Saturday, July 08, 2006

Bearing Chris[t]

Today I officiated at the funeral of a sixteen-year-old. Over the past seven years I watched from a distance as he grew up. One of my earliest memories of him involves the church Christmas program early in our days at the Luverne church. Our son John (who is Hispanic), Chris (who was biracial) and an unremembered caucasian kid (sorry for the lapse in memory) were the three wise men in what was a culturally inclusive first at the church. During the years to follow I read the newspaper accounts of his sporting exploits and of his academic pursuits. I saw him frequently in worship services and then nearly every Wednesday night for three school years during the confirmation process. Chris was the community's "golden boy," and his parents' pride and joy. Chris was adopted when he was about a month old, a sudden surprise in the lives of his parents. I overheard his mother say last night at the visitation, "Chris left us in the same way that he came to us ... suddenly."

Christopher's life came to a screeching halt on Wednesday afternoon, July 5. He was traveling south of the small town in which he lived, had talked with girlfriend a few minutes earlier and said, "I'll see you in ten minutes. I love you." Those were the last words he was to speak. Within minutes his life was ended as he made an impromptu U-turn on a dangerous rural intersection. A semi driver, unable to stop quickly enough, broadsided the car in which he was driving. He was killed instantly.

Claudia called me with the news within hours and my initial shock led to a sense of deep grief and despair. Although Chris and I were never close ... I was his pastor, and his family were parishioners ... there is something about watching a child grow into a young man and following his athletic and academic career that creates an amorophous connection. When I discovered that his parents were asking me to officiate at his funeral, I was overwhelmed, knowing there were several issues to be resolved before I could say "yes." Chief among them regarded the pastoral ethics of the situation. When we pastors move to a new place of ministry, we are expected to do just that. To maintain pastoral ties with a previous congregation creates challenges for a new pastor and robs a new congregation of the pastoral ministry to which it is entitled. My successor at Luverne was out of town for a two-week continuing education experience, so he and I talked about the situation. Graciously he extended to me the courtesy to return "home" to officiate.

So, yesterday afternoon I left, met with the family, and spent the next four hours at the visitation, a mute witness to the community's support of grieving parents. I had the opportunity to visit with numerous friends from Luverne and to share in their shock and grief, so while it was emotionally exhausting, it was also deeply meaningful for me personally.

Today we gathered to say goodbye to Christopher. The service was held in the school gymnasium and held hundreds of family, friends and community members. Without question this was the hardest funeral service I have had. In over twenty years of pastoral ministry, I have burried 150 to 200 people -- some of whose services also verged on tragic -- but not like this, with a youth cut down before the prime of his life.

I shared today with the gathered crowd what the name "Christopher" means. From the Latin and romance family of languages, Christopher means "bearer of Christ." I didn't know Chris well enough outside of the church doors to know whether he spoke in words about his faith. Like most sixteen-year-olds, I suspect he verbalized little. But I am coming to realize that there are many ways in which we who are created in God's image bring glory to the Creator. In the case of this young man, God's glory was seen in his academic achievement, his athletic prowess, and his enthusiasm for life. I asked the congregation to think of ways that Chris was a bearer of Christ, and ways in which each of us could bear Christ, taking the seeds gathered from Chris's life into our own.

One of the most moving parts of this experience for me has to do with Chris's Personal Expression of Faith. In the confirmation process, the third year project is for the confirmand to create something that expresses their sense of faith in God. Fourteen months ago Chris created a life-size cross for his Personal Expression of Faith. It was so large, in fact, that we couldn't get it in the church doors. It stood in our church's courtyard for the days leading up to the service of confirmation, and as I walked by it day after day I smiled to myself as I thought of how appropriate it was for Chris to create such a large cross. Chris's approach to life has always been to excel, to produce, to be bigger and better, flashy, extravegant.

Today the cross Chris created to express his faith is the one that marks the accident site which took his life. The cross he created was plain, unadorned, stately. Tonight, amidst the hot humid air of early July, prairie grasses ebb and flow with the breezes of life, as Chris's cross finds itself adorned with gifts from friends. A football helmet, athletic shoes, a Hershey bar, balloons ... these reminders of his life are gathered near the cross he created to express his faith in God.

And today the one named "Christ-bearer" is borne in the arms of Christ, a beloved child Home ... too early by all human accounts, but Home with the One who knew him first.


FAScinated said...

I am sure that Christopher's family was thankful to have you there. I know it was difficult for you. Your words are beautiful. ~Kari

Buffalo Gal said...

Bart, I was in attendance yesterday at Chris's funeral. Your words of comfort were what the community and family were needing. To know that questions unanswered are okay and that moving forward with God's lead and direction would be our comfort were especially important to me. Witnessing the oh so brave and meaningful words spoken by so many young people was overwhelming. Your message was from the heart and touched everyone in the gymnasium. And oh my, what an emotional challenge for your pastoral experiences. Well done Bart. I am sure this service has made a lasting impact as you move forward again with your life work. God's speed. Buffalo Gal... Jeanne

Gary said...

I am a member of Bart's new congregation. He told us this story in his sermon Sunday, and touched many hearts. We are already beginning to see what kind of a man we have for our new pastor.

Bart, we thank and praise the Lord for bringing you to us, and we pray the Lord's blessing on your old church in Luverne.

May God continue to guard, guide, and bless you, your wife, and your special family.

In Christ,
Gary Zimmerli