19 June 2007

Obits and Testimony

“With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus,

and great grace was upon them all.” Acts 4.33

Every month The Lutheran print a series of obituaries in the back pages of its edition. These aren’t the type of obituaries you see in the newspaper: they are simply names and dates of those clergy who have died, followed by a list of the parishes they served during their careers as ordained ministers.

I’m not a person who usually reads the obituaries in the local paper or the state editions of the larger papers, unless something in the headlines catches my eye as I flip through. But I do peruse these obituaries, for several reasons. First, I’ve been involved in the professional side of the church long enough that some of the retired pastors I knew years ago are dying. Second, I’m curious about where some of the clergy I don’t know have served in their years in the parish. Finally, I think about myself and how someday I’ll be one of those names listed, concisely covering the breadth of the ministry I hope to accomplish while I’m able.

I also receive the ELCA news via email. Occasionally that news service will send out an extended obituary if a Lutheran of considerable note dies. Usually this is someone who has served as a bishop, as a beloved teacher of the church, or a person of other noteworthy accomplishments. This obituary is much different than that which is printed in The Lutheran. ELCA News obituaries generally include descriptions of the person’s life, quotes from friends and family members, and information on funeral services and the location of the burial.

I’m of two minds regarding these obituaries. It’s a humbling thought, looking at those lists in The Lutheran, to think that someday the work I do will be reduced to such a short entry. At the same time, is it too prideful to hope that God might accomplish things through my ministry that would warrant a much more detailed obituary? Probably it is, and yet, I shudder to think that thirty-odd years of ministry, should I be so lucky, could be condensed into a paragraph in the back of a denominational magazine.

But then I remember that when I think of those who’ve built my faith and have now gone before me into the sleep of death, I don’t think in condensed terms. In my mind and soul, the obituaries of those persons are full and detailed. Pastor Robert Johnson was a kind, gentle man who made a young man feel welcome in a big church of big people. Dr. Richard Wallace taught me how to handle classroom interruptions with grace, and to preach with weight and clarity. Dr. Gerhard Forde taught me to treasure God’s grace as a gift of freedom, to live justified without guilt and to never, ever allow myself to think that discussing hypothetical minutiae was ministry. These people and many more proclaimed Jesus’ resurrection with great grace, and I will never forget their witness.

Likewise, I must remind myself that, contrary to what I sometimes think, magazines and emails are the temporary memorials. What lasts is the impact we have on people, those around us who are called by the same Holy Spirit to witness to the same resurrection. No obituary could ever describe the impact you and I have on our families, our friends and the world around us. Where we have proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus with clarity and power, we will be remembered – and that proclamation comes through many acts of kindness and grace in the course of a human life. Every day is an opportunity to give such testimony, and no matter what the obituary may describe, what lives in the memories of those we’ve touched is the eternal gift of grace which God gives. Your life cannot be summarized so neatly, but it can be remembered; may your testimony and the great grace of God be with you all.

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