Editor’s Note: This story is written by staff writer Matt Appling, who blogs about church (and other things) several times a week over HERE. Do you “like” Prodigal on Facebook yet? What are you waiting for??
This room is full of complete strangers.
And most of these strangers are much older than I am. They are wearing their best suits and dresses. I’ve done my best to blend in.
The air is permeated with a somber feeling as many of them wipe tears from their eyes. Except for me. I am the only person in the room who has not shed one tear. In fact, my emotions at the moment are not at all sad, but nervous.
It’s not that I have no emotions around death. I’m just not feeling a personal loss for the man who is about to be eulogized. I never met him before in my life. However, I am a little bit nervous, because I’m standing at the front of this room, with a hundred pairs of teary eyes looking at me, waiting for me to speak. I’m the guy who supposed to be giving this stranger’s eulogy.
Most people would rather be in the dead man’s place than at the speaker’s podium.
Just a few weeks before, I was in a hospital lobby, waiting to visit a sick member of our church. Sitting across from me was a woman who could be my grandmother.
I don’t talk to strangers much, but the woman couldn’t help herself. She asked the reason for my visit, but she really wanted to tell me about her ordeal. She had spent weeks in the chair she now occupied. Her husband of many decades was dying just a few doors down the hallway. She had a lot of spark left in her. In fact, she struck me as a tough, salty kind of woman. She seemed like the kind of person who could put up a fight and get her way. But the exhaustion of the last month was carved into her face.
Her name was Bonnie.
I prayed with Bonnie, made my appointed visit and returned home. A week later, I returned to the hospital in the pouring rain. I wondered if Bonnie would still be in her chair.
She was right where I left her.
“If he dies, will you do his funeral?” she asked me.
I had never given a eulogy, much less for a man in an induced coma whom I had never met. But maybe he would pull through, and I’d be off the hook.
Telling a Dead Man’s Story
Four days later, I was definitely on the hook. John had passed away.
Contrary to what I was taught in seminary, a eulogy is not an opportunity for a three point gospel presentation. It’s an opportunity to tell a story. And really, it’s a story that the audience already knows.
So I sat on Bonnie’s couch while she and her sister shared with me John’s story.
I was nervous that the man may not have had a story. Maybe he wasted his life in front of the television. I was actually relieved to find out that he had been an alcoholic…and even more relieved that he had been sober for twenty years, upon an ultimatum from his wife. Like I said, she had the appearance of a woman who could put up a fight and get her way.
John was not a church-going man. Alcoholics Anonymous had been his church, his confessional and his community. I asked to see John’s “Big Book,” the Bible of AA.
And there was John’s story.
The worn out book, as I had hoped, was littered with underlining, circling and highlighting. It was a book belonging to a man who had demons to fight. The pen marks and wrinkled pages indicated the passages he relied on most.
No Copyright on Your Story
At the funeral home, I didn’t say anything those people didn’t already know. The room was full of John’s AA fellows. They bore the same scars he did. They carried him to his final resting place.
They were some of the most humble men I have ever met.
I dressed up John’s story with a little drama, a couple of jokes, and some Bible verses. I read some highlighted passages from John’s own Big Book, and hoped it was right.
We spend our lives trying to get ahead, accomplish goals, impress people, and live well.
This is how I spend my life.
But in the end, none of us really have a copyright on our own stories. We aren’t in control of how our stories will be told. They will be told with inflections and emphases that we may not have picked. Maybe people will make more of our strengths, or our weaknesses than we’d like. Our stories won’t be the goals and life plans we so carefully laid out. Our stories will be marked with the relationships we leave behind.
Our stories will be told by the people we cared for…and maybe a twenty-five year old we never met.