Death just isn’t convenient.

I was talking to the last few people to leave church yesterday when a friend told me, “I had a question posed to me. Someone asked, ‘Why did you schedule ______’s memorial service for a Thursday?'”

“Well,” I said, “First of all, just about everyone he knew is retired, so I didn’t think it really mattered which day I picked. Plus the only family he has, his neices, will be in town that week, and I wanted to include them if possible.”

And then I added, “Death just isn’t convenient, is it?” We both just smiled.

That afternoon I pondered the wisdom and truth of my words. Death isn’t convenient. It always interrupts our schedules, routines and habits. Suddenly, we have to deal with funerals and memorial services, funeral homes and cemeteries, death certificates and insurance policies, family and friends, emotions and feelings. And none of it was on your calendar.

Death is never on my calendar. Neither my own nor anyone else’s. It’s funny. You know it’s coming. But you don’t know when. So for the most part, you never expect it to happen. You live as if you and everyone else were immortal. And then just like that, you are proved wrong. Death happens.

When a member dies, they immediately get a spot on my calendar for their funeral or memorial. Family gets slots on my schedule for visits. All kinds of folks flex their schdules or ask for time off to gather for a service.

Because death just isn’t convenient.

A tale of two memorials.

Last Saturday, I did two memorial services, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. The services were similar, yet very different. Seven people attended the first service, including the organist and myself. More than two hundred attended the second, including the organist and myself, the choir, a soloist, an honor guard, plus a bagpiper and drummer.

I don’t often have a doubleheader, but I had been traveling our of the country for the last few weeks (as my readers know), and the families were waiting for my return.

I knew everyone who gathered for the first service in our chapel, including the widow, her elder, her sister, her sister’s husband and a family friend. After my sermon, I had a chance to ask them to share a memory, a story, or a quote and everyone did. It was a moment that produced more laughs than tears, speaking powerfully of the family’s love and closeness. I love it when God’s Word does exactly what it say it will, and turns our mourning into joy.

I did not know most of the people who attended the second service in the main sanctuary. The family began arriving ninety minutes before worship began. There were flowers to arrange, pictures to display, details to go over, more copies of the worship folder to make, sound checks, food to prepare, and seats to be reserved. After my sermon, the son of the deceased shared some wonderful memories which also made us simultaneously laugh and cry. More memories were later shared at a meal served in our fellowship hall.

From my preacher’s point of view, these were two very different experiences. Of course I enjoy a church full of people, but sometimes it’s easier to connect with a smaller crowd in a smaller space. With a smaller group you get immediate feedback. After speaking to a larger group, responses tend to come later. A big attendance tends to make me feel important (not good). Smaller numbers remind me they are important.

Jesus spent some afternoons with thousands of people. Other nights with just one. John’s visions of heaven in Revelation include multitudes no one can count. I’m looking forward to being a part of that crowd. He is certainly worthy of such honor and praise.

Early in the morning, though, it feels like just Jesus and me. I don’t deserve that kind of attention. But I always look forward to that private audience, too.

What do you say at your father’s funeral?

I was the third of three preachers at my Dad’s funeral. My son Adam (pastor at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church and School, Dallas, TX) went first, followed by my brother Jim (Pastor at St. Athanasius Lutheran Church, Vienna, VA), and then me. Here’s what I said.

“[The women] departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. And behold, Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” (Matthew 28:8,9).

That’s a game-changer, isn’t it? It’s a life-changing moment for the women who came to the tomb early on the first day of the week. It’s a life-changing moment for Jesus’ disciples who were hiding in an upper room. It’s a life-changing moment for us who have gathered here today in the name of the one – Jesus – who met them and said, “Greetings!”

Just like us, those women and disciples were dealing with death. On Friday, Jesus had been crucified. Some had heard the sound of nails driven through his hands and feet into the wood of the cross. Some had been there through the three hours of darkness. Some had been there to hear his last words and witness his last breath. Others had wrapped his body in linen and laid it in a tomb. A few witnessed the rolling of a huge stone across the opening of the tomb, to seal it shut. It was a dark day. A sad day. A tear-filled day. A Friday.

But these words are from Sunday, the first day of a new week. The earth shakes. An angel comes rolls away the stone from the tomb. The guards pass out. And the angel says to the women, “He is not here, for he has risen, as he said.” (28:6). The tomb no longer contains a corpse. It is empty. Jesus is no longer dead. He is alive. Jesus’ words about death and resurrection are no longer a prediction. They are now a reality.

This moment really does change everything.

  • Jesus is clearly not just a man or a great teacher. He is truly the eternal Son of God.
  • We can believe every word Jesus says.
  • We are not simply sinners who will always fall short of God’s glory. Jesus died in our place to pay for our sins. We are forgiven. We’ve been declared righteous. We will share his glory.
  • The grave cannot hold God’s people. Not for very long. “For the Lord himself will [one day] descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise” (1 Thess. 4:16).

These truths certainly changed everything for Dad.

  • Baptized ninety-five years ago, he became a child of God.
  • He sought and found the truth in a lifetime of hearing and reading God’s Word.
  • Words of absolution from his pastors (and his sons) continually and consistently announced  God’s forgiveness for all his sins.
  • And now he waits, along with us, for that day, for that voice, for that trumpet and for the resurrection!

These truths have certainly changed things for me! Just about every day I look at the picture of Mom and Dad holding me on my baptism day, September 29, 1957, and remember that I too am a child of God.

Next weekend, when I am back in the pulpit, I’ll be preaching about God’s discipline. The writer of Hebrews says that’s how you know you’re a child of God. Discipline was a little bit different when I was growing up, but Dad never hesitated to remind me that I was his dearly loved son!

I’m not sure how he did it, but somehow Dad got us to fight over who got to read the bible at family devotions. We had to keep a calendar to keep the peace. I don’t remember ever doubting that God’s Word was true.

One of the greatest gifts Dad ever gave was making sure we met Jesus on the way. In the Word. In worship. In song. In prayer. In life. And in death.

Very few people will ever hear of Dad’s faith. Yet his quiet faithfulness, left a legacy. Three pastors – so far. Three generations of children, grandchildren and great grandchildren – all zealous for the Lord. What a great gift to receive. What a great gift to pass along. And what a great gift to celebrate today!  

Preached at the funeral for William Douthwaite, Jr. (1924-2019) at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, Ridley Park, PA on Friday, August 16, 2019. The entire service can be viewed here.

Finally, a funeral

Funeral for William Douthwaite, Jr.
St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, Ridley Park, PA

We had been getting ready for this funeral for three years. That’s how long it had been since my Dad fell, his kidneys failed, and my brother, sister and I gathered to say goodbye to him at age 92. By the time I got there, though, he had rebounded and returned home after a few days in the hospital. Rather than a funeral, we started making arrangements for assisted living.

Two years ago, still in the memory care unit of a very nice assisted living facility, Dad stopped eating. Rather than another trip to the hospital to find out what was wrong, we admitted Dad into hospice so he could stay where he was. Once again, we gathered for what we thought would be the end of his ninety-three year earthly journey. However, his appetite soon returned, especially for ice cream and other desserts, and we did not need to make any arrangements.

This summer, after about three days into the Dallas portion of my vacation, I got the call that Dad had a fever that wouldn’t break, and was less and less lucid each day. The hospice nurse predicted he would only last a few days, if not a few hours. I quickly booked a flight as my sister boarded a train, and we once again gathered to be with Dad.

This time was indeed different. Dad was on oxygen, was not responsive, and indeed looked like he was at the end. My sister and I spend three days there, watching and listening to his rhythmic breathing. We read to him, sang some hymns, and agreed that even though this might be the end, we would never bet against Dad recovering.

At the age of ninety-five, though, his body just couldn’t fight the infection. No eating or drinking for days took its toll on his strength. But not till he stuck around for another six days. I had returned to Dallas and then home. My sister had gone home and returned over the weekend.

The call from my brother came early Monday morning, August 12. We had gotten home late, so we didn’t hear the phone buzz the first ten times. Finally, I heard something about 4 am, and my brother confirmed that Dad had died shortly after two, with him, my sister and sister-in-law holding his hand. Calm, peaceful, and pain-free, accompanied by families on this side and angels on the other. Not a bad way to go at all.

Over the next few days, my brother made arrangements for the funeral that had long ago been planned for Dad’s long time church in Ridley Park, PA and internment next to Mom at a cemetery in Aston. I booked flights for my wife and I, my son, and one of my daughters who brought her youngest along.

That Friday (August 16), a few family, friends and church members gathered to worship, remember Dad’s life, and look forward to the resurrection. My son, a pastor from Dallas, my brother, a pastor from Vienna, VA and myself co-officiated the service and all took a turn preaching. My sister played the organ and my nieces played violin. It was a unique and fitting moment for a man whose quiet faithfulness had left a legacy of three pastors (so far), and three generation of faithful children, spouses, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

When you live to be ninety-five, you outlive most of your family and friends. Dad was the youngest of seven children. His last remaining sibling had died some fifteen years before. Five of my cousins who were still in the area joined us that day. About half-a-dozen members of the church who had known Dad were still around and attended the service. A few folks from my brother’s church and some area clergy friends also attended.

While neither my brother nor I wanted to preach at my Mom’s funeral fourteen years ago, we both wanted to speak for Dad’s. I didn’t know how I would feel. You never really do, until you’re in the moment. My voice cracked just once, when I spoke of Dad, along with us, waiting for “that day, for that voice, for that trumpet and for the resurrection!” (1 Thessalonians 4:16). My brother Jim spoke on Dad’s favorite verse from Romans 8, that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love in Jesus Christ. My son Adam reminded us that even though our hearts and minds are filled with great memories, the best is yet to come when we get to be with the Lord.

My brother and I draped Dad’s casket with the funeral pall as my son reminded us of Dad’s baptism. We took turns reading scripture. Isaiah 55:6-13; Philippians 1:18-26; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 28:1-10. We preached around some great hymns. “For all the saints,” “The Lord’s my shepherd I’ll not want,” “My hope is built on nothing less,” “I know that my Redeemer lives,” and “Jesus lives, the vict’ry’s won.” It sounds like a lot, but only lasted a little more than an hour.

The procession to the cemetery had to navigate some interesting interstate traffic, but we all made it. After a brief committal and military honors, many of us gathered at a nearby restaurant for lunch, memories, laughter and a few pictures.

I had to get my son back to the airport for an evening flight home. My brother’s family, my sister and my family then hung out at our hotel suite that evening. That night was much more relaxed.

And just like that, it was over. Everyone returned home safely the next day.

I’m still trying to figure out how I feel. I don’t feel sad, but I know I’ll miss Dad. Our recent visits weren’t much. It’s not like I’ll miss our conversations. He typically sat and snoozed while I sat and visited with him. I’m a bit relieved. I didn’t get up there to visit him very often, and I always felt a little guilt about that. My brother, on the other hand, was there every day. This will leave a bigger void for him. We didn’t shed that many tears. Smiles and laughter predominated those last few days and the funeral service. Dad always made us laugh before, so why not now?

Most of all I’m just thankful. I’m thankful for what he taught me, for my memories of him, and for the faith he and Mom passed along to us kids.

Talking to myself (again)

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Photo by Mariam Soliman on Unsplash

Ten minutes before the memorial service began today, someone came over and said, “We’re not going to fit.”

We had everything set up and ready to go in our chapel, which seats about fifth comfortably. It was obvious we were going to exceed that. “Ok,” I said, “Everyone grab something.” Every able pair of hands grabbed flower arrangements, candles, pictures, the urn, a TV and computer for the slide show, plus my bible. The organist quickly ended the piece she was on and we were on our way to the main sanctuary. With grace and aplomb, we got everything set and ready to go just a few minutes after our scheduled start time.

When someone asks, “So how did the funeral go?” it’s hard to give an objective answer. After all, it is a funeral. But it went well, with a wide variety of people there to support and encourage the bereaved family, great Advent songs, and courageous thoughts shared by family members.

I almost always keep my composure, but today was an exception. Nine minutes and 45 seconds into my ten minute message, I mentioned a few images of the promised new heavens and new earth, and said,

If God has something like that in store for us, we can confidently commend our dear ones into his care. And he will give us the faith to get there ourselves.

But then for a few seconds, which seemed like a whole minute, I paused as emotion swelled up in my throat and moisture began to cloud my vision. I had to take a few deep breaths before continuing,

Death is wrong. It’s not the end of the trail. Jesus was right. Nothing is going to separate us from his love.

It’s not like I was hearing those words for the first time. I wrote them. But in that moment, I realized that there would be times that I would have to commend those I love into his care, and I would have to hold on tightly to his promises. For a few seconds, it was like I was speaking to myself. Or maybe even more accurately, God was speaking to me.

That’s pretty good motivation to preach the word. You get to hear it, too!

 

 

 

 

 

“We won’t be needing you after all.”

Why did I say, “Yes?” I suppose I was in a benevolent mood when a local funeral director called and asked if I could do a funeral service at their place on Wednesday morning. I like to serve the community in this way from time to time, so I agreed and waited to hear more details.

Details followed later in the afternoon, contact information for the family of the deceased. I called and set up an appointment to come to their home Tuesday afternoon, so I could prepare for the service.

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No this is not the house, but isn’t that a nice driveway?

When I got to the entrance gate, the guard had my name and pass ready and I drove through the exclusive neighborhood in our area. My GPS successfully guided me to a vast, beautiful home on the water on a quiet and upscale cup-de-sac. As I pulled into the brick-paved circular driveway, the blinds were closed tightly to the afternoon sun. I walked up and rang the doorbell.

After a few breaths, I rang the doorbell again. I listened for sounds of activity within. Silence. The lawn guy’s mower across the street was the only sound I heard. I glanced at my watch. I was about five minutes early. No problem. I’ll wait a few minutes. I am sure they are on their way.

A few minutes after the hour, I walked back to the front door and rang the bell a third time. While waiting, I dialed the number the funeral director had emailed to me. A voice answered and I told them I was at the front door, but no one seemed to be there. After a short awkward silence, an accented voice called a name, and another person came to the phone.

“Oh, my brother is going to do the service. The funeral home said they would call you.”

“OK, thank you. I’ll keep you and your family in my prayers.”

As I drove away, I glanced at my recent calls and voice messages. Nothing from the funeral home. I texted my office assistant to see if anyone had called. Not when she was there. I check the church’s voice mail. Nada.

So I called the funeral home and the director answered. “I just wanted to confirm that someone else is doing the service tomorrow.”

The director responded, “I’m not sure what you mean. We are still planning on you being here.” I explained my experience and conversation, and he assured me he would check things out. A few minutes later he called me back. “Yes, the family made other arrangements, but didn’t inform us. Thank you for letting us know.”

After all of that, I have to admit I’m glad they have to deal with the family. Clearly they are dealing with a lot right now, and need our prayers. I texted my assistant, “I think God knew I was already too busy this week.”

I went to a funeral.

shutterstock_722607682I went to a funeral yesterday. As I sat there before the service began, I realized that I’ve been to very few funerals that I haven’t conducted. The person who had died was the father of a member. I had met him a few times, but didn’t know him very well. I was there mostly to support the family.

The service was held in an Episcopal church. I don’t think I’ve ever been in an Episcopal church before, either. As expected much of the liturgy was familiar and reverent, the ministers did a good job, the family participated in a meaningful way.

But when it was all over, I thought to myself, “I wish it were Easter.” Why? Because if it were Easter, I would have heard an account of Jesus’ resurrection! The homily did contain a passing reference to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, but nothing more. The well-intended meditation focused on the ever-present love of God even in the face of death, but lacked the impact of the resurrection. Yes, the deceased will live on in our memories and in the presence of God, but no reference to that last day when Christ will come, the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised.

Though I wasn’t exactly grieving, I know that this was a tough day for the family. I don’t believe most of them had yet experienced the loss of someone that close to them, who was such an integral part of their lives.

I made up my mind right there and then that I would either read or include in any funeral or memorial sermon the account of Jesus’ resurrection from one of the gospels. If I’m doing your service, your friends and family are going to hear about the rolled away stone, an empty tomb, and angels telling you, “He’s not here, he is risen!” I cannot type, read or speak those words without feeling rush of emotion. A casket or an urn or even just a picture of the deceased may be on display before the altar. Death may have come quickly or over a long period of time. You may have had a chance to say good-bye. Or not. But you can be 100% sure that you will hear me say that the urn, coffin, vault, or grave can only hold your loved one for so long. When Jesus comes, the best trumpet I’ve ever heard (and I listen to a lot of trumpet players!) will be followed by the sounds and sights of urns, coffins, vaults and graves surrendering their dead as “the resurrection of the body” becomes a reality.

I am doing a memorial service next Saturday for a long-time member of our church. I am so looking forward to this. They are letting me pick the songs and readings. We’re going to send our friend and brother off with joy, hope and expectation!

Spoiler alert: at my funeral, you’re going to hear a Gospel Easter account (you pick one), Psalm 16, and 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. Hymns: My Hope is Built on Nothing Less, Crown Him with Many Crowns, In Thee is Gladness, and For All the Saints. Hire a trumpet player. There you go.  Funeral planning done. I suggest you do the same. 

 

When traditions begin to vanish

I went to the viewing of a friend’s father last night at a local funeral home. When I arrived, the staff showed me into the room for the visitation, a room that was virtually empty. Just a son and a granddaughter. I wasn’t early. In fact, I deliberately came a little bit later.

jerk 2As I sat and visited with them, a few others arrived and I suddenly found myself immersed in Jamaican culture. The conversation was filled with references to jerk seasoning, where to get the best jerk seasoning, plantains, rum, reggae music, Rasta, and cities and towns in Jamaica. As I listened and learned, it seemed like there was a running competition among them about who was still the most “Jamaican” among those who had lived in New York and now in Palm Coast for twenty or thirty years or more. Continue reading

See all the people

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I did a funeral service today for the brother of a dear member. I had visited, talked and prayed with him a number of times over the past six months as his cancer progressed and his family took care of him. During one visit, he asked me to do his funeral service, and I was glad to say yes.

After the worship service at the church, I chose to drive myself to the cemetery, following the hearse on a slow but steady eight mile ride through town. During that ride, I found myself marveling at all the people involved in making this day happen. I believe I was initially impressed with the six citizen patrol cars that escorted us through the various intersection of town. Zooming ahead, then lagging behind, we didn’t have to brake once.

“We” included the funeral director and staff. They arrived two hours early, set up the viewing in the chapel, arranged the flowers, welcomed and directed guests, and paid special attention to the family. They reverently moved the casket in and out, covering and uncovering it with the pall, drove the cars, and had the cemetery ready just when we arrived. Each one was professional, compassionate, efficient and a pleasure to talk and work with.

Meanwhile, back at the church, the organist had prepared music for the service, a dozen or more members prepared and set up a meal, the custodian had everything in order, elders were on duty, and even the office manager stepped in to sit with the family.

I had met with the family, helped them choose some hymns and scripture readings, put the service together and preached. I did my part, but it was only a slice of the day’s agenda.

What a difference a community of faith makes on a day like today! I suppose all of this could have taken place in non-faith context. But would it? Would we put that much effort into this event without the love of Christ and the hope of resurrection? Would people who didn’t know the deceased come just to be with someone in the family? (We had two dozen from our church, none of whom had met the man who died.) Perhaps. But I don’t believe it would be the same. As dearly loved children of God and brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ, our family is much bigger than we realize.

Until we get together to mourn or celebrate, to cry or laugh, to welcome or say goodbye, to both live and die. And how good it is to be able to do it together.