Wendell Berry on Ministers at Funerals
“The preacher, Brother Wingfare, was a seminary student only recently established with his new wife in Port William – a pale, slightly plump, impeccable young man, very new to his profession, very eager to please both God and man, a difficulty of which he had not yet encountered either extreme” (150).
One of the most daunting tasks for a new pastor is to preach a funeral, especially if the deceased was not a follower of Christ. I have found myself in this situation and been at a loss for words. Sometimes helpful advice for dealing with such circumstances can come from unlikely sources. This above is a quote from The Memory of Old Jack by Wendell Berry (Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 1999). Berry is probably one of the most talented writers in the English language alive today. He had a top-notch education and a very promising career, but at a decisive point in his life decided to give it up to move back to his rural home in Kentucky where he has spent the last several decades farming and writing books, poetry, and essays. For those of you who are SBTS students living in Louisville, you might be interested to know that Berry lives just a few miles up the interstate in Port Royal, KY. So far I’ve only read two of Berry’s fiction works, but I hope to read more. His writing is delightful to read, and his critique of modern culture is incisive. In fact, prior to the change in administration at SBTS in the early 90s, Berry visited the seminary several times to give lectures.
In The Memory of Old Jack, Berry recounts the life of a simple farmer. He does so by following Jack’s memories of his life, as he walks through his last day on earth. At the end of the book, Jack dies, and plans are made for his funeral. Jack was not a “churchly man,” so a simple graveside service is requested rather than an elaborate ceremony. The man responsible for planning the service asks the preacher simply to read a few psalms, and then end the service. However, during the service, Brother Wingfare decides to pray after reading the psalms. Berry records the substance of the prayer in an extended paragraph (159-160), detailing how Wingfare assured the audience of the deceased’s right standing before God, implored the lost to accept Christ, and thanked God for his special blessing upon America. Berry’s tone implies that he disapproves of the minister’s actions, since he went beyond what was asked of him and conducted a service that had little in connection with Jack who did not regularly attend church. Berry also implies that the minister’s prayer was far too long and consisted primarily of telling God things that he already knew. What can we as Christians, especially as those who desire one day to be pastors, take from this account?
To begin with, Berry should be credited with recognizing and pointing out a valid problem that often afflicts young ministers. Having learned good theology in the classroom, we are all too quick to dispense theological propositions with little real concern for those on the receiving end. Especially in delicate situations such as the death of a family member, a pastor should begin by listening much and speaking little. He should not speak of the solution to the problem of death until he has a small taste of the real human problem of death as it is being experienced by those close to the deceased. In other words, the pastor should have empathy with those grieving. Lack of empathy is sometimes demonstrated by long-winded prayers at funerals that have little to do with the matters of utmost importance. Berry also points out the common practice of preaching the lost into heaven at a funeral. Giving assurance of salvation, when the person gave little evidence of conversion, is not only irresponsible, it could potentially have eternal consequences in the lives of those present.
On the other hand, we must be clear that pastors should strive, in so far as it is possible, to share the gospel in such situations. Sometimes, the best way to do so is in the context of a prayer. So, while we should not dismiss what Berry is saying, we must also disagree with him, if he is saying that such things as prayers have no place in funerals. Yet he is right in stating that there is a certain manner in which those prayers should be conducted – with real empathy, and with respectfulness to the wishes of the family. Brother Wingfare had not yet encountered the difficulty of pleasing both God and man. Suffice it to say that he did on that day. Funerals are a sort of tight-rope in which we must try to please men, while at the same time being faithful to our calling as ministers of the gospel. If we must err, let us err on the side of pleasing God and occasionally offending man.