A funny thing happened on the way to the cemetery

I’ve never done 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 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…

Where the man and his grandfather were buried together. The man was 34 and the grandfather was 64.  If the numbers don’t work for you, consider that the grandpa had died a full decade earlier but the family had not held a funeral. When the grandson was found in his freezer with an axe in his head–put there by his wife’s lesbian lover–the family wanted a joint funeral for both. The two women are serving life terms in the state penitentiary.

And the first time I held a funeral in one of New Orleans’ above-ground cemeteries….

The day before the funeral, the daughter-in-law said, “Now, pastor, tomorrow when we bury Roy’s mother…”  Yes?  “My mother will also be in the casket with her.” I said, “Excuse me?”  She said, “We cremated my mother some ten years ago and we haven’t known what to do with the ashes. We found out that it’s legal, so just before the casket is sealed, we’re going to slip the urn inside it and put both their names on the marble slab.”

She got a little gleam in her eye and said, “Just think–my mother and my mother-in-law in the same casket.” I said, “Did they get along together in life?”  She said, “It really doesn’t matter, does it?”

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When hope is all we have left

(This is reprinted intact from this website from March, 2010.) 

They called the other day and invited me to speak in chapel at a local Christian high school. I was delighted and told them what I usually do.

They said, “That’s fine. But another time. This time, we need something else.”

What I often do in high school assemblies, I told her, was to set my easel up on the gym floor and get two or three students out of the audience and caricature them. Then, for the piece de resistance, stand the principal before them and sketch him/her. After that, give them my 10 or 15 minute talk on lessons learned from a lifetime of drawing people on the subject of self-image, self-acceptance, and faith in the Lord who made us.

She said, “That sounds great. And we’d like to have you back to do that sometime. But we need something else from you this time.”

“One of our students is dying,” she said. “And it has shaken the entire student body. We need you to minister to us.”

The next day the student went to Heaven.

Today is Friday, the chapel service is Tuesday morning.

Get that? This Sunday is Palm Sunday, the next Sunday is Easter, and in between we’re going to have a service to talk about death and life.

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The two sides of death and why we don’t fear it any longer

God’s faithful no longer fear death as much as we used to.

Ever since our Lord Jesus went to the cross and pulled its fangs, descended into grave and recovered the keys, then rose from the tomb as the first fruits of eternal life, the poor ogre has lost his threat.

He still growls but all his rantings are just so much bumping his gums.

Maybe we ought to pity death.

Like a honeybee that has lost its stinger but is still flying around scaring people, death can no longer do any kind of significant damage to all who are in Jesus Christ.

No more fear, Christian. It’s all gone.

O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? (I Cor. 15:55)

Hebrews 2:14 puts this in an unforgettable way: He Himself partook of (flesh and blood) that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might deliver those who through fear of death were subject to bondage all their lives.

Defeat the devil, deliver the hostages.

Big task. Great victory. Huge celebration–one that’s still going on.

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The single reason we will not fear. Not now, not ever!

A program on a science channel dealt with “Venus: Earth’s Evil Twin.”  The two planets are similar in size, and according to the experts, have the same origin. But Venus is hellish, with acidic atmosphere and temperatures in the monstrous range.

Early in the program, the scientists began telling how Earth’s future is to become as Venus is now.  Not next week. But in the distant future.

Now, personally, I have no trouble with anything that occurs on this planet a billion years down the road, which is the time period the experts dealt with.  For one thing, I won’t be here, and neither will you.  For another, scripture says “the heavens will be destroyed by burning, and the elements will melt with intense heat” (2 Peter 3:12).

Wonder why they feel the need to say such?

Watch enough such science shows, and you come away feeling that their purpose was to unnerve the viewer, to frighten the audience with the awful fate awaiting the planet and possibly to eradicate any primitive thoughts of a God who could be expected to rescue us from such a future.

I suspect their ploy works.  If one watches enough of this stuff, it would.

But there is one thing–one word actually–which keeps people of faith grounded, one word which is our answer to those who would frighten us about the future of this universe.

Jesus.

Not religion, not faith, not hope, not perseverance or a thousand other important words.  Just this one: Jesus.

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Laying aside the earthly; get ready.

“For we know that if the earthly tent which is our house is torn down, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.”  (2 Corinthians 5:1)

“We do not want to be unclothed, but to be clothed, in order that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.” ( 2 Corinthians 5:4)

My wife gets attached to cars. I do not.  When I get through with a car, I pass it on to someone in the family.  I gave the 2015 Camry to my oldest granddaughter.  It started with the ’96 Camry many years back; that one went to my son.  Then the ’05 Camry to a granddaughter, the ’09 to our twin granddaughters, the ’13 Honda C-RV to my son, and the 2018 to the other son.  I’m happy to pass them along, and as one might expect, they enjoy getting them. (This last one, the 2021 is going to last for a while longer!)

I take good care of these cars and have them serviced by the dealer on the recommended schedule, and thus have almost no trouble from the car.  But when it’s time to replace it, I’m happy to let it go.

Think of that as a parable.  We let things go so they can be replaced by something better.

We let things go. It’s natural. 

When I was five years old, my cousin passed on to me the army uniform he had outgrown. (The year was 1945 and the Second World War was winding down.)  I have a school picture of me wearing that coat with the little wings on the lapel.  It was my favorite piece of clothing ever.  But I can still recall the pain on seeing that I too was outgrowing it.  “What is happening?” I wondered.  “This wasn’t supposed to happen.  I love this coat.”

It’s life.  We lay aside the old when it’s no longer of use to us, and we go forward.

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How to arrive in Heaven in grand style

Therefore, brethren, be even more diligent to make your call and election sure, for if you do these things you will never stumble, for so an entrance will be supplied to you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (II Peter 1:11)

It finally hit me the other day what Peter is promising the faithful here: a grand reception in Heaven when we arrive.

Here’s the way “The Message” expresses verse 11–

Do this, and you’ll have your life on a firm footing, the streets paved and the way wide open into the eternal kingdom of our Master and Savior Jesus Christ.

It reminds me of the way we all welcomed our New Orleans Saints home from Miami last January 8, on a Monday afternoon. This was no well-organized parade, but a spontaneous outpouring of affection from an estimated 20,000 fans who lined both sides of the highways–and then filled the streets too!–waving our banners, hollering our “Who Dats!”, and cheering our champions as they arrived home.

That’s the idea. When you arrive in Heaven, they throw a party for you.

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What if we truly believed Jesus abolished death?

“Who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:10).

You are going to love this.

If death has been abolished, then some would say we seem to be stuck with the proverbial “dead man walking.”  The corpse appears very much alive and the grim reaper persists in taking down a fair to middlin’ number of victims every day.

But stay with me here a moment.

“The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death,” said Paul in I Corinthians 15:26.

So, has death been abolished or not?

I’m indebted to a couple of old books for some insights worth their weight in gold. One is a biography of J. B. Phillips and the other is a quote from a book Mr. Phillips wrote.

J. B. Phillips (1906-1982) was an Anglican pastor and scholar, who during World War II began translating Paul’s epistles into everyday language for the young people with whom he was working. Letters to Young Churches was eventually published to great acclaim, encouraging Phillips to give the same treatment to the whole of the New Testament. The result was the wildly successful New Testament in Modern English, popularly known as the Phillips New Testament. This was followed by a dozen or more books, several becoming best-sellers. (Phillips was also a friend of C. S. Lewis, who encouraged him in his translations and writings.)

The wonderful thing is that God used  Mr. Phillips in spite of his physical sufferings and used the suffering to refine him. The result was a life of fruitfulness which continues to this day, long after he has left us.

In his book Your God is Too Small, published when his fame was at its height and his popularity on both sides of the Atlantic seemed boundless, Phillips talks about Second Timothy 2:10, God having “abolished death.”

His insights are treasures.

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When it’s okay to call your enemy an idiot

The July/August 2010 issue of The Atlantic carried an article that blew me away. “Why We Should Mock Terrorists” has as its alternate title “The Case for Calling Them Nitwits.”

I confess that something inside me likes this.

Finally, someone has struck the right note about these terrorists. They are truly fools. The author makes a case for such extreme behavior:

They blow each other up by mistake. They bungle even simple schemes. They get intimate with cows and donkeys. Our terrorist enemies trade on the perception that they’re well trained and religiously devout, but in fact, many are fools and perverts who are far less organized and sophisticated than we imagine. Can being more realistic about who our foes actually are help us stop the truly dangerous ones?

Something inside us insists that these jihadists are purists in their faith and disciplined in their devotion to their God. Not so, we are told. In fact, a great many terrorists can’t even read and write. All they know is what their wrong-headed leaders tell them. And like dunces, they believe all they hear and never turn a critical eye to anything.

Such people are not only our foes; they are their own worst enemies.

That brings us to my question: When is it all right to call your enemy an idiot and a nitwit?

Wrong answer: when it’s true.

Right answer: When your goal is not to win him over, but to destroy him.

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Mountain-climbing: “He makes me walk on my high places”

He causes me to walk on my high places. (Habakkuk 3:19)

Monica Kalozdi is a New Orleans resident with a passion for climbing mountains.  For some reason, years ago after the birth of her third child, she developed a yen to climb things.  First she was climbing hills and mountains.  Then she got ambitious. She decided to climb the highest mountains on the seven continents of the world.

According to the New Orleans Times-Picayune (Wednesday, July 13, 2005), Monica Kalozdi scaled Kilimanjaro in 2000, Aconcagua in South America in 2001, McKinley in 2003, and then in the summer of 2005 she reached Everest.  And that’s what I wanted to tell you about.  (Btw, typing her name into search blanks will bring up videos of her interview on New Orleans television.)

Here is Monica’s story…

For 55 days, she and her team lived in the frozen regions of Everest, eating dried food out of bags, living inside tents that were sometimes shredded by hurricane-strength winds. The final 1500 feet of this 29,035 ft mountain, she said, is called the death zone. Monica says, “You’re exhausted. You feel your body giving out. You can’t see where you are stepping, and you know one misstep can kill you. You’re terrified to take another step because you know you could die. But you also know you can’t stop, because if you do, you’ll die.” Pretty terrifying, but it gets worse. “We knew we had not drunk enough water and hadn’t eaten any food. Those were mistakes.” She says, “It was the scariest, most terrifying thing I have ever experienced. It is a death zone.”

Just 1500 feet? A breeze, right? Monica says the path is not particularly steep, except for three places…where it’s straight up for anywhere from 50 to 200 feet. Sheer rock wall. Through snow and ice, the climbers walk with steel claws called crampons attached to their boots for traction. But in rock? Well, good luck. This is where people die.

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My biggest challenge in crisis ministry

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?

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