A friend on the staff of a large church emailed about a family basically living in the ICU ward of a local hospital in our city. Doctors had told the parents nothing more can be done for the daughter. So they were standing by, waiting for God to take her home.
The friend asked if I could visit this family.
An hour later, I was in their hospital room.
The patient lay there heavily sedated, while family members and friends were seated around the room, talking softly. They greeted me warmly, having been informed that I was coming.
Two things about this family I found amazing. They had lived in the intensive care units of their hospital back home and this one in my city for over 40 days. And yet, there was such a steady peace and beautiful joy about them.
The question I face
That brings me to my dilemma, one I have frequently encountered when calling on the families of Godly people going through various kinds of crises: Do I enter into their joy or remain outside?
“And we urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all men” (I Thessalonians 5:14).
At the funeral, as at every other place where you rise to serve the Lord, preacher, tell the truth.
The gospel truth.
You have an obligation to comfort the bereaved, true. But you have an even greater duty to obey your Lord by declaring the whole counsel of God.
The Holy Spirit can guide you on how to do both; the flesh doesn’t have a clue and will lean to one extreme or the other.
My pastor friend R. J. did something rather bold the other day.
“As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17).
One of the most productive things any minister does is spend time with a good friend bouncing ideas and stories off each other.
Their wives might not appreciate what they are accomplishing–it looks a lot like fun and if she is the left-brained pragmatic one in the family, she can cite a list of a hundred things her preacher-husband could be doing. But let the ministers insist. Resist. Persist.
A pastor friend and I were in my office one morning, bouncing ideas and stories off each other. My favorite thing to do.
Somehow we began discussing the Amazon River. I have no idea how that happened.
If you’re ever sitting around with two or three preachers, ask for their funniest stories, the most memorable wedding or funeral they’ve done, something like that. Pull up a chair because you’ll be here for an hour.
I don’t have any funerals where the “honored guest” got up and walked out, or where the wrong person was discovered to be in the casket, or such foolishness as that. And for good reason.
Funerals are highly structured affairs, regulated by state law and overseen by a whole battery of mortuary employees and family members.
When we gather at the funeral home, the family has already been in conference with the mortician on how they want things done. The funeral directors stand nearby to make sure all goes according to plan. As a result, there is usually very little wiggle room there, space for the unexpected to occur.
And that’s not all bad.
I did this one funeral…
(Do not miss the personal testimony of a pastor friend at the end.)
Someone asked, “Why do pastors not weep at funerals? My pastor didn’t even weep at his own mother’s services.”
Interesting question. I think we know the answer.
In my case, by the time we laid my wonderful mama to rest, I was in my early 70s and she was nearly 96. She was so ready to go. If it’s possible to prepare to give one’s beloved mother back to Jesus, I think we were that. And yes, we still miss her every day, and it’s been almost eight years.
But there’s another reason for the lack of tears. Starting early–my mid-20s–I began doing heart-breaking funerals, one after another, the kind that will tear your heart out and stomp it and leave it writhing on the pavement. Do enough of these, and eventually you run out of tears.
It’s not that you do not care, do not love, or cannot feel. It’s just that you care and love and feel without tears.
In novels, every loose end must come together and be tied up. In real life, they almost never do.
My friend Holly, a wife and mother and piano teacher, was telling us about her son Andrew’s snowglobe. The music it puts out “drives me nuts,” she says, “as a musician with certain OCD tendencies.” The snowglobe’s music apparatus plays “White Christmas,” but not completely.. After the line “May your days be merry and bright….” it just ends, then repeats itself. Holly asks, “What evil genius in the music box factory decided they couldn’t put in those final nine notes? Gaaaah!!!
I smiled. Holly’s father is a pastor and her heart belongs exclusively to the Lord Jesus Christ. That’s why I felt comfortable in sending her my little lesson on Andrew’s snowglobe music box.
“What a great metaphor for life, where maybe ten percent of anything ‘resolves.’ Novelists must make all the threads come together at the end, but in real life, that rarely happens. So, Andrew’s globe is sending him a message: ‘Get used to it, kid.’
“Only at the end, the ‘real end,’ will all things come together and all accounts be settled. When that happens, every eye shall see Jesus, every knee bow before Him, and every tongue confess Him as Lord. Amen.”
My friend Rebecca is the mother of a son, 8, and a daughter, 6. Here’s what happened the other night.
I was asleep in the dead of night. Suddenly, I became aware that Mia, my six-year-old, had crawled into our bed and was talking to me.
Mia: “Mom, how old is Jesus?”
Mom: “Honey, Jesus isn’t any age any more.”
Mia: “Mom, did you find Dad and make him marry you? or did Dad find you and make you marry him?”
The lady is on her deathbed, it would appear. Her mind comes and goes, according to family members. Sometimes she is lucid, at other times not.
They called me. Would I come by the hospital to see her? The daughter said, “Sometimes when she is ‘with us,’ she seems troubled. Today she said, ‘There are some people I need to apologize to.'”
“We were hoping you could give her some peace.”
Since I was the family’s pastor many years ago, I knew some of the history. My feeling was that the lady was a genuine Christian although I sensed she had not progressed in spiritual maturity as she should.
In her hospital room I greeted her and we chatted. I said, “You have given your life to Jesus Christ, is that right?” The voice was weak, but she was nodding her head. She had. “And you love Him?” Again, yes.
“But you have not always been faithful.” She shook her head, indicating it was so true.
I said, “Neither have I. None of us have. We have all done a poor job of living for Him. That’s why we appreciate so much His faithfulness.”
We were gathered around the bed where my wife of 52 years lay. We had signed the papers to unplug her from life support. Everyone was in tears. After a time, I said to my family, “Now listen. One of these days it will be Grandpa lying here. And I don’t want all this crying.” Granddaughter Abby said, “Why not?” I said, “Well, good night, I’ll be 98 years old and I will have preached the previous Sunday! What’s to cry about?” They all laughed.
I say a lot of things just to get a laugh. It goes back to childhood so it’s who I am, I suppose. But this one is dead on. I want to live a long time and stay active serving the Lord and loving the special people around me. Ideally, the only people attending my funeral will be friends of my grandchildren since I will have outlived all my contemporaries.
I may or may not do that.
My times are in God’s hands. I know that and I’m good with it.
I go to a lot of funerals. Yesterday, in fact, I went to two. For the first I occupied a pew and I was the officiator at the second.
More and more I give thought to my own memorial service. And in planning it–if that’s what I’m doing here–I don’t want to fall into the trap of thinking I deserve a service befitting the King of England or something. Simple is good. And brief is not bad.
This was written some years back after the drowning death of little Haylee Mazzella, the granddaughter of my dear friends Dr. Buford and Bonnie Easley. I came across it this week, handwritten hastily, in an old file. I have no idea whether I ever shared it with the family or not. The grandfather is now in Heaven, alongside our wonderful Lord Jesus and Buford’s precious granddaughter. My heart still hurts from the memory.
If our grief could ease just a sliver of your grief, you would have none left because so many friends are sorrowing for you today.
If our tears could dry your tears, you would weep no more, because so many are heartbroken for you today.
If our pain could erase yours, you would never against experience a moment’s discomfort the rest of your life, because so many are hurting for you today.
If our prayers could bring your child back, she would be with us this very moment because so many are interceding for you today.
If our grief could ease your grief, our tears dry your tears, our pain erase your pain, and our prayers undo this tragedy, it would be done in a heartbeat.