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.
No one enjoys second-guessing himself, what Warren Wiersbe called “doing an autopsy on oneself.”
It’s possible to work ourselves into the psych ward or an early grave by over-analyzing every single thing we do and questioning the motive behind each word we speak.
No one is suggesting that.
And yet, there is much to be said for looking back at what we did and learning from our mistakes and failures and omissions.
That’s what this is all about.
It’s best done in solitary. (One of the worst things we preachers do is to ask our wives, “How did I do?” Poor woman. She’s in a no-win situation. Leave her out of it.)
A recording of our preaching helps. (But we have to promise to stay awake during the playback.)
That said, I’ll get to the point.
What I hate most about my preaching is when I intrude too much into the message.
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.
Recently, when I sounded forth on how pastors should conduct funerals for saints, a friend pointed out that a harder assignment is officiating at the services for an outright unbeliever. He looked forward to my points on that.
I was tempted to say, “Yeah. Me too!”
But, as always, I appreciate a good suggestion for an article in this blog, particularly something that would help pastors and other church leaders.
We will begin with questions which pastors frequently ask among themselves concerning the funerals of unbelievers…
“Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on, that they may rest from their labors. And their works do follow them” (Revelation 14:13).
“I tell my students, when you’re standing at the graveside of a saint, make the message clear and plain. Because you’ve got the only message in town!” –Ken Chafin, longtime seminary professor, teacher of evangelism, pastor
I’ve been going to funerals a lot lately.
Not conducting them, but going as a mourner.
I’ve reached the point in life where almost weekly I learn of the deaths of longtime friends and former parishioners. This week, it was an 86-year-old member of a church I served in the 70s and 80s. The week before, the deceased was the widow of a colleague I’d served on a church staff with in the early 1970s; she was 92.
I always pay attention to how the ministers do their funerals. Always want to learn to do this better.
And that brings me to this.
Nathan’s father passed away a couple of months ago, after battling an awful disease for three or four years. They had the blessing of knowing in advance what was coming; they had the awful burden of knowing in advance what was coming. Recently, he and I were talking about what people say when your loved one dies. I asked for his experience on the subject. This is what he wrote….
Someone just this morning expressed her sympathy for the loss of my dad. It reminded me that I still had this partial thought process typed out. If it turns out that any of this is useful fodder for one of your articles that would be great to read. I always appreciate your point of view. (and I even agree with it occasionally) Actually I mostly agree. (Joe: Buttering up the web-host is always a good idea, Nathan.)
My first thoughts on this topic were based on the biblical accuracy of things that are said after someone dies. Do people really believe what they say? If they do, where did they get those philosophies? I’m not suggesting there is a list of approved biblical phrases to use in this situation, only asking that we consider why folks craft and continue to
perpetuate these flawed notions. I believe there is a danger turning faith into fairy tale for our own comfort. At the same time it may help us to approach someone with biblical truths after we understand their line of thinking.
I added some of my thoughts along with the things people say.
My son Neil and I had a few days to work on Margaret’s obituary. Understandably, he could not bring himself to think about it while she lingered in the hospital on life support. It was hard, but I worked on the essentials.
Margaret and I used to talk about these things. But not seriously. Somehow, you think this could never happen to you.
Margaret’s sister, widowed perhaps four years ago, told how someone praised her husband Jim with a good line which she later used as an opener in his memorial. So, we began thinking about that.
“For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand” (2 Timothy 4:6).
Suppose you are 95 years old, as my friend Bill is. You buried your wife of over 50 years some six or seven years ago, and you have serious health issues now. So, you begin to think of transitioning from this earthly dwelling to your heavenly existence.
The minister–that would be me–comes to see you in the rehab hospital. And he asks some probing questions.
Can we talk about this?
This morning’s paper contained a tiny article about the Fort Morgan ferry that runs across Mobile Bay to Dauphin Island. The cost for one car and two passengers, this fellow said, is $20.50. That’s up considerably since the last time my wife and I rode it with our grandson. Grant was about six, as I recall.
We had arrived at the ferry landing and took our place in line with other cars. I bought the ticket and we were milling around waiting for the ferry to arrive from the other shore. Grant was apprehensive.
“Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4).
First, let’s make the point that nowhere does Scripture say preachers have to preach funerals. In fact, there’s not a word in the Bible about the necessity to even have funerals.
But there is a great deal about comforting the grieving and hurting.
We who are called into the ministry must not claim this funeral prerogative as our divine right. If we are invited to “preach a funeral,” someone wants the comfort we are able to give because of Jesus Christ.
Don’t miss that.
And try not to abuse the privilege.
Most preachers get this right. They know a funeral is the saddest time for a family and that they are there to do one thing: to bring the comfort of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Again, most pastors seem to get this right.