A good friend of mine’s mother died last week. The funeral is this week and yes we are all going to attend the funeral. Kids and all! I believe at funerals and burials we are reminded of the repulsiveness of death. We are also reminded that it was because of sin that death came into our world. Sin is as repulsive to God just as much as we find death among ourselves. However a very interesting trend these days is unfolding regarding death and funerals. I don’t know if you have seen this but….
I’ve concluded that the typical evangelical funeral can go quite a ways to making a person an atheist. I’ve also concluded that the church needs to reclaim the fundamental truth that Christianity is primarily for dying. Not primarily for living, but for dying; and because it is primarily about preparing to die, it has something profound to offer about living. Funerals need to rediscover death and thus once again have something to say to the living.
Before looking at the causes of the death of the funeral, a true confession about a funeral–oops, sorry, a celebration of life–I recently attended. (I am just getting out of theological therapy from the experience.)
My rescue came from the Christian funeral and burial of my mother, who died on Epiphany. All I can say is thanks be to God for a Christ-centered [burial], for a graveside service providing the godly focus on the death of death, and for a faithful pastor bringing Jesus in his forgiving and saving office to all present.
“Bob” was a prominent evangelical businessman. He surfed. He married. He procreated. He made barn loads of money. And so the assembly was treated to body-length photos of Bob the Action Figure. Of course, this celebration lacked a few things that definitely would be a downer at any celebration–distractions like a dead body or that troubling casket. Come to think of it, the words “dying,” “dead,” or “death” were real no-nos during the whole celebration, which was led by a man whom my wife refers to now as simply “Mr. Happy Pastor.”
Happy Pastor is one of those cool, laid-back, California surfer-dude, Hawaiian-shirted, Plexiglas pulpit, megachurch guys who is well prepared to be a personal assistant to a Hollywood celebrity or to work in a hip music studio as the sound board operator. He has the spiritual gifts of being funny, relevant, and cool. He just was not into bringing the pure gospel of grace and forgiveness of sins in Jesus. He worked relentlessly hard that morning to eliminate any confrontation with the deadly duo of sin and death. Into that vacuum, he put Bob’s really cool life and a really cool celebration.
This may come as a shock, but Jesus of Calvary was not part of Happy Pastor’s fun-eral. And you do show what is indispensable to you theologically (and in every other way) when you gather that last time over someone who has departed this earth for the next world. What was clearly nonnegotiable was anything upbeat–upbeat stories, upbeat music, upbeat pictures, and an upbeat Pelagian theology. Oh, and a pastor who himself was upbeat the whole time because after all this was not a negative, pessimistic, gaudy, legalistic, liturgical “funeral” but a “celebration of life.”
The phrase “celebration of life” is like the words “healing” and “closure,” all terms that have the scintilla of truth in them necessary to often mask the primal smell of sulphur…
Instead, the message could have at least tried to call for all of us to repent of our sins and to believe on Christ, to get under that shed blood flowing from the riven side, and to find there the salvation of our souls; and to be careful, for our adversary the devil wishes to lead us into temptation, chief among them, as Luther says in the Small Catechism, are false belief and despair. All I could think of during the celebration was William Blackstone’s line about suicide as “appearing before God uninvited.”
If we are anything, we are a culture of entertainment and denial that has sanitized dying and death and put it in a world hopefully far, far away. Sadness, if prolonged or of a disturbing depth, is to be diagnosed and medicated. Even sadness that might, God forbid, lead to repentance.
Where are the funerals with a good, solid, gospel-driven [focus] that centers on Christ and on all his strong words about his victory over sin, death, and the devil? Where are the funerals that are testimonials to him? Where are the funerals that talk about grief and sadness? Where are the funerals that are not embarrassed to have a body present?
Where have all the graveyards gone?