I didn’t realize the disconnect until I heard a reflection from one of my friend’s about the experience of attending a funeral and having an altar call. An altar call is a common part of evangelical communities of faith that invites people attending to “get right with the Lord” to “rededicate their lives” or to “make a profession of faith” or more simply to join of a community of faith with a congregational polity.
All of these terms are insider terms, I’ve heard my whole life. It didn’t ever seem odd to me to have an altar call at a funeral because altar calls were as common a part of the worship experience as singing the Gloria Patri or the Doxology are to other communities of faith. These liturgical elements of worship don’t stand out when you are one of the insiders who is accustomed to them.
But when we change funerals to celebrations of life, which there is good reason both theologically and emotionally for doing, we also run the risk of confining grieving loved ones to an expected reaction to death. When we say, “well, at least he or she is in a better place” or the like, then we are saying that you, loved one of the departed shouldn’t be upset or sad because you wouldn’t really choose this existence over heaven, would you? Guilt and shame and anxiety heaped on top of grief.
This is spiritual abuse.
Instead of dictating how people should respond to the shocking reality that someone they loved isn’t here, what if instead, we opted to not shroud death and grief in canned theological responses and simply allowed people to grieve, whichever and whatever way they needed to grieve in that moment, in that day.
A key part of spiritual abuse is coercion to a set of expected behaviors. Grief is not expected or controlled nor should it be. One of the reason communities of faith are so full of spiritual abuse is our need for control, predictability, and order.
But what if God is found not in the predictability and order, but in the unpredictability chaos that is life and death. Perhaps this week more than any other week as we follow Jesus and his disciples to the cross, we would do well to feel the loss and chaos and grief the disciples and loved ones in Jesus’ life felt as he was crucified on the cross. What if instead of skipping over Maundy Thursday and Good Friday to get to Easter morning, we sat in the grief and confusion and chaos of death as so many in our communities of faith are.
Perhaps then we could sit with those who have felt grief and loss so deeply and actually minister to them rather than adding spiritual abuse to their lives in a time of vulnerability.