Friday, July 19, 2013

Book Review: Accompany Them With Singing by Thomas Long

Several years ago, I was invited to attend a seminar for pastors hosted by a large funeral home in our city. I decided to go, if for no other reason than out of sheer curiosity as to why the funeral home would be hosting a seminar for pastors. The speaker was Tom Long, and the content of that seminar was an overview of the major themes of this book. I was so captivated by what he was saying, I had to purchase the book.

When I attended the seminar, and subsequently began reading the book, I was still reeling from a couple of funerals I had recently performed in which the requests of the surviving families for a "personalized" service had completely bypassed "sublime" and made a bee-line for "ridiculous." Hearing Dr. Long speak, and reading his more thorough explanations, about what went wrong with funerals, what they are supposed to be, and how to fix them, was so refreshing and practically helpful. The book deals with funerals from a distinctly Christian perspective, and does so historically, philosophically, theologically, pastorally, and practically. I have recommended the book to nearly every pastor I know, and I never miss an opportunity to implement some of its many helpful applications in my own ministry as I conduct funerals. Long helps us to not only do better what we do, but also to do it with more understanding of why we do those things. It is the ideal balance of theory and practice.

There are a few places throughout the book where Long's personal theological commitments surface, and I would charitably classify some of his views as "left of center." Despite his thoroughly "gospel" vocabulary, there are indications that Long is "inclusivist" in his soteriology, with periodic flashes of what could be understood as universalism here and there in the book. There is also a steady stream of sacramentalism that would be questionable to many Baptists (myself included). In short, Long represents the theological commitments of mainline Protestantism, and as someone who stands outside the mainline, I find many places where my theology differs, and I consider Long to be not just wrong but dead and dangerously wrong. Thankfully those places are infrequent in the book. So, the book is not without its shortcomings. And yet, on a scale of 1-5, I would STILL give it a 5! It really is that good.

At times, Long is firm in biblical conviction about a belief or practice that has Scriptural underpinnings. Then there are moments when he is firm, yet realistic when it comes to matters of traditional practice. And there are moments of refreshing candor when he acknowledges liberty for personal preferences and local traditions to arise. But the clarion call of this book is that there is something different about the funeral of a Christian. And that "something different" is to be experienced, shared, and even celebrated by the entire community of faith as we walk them to the edge of eternity and bid them farewell.

There are four kinds of people who should read this book. The author's intent is undoubtedly for his book to be read by pastors. However, there is benefit to be found beyond the clergy. If I were in a position of authority with a funeral home, I would require this book to be read by every staff member. Thirdly, if you are a Christian and you foresee a day in your own future wherein you would have to carry out the responsibilities of laying your loved one to rest, you would certainly benefit from the entire book. Fourth, knowing that one day you will attend your last funeral (as the guest of honor no doubt), reading this book could be of tremendous help to you as you talk about your wishes with your family.

So, bottom line -- 5 stars, Must reading for pastors and church leaders; good reading even for those who are not. My hope is that the book will be read widely, the ideas will be championed broadly, and that we might see a "Reformation" of funerary practices in contemporary American culture. 

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