There is not one color in the world,
That is not intended to make us rejoice.
He did well, I thought. I'll admit I wasn't expecting much. We were in a tiny country church whose doorway the deceased, an 85-year-old woman with Alzheimer's, hadn't darkened for a decade at least. The preacher didn't know the woman really, nor did I. Still, truth be told, I'd give him an A-. Not reluctantly either. Okay, A maybe.
Having read ten thousand essays makes me forever a critic. But then sermon evaluation is way of life for any full-blood Christian Reformed kid of my era. I grew up in a loving home where sermon critiques were Sunday fare; but the only roast on the table was baked with potatoes and onions. Preachers didn't get cooked at the Schaap house; my father was PK. But sermons were pulled apart, and if found overdone, declared so. What I'm saying is that I can't help myself. When I hear a sermon I evaluate.
Yesterday, I thought the preacher was sound and personal and comforting, which is just about all that's required at a funeral. An old friend whose father was a preacher used to tell her that funerals were lovely things because all he had to do was read Psalm 90 and he'd have rapt attention. I suppose yesterday the bar was low.
I didn't know the woman who died, my wife's aunt. She lived a ways away, and the family wasn't all that close anymore. But it's hard not to notice a casket in front of the communion table. Still, had my heart been heavy with grief, like some were, I likely wouldn't have been so critical.
The woman's obit set out how she was the one in the family, the kids said, who made sure that they got to church, that they knew what they needed to for Sunday School and catechism, that kept their spiritual lives in line. Like most farm wives of her era, her kingdom was the home, which reportedly she kept, smilingly. What she loved more than anything, the kids had told the preacher, was flowers and birds.
So that's where he started. He admitted his thumb was anything but green. The only plant he had in his study, he said--he didn't know exactly what it was--was plainly dying. The sermon--it wasn't too long at all--took aim at life's fragility, how, like most of the wild flowers in our backyard, beauty was fleeting. See them there?--well, tomorrow they're gone.
Nothing new there. But then I've read Psalm 90 a hundred times, but I still get knee-capped by "establish the work of our hands."
The sermon was not an unfamiliar tune. In ancient poetry it's called ubi sunt, I think, if I can remember my notes from English lit. "'Where have all the flowers gone?" some hippy trio used to sing. It's lament, and it's old and staid and serious; not frivolous, not silly. He didn't try to be cute. There's nothing cute about Psalm 90.
"Our flowers are only flowers"--that's it really. That's a line Edgar Allen Poe, but it was, for the most part, the basis of his sincere and gracious homily, and, as I've already said, it was good and right and fitting.
But I've been toying around with Calvin lately (that's not meant as oxymoron), and I've become convinced that somehow my own Calvinist education cheated me out of respect for JC's marvelous sense of the eternal beauty of this world. Sometimes, I swear, I think Calvin was Lakota or Navajo because flowers aren't just flowers in Calvin. See those lines at the top of the page?--that's him sort of, maybe a bit of a Schaap turn, but just about pure Calvin.
Those flowers, the heavens above, the farmland all around getting ready for harvest, the hills and mountains, lakes and plains--they're not just object lessons. They're not gods, as the Yankton Sioux who once lived here beneath my feet might regard them, but neither is this world a flannelgraph. Calvin thinks they're so much God that only in their presence, only in our natural world, do we come to know, for sure, that he is God and we, for sure, are not. In flowers we come to see just exactly how much we need him.
How about this?
Nothing is so obscure or contemptible.
even in the smallest corners of the earth,
that it cannot display some of the marks and the wisdom of God.
Might have been Sitting Bull, but that's Calvin.
What that preacher said at the funeral wasn't unbiblical (my spellcheck doesn't know what to do with that word). Not at all. "Consider the lilly," "the birds of the field. . ." You know. "Dust to dust"--it's all there. I'm saying he didn't breathe a word of heresy.
But I couldn't help wonder whether that farm woman who tended flowers out there in the yard all her life long didn't see more, even in those early-bloomin' hollyhocks, than ubi sunt. I can't imagine she thought of them as symbols.
A rose is a rose is a rose, I wanted to tell him.
Don't get me wrong. It was a very fine funeral, and all around the front of the sanctuary stood beautiful flowers.