April 18, 2011
Notes From an Experience of Fasting and Praying
“Even now,” declares the LORD, “Return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.” Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity. (Joel 2:12-13)
This fast takes me back to when I was a boy growing up in the Greek Orthodox Church. When we listed the food items we would be fasting from during Lent, we did it out of obligation thinking somehow we would become “better people” and that God would be “pleased” with our sacrifice. I don’t think I have progressed much beyond that.
I began with noble goals of toppling idols and of drawing closer to God, but in the middle of the fast the temptation is toward performance and results — specifically, spiritual performance that tempts me to a religious pride, and to physical results because I am losing unneeded weight. God is lost in the details of the very thing meant to find him. It becomes more about what I can do by means of this religious exercise as opposed to what God can do in me. It ends up becoming a type of self-help process by which I prove I don’t need the grace of God.
The temptation is to forget my first love, basically. If there is one thing that Jesus proved during his temptation, it was that he depended upon the father totally. He did nothing in his own power. My hope is that as I continue, I will lean more heavily upon the Lord. By his grace, I will lean less upon food and even less upon myself!
There were times I’d long for a piece of pizza—not so much because I was hungry, but for the sheer pleasure of taste. So God uses the fast to inform me of how hedonistic I really am.
I don’t think I’ve ever noticed how often food is advertised in the newspaper, on television, at the movies, or on billboards until now! One gets the paranoid feeling that the world is out to sabotage one’s fast. Perhaps the devil is not pleased when we seek heavenly bread and wants to divert our attention as often as possible. I am reminded of his encounter with Jesus where he suggested that Jesus transform stones into bread. Jesus’ answer is amazing:
“It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Matthew 4:4
If there is one thing that Jesus proved during his temptation, it was that he depended upon the Father totally. He did nothing in his own power. “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God,” he responded when faced with temptation. If you are fasting during this time (and even if you are not), you too will be tempted—but not just with food. You will be tempted to live life on your own power, even life with God. So stay close to Jesus if you are fasting during Lent.
Thanks to Mike Sares for this contribution. Mike is the pastor of Scum of the Earth in Denver, CO and author of the book Pure Scum.
July 1, 2010
God the Seamstress
Recently, I gave a funeral message for a member of my congregation. She was well known as a seamstress par excellence, sewing innumerable wedding dresses. So in my funeral message I encouraged the family to use their memory of her work as a seamstress to be reminded of the gospel, which saved her and all those who are clothed in Christ’s garments of salvation.
After all, God does indeed know a bit about sewing and clothing. In fact, on that dark day when his perfect creation was sliced open by sin, God sewed his first outfits and gave them to Adam and Eve to cover their nakedness; something they had not been aware of before. Now they sensed their need for clothing, and their crude fig leaves were replaced with God’s garments.
Ever since, humans have had a sense of nakedness and the need to be clothed. This is a universal result of sin. Even people who live in the tropics, and seemingly have no need for clothing, wear something; without it they feel, well … naked.
God is a great seamstress, clothing his family. Clothing is a symbol of God’s salvation, which can be seen even in the great sin sacrifice on the Day of Atonement. On this most holy day of the Jewish calendar, the high priest took off his priestly garments and wore only a white linen tunic woven of one piece of fine fabric. Then he was allowed to meet with God in the holy of holies as he sprinkled the sacrificial blood on the ark.
You know, somebody else wore a white linen tunic. He too was a high priest, though unrecognized as one until his sacrifice was finally understood. The apostle John gives us the story:
I have always wondered why Jesus wore something so fine the Roman soldiers did not want to rip it up. I like imagining Jesus as the funky itinerant teacher dressed in something from the Salvation Army. But under it all he wore a fine tunic of the sort the high priest wore into the holy of holies. In the case of Christ though, it was stripped from him that he might take our sin, shame and nakedness on the cross. We in turn are clothed in his righteousness. Only he could stand before God naked and unashamed. He became unclothed so that we could become clothed with the finest wedding garments.
In this life we still feel a bit naked and exposed. Death is one of the things that can do this. Death reminds us just how feeble and frail we are no matter what we might be wearing. We cannot dress up death. Our own sense of nakedness moves us to find the greatest seamstress, our Father, who gives us the festal garments of salvation.
God has created us for this very purpose, for this wedding feast. And it is with confidence that we look forward to this feast, for in Christ we will not be found naked but clothed in the white garments of righteousness.
May 1, 2008
Preaching the Funeral Service - Graveside Ministry
[This is the third and final article dealing with preaching the funeral service.]
Once the funeral sermon is complete, it’s time for the funeral procession from the funeral home or church to the cemetery. (Exceptions to this are memorial services in which the decedent is not physically present; the decedent is being buried in a distant city with another officiant handling the interment; and cremations, which often take place prior to the funeral service, making them memorial services with no interment ceremony.)
The interment portion of the funeral service should not become a minifuneral. This portion of the service is to help the grieving family transition their loved one’s body to its final resting place.
When the funeral procession arrives at the grave site, the minister should join the pall bearers at the back of the hearse. Whether there are military rites or not, the following procedures should be followed. Again, regional traditions might change some of the specifics, but typically the minister will lead the funeral procession from the hearse to the actual grave.
When you arrive at the grave site, you should stand at the head of the casket (though location sometimes make this difficult). The funeral director will dismiss the pall bearers. When the family and friends have been assembled, the funeral director will signal that it is time for you to begin. I characteristically remind those present of the hope that the resurrection provides. I thank the friends and acquaintances who have lent their support to the grieving family. I also remind them that the family will need them more in the weeks and months to come than they do right now. When the funeral service is a distant memory to friends, it is still a sore wound in the lives of those closest to the decedent.
Next, I read Scripture. Texts that I might use include John 11:25, 1 Corinthians 15, and 2 Corinthians 5:1-8. Following the reading of Scripture, I close the committal time with prayer. If military rites are being observed, the military will handle the next phase of the committal service. The officer in charge will give the primary family member a U.S. flag as a token of the nation’s gratitude for their loved one’s military service. Following this, I move to the family members and gently whisper my assurance of continued prayers and my availability to them, shaking their hands as I address them. If I am unable to speak to a particular family member at that time, I will linger for a moment after the funeral director dismisses everyone. If I have spoken to everyone, I will quietly make my way back to my car and depart the cemetery.
I usually make a follow-up phone call within a week of the funeral to assure the family of my prayers and to offer any pastoral care that might be needed. My ministry assistant keeps a log of deaths and reminds me at three months, six months and one year intervals so that I am able to continue pastoral care. I always send a one-year anniversary card, acknowledging that the first anniversary of the death of a loved one is not easy and that we as a church family are remembering the family during this time.
When families face the death of a loved one, you will never know how important your pastoral ministry is to them. Preaching the funeral service provides the opportunity to be their hope in a time of despair.
April 1, 2008
Preaching the Funeral Service - The Sermon
In my first funeral article, “Preaching the Funeral Service: Getting Started,” I described the steps a minister might take when notified of the death of a parishioner. This article describes the funeral sermon itself.
The first thing to remember when composing a funeral sermon is that it is designed to bring comfort to the grieving family. Its purpose is to show the hope made available to believers grieving the death of a loved one. My starting point is to remember Paul’s admonition to the Thessalonians: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thess 4:13 NRSV). When I was a young minister, a person informed me that Christians do not grieve. He said grief showed a lack of faith. He used this verse as his proof text, which he quoted this way: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve.” It’s amazing how we can make the Bible say what we want by stopping where we like. Paul acknowledged that Christians grieve the death of loved ones. However, Christian grief is hope-saturated. It is not the hopeless grief borne by those outside of Christ. The funeral sermon should point to the hope that is available to us, especially in our grief.
The second thing to remember when composing a funeral sermon is that it should not be used to exploit the moment. In other words, this sermon is not the appropriate place to hold an evangelistic rally. Emotions are raw; tears flow easily. We should, without an apology, offer the hope made available to all in Jesus Christ. We certainly want to express the faithful reality that eternal life is available to us in him—and in him alone. However, to take advantage of the moment because people who never darken the doors of a church building happen to be there to “pay their respects” is unethical. In the funeral sermon, all that is said and done should provide hope and comfort to the grieving family and loved ones.
I usually try to personalize the funeral message as much possible. If I know the decedent personally, I will share personal anecdotes and warm memories. However, be careful never to share anything that was shared in confidence by the deceased person. If I am not well acquainted with the decedent, I will share information given to me by the family, acknowledging the source of what I am sharing. Because my goal is to provide hope and assurance to those left behind, I am not bound by my knowledge of the person who died. My role is to pastor those left in the void created by the death of their loved one. As preacher, I want to point them to the One who knows their grief and sorrow, and offers them comfort in their desperate time of need.
Here are some passages of Scripture that I use as the basis for my funeral sermons. I often weave them as a rich tapestry to offer comfort to the grieving family: Psalm 23; 46; 121; John 14:1-6; Romans 8:35-39; 1 Corinthians 15; 2 Corinthians 5:1-9; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; 2 Timothy 4:6-8; Revelation 21.
In the final article in this series, I will (1) share some examples of how I use these Scriptures, and (2) discuss the committal portion of the funeral service.
March 1, 2008
Preaching the Funeral Service - Getting Started
I was reminded this week as I prepared to preach the funeral for one of our older church members just how unsettling the whole funeral process can be for many ministers, especially those younger and less experienced in ministry. This column is the first of several in which I want to describe how I go about preparing for and officiating funeral services. Every weathered minister has found certain practices that have worked for them along the way. What I am about to say is much more descriptive than prescriptive. My hope is that my experience will aid you as you prepare your next funeral service.
Like many pastors, I know some of my congregants well, others in passing and still others hardly at all. Yet when I receive a call that someone has died and I’ve been asked to officiate the funeral, I don’t have the luxury to say, “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t know her. You’ll have to find someone else.” When I receive the call, I evaluate my level of knowledge of the deceased and plan accordingly. If I know the person well, the task of preparation is somewhat easier. If I don’t know the person well, I take the following steps to help me know and understand who he or she is so that I can more effectively minister to the family.
I call an appropriate family member to express my immediate condolences and to set a time when I can meet with the family to discuss funeral arrangements. I know this can be a busy and disconcerting time for the family, so I attempt to be most flexible.
An important aside here: Some funeral homes—not all but some—presume that ministers are at their beck and call. They will set the funeral service time and then inform the minister of the time with no consideration to the minister’s schedule. When I came to my current place of ministry, I visited with the funeral directors to introduce myself and to get to know how funerals were conducted in this particular area. (Yes, funeral practices change as geography changes.) I also asked them to please not set funeral times in which I would officiate until contacting my office to assure my availability. Who knows, I might have another funeral at that time.
Sometimes, families are so busy that setting a time for a face to face meeting, which I prefer, is next to impossible. I then opt to talk with the family over the phone, which typically proves just as informative, just not as personal and pastoral. I try to personalize the funeral message so that it does not come across as generic funeral number six. (In a subsequent article I will share my theology and purpose of the funeral sermon.) I want to be able to speak personally of the decedent. If I know the person well, I will try to remember key personal and meaningful memories and encounters. If I don’t know the person well or not at all, I try to get a feel for them through the personal encounters and memories of loved ones. The death of a loved one is a sensitive time in life and needs the tender and perceptive touch of a caring minister. In my conversation with loved ones, I try to do much more listening than I do talking.
This first step of gathering information makes possible the next step of preparing the funeral sermon. To that end I will dedicate a future article.