Posted in Moments of grace

Memorials in a pandemic world

I am just now beginning to catch up with some funerals and memorial services. When the pandemic hit, much of life came to a standstill. Death, however, was not deterred. No visits to the hospital, nursing home or hospice house. No visits with the dying. Limited contact with the bereaved. We were not open for worship. No funerals. No memorials. No committals.

As we cautiously reopened our church building for worship, cemeteries allowed a few to gather and families carefully began to travel, I made overdue plans for memorial and funeral services. But it’s different. It’s one thing to gather in the week following a death. It’s another to put it off three or more months. It’s one thing to mourn in person. It’s another to grieve online. Here are some of my experiences and observations from recent events.

Henry’s memorial was the first after we reopened out sanctuary for worship. The attenders were few as many were still cautious about being in a moderate-sized gathering. Watchers, however, were many. Our streaming capabilities were primitive but effective. We had viewers from all over the world. Family and friends from South Africa, London, Jamaica, Hawaii and New York all extended their condolences as we sang and prayed and remembered. We had over 100 comments during the service and many more who watched later. We never would have reached that many in the pre-pandemic world. What a blessing!

Don’s memorial came a whole three months after his death. His arrangements were challenging because we had to coordinate with a national cemetery sixty miles to the south. Once we set a date, some who had planned on coming changed their minds. Others who were reluctant to come decided to attend. We had to rethink some of the music at the last minute, due to illness. But by the grace of God, everything went much better than we expected.

Janey’s memorial is still on hold. We have set and cancelled dates several times. Some do not want to travel and would love a conference-call style service. Others do not want a virtual gathering, preferring to be there in person. I do not know when or how we will get this figured out.

And we have no idea about how to plan for C.’s memorial. Travel restrictions complicate that planning. it’s so hard for the family. They feel like they need to do something. But they also feel like there’s nothing they can do!

I do know that for myself, the mood of a memorial service three or four months after a death is quite different. Yes, there is sadness, tears and grief. But in some ways the memories are move vivid, the obituaries are longer and the shared stories are more detailed. The numbness of that first week of grief has passed, many emotions have been processed and the atmosphere is lighter a few months out. Rather than having to remind folks that life goes on, it’s obvious. Life has indeed gone on.

Three or four months down the road though, it’s starting to feel like old news. We may not all be at the acceptance stage of grief, but many are well on the way. And just when you’re getting close, you have to dig up memories and emotions once again for the memorial service. Some just don’t want to do that.

And of course, the whole worship experience is different. Masks are prevalent. Distancing is practiced. Hugs are few and far between. When all have left, the room is quickly disinfected. The choreography of gathering has changed, and we are all still learning the steps.

But we are gathering. And that is a tremendous blessing. The memories that make us either cry or laugh are so much better when we can share them with others. The smell of the flowers, the collage of pictures and the sound of familiar songs and readings are so much sweeter in the presence of those we love. I doubt that will ever change.

Posted in death

A shrine in the woods

I (and Samson) have probably walked past this little shrine a hundred times. It’s about fifty feet off the road in an undeveloped lot next to a drainage ditch around the block from my house. I always knew there was something there on the tree, but couldn’t quite see what. Today we decided to take a closer look.

It’s there in memory of Justin, a twenty-three year old young man. A couple of American flags suggest he may have died in military service of our country. A rosary lets me know someone still prays for him. A solar-powered angel-light stands vigil at night. A small valentine sits right next to a small stone reminding us of the presence of angels. A small sign reminds us to count our blessings.

I’ve seen plenty of little shrines at intersections and curves in the road where crashes have taken the lives of loved ones. When words fail us, small crosses, stuffed animals, pictures, flowers and flags announce to the world, “We miss this person a lot.” These carefully erected shrines express a grief in ways that words can’t.

There is almost always a cross at the center of those shrines. A cross that reminds us of Jesus’ horrible death. A cross that reminds us of Jesus’ victory over death on the third day. The church may not be filled with all those who believe, trust or grasp for hope in Christ. But they are out there. They say it with a memorial that speaks volumes about their loved one, their faith and their Lord.

Posted in death

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.

Posted in Ministry

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.

Posted in Ministry, preaching

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!

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in church, Ministry

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. 

 

Posted in Ministry

Back to back

Last week, two of my members died within days of each other. Both had slowly succumbed to the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease over the past few years. Both had been faithful members of the church for many years. I preached at both their memorials, held within days of each other.

I am very thankful for the comfort and encouragement found in God's Word at this time. I find that I need it just as much as the families. At one service, I spoke of how God never forgets us, even when minds fail to recognize our loved ones. Jesus calls his sheep by name, and in time, raises them to eternal life. At the other, I made the observation that when it seems like our loved ones are slipping away, they never slip away from our Heavenly Father. Nothing can separate us from his love in Christ Jesus.

I am also very thankful for the many members of our church who visited the families, attended the services and helped provide a meal afterwards. The time you spent with them and for them is a powerful message in itself. We're the body of Christ. When one part grieves, we share in that sorrow. And when we celebrate, we share the joy. This is so much a part of what it means to be the church.

At times I have been tempted to say that we, as Americans, just don't do death very well. But I have observed that when we do it as a church, we do it very well indeed. Gathered around the words and sacraments of a resurrected, living Lord, we look through the tears to our resurrection, reunion and rejoicing in eternity.

Yes, by the grace of God, I believe we do this very, very well.