Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Children and Funerals

I first saw the little boy about thirty minutes before the funeral was scheduled to begin.  I guessed him to be six or seven years old.  He was standing at the edge of the chapel, looking toward the open casket.  As I watched, he slowly approached the casket where his mother stood looking at the body of her father.

“I thought you were with your dad,” the mother said.

“I was, but I wanted to see Grandpa.”  His mother, tears in her eyes, put her arm around her son and together they looked at the man who each had known all their lives. 
“He looks nice,” the boy said.

“He does,” the mother replied. “He always did.  He liked looking nice.”  She then whispered something to her son which I couldn’t hear.  He walked away.

A few minutes later, I saw him approach again.  His mother had moved away for the moment.  A man the boy didn’t know was at the casket.  They looked at each other, and then the boy said, “He looks like he’s sleeping, but he’s dead.  It’s not really him anymore.  He’s gone to heaven.”  Having explained this, the boy rejoined his dad.

During the funeral service, the boy watched me intently as I spoke about his grandpa and of God being present with us even in moments of our deepest grief. 

At the graveside service, the boy stood quietly beside his mother and dad.  As we waited for others to join us , I noticed the boy trying to see under the casket and behind it.  His mother gently reminded him to be still. He was until I finished the prayer which closed the graveside service.

His mother’s momentary tears gave him the opportunity to slip from her side.  He approached the casket and knelt to look under it.  His mother spied him and called out, “You need to come on.  You’re going to be in the way.”

“It’s okay,” I told her.  I knelt beside him and asked, “What were you trying to see?”

“That’s where they’re going to put grandpa’s body.  Right?”  I told him that was right.  Then, pointing to the bottom of the grave, he asked, “What’s that thing down there?”

“That’s the bottom of something called a vault.” I told him.  I then took him around behind the grave so that he could see the lid of the vault.  I explained that his grandpa’s casket would be lowered into the bottom portion and then the lid would be placed on top.

“So, the casket won’t get dirty, will it?”  With that, he was off to rejoin his parents.  He just wanted—and dare I say needed—to know.

In the course of my forty plus years as a pastor, I’ve seen children handled in a variety of ways whenever death touched their families.  Some parents have kept them away.  For these children, a loved one will have mysteriously slipped away.  Some parents allowed them to come and, unintentionally I trust, have given less than helpful information.  For instance, I’ve heard parents tell a child that the deceased “is just asleep.”  Such children will soon wonder just how safe going to sleep is.  I’ve seen parents force children to look in the casket when they obviously didn’t want to do so or were not quite ready to do so.  Such an action is traumatizing for both children and adults. 

Thankfully, there are also those wonderful parents who seem instinctively to know that children need to be around the funeral home and the funeral service.  They need simple explanations, which require parents to listen in order to discover what children actually want to know.  Answering questions they are not asking is of little help.  Ignoring the questions they are asking is even less helpful.  The little boy I observed may have said to his mother, “Is grandpa sleeping?” To which she may well have replied, “He looks like he’s sleeping, but he’s dead.  It’s not really him anymore.  He’s gone to heaven.”  It was a good response.

One of the great values of children being allowed to participate in funeral visitations and services to the extent they desire to do so is that they get to see adults, particularly their parents and immediate family members, reacting to loss and grief.  It is an act of modeling.  A child sees his dad or mother weeping and learns it is okay to weep.  She sees them weeping one minute and laughing another and learns that it is okay to be both sad and happy.  Children learn to handle death in the same way they learn so many other things—by watching the adults who are responsible for their upbringing.

But aren’t some children too young to bring to the funeral home?  Perhaps some are; but if children are old enough to miss the deceased and the deceased has been a central part of their lives, they are going to grieve and have lots of questions, whether they ask them or not.  Being present at the funeral visitation and service affirms their place with their family.  It may lead to more questions, but those questions will be better ones than the ones that may rise from a child’s imagination.  Children, like adults, will try to make sense of death.  If children are involved in the rituals that surround death, they have a better chance of making good sense.

More important than a child’s age is the manner in which they are treated by the primary adults in their lives.  When it comes to approaching the casket or putting a note or some gift in the casket, children need to be allowed to determine their actions and set their own pace.  This is one place where children of any age should not be forced to do what they do not want to do.  It is one thing for a parent to encourage a child to come with him/her to the casket.  It is quite another for a child to be forced to do so.

The little boy I observed just wanted to know.  When he had his answers, he was ready to move on.  I’m sure he had more questions in the days and weeks to come; but because he was present and his initial questions were addressed, he left knowing that questions were okay.

We can’t protect children from the grief of loss that accompanies the death of a loved one.  We can and should welcome them to share in our rituals of remembrance and grief.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Drawing Near God

If you carefully read the Letter to the Hebrews, you will find multiple calls for us to draw near to God or to the throne of God.  James echoes the same call: “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded” (James 4:8 ESV).  I’ve found the admonition a wise one to follow.  I’ve practiced it and preached it.

But “draw near to God, and he will draw near to you” is not the whole truth.  Oh, it is true, at least it has been in my life; but there is something truer and more amazing: God draws near us!  That’s the gospel—the good news about Jesus and the Good News that Jesus is.  God draws near us!  Were this not true, I’m not sure where I would be. 

Of course we can’t become apathetic to the extent that we just leave it all up to God.  God does expect a response from us.  Yet my experience tells me that God is slow to accept negative responses from us.  Perhaps he hears our “no” and knows that we speak it out of fear or out of disbelief that God could care about us or out of an immaturity that mistakes our wills for God’s will.

God does not give up!  Knowing this to be true in my own experience, I celebrate the image of Jesus as the high priest “designated by God” (Hebrews 5:1-10).   Perhaps this sense of God pursuing me, of never giving up on me, comes because Jesus, my priest and your priest, is continually interceding in our behalf. 

It is the Good News: the One who bids us draw near draws near to us.  The one who bids us be pure in our commitment becomes the One who prays for us and makes it possible for us to draw near to the God who draws near to us.  Amen and amen!

Monday, October 15, 2012

THe Holy Bible

Without the Christian Scriptures, we would know little, if anything, about Jesus.  Without Jesus, we would be left with a very different view of God. 

For as long as I can remember, I’ve held a high view of Scripture. Before I could read, Dad and Mom bought me my first Bible.  Using a pencil, my Dad wrote my name and the date (December 25, 1954) on the presentation page.  When I preached my first sermon, I read the text from that Bible.  I carried it to church and packed it in suitcases until April 23, 1967 when Dad and Mom replaced it with a much finer one.  Having given me a Bible, they taught me to respect it, use it, and carry it with me.  One never went to church without a Bible.  If a trip was planned, one’s Bible was always packed for travel.  The lessons learned have followed me all my life.  I never leave home without a Bible.

The Bible is God’s Holy Word.  That’s what I was taught as a child, and it is what I still believe.  There was much in the Bible I didn’t understand during my childhood.  Never mind, I would be told, we will understand it better by and by.  I thought they meant when we got to heaven.  What I discovered is that a Bible reader does understand the Bible better by and by.  The more we read, the longer we ponder over Scripture, and the more we dare to apply our understanding of the text to our living, the better we understand.  It’s a process.

The process of growing in our understanding is dependent upon our belief in and commitment to Jesus Christ.  If Jesus is the Son of God . . . if Jesus is the Word that was in the beginning and if Jesus is the Word of which John wrote when he stated that the Word was God, that Word—Jesus—must be the Foundation on which we build our lives.  The Bible is Holy.  God is its ultimate source.  But Jesus is the Foundation on which we build our lives. 

The New Testament portion of the Bible reveals Jesus to us, but we are not left with only a written testimony of his life and teachings.  Jesus promised the “Comforter, who is the Holy spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatever I have said unto you” (John 14:26 KJV).  I first learned of Jesus through the Bible and Bible-based teaching I received as a child.  I believe in Jesus today both because of the witness of Holy Scripture and because Jesus’ Spirit bears witness to my spirit.

Since I experience the presence of Jesus through the Spirit and understand Jesus to be one with God, I am left with no choice but to read all of Scripture, interpreting it in light of who I understand Jesus to be.  This is important.  If Jesus was the Word and was with God and was God, we must read all of Scripture through the lens of Jesus’ life and teachings and ongoing presence through the Spirit. 

I still hold a high view of Scripture.  I read it daily.  I pray about what I read, and I allow Scripture to lead me to pray what I might not otherwise pray.  Yet there is a difference in the view of Scripture I have today versus the one I had as a younger person.  As a child and teen, I came close to making the Bible an idol before which I worshiped. Today I understand the Bible to be a holy tool meant to be used as a guide for understanding God, the world around me, and my relationship to God and the world of which I am a part. 

In many wasy the Bible is more holy to me today than it was in those younger years.  At the heart of my increased sense of the holiness of the Bible is my growing understanding that all Scripture, and all teaching that purports to flow from Scripture, must be read and heard through the heart and mind of Jesus.  To do otherwise is to be left with a very different image of God than is revealed in Jesus--the Word that became flesh and dwelt and dwells among us.

(For more on this subject, see my sermon, Word of God: Living and Active, at our church’s website:  Once there, look for “Pastor’s Pages,” and click on “Sermons,” and look for the title and date (October 14, 2012).

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Today Is the Day!

Today is the day—the only day we have.  We think we have tomorrow and many more tomorrows after that, but we have today.  That’s it!  We hope for tomorrow, most of us wisely plan for tomorrow, but we live today—today only. 

I almost didn’t write the above; and even after I wrote it, I considered deleting it.  It sounds a bit too much like the preaching with which I grew up.  My memory may be faulty at this point.  It may be that I’ve allowed a few Sunday sermons to fill a larger time-frame.  Whichever may be true, the preachers I heard as a childhood and adolescence spent a lot of time urging their hearers to respond to the gospel TODAY.  Every revival preacher of the day had at least one good story about the lost person who was in church one night, was under conviction, but refused to respond, and died in a car wreck on the way home—still lost—burning in hell.  After a dramatic pause, we would be reminded that TODAY IS THE ONLY DAY YOU HAVE.

Over time, those stories lost their punch.  My teenage friends and I became capable of anticipating when the story would be told.  Now that I am older, I wonder how many of those stories were true.  Perhaps there was just one story that passed from preacher to preacher with the names and details being altered to fit a particular audience. 

Yet today is the day—the only day we have.  It is the only day we have to live.  It is the only day we have in which we get to decide what we will do with this Jesus that the Christian faith holds before us.  What we decide and do with Jesus today matters.

It matters for today.  Declaring today that Jesus is both Christ and lord and submitting our wills and way to him changes how we live today.  Doing so assures us that no matter how the day ends and no matter what the outcomes of the day may be, the day will have been a better day than it would have been otherwise.

Should we have a tomorrow, it matters because today’s choices and actions will shape tomorrow. 

It matters because there will be a tomorrow.  One of those tomorrows will find us having stepped across the chasm of death.  Scripture seems to be clear that how we live our todays has implications for how we live the tomorrows that lie across death’s chasm.

Today is the day—the only day we have.  So, who do you say Jesus is?  It’s the question of questions.