Every funeral I attended as a child — and I attended way too many — included some warbling rendition of “Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me.” I hate that song.
I associate it with the sight of waxy, dead, unknown distant relatives and the smell of flower sprays. Such experiences created anxiety within my young self, kept me awake at night, proffered a vindictive image of God, and once resulted in my throwing up a perfectly good Payday candy bar.
Today I consider attending funerals of those who shaped my life, or to support my grieving friends, to be an important priority. But that doesn’t erase the traumatizing memories from sitting through long, hot funerals as a child.
Last year my daughter Abigail and I wiggled our way into the graveside service for Southern rocker Gregg Allman at Macon’s Riverside Cemetery. My 19-year-old University of Georgia student whispered to me, “You know, this is the first funeral I’ve ever attended.”
I hadn’t realize that — and perhaps, as a parent, overreacted to my own childhood experiences with funeral attendance.
Those unsettling times were made worse by that awful hymn with the graphic lyrics, “Let the water and the blood, From Thy wounded side which flowed.” No wonder I was squeamish and never considered a career as an embalmer.
Yet the worst of the bad lyrics followed next: “Be of sin the double cure, Save from wrath and make me pure.” (I noticed some later versions of the hymn changed the wording.)
Even before deeper theological reflection on the penal substitution understanding of atonement, I found the concept bothersome. Such a “double cure” was designed to appease the divine wrath that had resulted from an entrapment of God’s own making or at least allowance.
Such a double cure deserved a double take. It portrayed God in spiteful and unloving ways that don’t jibe with the fuller revelation of God in Jesus Christ.
In fact, conveying Jesus’ death as a predetermined, inevitable act of God’s intention that results simply in a get-out-of-hell-free pass actually diminishes the very revelation of God in Christ.
Substitutionary atonement is not the only — nor best — way to understand the crucifixion and resurrection just commemorated in our Holy Week and Easter observances. Jesus was not merely “born to die” as some required blood sacrifice to placate a wrathful, entrapped deity with no other viable way to express forgiveness.
Rather the crucifixion and resurrection revealed the extent to which, despite humanity’s rejection, God lovingly turned the most destructive event in human history into the most constructive event in human history (life over death).
We are saved not by the well-executed, preplanned act of God’s self-gratification but by God’s ample and amazing grace revealed most clearly in Jesus Christ from birth to ascension — including his life, death and resurrection through which we find abundant and eternal life.
Jesus didn’t “come to die” but to reveal God more fully to humanity, to teach us how to live more meaningfully, and to offer grace that exceeds beyond our human boundaries — now and forever.
I wish that hopeful and assuring message of divine love were expressed more clearly at the funerals I attended in the rural churches of northwest Georgia as child — and in the ways we speak of God and grace today.