Fractured Family

A few years ago I had the idea that the people of our world divide easily into two groups: church people and non-church people. That point of view was understandable; I was a pastor and thoroughly steeped in the culture of American Churchianity.

In those days I attended an unusual funeral. I was there because I knew Laura, the daughter of the deceased. Laura once told me that her mother was not a church person and had a bit of a wild side. Her mother’s closest friends had been her co-workers. They often met after work for drinks and fun. Many of them were present at the funeral, and they were a somewhat rowdy bunch. Most were not dressed in traditional funeral attire. Instead of suits and dresses they wore jeans, motorcycle leathers, and had colorful bandanas on their heads. I had the impression that a number of them were part of a motorcycle club of some kind. They made up roughly half of those gathered at the graveside.

Laura had a powerful conversion experience in her twenties. She got Jesus, religion, and church at the same time. And all three took. I got the feeling that her religion and her mother’s lack thereof had caused some friction over the years. Laura's friends made up the other half of those present. We were a churchy bunch if I’ve ever seen one, dressed in our suits and ties and looking a little uncomfortable with the presence of the leather and bandana gang.

It was kind of a long funeral. There was a full service in the chapel and more words at the graveside. I noticed the non-church people were getting a bit antsy. I felt for them. I was a little bored myself. I wondered how they were hearing all of this.

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to blah blah blah. Yay verily it is said that man may higgity hoggity blah. Ashes to ashes, dust to blah blah ho hum blah.

I could see the non-religious types struggling. They were getting a bit fidgety. Meanwhile the churchy people were soldiering bravely on, either truly interested in what was being said or so accustomed to sitting politely through sermons that they could easily handle a 20-minute graveside service.

Finally the minister finished and said amen. Immediately, a man wearing a leather jacket and a red, white, and blue bandana shouted, “Everyone come over to Judy’s house for beer and cigarettes!”

This interjection was greeted with exuberant cheers by the bandana and leather people, while the church crowd stared, horrified at such a coarse outburst in this sacred moment. Those in suits and dresses leaned together and whispered disapprovingly. The bandana bunch didn’t seem to notice the whispers. They were laughing and making plans for their own funeral observance at Judy’s house, one perhaps more suited to their style.

I stood off to the side, watching as I often do, loner that I am. I was greatly amused by both the call for a party and the reaction it created.

I looked to my left and saw a woman watching me, smoking a cigarette. She tilted her head back, pressed her lips together, and blew a stream of smoke into the air. She began laughing as the last of the smoke was leaving her mouth. Apparently she had been watching the whole scene as I had. I walked toward her and she headed my way. We met under the funeral canopy by the back row of chairs.

“That was hilarious, right?” she said.

“Yeah,” I agreed. “What a thing to say at a funeral.”

“No, I meant how uptight the people in suits were. Whispering like the devil himself had showed up.”

I laughed. “Yeah, it was all pretty funny.”

She put her cigarette in her mouth and inhaled, watching me with eyes slightly squinted. She turned her head a little to the side and exhaled out of the corner of her mouth.

“You’re Laura’s preacher, aren’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Why didn’t you do the service?”

“I don’t know. They didn’t ask. Maybe her mom knew the minister or something.”

She nodded. “You going to Judy’s?”

I hadn’t even considered the possibility of this and was somewhat surprised she would ask.

“Oh. Uh, I guess not. I don’t even know Judy.”

“Everybody’s welcome. We're just gonna drink some beers; blow off a little steam; have some fun. C’mon, you look like you could use a little fun, to be honest with you.”

I started to say no, but suddenly a little fun sounded pretty good. “Okay, how do I get to Judy’s house?”

You might be wondering why that last part was in italics. If you’re suspecting that it never happened, you’re right. It didn’t. I made all that up. What really happened is the church people got in their cars and drove away, while the leather and bandana people went to Judy’s house where, I suppose, they had beer and cigarettes.

It's too bad we couldn't have gotten together. We might have learned some things from each other.

Poor, fractured family of humanity. Like dysfunctional children we have retreated deeply into the roles we imagine were given as our birthrights. And now we sit, polarized, glaring at each other and unable to come together to mourn or celebrate.

Gordon Atkinson

Image from the Microsoft Digital Collection