Over the past twenty years or so, it has become customary to soften our language about death and dying. We don't use those words; we speak of "passing away," or "passing on." Funerals have become "celebrations of life" as we do our best to avoid the harsh reality with which we are faced. Today however, "celebration of life" was entirely fitting as the Panama Central School auditorium was filled to capacity with family, friends, and students offering their last goodbyes to Mr. Steven Swanson, musician, teacher, and man of faith and integrity who encouraged all who knew him, and was taken too soon from us.
I've been to plenty of funerals in the forty plus years I was in ministry, most of which I was the officiant. I've been to funerals that dragged on seemingly endlessly, and others that were over so quickly you hardly had time to figure out who it was for. But I've never been to a service like today's. For three hours, people talked, guests laughed, listened to music by half a dozen different groups or performers, and heard the Gospel proclaimed with clarity and power, culminating in the entire congregation singing and swaying to a dixieland version of "When the Saints Go Marching In." When it was all over, it was hard to believe we'd been there that long. It was truly a celebration of a remarkable life.
At one point as pastor Rick LaDue spoke of Steve's life struggles and his faith in Christ, I was overcome with a powerful realization of the depth and extent of God's mercy and grace that is continually extended to us in Christ. We never deserve it, cannot possibly earn it, but it is there, dispelling guilt and shame for anyone who has audacity enough to believe it. And as I scanned the nearly 675 people gathered to honor this man, I couldn't help remember that I went into ministry because I wanted to influence people for Christ, but if I really wanted to do that, I should have been a musician. I'd have had to be a very good one, whose enthusiasm for life and love of people was infectious and compelling. I made the right choice for me, but the influence of this man in this community was deep and far-reaching. Best of all, he was unashamedly a Christian, and today stands in the presence of the One who sought and bought him, and gave him life. Amazing Grace is truly that: amazing. And grace, rich and free for all who trust in Christ.