Decades ago, Art Linkletter had a book called, "Kids Say the Darndest Things." A child's innocence can lead them to remove all the filters and say the first thing - or the worst thing - that comes across their minds. I heard recently that Jimmy Kimmel had a segment where he "interviewed" some children, and one child expressed an idea that we should kill everyone in China. Apparently some Chinese people took exception to that! Most of us as adults can relate to that unguarded moment when we said something and immediately wish we hadn't uttered it. Perhaps that is why James reminds us how difficult it is to control our tongues (but what a good idea it is to try!)
Apparently, funerals can cause the same type of reaction! Emotions are high, and sometimes they overrule common sense. I won't say that "I've heard everything," but I will say I've heard some pretty crazy things. Sometimes I'll hear some things that make me think, and others that make me sad. Today's blog will share a few of those highlights with you.
Several years back my wife's father passed away. I had only known him for a couple years, yet I knew that he was a kind and gentle man, a loving husband and father. It was an emotional time and a little difficult to put together a service for him but I did the best I could. I really wanted to do a good job for my new family, most of whom I barely knew at all. After the service many people said kind and complimentary things about what I had shared. The most memorable compliment came from someone I had never met before, a friend of the family. He came up to me, slapped me on the back and said, "Hell of a job, Rev. Hell of a job!!" It was one of those moments where I knew what I just heard, but I didn't really hear that, did I? What do you say to that? What is the proper response to the compliment of a lifetime?? My ears didn't melt, I've heard that term before. Yet I was really not expecting to be told I did a hell of a job right outside the church, after I preached a sermon. So I stood there, probably with a dumbfounded look on my face, trying to think of what I could say. Somehow I didn't think that replying with, "Damn straight, buddy" was the right response! I think I just muttered, "thanks," and quickly left to find my wife!
Then there are those very well-intentioned comments, that you know come out of genuine appreciation and respect. Lately I've been getting a lot of, "I want you to do my funeral too." I'm glad that people find comfort from God's Word in what I have to say in a funeral message. Preachers always say that the funeral is not for the dead but for the living. It's good to know you can reflect and share God's peace and hope with others. But I still don't know what to say when someone seems eager for me to do their funeral! So far I've not found the perfect response to that. Here are ones I've tried: "Thanks! I can fit you in this Thursday." That didn't work out too well. Then another time I said, "That's great! I'm looking forward to doing your funeral too." For some odd reason that didn't seem to get a good response. I'm still working on that one. I usually try to go with, "That's very kind, but let's see if we can wait on that for another 10-20 years or so!"
Then there are those times when people tell me that their loved one isn't suffering any more. They are no longer in pain, cancer is no longer ravaging their bodies, and things of that nature. In one way I suppose that's true. But so often I have done funerals for those who were not Christians, did not have any relationship with Jesus, and had never come to the point where they put their faith in Him and had their sins forgiven. I have a hard time finding the words to say to the one grieving who is confident that their loved one is no longer suffering.
Let me hasten to say that I know I'm not the judge - and for that I'm incredibly grateful. I remember that Paul said, "For what have I to do with judging outsiders... but those who are outside, God judges" (1 Cor. 5:12, 13). God will do what is right and His disposition of the eternal state of the dead is entirely His job, not mine. Again, no argument from me.
Yet, hell is real. It is described as a place of torment and suffering. Jesus told us that in this place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Christ said that in hell there is "unquenchable fire" (Mk. 9:43). Peter tells us that in hell there are pits of darkness (2 Peter 2:4). Jude echoes those thoughts in vs. 6, 7. And Paul tells us in stark, no uncertain terms that at the second coming Jesus will be "dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. And these will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power" (2 Thess. 1:8, 9).
So when a loved one through many tears tells me that their loved one is not suffering any more, or phrases closely related to that one, "has gone to a better place" I can only try to share God's message of hope FOR THEM, knowing that they will give an account for their lives, even as their loved one must give an account for his life. There is no doubt that God's love is for all the world, and that Christ died for everyone, and that God's grace is probably bigger than we can imagine. But it is also true that God hates sin. And it is no doubt true that "if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire" (Rev. 20:15).
Very early in my years of ministry I was asked by an elder of the congregation where I preached to go and visit his neighbor. They had been friends for a long time and now he was dying of cancer. My elder friend told me that he never went to church but that he was a good man. From that time on if I heard that this guy was a "good man" once I know I heard it 100 times! So I went to visit him, and sat with him a number of times. I heard how he was successful in his business and admired by his co-workers. I learned how active he was with his kids, going on campouts, watching them in their sports. No doubt he was a loving husband, faithful to his wife for many years. I guess after all those visits that I too would agree that he was a good man. But of all the things he was, one thing he was not. And that was a Christian. Any time in my visits where I would attempt to talk about Christ, forgiveness, eternal hope, etc. I was politely shut down, and the conversation would then go back to kids, jobs, sports, etc. I recall that the best he could give me on a spiritual level was something to the effect that he had "worked it out with God." What does that phrase mean? The cancer eventually took his life.
At the visitation and the day of the funeral most every family member sought to comfort one another that he was no longer suffering, in a better place, and other similar sentiments. As I was new in ministry, doing funerals was much more difficult. I liked this guy, and that added some pressure as well. Many from the church where I served were there, and I figured I better do a good job. Knowing what to say at that funeral was a challenge. Honestly, I saw no biblical hope for this man's salvation, and yet I remembered that judging was God's job, not mine. I saw family members who were content to live like he had lived - a life outside of Christ, and I was concerned for them. For some reason, perhaps being led by the Holy Spirit - my mind kept going to Luke 16 and Jesus' teaching on "The rich man and Lazarus." I remembered the rich man in torment and his requests. He first asked for just a drop of water on his tongue - and was refused. Then he asked for Lazarus to go back to his brothers - to warn them about this place, that they may change their ways before it was too late. Again, his request was denied, and was told that his brothers had Moses and the prophets (Lk. 16:29) and should listen to them!
So I said somewhere in that funeral message, "I don't know where Bill is today, but of one thing I'm certain. He would want his family members in heaven. He would want his wife, children, and grandchildren to know Jesus as their Lord and Savior...." I did my best to offer the hope of heaven to those who remained. Perhaps I planted some seeds that day that took some root and were used by God to produce fruit.
Who knows what I'll hear at the next funeral. Maybe it will make me smile, or maybe cause me to cringe just a bit. Hopefully, I'll still be pointing people to Jesus who will raise us from the dead one day, and share with us the glories of heaven!
Come on, Murphy. Let's go outside!