One of the unique and solemn privileges of being a pastor is sitting down with the family of a deceased loved one to take in a concentrated dose of eulogy–“good word”–about the recently departed. In these times the family reviews commonly known features of the person’s character and unearths rare anecdotal jewels that form a sparkling composite of their beloved. These are poignant times of joy, gratitude, and love amidst the sorrow of loss.
During such times I cannot help but wonder if the person being remembered knew all the things being said about them. If the family is healthy then I assume this eulogy will be representative of affirmations already spoken rather than secretly held appreciation. Still, I often think of the words of Garrison Keillor: “They say such nice things about people at their funerals that it makes me sad to realize I’m going to miss mine by just a few days.”
What would it look like for us to nurture a practice of eulogy toward those who are still living? This is not merely a sentimental notion for enhancing our relationships. No, a practice of eulogy flows directly from being a people defined by the euangelion, the good news that Christ’s death and resurrection means forgiveness and eternal life for all who trust in him. The good word God has declared about sinners who are one with Christ is so loud and definitive that we are called to a ministry of affirming God’s grace in one another’s lives. The Apostle Paul modeled this in his opening thanksgiving to the Corinthians. Unlike the Philippians or Colossians, the Corinthians had very little to commend. They were ego-centric, petty, fractured, and tolerant of flagrant sin. Yet Paul opened his letter to them with these words of affirmation: “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge—even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you—so that you are not lacking in any gift” (1 Corinthians 1:4–7). Even when there was very little good to say about these immature believers, God had declared a good word about them, giving Paul fodder for much encouragement.
How can we nurture a practice of eulogy? Consider these occasions when we can echo God’s good word about one another.
1. Practice eulogy on random occasions
Often a thought of gratitude or appreciation about someone will race through our minds and be gone within minutes. Flag that thought down and share the good word. If you are like me and know that writing a physical letter is an unlikely prospect, use some other means of communication. As non-ideal as e-mail, texting or social media can be, most people would rather receive an encouraging text message than nothing at all. So send a text and, the next time you are shopping, buy a stack of blank cards and stamps to be ready for a written letter in the future.
2. Practice eulogy on special occasions
Our friends John and Julie Majors have the practice of using a birthday dinner as an opportunity for eulogy, as each person around the table shares what he or she appreciates about the one celebrating the birthday. Other key milestones such as graduation or marriage or retirement are built-in times to give that person more than a gift card or toaster oven. Share words that highlight God’s specific work of grace in their lives and the way you see the character of Christ being formed in them. You’re paying $3 for the card anyway; why not fill it with good words?
3. Practice eulogy on difficult occasions
One of the wisest pieces of advice I have ever heard is Celestia Tracy’s “Oreo” method of confronting a person with how he or she hurt you. If the difficult word of confrontation is the cream in the middle, the cookies on the outside are eulogy–words of affirmation and appreciation. The point of confronting hurt is to restore a relationship, so enveloping that confrontation with twice as much encouragement communicates a desire for renewed fellowship.
May we practice eulogy frequently so that any words we share about a person at their funeral may be echoes of words shared during their lifetime.