Monday, January 27, 2014

Marrying and Burying People

Part of the reason I wanted to become a missionary was so that I wouldn't have to marry or bury anyone. The rather intense formality of these ceremonies was something that I wanted to avoid! Anything I cannot do in jeans is a bit too formal for me. I'm not sure why I thought that mission work would help me to hide from these life events. If I thought I could evade them, and evade officiating them, well, I couldn't have been more mistaken!

Over the past two months I've officiated one wedding and been involved with three funerals. Oh, and a quinceaños ceremony. Now, however, I don't dodge these important life events. They are some of the most special occasions that exist for a minister of the gospel. Especially in the funerals, but even in the weddings, people are open and desirous of hearing a word from God. In the most recent viewing, seven of us from the church ended up singing all the songs I had printed out on a sheet of paper (nine total, including hymns and modern praise songs) with a group of Catholic relatives who very much appreciated the words and spirit of our evangelical songs. We sang to after midnight.

The rituals surrounding a funeral are radically different here than they are in the U.S.  Here, the body of the deceased in not embalmed. Basically, the body is either buried or cremated within 2 days maximum after the time of death. The velorio, or viewing, happens most often in poorer families in a house. Sometimes the viewing occurs in a funeral home. A viewing often starts late afternoon and continues throughout the night. In the three viewings that Mayra and I have attended over the last month or so, we arrived home at 2:30 a.m., 3 a.m. and 12:30 a.m. respectively. There is a saying here...En la cama y en la cárcel se conocen los amigos. When you're sick in bed or in jail, you know who your friends are. It's very important to be with people during this time. It is culturally expected, and highly valued. The sepelio, or funeral service, happens the next day, usually in the morning. It is increasingly common in Mexico for the deceased to be cremated, so often there is little or no formal ceremony with cremation. 

The picture below is from last Saturday. Alejandro, one of the men in our church, stands, mourning, over the freshly dug grave of his mother. I know that Alejandro and his wife Gabriela, in big and small ways, became much more integrated into the life of the church and stronger in their faith because of the events surrounding the death of his mother. We were there for him. Jesus was too.

The text below is from a decade ago, reflections of mine after a similar graveside experience. You may want to read it if you have a minute.

A Christian funeral is unique, especially in a Catholic culture, especially sharing time and space with Catholic family members.  Our message both offers hope and disperses condemnation.  It speaks of the dazzling brilliance of the presence of God, but also of the damning consequences of unbelief.  The gospel message does not leave any room for purgatory.  When we are absent from the body we either are in the presence of the Lord or we are in a very different, very dreadful place.  It is a harsh message at a graveside.  No second chances.  Heaven and Earth and Hell meet and it seems as if the very plates of the earth churn and jolt in response.  The shovels digging into the dirt, pushing the pile back into the hole, hitting an occasional stone...sound is amplified in such a sacred silence, hope and despair are equally magnified.

When we arrived at the graveyard, a beautiful area way up on top of one of the mountains surrounding Mexico City, the priest was just finishing up his chants and rosaries, sprinkling holy tap water on the casket, reciting the Lord's prayer, saying the Ave Maria.  I wondered how many times that particular priest had done exactly the same thing in his long life, and if he had every thought where his soul would be when some other, younger priest repeated the same words over his metal box.  We then went to the grave site, down the hill from the chapel, where I stood in the middle of the 5% of the family who were believers and talked about how someday we would all face death, someday we would all be face to face with God.  Then we sang...happy, joyful songs.

Our message is a Man.  The power and passion is a Person.  Being a friend with Jesus is all anybody ever needs.  I am a friend with the Creator of the Universe, not just a servant, but a friend.  The joy that comes from friendship with Jesus is our trump card here on earth. 

Organized religion and all the diverse aggressive sects in the world can copy our doctrine, zealously proclaim their version of it, and even sing about it, but they cannot come close to reproducing true Christian joy that comes from, and exclusively comes from, the knowledge that I have an intimate relationship with the Almighty.  Direct, unhindered access to the presence of the Creator of the universe is pretty heady stuff, and we would do well to let it show every now and then.  The difference is notorious, whether at a grave site or a grocery store.  The smile that says, "I know something you don't know," or better said, "I know Someone you don't know."  People will mock us, will ridicule us, but will remain with a little seed of curiosity, of wonder, of transcendence. 

God's glory begins to grow in strange places sometimes.  As holy tap water mixes with clods of mud, dust returns to dust, and the Spirit of God swirls like the wind among teary eyes and fresh-cut flowers

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