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09. November 2017 · Comments Off on WIRELESS RUDENESS · Categories: CHURCH, Funerals, Internet · Tags: ,

 It is not often that I quote the words of The Pope, but an article in today’s newspaper (THE STANDARD) in Kenya caught my eye. During his weekly general audience in St. Peters Square he chastised people on their use of smart phones, saying “At a certain point in the ceremony the priest says ‘lift up your hearts’.  He doesn’t say, ‘lift up your mobile phones to take photographs.”  He went on to say, “its so sad when I’m celebrating mass here or inside the basilica and I see lots of phones held up – not just by the faithful, but also by priests and bishops! Please!”

I think we all have experienced it – a special moment ruined either by the sound of a mobile phone ringing, or some person snapping a picture with their smartphone at the wrong time.  Not just in church either. Family dinner time.  Concerts.  Special celebrations like weddings, anniversaries or birthdays – even a special date with a special someone.  Really – you need to remain accessible for the rest of the world to call you – even then? I have even heard of people taking their smartphone to bed with them, so that that they might see who is texting them or emailing them throughout the night.

At one time, being available, and able to be reached anywhere and anytime was a sign of importance.  Doctors (and others) would have little beepers attached to their belt and then suddenly in the middle of something have to get up and go to the nearest telephone to call the paging company.  Then the little pager became a little more sophisticated…the number calling you would be displayed on the pager.  I remember having one of those when I was in sales during a career break.  But now we live in the age of the smartphone.  No longer just a mobile phone or “cell phone” as we used to call it.  The smartphone keeps us “wired” and in touch all the time with all the world.  We can be reachable by phone, or by social media or email, or even surf the web anywhere, anytime. And … anybody can have one.  I can remember when mobile phone was part of science fiction.  Remember the agent who talked into a fountain pen?  Then came the first mobile phones – big bulky things.  Car phones that had to be wired into your car to work.  And now? The most sophisticated devices accessible to anyone, not just those who need to be accessible.

Now I am not against those things.  I have one myself.  Nor is the pope against social media.  I am told that he has 14 million followers on his English language Twitter account alone.  He has even gone so far as to say that the internet, social media, and texting can be “a gift of God” if used wisely (though he also said that young people should exchange their smartphones for pocket Bibles.  Perhaps he doesn’t know that you can read the Bible with your smartphone.  As a pastor, when I made visits to the hospital, I always took my smartphone along because I had access to various versions, and various languages of the Bible (German or English) and I used the one that suited the patient.

Like all the other electronic tools and toys before it, the smartphone in and of itself is amoral – neither good or evil.  But the person using it can be either, or at the very least rude.  Rude? You ask me?  Well let me explain.  If you and I were having a face to face conversation, and somebody else came and began to talk to me, would you not think it rude if I suddenly ignored you and carried on a conversation with that other person?  How then, is it polite to do the same thing using a smartphone?  But I have had it done to me many many times.  “Excuse me”, says my partner “but I really need to take this call”.  Then the phone conversation goes on an on while I twiddle my thumbs.  Actually, I usually pull out my smartphone and check my email at such a point.

And then there are the thoughtless people who allow their cell phones or whatever to ring at the most inappropriate moments, such as worship services, weddings, and funerals.  In the last church that I served, we had to every Sunday put a note in the bulletin and on the overhead screen, asking worshippers to please silence their electronic gadgets.  I thought it was sad that we had actually do that.  And still I would observe people texting or whatever throughout the service, thinking the people on the platform don’t notice.  During a funeral that I was conducting in my last church, a phone rang on two occasions.  From the sound of the funky ring tone it was the same phone both times.  The first time I said nothing and just went on with the service while others around the offender glared at him.  When it happened again during a very solemn moment in the service, and it wouldn’t stop, I had enough.  I stopped what I was doing and looked over in the direction of the offender and asked him to please silence his phone.  (I later found out that he was so flustered because he couldn’t get it to stop).  I was criticized for that move because he told others after the service that I had hurt his feelings by singling him out.  I reminded the critics that this person (who did not belong to our congregation) rudely interrupted a very important service in the life of that grieving family.  Secondly the service wasn’t about him, so I didn’t care about him being offended or not.  He should have known better.  Whether you know how to operate your smart phone or not, turn it off before going to a special event.  Or if you must remain reachable, then put the thing on vibrate so it doesn’t disturb others.

One last bit of irony.  Smartphones and other electronic toys supposedly enhance communication between humans.  But sadly, with all this accessibility and availability, studies have shown that we have become less effective communicators when face to face with others.  Just watch next time you go out to dinner, or even look at your own dinner table.  How is the conversation going?  Do you actually talk to the person or persons you are with?  Do you let others horn in on that conversation with an MSN text or an email, or a phone call?  And, seriously were these interrupters and those interruptions really so important that they couldn’t wait until after dinner?  Or church?  Or the movie?  Or whatever?



22. February 2015 · Comments Off on WHEN FUNERALS TURN UGLY · Categories: Death, Funerals · Tags: , ,

funeralfightGrief sometimes brings out the worst in people.  Add to that the fact that funerals sometimes bring families together even when they don’t want to be together, and you have a recipe for disaster.  I have witnessed several family conflicts at funerals but one remains indelibly fixed in memory, as if it were yesterday.

It involved a large family that had been feuding for decades.  As with most family feuds, many did not even remember what started the feud, only that there is an “us” and a “they” and never the twain shall speak nor meet.  Now the matriarch of the family had died, and two siblings, who hadn’t spoken to one another in decades both arrived at the funeral home expecting that they would be in charge of the arrangements.

The arrangements conference turned ugly as the old bitterness surfaced with everyone’s defenses down  It became a shouting match.  The funeral director tried in vain to mediate, and without taking sides of course, he pleaded with all to call a truce until their mother had been buried. No dice.  Soon it became physical and the funeral director threatened to call the police.  Before he could do so, the big brother, all 300 pounds of him landed at the bottom of a stairway.  The director called 911 which brought police, ambulance, and fire department to the funeral home. The big brother was taken to the hospital with multiple fractures to spine and hip. He was in the hospital for his own mother’s funeral.  The person who had done the shoving was charged with assault.

It was my task to officiate at the funeral, as the deceased was a member of my congregation. I did what I always do, and called a family meeting to plan the service.  There needed to be two meetings, because hardly anyone was on speaking terms.  There were two separate viewings on two separate evenings so that the warring factions did not have to interact with one another.  That was ackward for friends – which visitation do you attend, without offending the other side?  The service itself was held at the funeral home, which was configured in such a way that each family group could sit in separate rooms and still see and hear me, without having to look at each other.  They rode to the cemetery in separate limousines.  Around the grave, they stood as far away as possible.  The post-service reception was at the church, with the principal mourners at opposite ends of the room of course.  I made sure to spend an equal amount of time with each. As I started to go over to the other group, someone from the first group asked, “why do you have to go and speak to them?” My answer was simply, “because they too have lost their mother.”

Afterwards one of the siblings asked to speak to me privately outside.  He took out a wad of cash and began to peel off some big bills to give me.  I explained that my honorarium had already been taken care of with a check from the funeral home, the amount of which would be added to the family’s bill. (It’s called a disbursement in the industry).  At which point he hollered at me, “so my money isn’t good enough for you?” and stuffed the bills into my suit jacket.  I took them out and counted them and said that I would treat them as a donation to the church, and make sure that he received a tax-deductible receipt. I knew that if I accepted the money, there would be all sorts of innuendo about double dipping for openers.

How can families avoid this kind of thing?

  1. Keep the lines of communication open. If there are differences, resolve them as sooner rather than later. Life is too short.
  1. Be sure you know who legally has the final say about whatever your wishes are for your final arrangements. In some jurisdictions the next of kin (and the law spells out who that is and in what order they have the power to act) and in others the executor of the estate has the final say. Make sure it is someone whom you trust to carry out your wishes.
  1. Pre-arrangements do help the survivors understand what your wishes are, rather than having to guess “what she would have wanted”. Make these arrangements when you are not under any pressure. Pre-pay if you can.
  1. If you are a surviving adult, then behave like an adult. Don’t act like an idiot, because if you do, that is what people will remember and they will talk about you for a long time, instead of your loved one.
  1. Respect is a currency that must be earned, and if lost cannot always be recovered. Perhaps your actions will be forgotten by some, but not by those closest to you, like your children who pick up more than you think! Don’t forfeit this currency, just to make a point!

Remember, the funeral is not about you

This post also appeared as a “guest post” on the blog “Confessions of a Funeral Director”. Thanks, Caleb Wilde for hosting me there.


13. December 2014 · Comments Off on GRIEF AND THE HOLIDAYS · Categories: Christmas, Death, Funerals, Grief, LIFE AND DEATH · Tags: ,

318640-depressaoIt was one day before Christmas Eve. The casket stood at the front of the decorated church, almost literally under the Christmas tree. In less than 24 hours the place would be packed to capacity and ringing with joyful carols and other festive music. But today it was the scene of the funeral of a prominent church member. In the casket was a 51 year old father of three: two teenagers and a twelve-year old. For them and their widowed mother this scene was surreal. The husband and father had died of cancer. The family had hoped he would at least make it to Christmas. A few days earlier, when I met with them in the home, the widow bitterly remarked, “some Christmas this is going to be.” What does a young preacher in his twenties say in such a situation? Seminary had not prepared me for this (or a lot of other things still to unfold in my ministry). Fortunately – or not—there had been some preparations. I had been handed a piece of paper, on which were written, in the handwriting of the deceased, Scripture Readings, hymns, and a terse note: “I want you to preach on the following text which I have chosen.” That paper was indeed the framework for the service and it allowed us not to have to comment on the obvious by referring to Christmas. That was more than 30 years ago. And while I never again had something quite that dramatic, I did have to again and again comfort people who were facing the first Christmas without a loved one, or the last Christmas with a terminally ill family member. And hence, these little pointers.

The first thing I would say is that there is no right or wrong way to handle grief at Christmas, or at any other time for that matter. What is helpful to some, will be useless for someone else. How you choose to handle the holidays will depend on your religious beliefs, your cultural customs,how you are emotionally “wired” and many other factors. What follows is intended only as some pointers to liberate you from the fear of the holidays.

  1. Don’t let anyone tell you what you should or should not do. It is possible that you will receive unsolicited advice from people who have good intentions, but are lacking in courtesy and tact. Listen if you must, but DO what you think is best and helpful to you.
  2. Should you “Skip” Christmas? It may surprise some to hear me as a minister say, “by all means—if that is your way of coping.” No one is under any obligation to “keep Christmas”. I reminded my congregation that the early Christian church got along quite fine without celebrating Jesus’s birth, and nobody knows the date on which he was born, except that it more probably than not wasn’t on December 25. If Christmas is just too much to handle emotionally one year, go easy on yourself and dispense with all of it…sending cards, buying gifts, going to parties, or even going to church. The family that I wrote about above did not attend the Christmas Eve service the day after the funeral, and nobody faulted them.
  3. If skipping Christmas is not for you, then consider a “different” Christmas. While some people take comfort in keeping old traditions alive, others find it more helpful to invent new traditions. Moving the venue of the celebrations can give a fresh perspective on things. I remember the first Christmas after my mother died, we moved the family   celebration from my parents’ home to my home. For me the added work was a wonderful distraction and it acknowledged that family  Christmases would permanently be different.
  4. Try not to mask your grief. Some people do that by throwing themselves into as much activity and as much merriment as possible. Others avoid mentioning the name of their loved one thinking that will bring “bad luck” or make things worse. But the contrary might be true. Christmas is a nostalgic time and some have shared with me how helpful it was to remember the good Christmases past, even if that brings on tears. You mightfind yourself crying one minute and laughing the next, even as you remember some of the fun times with your loved one.
  5. Go Easy on yourself. Particularly if you are the caring and nurturing type who likes to take care of everyone else. It is not selfish to look after one’s own needs, especially during a time of grief.
  6. Accept Gestures of Help and Support. This is a double edged sword. People who are bereaved often feel neglected and left out after the funeral. On the other hand, people have told me how they tried to reach out to bereaved friends only to be repeatedly rebuffed. Finally they gave up. If someone offers to do something for you like provide a meal, a gift, or help with a chore do accept it graciously…or ask for a rain check if the time just isn’t right.

And How Can You Be Helpful to Someone Who is Grieving Over the Holidays?

  1. Don’t Assume that  someone wants to be excluded from social functions because they are in mourning. Let them make the decision about whether they are up to taking part in something or not. Perhaps being included, especially in things they used to do with a group of friends, is just what they need. Do invite them, but give them the freedom to decline if that is better for them.
  2. Don’t Pretend that the Deceased Never Existed. Friends are sometimes afraid to mention the name of someone who died, fearing it will upset the family. The truth is, they are thinking about their loved one a lot, and some have told me how hurtful it is when others behave as if the person was forgotten. Mention the deceased by name, when it would naturally come up in conversation, such as talking about memories – Christmas or otherwise.
  3. Should I send a Christmas card? There is no right or wrong answer to that. It would depend on what your usual custom is, how close to Christmas the death or funeral is etc. If you always exchanged cards, it might seem unusual to your friend if you suddenly stopped. In addition to the pre-printed prose that comes in the card, a hand-written note that you are thinking of them in a special way will probably by meaningful. As in other expressions of sympathy, avoid clichés, and unhelpful platitudes.
  4. Avoid saying, “If there is anything I can do, please call”. Most people will not take you up on it, thinking they are imposing or otherwise inconveniencing you. Also many people who say that, do it to ease their own conscience (at least we offered!) even if they have no intention of doing anything. It is much more thoughtful to find a need and meet it. Don’t ask if you can bring over a meal or shovel their snow or whatever. Just show up and do it. Or keep in touch with phone calls, emails, or visits, depending on your relationship. Perhaps you will become aware of something that “you can do”.
  5. Be Persistent but not overbearing. Be there when you are needed, but give your friends space when they need that. Be a ready and willing listener, but don’t ask prying questions.
  6. Invitations to small gatherings or perhaps a lunch with just the two of you might be more helpful than a large party (although consider # 1 above)
  7. Don’t Pretend that Everything is fine like it used to be. This Christmas will be different for your friends, and perhaps it will be difficult. The mirth and the joyful celebration of others may underscore the pain your friend is feeling. Don’t pretend by telling them to “get their mind off things” or say “you’ll feel better if you do this or that” . Help your friend to make the best out of a difficult situation. They will remember your thoughtfulness…or your insensitivity for years to come.

This post also appeared as a “guest blog” on   Confessions of a Funeral Director.

17. November 2014 · Comments Off on EXPRESSING CONDOLENCES….WHAT TO SAY…WHAT NOT TO SAY · Categories: Death, Funerals, Grief, Guest Bloggers · Tags: , ,

Today’s Guest Post is written by Suzie Kober

imagesB918UZVJSometimes what you shouldn’t say in a delicate situation can be just as important as deciding what to say. While you obviously wouldn’t say anything to intentionally hurt anyone, even words meant to be helpful may have the wrong result. When planning your words of comfort, some things should be avoided.

I Know How You Feel.” No you don’t. Not even if you experienced the same kind of loss. Every person feels things differently and deals with grief in their own way. Yes, you may have lost a mother, father or spouse just like the person who is grieving now. But you don’t know if you had the same kind of relationship with your family member that they did. Perhaps they are feeling guilt because of previous issues or overwhelmed because that person handled everything. No one can truly know how another person feels.

“It Was For the Best.”No matter how much this may be true, don’t say it. Often when someone dies after a long, painful illness, people say this as a way to make others feel better, but it doesn’t. No, they wouldn’t want the person back in a body wracked with pain. But they want the person who lived prior to the illness back. That would be best in their hearts.

“He or She is at Peace Now (or in Heaven).” Grief is really not about the person who died, but the one left behind. It doesn’t matter what your religious beliefs are or where you believe your loved one has gone, they are not with you. You are going to miss them, and that is why you are grieving. Saying they are in a better place or at rest doesn’t remove the fact that they aren’t with their loved ones.

“At Least You Are Not Alone.” People often say this in one form or another. They say that you have other kids when you lose a child or that you have a spouse when you lose a parent. They may even imply that because you still have your children, losing a spouse is not all that bad. While you may not really mean it that way, the wrong phrase can leave the implication. It’s as if having someone around makes up for the loss of another person. You cannot replace one family member with another one.

What to Say

If these are things you have said in the past to offer comfort, you may be at a loss of what to say instead. The truth is, sometimes less is more. If you really don’t have any words to say, offer silent comfort. Think about what message you want to give to that person and compose words that relay that. Chances are, what you really want to say is “I’m sorry” or “I don’t know what to say but I hurt for you.” If that is the case, then say it. Don’t try to come up with clichéd statements that can cause more pain than comfort.

Suzie Kolber is a writer at http://obituarieshelp.org/words_of_condolences_hub.html . The site is a complete guide for someone seeking help for writing words of condolences sympathy messages, condolence letters and funeral planning resources.


A video posted on Facebook, where   the pastor and the bride end up in a pool of water during a wedding brought not only a good laugh, but also reminded me how easy it is for such an important moment like a wedding, a funeral or a baptism to go horribly wrong.  These things look and sound funny after the fact, but they are not funny at the time.  Every pastor, I think remembers how nervous we were at our first “first” of these occasions. And some of us had moments that we would either like to forget, or which we laugh about in retrospect.

When it comes to baptisms, I had a few tense moments.  Remember, I’m a Baptist and so administering baptism by immersion is considerably more complicated to do than it is to watch. I remember one baptism early in my career where the candidate was hydrophobic, but did not tell me about that before hand.  As I was about to lower her into the water, the candidate suddenly began to flail her arms and and tear at my robe, almost pulling me into the water with her. Water splashed everywhere, much to the amusement of the children sitting in the front pew watching the spectacle.  It never happened again, but now I cautiously inquire of candidates whether they are afraid of water, and would take some proactive steps.

Another baptism was also not amusing for the woman involved.  She was very vain about her appearance and so ignored my advice to secure her wig with a kerchief, or perhaps remove it and wear a bathing cap instead.  You guessed it. She went down into the water wearing her wig, and came up with a completely bald head.  Amazingly, I was so involved in what I was doing, I didn’t notice until she said to me from the top of the baptistery stairs, “bring the wig with you.”  I looked down, and there was the wig at the bottom of the pool! How was I to fish it out of there unobtrusively? I thought I was discreet enough by moving it with my foot to the bottom of the stairs, and then bending down and concealing it in the folds of my gown as I exited the baptistery.  But my secretary who was in the audience later told me that the whole performance was plainly visible to the congregation.

I had only two weddings go a little wrong.  One had to do with the bride’s name. In this day and age not all brides take their husband’s surname.  Some keep their name, others hyphenate it etc.  I always check ahead of time how a couple wishes to handle this and how they want to be presented or introduced at the end of the ceremony.  I thought I had remembered it well, but when it came time to present them, I introduced them as “Mr. and Mrs.”  as they had requested,…but used the Bride’s surname!  Their fee was refunded.  That’s when I learned the cardinal rule to doing any kind of ceremony … write down every word and don’t ever wing it.

At another wedding I had indeed written everything down but forgot the rings in the ceremony. I was ready to send them back up the aisle when  the Maid of Honour tried to signal me by pulling her ring on and off, but I didn’t notice.  Finally she came over and whispered in my ear, “you forgot the rings.” I tried a “save” by saying something like “whereas you have exchanged vows, and sealed them with a kiss, it is customary also to exchange rings..”. Afterwards the mother of the bride came to me in tears and said, “that was so moving! I have never seen the rings part done so beautifully!”  Well I knew that she would find out the truth eventually, so I confessed that the reason I did it that way was because I had forgotten. It was the talk of the reception.  Some knew about the blooper, others liked or disliked what they thought was an innovation.

Funerals – though I have done many, have mostly gone smoothly except the one that I was not prepared for.  I was not scheduled to officiate, but rather to assist another minister by reading Scripture and offering prayer.  While sitting in the funeral home office waiting for the other minister to appear, I was called to the phone a few minutes before the service was scheduled to begin.  It was the other minister. His car would not start, and he had another funeral across town  later that afternoon. His words to me, “would you mind taking care of this one?” Take care of it? A young rookie minister who could count all the funerals he had done on one hand? The funeral director, who knew about the problem was standing beside me and said, “well?”  I replied that I would need a few minutes to prepare. “I can give you 10, but no more, because we have other services.” Ten minutes later he was back, and we processed into the chapel, much to the surprise of many who were waiting there.  After a loooong opening prayer, I stumbled my way through an obituary, and an extemporaneous message on the Scripture that I had previously been asked only to read.  Everyone but me thought it was “a lovely service.”

Does anyone else know any such stories?  Any pastors who are reading this? Or perhaps you have observed something that your pastor did that must have been embarrassing or funny. If so, please share them by posting in the comments section below.  The only requirement – it has to be true – either experienced or observed by you.  Remember, I reserve the right to edit.

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