yeah, like, yes, you baptize, you preach, you confirm, you marry, you pray, you hear confession, you visit people, you say nice things, you use big, benediction hands. All these things are powerful, powerful works. But how is the work of a pastor during a funeral maybe like a different kind of task?
Tom Yeah, there’s a great passage in the Gospel of John when Jesus says to his disciples, “Are you going to leave me like everybody else?” And Peter says, “Where would we go? You have the words of life.” And I think pastors find performing funerals, presiding at funerals, richly satisfying because they recognize that people are responding to the word of life that they bring. Pastors are the last one standing. The physicians have all fled. The lawyers haven’t arrived yet. And there we are. And somebody has to say something that has power and promise and comfort and meaning in this momentous occasion. And that’s what we get to do.
Kate Yeah, it’s like not a time for thin gruel, you know.
Tom No. And that’s one of the tragedies that has happened in the sort of downsizing of funerals that’s happened in our culture is that pastors have sometimes assumed the role of MC’s at some kind of a this-is-your-life celebration and forfeit the opportunity to shake their fist in the face of death.
Kate Yes. Yeah, that’s. Oh, my gosh. That reminds me of something that our wonderful mutual friend, Pastor Will Willimon, said about. He was presiding over the funeral of a little boy and he was just about to face down the parents. And then he took a minute and by himself just cried out to God and said, “Don’t you make me go out there and lie for you again.”
Tom Hmm. Hmm. Hmm hmm. Well, and this truth telling that we should be doing at funerals is especially important because there are two preachers at every funeral. Capital “D” Death comes to every funeral and loves to preach. And Death’s sermon is the same every time. It’s, “Damn every one of you. I win every time. You want the evidence, it’s right there. I break all loving relationships. I destroy all community. You belong to me.” And we have the duty and delight of standing there and saying, “Oh, death, where’s your victory? Where’s your sting? I tell you a mystery.” We got to say that. And to forfeit that for, you know, her favorite song was “A Hunk, a Hunk of Burning Love” by Elvis Presley?
Kate It’s so true. I mean, we want so much to tell the story of our love. You know, look at all I’ve lost. This was not loss in general like love that we love in no generalities, like it’s this person. It’s the twinkle in their eye. It’s their dumb preferences. It’s their shrill voice. It’s there, you know, And yet. I love that you’re saying that we also have to tell the truth about the God that loves them. And if that story isn’t too loud, then maybe we have just played the “Hunk, a Hunk of Burning Love” song too loud.
Tom Also, we tell the truth about the person who’s who’s died. And I don’t mean simply laundering dirty secrets, but we see them through the prism of their baptism. So instead of she was a great Mets fan or loved Alabama Crimson Tide, the important things are seeing through what we said about her when when we baptized her and how the grace of God has been refracted through this life. Even if it’s a difficult life. Each life is a gift from God, and we get to see that too.
Kate I always think about this because I’m often in ridiculous and terrible situations and I like a good list of the hard true things I know how to say because those are … you wrote, like, “If faith has no word for this, it has no word at all.” Like that feeling, we are somehow, poured into us are true hard things we can say. So what are some lovely, true things we can say about absolutely everybody? Because they are precious in the eyes of God.
Tom Well, that’s a that’s a great question. And it falls right into an issue going on with contemporary funerals. Sometime in the 19th Century, we changed our idea about what makes a person important. We used to think about Elizabeth as being important because, well, she’s the spouse of George and the mother of Jacob and Jane, and she’s a member of the Lutheran Church and she works at the library and she volunteers for the Red Cross. In other words, she was valuable because of her glue in the community, her life was a part of the web of life that we all depend on. We’ve changed that to think about, well, that’s not nearly as important as how she stands out, not how she fits in, but how she stands out. And so the celebrity idea, the wealthiest, the most famous person, is the most important. And not many of us are celebrities. So we say, well, you can be at your funeral.
Kate Oh my gosh, Tom, I never thought about that.
Tom Yeah, so we start celebrating the whims and eccentricities of Elizabeth rather than the virtues of how her life made our lives richer, how her life shone with the grace of God. And if Elizabeth had Alzheimer’s or if Elizabeth died a painful death with cancer, or if she was a difficult personality, we can talk about that. Not because it’s, “Oh, I’ve got a secret I want to tell about Elizabeth,” but it was those experiences that were part of what made her contribute to us in our own understanding of mercy and grace, and how if she depended on us, that brought out the best in us. The quality of a human life that can be talked about at a funeral when seen through the eyes of faith is many faceted.
Kate What about the Precious Moments version of that? Because, you know, sentimentality can be the enemy of good truth-telling. And I can think of a lot of overly shellacked things that people say at Christian funerals, especially maybe if someone died like terribly of an addiction that ripped their family apart or like, what if we can see no good, no transcendent bits? No. Like, what if it just feels like a tragedy?
Tom I think it’s rare to have a life about which no virtue or gift can be spotted at all. But if there are such, then the task I think of those who are speaking at the funeral is to proclaim that not all of that life was visible to us, that what is visible to God is a richer and deeper life than we were able to see. Yeah, that we we saw only the rough edges and the hard sides. But this was a child created by God, loved by God and given gifts by God, even when we couldn’t see it, when we were groping in the dark and couldn’t see them.
Kate Yeah. My friend Rosa has this ministry with her church, and they bury the unclaimed dead that there’s a local morgue and nobody picks up these bodies and they bury them in a beautiful funeral. And they say things like that to them. And there is something about maybe what you were just saying about like preaching against the other preacher in the funeral, that they’re preaching against big “D” death when they say this person whose life has so isolated them that nobody wanted them in this moment.
Tom In some synagogues, there is a group called the Chevra Kadisha, which is the Holy Society, and it’s their responsibility to prepare the bodies of the Jewish dead. And they have a very beautiful ritual by which they do this. It involves the washing of the body, the treating of the body with modesty, as if it does not want to be embarrassed. And so they cover everything except the part that they’re that they are washing. And as they do, they quote to the corpse the Song of Songs. “You are beautiful. Your eyes glisten like diamonds. You are the beloved of Israel” and they say that of everyone. Hard lives and good lives. But this is who we are.
Kate It’s like we treat it like a baby being born.
Tom Yeah. And the Christian church inherited much of that when we finally got our act together about Christian funerals, which is about the Fifth Century, the way it would go is that the body would be washed while we sang psalms and hymns and spiritual songs and then dressed in a baptismal garment and carried during the day by the friends and members of the church with white baptismal garments and taken to wherever the place of burial was where there was a Lord’s Supper. And they greeted each other with a kiss, including Elizabeth, because she was a sister and this was her last Lord’s Supper in this life and her first taste of the Messianic banquet and the table straddled a time zone. And it was clear to them that they were completing baptism because they washed Elizabeth when she was baptized. And now they washed her again in death and they clothed or in a baptismal garment when she was baptized, fully clothed there again in a garment of white, baptismal, white. And we fed her at the table of God all of her Christian life, and we feed her once more. And so the full symmetry, the completion of baptism was there, that that’s who she really is. She’s really who we saw to be at her baptism.
Kate That’s a hard and absolutely devastatingly beautiful story to tell.
Tom It is.
Kate And it sounds like we have to do some odd … You write that it would be really strange if we just invented these traditions now. You’re like, Oh, hey, everyone, we’ve got this group. They love to get together. Yeah. But that in a way, it’s hard later to invent the heavy lifting required to tell a story that big.
Tom Yeah. You know, when I wrote the book about the Christian funeral, Accompany Them with Singing. I wrote it because I couldn’t find a good book to put on my syllabus for my worship class. And so I said, “Well, I’ll just write it myself.”
Tom And it took me over ten years to write the book, not because I was procrastinating, but because I changed my mind so dramatically that I ended up writing against the book that I started out writing. And the book that I started out to write was, you know, that phrase, “Well, funerals aren’t for the dead, they’re there for the living.” And so they are only there for the comfort of the living. Those are one of those half-truths that you talk about so beautifully in your book. Actually, when you go all the way back, a funeral was our accompanying Elizabeth on the last mile of her journey to the Messianic banquet, to the heaven, to the heavenly feast. And it it’s action-filled. It’s a piece of drama in which we sing as we carry her. And we’ve traded that in for sitting quietly in a room and thinking about Elizabeth and life and death. Rather than actually journeying with her. Funerals, when you look at them anthropologically are the most noisy and action-filled of human rituals.
Kate That’s so interesting because it demands participation when things are that. I do think that the worse things get, the busier we need to feel with it. Otherwise, we feel helpless and just nuts.
Tom Yeah, that’s right. That’s right. And it’s about Elizabeth. I mean, we’re taking her to the banquet table. In fact, there’s a Syriac prayer that developed early on in which the the prayers pray as they walk with the corpse and say, “God, we’re bringing Elizabeth to you. Open up the heavenly choir. We’ve got a new voice for you. Get ready to receive her. Don’t let anything keep the door closed. We want Elizabeth to be with you.” And we’ve traded that in for a ritual that is quiet, contemplative, and can no longer bear the weight of Elizabeth. We’re the first people in the history of the world to ban the dead from their own funerals.
Kate Right? Right. Because we have someone dispose of them and then we have these celebrations of life.
Tom That’s right. Yeah. And we can’t take Elizabeth there because if Elizabeth is there, it’s very clear there’s been a death. It’s very clear that a voice that was at our table the day before is stilled for us, and that death doesn’t break the relationship, but it changes dramatically. And you can’t avoid that if Elizabeth is there.
Kate Yes. Yes. There’s a lovely thing. I married into Mennonites and I am so grateful for it. They’re pretty good with this part because they keep them close, you know, especially now that there’s these big farmlands and places where small churches used to be. But they keep the graveyard up. And then so you can you can be buried with your people next to a field that someone’s going to mow. And the great complaint … I spent a long time worrying about dying. And so I tried to figure out where I wanted to be buried. And I thought people would humor me a lot because my situation was very sad. And mostly I got a lot of pushback of whether I was allowed to plant a tree because they’re actually really hard to mow around.
Kate But what I loved about it was they weren’t disappeared. You were you were put down somewhere where people were going to find you.
Tom Yeah. You know, the reason that those graveyards that you mentioned that used to be around churches, they they literally were around churches. And that’s because historically, Christians wanted to be buried near the table. We were going to the feast. And so, in fact, in some cathedrals, you’ll find priests buried under the altar. And the rest of us are are crowded around the church building because we’re there for the Lord’s Supper, the saint upon saint, row upon row. If you could squint and see them, they would all be there. You know, young ministers sometimes get angry because their congregations won’t come up to the front. There’s a woman sitting on the back pew and two people in the balcony bring people over here, “Come on down!” And what what they aren’t doing is squinting because if they squinted, they would see next to that woman back there, her husband, who died three years ago, who’s worshiping with her still, and the little girl that the family lost is is there. They’re all there at the table if we knew how to look.
Kate That’s really beautiful. We’re really very stuck in this intense spirit-body divide, aren’t we? And you really don’t like it when people say things like the body is just a shell.
Tom Right. right. Tom Lynch is especially good on that. You know, if you want to know who I am, look at what my body does. Look at the words that I speak. Look what I put my hands to, look where my feet take me. Look at the relationships that I form in embodied ways with my wife and with others. And that’s who I am. And so that’s why the Resurrection is the Resurrection of the body. It’s not a magic trick. It’s a validation of a lived, embodied life. This is who Tom is. And down in our DNA, we know that we want to care for the bodies of the dead. We want to walk with them all the way to the end.
Kate Yeah. You wrote that gorgeous thing. I was so caught on that about how are our most ancient funerals that they find like that archeologists could find dried flowers as if the second we see someone laid down that we immediately think I need beauty. I need beauty to go with them. We never just leave people. But we send them somewhere. I love just what an ancient hope we have.
Tom I was going to give a lecture about Christian funerals at Valparaiso University, and I was riding a bus to the campus. And on the bus there was a young father and his son, and they had evidently just gone to Walt Disney World because they had on their t-shirts and had Mickey Mouse ears. And the father was gregarious and he asked me where I was going. And I didn’t want to tell a guy wearing Mickey Mouse ears that I’m going to go talk about death. But he pressed and pressed and pressed. And finally I told him, I said, I’m going to talk about Christian funerals. And he got real quiet. And he said, “I am the one who has the honor in my mosque in Wisconsin of washing the dead of the congregation.” And he said, “I don’t understand Christians. You leave before it’s over.” Oh, I thought that was wise. We leave before it’s over. We don’t go all the way to the place of farewell.
Kate Yeah. Tom, I don’t think I’ve ever gotten a chance to ask anyone this. So here we go. You know, you permit yourselves these kinds of questions when you’re in college or something, and then you set them aside because they all feel embarrassing. But when I was thinking about your work, I just kept wondering, like, why is it that we die at all? Isn’t it kind of strange that we’re created only to have us come apart? It seems a bit excessive, doesn’t it?
Tom Yeah. And I don’t think there’s a single, unified answer to that. There’s a biological reason why we die. But I think there are theological reasons why we die. And they’re good news and bad news. The bad news is that for reasons we do not understand, this world is in the grip of the falleness of things. And we have old stories that try to explain how that happened. But they’re stories that are too deep to be simple explanations. But something came apart. The world is now not how it was intended to be. And the Christian gospel is God’s reaching out with liberation to rescue a world that has fallen and not to let the powers of death have the last word. But the powers of death are strong. They’re very strong. The good news of it is that, you know, quite unlike the aspirations of some modern medics to create the situation where we live forever…
Kate Our super life is just around the corner.
Tom Right, where we’ll never die.
Kate Yeah, I’ve got a cleanse for that.
Tom Yeah, we have. We have the fact that we are finite and we are mortal. And so we get to learn how to number our days. We get to try to make each day full of meaning and worship and love.
Kate It feels like kind of a terrible set up, though, that our story about God and each other teaches us how to love, like fundamentally teaches us how to love in a way that is unbearable. Like, our love is so awful. I mean, the more we love the, the worse it gets. And so on and so on. It just feels like we get shown the marrow of the universe. And then we have to live without it. It still feels impossible, doesn’t it, though?
Tom I think I know what you mean. So, yes, to discover our mortality and our limitations is not la-di-da. It’s a painful truth. But I also think we bear witness to a God who in the life of the eternal, there is nothing lost of human love. That it’s conserved. Preserved. Or to put it more traditionally, it’s raised.
Kate Ugh, that’s so hard.
Tom The most we can do is to write a few lines of hopeful poetry.
Kate I was going to say. Exactly. Exactly. Exactly the right response is you write some very good or very bad poetry. It’s gonna to feel the same.
Tom Well, I think that’s why we break into song. That’s why the apostolic constitution, an ancient liturgical document, says in the death of the saints, accompany them with singing, not with explanations, but with but with singing, thanksgiving, Praise, lament. Yeah.
Kate But you and I are academics, and we’re hoping it says accompany them with a really strong footnote apparatus. Accompany them with a series of really detailed lectures.
Tom That’s right.
Kate You’re right up close to people as they attempt to articulate these long-form terrible truths. I mean, especially even now, we’re coming off a few years of consecutive years of loss in which people are calibrating and recalibrating. And I think, if not for death, they’re feeling a sense of impending and constant undoing and redoing. I just wondered how we can say loving but honest things about grief right now.
Tom Yeah. Part of the challenge there is that grief is so unpredictable. It doesn’t come in stages, as some people have tried to argue. It sometimes feels like numbness, a nothingness. It sometimes feels like a thunderstorm of rage and pain. It comes and goes. It grabs us in unexpected moments and the pastoral task in response to the grieving starts with a silence, I think. We just wait it out and let it pour. And then I don’t think we ought to neglect at some point (and sensing when the time is right is hard) but there is a right time to say we are not abandoned by the love of God, even even in the depth of our brokenness. Where could we go from God’s spirit? We can’t go to hell and get away from it. We can’t go to the top of the mountain and get away from it. God is always there, providing, loving, sustaining, judging. Holding us together, pulling us apart when we need to be pulled apart.
Kate For the last 50 years we’ve seen the decline of the spiritual authority of people like pastors and priests to have as s trusted people to tell the truth. And that’s for a lot of reasons and for the most part, we earned that decline. So congratulations us. But there’s a replacement, I think, right now with a certain kind of way of talking about therapists and therapy, which I cherish. Therapy, etc.. Mental health. Hurray!
Tom Mm hmm.
Kate But I wonder if there’s a way that we talk about the therapeutic right now that assumes that it will do not just all the work of mental health, but replace all the work of this now declined figure of the pastor and priest and what is perhaps lost in that?
Tom Hmm. No, I think you put your finger right on it. In fact, one of the things that convicted me about my own funeral research was to discover in the 19th century, we stopped believing the story that we were telling about life and death. The Gospel became,at least the ways we were telling it, became implausible, and part of it was our own fault. I mean, we we kept trotting out unrealistic language about streets of gold and angels floating on clouds at funerals, and people began to be educated and not believe that anymore. And so they began to believe Elizabeth wasn’t going anywhere. She was just dead. Except she would go into our memory banks. “We will always remember Elizabeth,” we would lie.
Kate It’s so true.
Tom Yeah. You walk around in a country cemetery, you’ll find people who are forgotten by everybody except God and the saints. And so the services began to shift away from Elizabeth and her journey to Tom and his interior journey. Elizabeth is not going anywhere, but Tom is moving psychically from sorrow to stability. And so the funerals became grief management. I’m not against grief management, but that’s a serious downsizing of the great gospel drama that was being told. Funerals moved from proclamation to pastoral care and in doing so began to absorb the language of the therapeutic that is the lingua franca of a certain period in pastoral care anyway. And yeah, God comforted us in our sorrow. Blessed are those who mourn, but all those things are are true. But this is not simply about getting over my grief. This, in fact, the only way really to address grief in a full sense is to keep telling the the narrative that sustains us that has broken apart because of the death.
Kate Yes. And if you were going to tell it for me, you’d say.
Tom I would say we used to tell a story where Elizabeth played this particular role, and now we can no longer tell it that way because Elizabeth has been transformed, and so have we. And so the story we now tell is Elisabeth among the clouds of witnesses and saints. Elisabeth, whose life is now a matter of gratitude for us and thanksgiving. The pain that we feel is because we are trying to repair that narrative and we don’t have to do the repairing. It has been repaired for us.
Kate I like that you just sat back.
Tom I mean, that’s that’s a frail, frail attempt to say it.
Kate No, it’s not. It’s not at all. Sometimes when we say, well, “There just are no words,” we’re like, no, there are some actually.
Tom I appreciate this. A lot of pastors say, “Well, I have a ministry of presence.” Yeah, Yeah, we do. We have a ministry of presence. But you also have a mouth and we also have a tradition and we have centuries of trying to think these things through. And we have walked through this forest thousands of times.
Tom There are those occasions when even in a secular society, the community gathers for a funeral, Christian funeral, and a Christian pastor or a rabbi or somebody with faith gets to preside. And it’s so stunningly powerful when they tell the truth, by contrast, the thinning out of things. It’s lifegiving.
Kate Yes. That is a weird feeling, though. I can tell we both like it and know it. But that feeling of right up at the edge. You curl your toes over the edge and you feel the upward draft. Of a hard, hard thing. And we don’t want to just say “mystery.” It, like requires some kind of response. It has been such a joy to listen to your beautiful brain, think through these really hard truths with me today, Tom. Thank you so much for doing this.
Tom It’s a joy to talk to you.
Kate We lose big and small all the time. So many of us are trying to recalibrate after consecutive years of loss. Who are we in the aftermath of so much change after so much that we’ve lost? And it’s sort of an enormous game of theological chicken to face down impossible things, impossible things like the mystery of death and speak honestly about God and our lives while teetering between hope and despair. So, I posed this question to you all, my lovely, dear, tenderhearted listeners, what hard truth things can you still say about God in the midst of your actual lives?
Kate Oh, my word. You guys. Bless you all as you live, still. In the wake of all that you’ve lost, all there is still to lose, standing in the balance between your loves and your fears. Holding on to hope, clinging to truths that are big enough to carry it all. Bless you, lovelies. This episode of the Everything Happens podcast was made possible because of our generous partners Lilly Endowment, the Duke Endowment, Duke Divinity School and Leadership Education. And of course, nothing is possible without the wisdom and expertise of my absolutely fabulous team. Jessica Richie. My heart, I love you. Harriet Putman. Keith Weston, Gwen Heginbotham, Brenda Thompson. Hope Anderson. Jeb Bert and Katherine Smith. This really is my very favorite kind of group project. So if you want to know what else we’re up to, head over to katebowler.com/newsletter so you don’t miss a thing. I would really love to hear what you thought about this episode. Would you consider leaving a review on Apple Podcasts or Spotify? It means a ton to us when we hear what you liked or who you want to hear in conversation next. Also, we really love hearing your voice. Feel free to leave us a voicemail. We might even use it on the air. So call us at 919-322-8731. All right, lovelies. I’ll talk to you next week. But in the meantime, come find me online, @katecbowler. This is Everything Happens with me, Kate Bowler.