Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Book Review: This Incomplete One

This Incomplete One is a difficult, painful, searing book. It is also a book every pastor ought to have in their library. Perhaps it's a book that every Christian ought to have in their library. It's that important.

It's important because it walks on ground few of us are ever prepared to tread, it enters into places we never want to go; yet, all too often, we find ourselves there, and need help, need resources, need something to begin to show us how to regain our feet and our faith.

This Incomplete One is a collection of sermons preached at funerals for people who died too young. There are sermons for unborn babies, for children, for teenagers, for young people just entering into their adult lives, for a pastor in his mid-30s. There are sermons for people who died of sickness, of car accidents, of mountain climbing accidents. There are sermons by pastors who barely knew the deceased; there are sermons by fathers burying their own children.

As you might imagine, every emotion is seared across the pages of this book: doubt, fear, rage, hope, joy in happy memories, disgust with the trivial words of thoughtless well-wishers, and, of course, deep sorrow and sadness.

There are sermons by well-known pastors, teachers, and theologians across the centuries, including Karl Barth, Jonathon Edwards, Fleming Rutledge, and Friedrich Schleiermacher, as well as sermons by men and women unknown to me.

The book becomes then a resource in two aspects: 1) it gives the minister words to consider when confronted with similar situations, and 2) it forces the reader to enter into this painful killing field, wrestling with the deep, unanswered questions found there, and thus, hopefully, preparing them emotionally and spiritually for the day they are called to minister in these trying times.

As the book is simply a collection of sermons, the reader can pick it up and enter at any place, rather than reading straight through. I found this helpful, as it was difficult to read more than one or two chapters at a time without having to put it down and process what I was reading. Even as I read the last few sermons while flying home from Chicago earlier this month, I found myself choking up, tears coming to my eyes at the raw, naked emotion laid out in the thoughts and words of those facing the darkest terrors known to humanity.

On the other hand, I've already given a copy to a friend who recently lost her son, copied a chapter for a couple who lost a child last summer, and recommended it to another friend who lost his nephew last summer. I have the feeling I'm going to be returning to this book many times; I also believe I'll continue to hand out copies to help people in their grieving process in days and years to come.

And, finally, I must add that Fleming Rutledge's sermon, given for a young man who died of AIDS, was such a powerful Easter word, such a beautiful, simple explanation of Christ's atoning work delivering us from death to life, that I believe it has planted the seed for my own Easter sermon. "And then he was alive. The tomb could not hold him. The stone was simply blown aside by God's returning life - not returning human life, which always ends in dissolution and death, but God's life, which is triumphant over anything and everything that threatens human existence, including most of all dissolution and death. The resurrection of Jesus Christ means that God has reversed the story, reversed the odds, reversed the direction - from death to life."

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