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!

 

 

 

 

 

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. 

 

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.