Originally published in Pulpit
Helps, June 2008.
In over 20 years of pastoring, I've conducted more funerals than I care to remember. But the truth is, I do remember many of them.
My very first was for a middle-aged mother who had terminal cancer. We prayed so faithfully for her to be healed, but obviously it wasn't God's will to heal her in this life. I stood in ICU with her heart-broken husband and mother. After months of suffering, she was now on life support, and the doctors gave them no hope. Trying to be brave, I asked the family if they were ready to let their loved one go. Their tear-filled eyes and sorrow only allowed them to nod their heads. Taking their hands, I began to pray. Usually I close my eyes for prayer, but that day I kept them open and watched the monitor. I don't remember the exact words, and the prayer wasn't long. As we submitted her to God's will and asked for peace and comfort for the family, the monitor straight-lined.
The husband's sobs seemed as much from relief as from sorrow. The mother clasped my hands and quietly stated, "That was the best prayer I've ever heard." I know that I had a very insignificant part in that answer.
Sometimes death is a relief-both for the dying and the living. As pastors, our job is not to question God, but to provide hope and comfort for the loved ones left behind. That day, I had no doubt where the deceased was. From that ICU, she stepped into the glorious presence of her Lord Jesus Christ. All pain for her had ended. But, for her family, pain was continuing. I preached about the resurrection, and the way God has planned for us to be a part of it. At the grave site, I squeezed their hands and reminded them of where she was.
During my first pastorate, there was a sweet older lady who simply radiated the love of Christ. Everyone in the church dearly loved her. I had lost my grandmother years before, so I asked if she would mind "adopting" me. I remembered her beautiful smile the day I received the call from her family. She had died in her apartment, sitting in her favorite chair, with her Bible in her lap. That was one hard funeral. I needed God's peace as much as the family-for she definitely was a part of my family.
Some have asked if ministers become accustomed to funerals. I am usually shocked by the question. How could anyone get used to such an experience?
Some funerals, however, do have a happier theme. One gentleman sent word that he needed to talk to me. I visited the hospital where he was a patient, and he told me he needed to make peace with God. After sharing the Gospel and guiding him through the process, he took my hands and said, "That feels much better."
About a year later, as I conducted his funeral, I related that story to his family. His wife had been a good Christian and had passed on years before. I'm sure there was a glorious welcome when he arrived Home. And, because many of the family were unsaved, I took time during the service to tell them how to prepare for their appointment with God.
Don't ever apologize or be afraid to preach salvation during a funeral. It's probably the most unsaved people in one service that you will ever face. No, it will never get easier, but it is a tremendous opportunity to preach about Jesus Christ as Savior. Yes, personal remarks are nice and help the family through their grief, but what they really need is hope and the way to obtain that hope. Remind them to keep the happy memories in their hearts, but also tell them how to invite Jesus Christ into their lives.
I also remind them that God the Father knows the pain they are going through. He experienced the same sorrow when His Son died on the cross. His pain was just as real-and yet He willingly gave His Son. That's real love, so include John 3:16.
How about those times when the deceased wasn't a Christian? Leave that aspect to God and preach grace and peace to the living. After all, it's not our part to point out where the loved one has gone, for we aren't privileged to fully know. God still accepts deathbed repentance or last-minute cries-like the one from the next cross.
So, pastor, don't be afraid to let your feelings show. Even Jesus wept at the tomb of a friend. May people say the same thing they said of Him, "See how much he loved." There is no greater time to show your love, or to share the Gospel message, than at a funeral.
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