The phone rang.
“Did you watch it?”
“Watch what?” ( I suspected what ‘it’ was but I didn’t really want to talk about “it” anyway.)
After which she recounted to me a lot of the post-death spiritual paraphernalia that floats around American spirituality. Some strange paella of “Touched by an Angel”, “It’s a Wonderful Life”, “Heaven Can Wait”, “a better place” and just about anything else they can put on a card.
“Don’t pay any attention to it. You’re a Christian, you believe in the resurrection. All that stuff you’re seeing is just a show.”
“What do you mean it’s just a show?! I saw his daughter. She got behind the mike and she cried for her daddy.”
“Yes, she’s grieving the loss of her father. Of course that’s real, but the whole thing is a show. Don’t pay any attention to it. Forget all the talk.”
That’s a highly compressed and sanitized version of a phone call. I didn’t really have the right words to explain what Michael Jackson’s funeral was, then I read this Salon piece. The author put his finger on it perfectly.
Somewhere, buried in the bloated national extravaganza inspired by Jackson’s death, are no doubt such real, modest, heartfelt feelings about him, feelings shared by millions of people. But Jackson was such a strange, enigmatic and problematic man that the only people who can truly mourn him are those who actually knew him, his family and friends — for everyone else, mourning him is like mourning a billboard. The overriding sense of the hoopla over Jackson is of falseness, the hollowness of emotions blown up far beyond their actual size. We simply don’t have an appropriate public mechanism for dealing with the passing of a figure like Jackson. The endless media firestorm and the overblown memorial service created the sense that America was grieving, when all that was really happening was a mass immersion in the tidal wave created when a chunk of celebrity glacier fell into the ocean. Something big had happened, and everyone wanted to get in front of the camera, like those people who stand in the background of interviews, inanely smiling and waving. America was not mourning the death of a human being: It was bowing down before celebrity itself. The whole thing was a gigantic lie, and faintly obscene — a disservice to the idea of mourning, and ultimately to Jackson, whoever he was.
After the phone call I pondered the poverty of my church, my denomination, my own ministry. This woman has lived her life within the CRC, raised on the Heidelberg Catechism, attends Coffee Break and Sunday worship without fail. Despite all of those classes, all of those sermons, all of that indoctrination she is swept away by this “mourning of a billboard.” I doubt she ever owned a single recording of his music but the news, the publicity, the “star power” of the celebrities showing up on stage saying glorious things about this man sweeps her away into something that is as religious as anything we do at our little church and as pagan as anything she’s ever seen but she couldn’t tell the difference.
To me this speaks of our need of a shepherd. We are sheep. That’s what he Bible likens us to. I’ve never really known a sheep personally, but I assume they are a lot dumber than a household cat. If a cat can be mesmerized by a piece of dangling string, what hope does a sheep have.
I don’t think our little, struggling congregation will ever mesmerize anyone. To most observers we’re likely a lot less interesting than a twitching piece of string, there is nothing “celebrity” about us. What we declare though, is that we have a shepherd. Our behavior makes it plain that we don’t always want him, but it sure makes it clear that we need him.