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Category Archives: Funerals

What do we mean when we say, “Rest in Peace”?

This was originally published in July 2013. Since I have seen “R.I.P.” posted twice in the past week I thought it might be time to repost.

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I’ve noticed recently that several Christian friends on Facebook post “Rest in Peace” when a well-known actor, author, or celebrity dies. It caused me to ask the question, what exactly do we mean when we say, “Rest in Peace”?

In one sense, death is a time of rest, at least for our physical bodies. Scripture uses the metaphor of “going to sleep” to describe death. This picture is mentioned three times in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. Dr. Luke uses the same concept in Acts 7 and the apostle Paul uses it again in 1 Corinthians 15 on two occasions. In Mark, chapter 5, the daughter of a religious leader had died and Jairus, her father, begged Jesus for help. Jesus said, “She’s not dead; she is asleep.” In this sense, death is a time of rest.

In another sense, death is a time when we rest from our labors and enjoy our inheritance. Hebrews 4 talks about the “Sabbath rest” for the people of God. It links the idea to God’s work of creating the world in six days and resting on the seventh day as well as Israel’s wandering in the wilderness before entering the Promised Land. Tying them together, to rest means to cease from our labor of trying to earn God’s favor and enjoying the inheritance and blessings he has prepared for us.

This doesn’t mean, however, that eternity will be spent floating on clouds strumming a harp. Scripture pictures heaven as a place where we engage in meaningful activity. We will be engaged in worship (Revelation 22:1-3), praising Christ for providing our salvation. We will also be serving as we reign with Christ in eternity (Revelation 20:6).

However, these pictures of rest are only true of those who trusted Christ for salvation during their lifetime. Those who rejected Christ as savior will find themselves in hell enduring an eternity of suffering (Matthew 13:42, 50).

With this is mind, we need to be careful about whom we say “Rest in Peace” to. We don’t want to come across as closet universalists who believe all people go to heaven regardless of their beliefs or lifestyle. Nor do we want to communicate that we secretly believe God grades on a curve and the more well-known you are, the more likely you will be in heaven. We also don’t want to act as if this life is all there is, and there is no afterlife. In addition, we don’t want to say “Rest in Peace” simply because we don’t know what else to say.

Eternal rest is only available to those who stopped working to earn their salvation. For the Christ follower, they can go to sleep and later wake up in the arms of Jesus. They can rest and fully enjoy the blessings of salvation and heaven.

 

 

 
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Posted by on April 19, 2017 in Facebook, Funerals, Heaven, News stories, Theology

 

A Disciple’s Devotion

Being 61 years old, and having spent half my life in ministry, I have attended, participated, and led my share of funerals. Some were joyous celebrations while others were somber affairs. Some were well-planned while others appeared disorganized and disjointed.

In January 2008, I was in the thriving metropolis of Flagler, CO, (population 567 people) for my aunt Charity’s memorial service. Flagler lies ninety miles east of Denver near the Kansas border. Charity had passed away in AL and her ashes would be placed in the family plot at Flagler.

I flew into Denver, met my cousin, Janet, and together we headed east to Flagler. As I walked through the cemetery, I noted the grave markers listing the names of some of my relatives and ancestors. It appeared to me that the hole for my aunt’s urn was near the wrong headstone. But then again, I’m a city boy, so what do I know? As the workers encouraged us to head for the church, we learned that they had indeed dug the hole in the wrong location.

Joseph of Arimathea wanted to make sure no such mistakes were made when Jesus Christ died (Mark 15:42-47). He took control of the situation to ensure that Jesus was properly buried. In so doing, he provided us with a model of how a follower of Jesus acts. Based on his example, a disciple of Jesus Christ looks for where God is at work, takes a courageous stand for their faith, and demonstrates their devotion to Jesus.

The death of Jesus occurred at 3:00PM on Friday (Mark 15:34-37). Normally, a crucified criminal was allowed to remain on the cross for several days. Jewish law, however, required that the body be buried before sundown (Deuteronomy 21:22-23). Since the Sabbath began at 6:00PM, and no work could be done on the Sabbath, there was a sense of urgency to bury Jesus.

The apostle Paul states that the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus were matters of first importance (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). Some, however, dismiss the idea of the resurrection by saying that Jesus did not die. He simply passed out on the cross and was later revived in the coolness of the tomb.

If you examine the facts, the death of Jesus was attested by:

  • Joseph of Arimathea (43) – Joseph asked for permission to bury the body of Jesus. He recognized that he was dead.
  • A Roman Centurion (44-45) – Pilate quizzed the Roman Centurion who was in charge of the execution. He attested that Jesus was dead.
  • Pilate (44-45) – Pilate released the body to Joseph, again attesting to the fact that Jesus was dead. The word used for “body” (45) is the word for “corpse.”
  • Jesus’ burial (46) – Joseph wrapped Jesus’ body and buried him in the tomb. You do not bury people who are living. You bury dead people.
  • Mary Magdalene & Mary, the mother of Joses (47) – The two Mary’s witnessed the burial and knew the location of the tomb.

The historicity of the death of Jesus is firm. The early church would not have invented a story about Jesus being buried by a Jewish leader, who at most was a secret disciple, rather than his family or close disciples. Nor would invention have made women the chief witnesses of the event.

Seeing as there is little doubt about the death and burial of Jesus, the main question in this passage revolves around who Joseph of Arimathea was. Before the death of Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea was:

  • A respected member of the Sanhedrin (43). However, he did not approve of the crucifixion (Luke 23:51), which may indicate he was not present at the trial.
  • A godly man who was looking for God’s kingdom (43). He was a devout Pharisee who knew the Old Testament scriptures and expected the kingdom to come through Jesus.
  • A secret follower of Jesus who was afraid of what people would think if they found out (John 19:38).

Joseph’s life was apparently transformed by Jesus’ death. Afterwards, Joseph risked everything to demonstrate his devotion to Jesus.

  • He risked political suicide by asking Pilate for permission to bury the body of Jesus (43). After an execution, the body was only released to family members. Joseph, a non-family member, identifies with a man executed for treason.
  • He risked economic suicide by paying for the burial out of his own pocket (46). He purchased the supplies and used his own tomb for the burial.
  • He risked religious suicide. By handling a dead body, he would be unclean for seven days (Numbers 19:11) which meant he could not celebrate the Passover.

My prayer is that the death of Jesus transforms us like it did Joseph of Arimathea.

  • We should become disciples who look for where God is at work. Pray for eyes to see what God is doing. Live with a sense of expectation. Understand God’s plan. Join him in his work.
  • We should become disciples who take a courageous stand for our faith. Counter the culture. Tell people about Jesus. Resist temptation.
  • We should become disciples who demonstrate our devotion to Jesus. Study the Scriptures. Make time to pray. Serve. Live obediently.

This is the synopsis of a message preached at First Central Baptist Church in Chicopee, MA, on May 15, 2016. It is part of a series in the Gospel of Mark. Please click on the link to download a copy of the sermon notes.

 

 

Conducting Funerals

(Note: One of our interns at First Central Baptist Church in Chicopee, MA, asked for input on conducting funerals since it was not a topic typically covered in seminary classes. I put this outline together as part of his internship.)

The funerals I conduct generally come from one of two sources—a family in the church or a local funeral home.

If I am aware of a death within the church family, I try to contact them first to offer condolences and help. Sometimes it means leaving a message or voice mail, but I try to make the first contact. If it is a funeral home, they contact me to see if I am available on the day of the wake/funeral.

After the initial contact, I meet with the family. If it is a church family, this is done in person at their convenience. If the service is for a funeral home, I do this over the phone (getting the contact info from the funeral home). Regardless of whether I know the family or not, I try to gather the same information—favorite Scripture, favorite hymns/songs, stories & memories, life events, spiritual beliefs, etc. I want to get to know the deceased from their perspective. I also offer my condolences and prayers for them.

The family may need help in knowing what to do next. The funeral home is generally helpful in this regard.

The books on the bibliography are helpful in knowing how to plan the service itself.

  • Funeral Services for Today – James L. Christensen. Fleming H. Revell Company: Old Tappan, NJ, 1977
  • Minister’s Funeral Manual – compiled by Samuel Ward Hutton. Baker Book House: Grand Rapids, MI, 1968.
  • Leading Today’s Funerals: A pastoral guide for improving bereavement ministry – Dan S. Lloyd. Baker Book House: Grand Rapids, MI, 1997.
  • A contemporary handbook for weddings & funerals and other occasions – Aubrey Malphurs & Keith Willhite (eds.). Kregel: Grand Rapids, MI, 2003.
  • Weddings, funerals and special events: The personal ministry of public occasions. The Leadership Library, Volume 10 – Eugene Peterson, Calvin Miller, and others. Word Books: Waco, TX, 1987.

When I first starting doing funerals, I devoured them. Now that I’ve done many funerals, I use them occasionally.

During the funeral service itself, I have four primary goals:

  • Comfort the family
  • Talk about the hope of heaven
  • Preach the gospel
  • Glorify God

Long ago, I committed to preach the gospel at every wedding and funeral I did. You never know who may be present, and this may be the only time in their life they will hear the message.

A typical outline of a service might look like this:

  • Prelude
  • Welcome & Prayer
  • Congregational singing (or special music)
  • Scripture reading (passages often read include the following – Ecclesiastes 3:1-11; Psalm 90; John 14:1-6; Job 19:25-27; Psalm 116:15; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Psalm 23)
  • Reading of Personal History
  • Sharing Memories (optional)
  • Message
  • Congregational singing (or special music)
  • Benediction
  • Postlude

In crafting the message for the memorial service,

  • I ask the family if their loved one had a favorite passage of Scripture. If so, I try to put together a message using that passage. I’ve done messages on Psalm 91, Isaiah 26:3-4, Psalm 55:22, and Proverbs 3:5-6.
  • If they let me choose, I generally preach on John 14:1-6 or the biblical metaphors of death (going to sleep, going on a journey, going home).
  • I’ve also done a message on the book of Job and God’s sovereignty which I’ve used for tragic, unexpected deaths like my brother’s.
  • I’ve used Psalm 139 for the funeral of an infant who died at birth

When I am asked to do a funeral for a funeral home or the VA cemetery, and I don’t know about the person’s spiritual life, I generally start with the story of the rich man and Lazarus where the rich man asked Abraham to send someone to tell his family to get ready to meet God. I say that their loved one would want us to know 4 FACTS (using the word FACT as an acrostic)—Heaven is a FREE gift; ALL have sinned; CHRIST died for our sins; and we need to TRUST Christ for salvation.

Honorariums: I don’t charge to do a wedding or a funeral. I don’t approach these with a mercenary attitude and I don’t have any expectation of being paid. However, I know that families want to say, “Thank you.” A mentor once told me that to turn down a gift was not the gracious thing to do. We need to allow people to express their thanks. The only times I refused an honorarium was for my mother’s wedding and my brother’s funeral.

  • If someone from church wants to give me a gift, I receive it graciously, and I don’t open it until I get home.
  • A funeral home typically charges the family for the pastor. Again, I don’t set the fee, but I receive whatever is given. “The laborer is worthy of his hire.”
 
 

Of Epitaphs & Eulogies

I have attended three funerals and one wake over the past 12 days. Having led three of the four events, I’ve had a unique vantage point to observe what took place. I’ve heard numerous stories in the key of F—family, fishing, friendship, football (Dallas Cowboys variety—How ‘bout those Cowboys!), food, fun, and frivolity. One funeral even included the wave.

By the end of the fourth one, I started wondering what people would say at my funeral. All of my ponderings and musings revolved around two questions, “Did people know that I love Jesus?” and “Did I make a difference?”

  • Did people know that I love God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength?
  • Did I love other people?
  • Did I point people to Jesus?
  • Did I encourage people to trust God more?
  • Did I strengthen marriages and families?
  • Did I help people to stand for what they believed?
  • Did I equip people to walk with God?
  • Did I infect people with a passion for missions?
  • Did I help people know how to study the Scriptures on their own?
  • Did I challenge people to serve and share their faith?
  • Did I encourage folks to live with a sense of intentionality?
  • Did I nudge people out of their comfort zones in order to trust God more?
  • Did I equip people to serve?
  • Did I leave people with a greater passion for Jesus?
  • Did I encourage people to find their strength in God?
  • Did I push people to take greater risks in serving God?
  • Did I comfort those who were hurting?
  • Did I leave behind more leaders than I inherited?
  • Did I mentor and train young leaders?
  • Did I irritate, in a good way, those who were too comfortable?
  • Did I encourage people to be more generous and giving?
  • Did I leave people with a greater love for the church?
  • Did I whet people’s appetite and make them thirstier for God?
  • Did folks have a greater hunger and thirst for righteousness?
  • Did I cause people to love God more?
  • Did I leave a legacy greater than the heritage I received?

Whatever I want said at my funeral, whatever legacy I want to leave behind, I need to get busy and make sure I am living that way right now.

 
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Posted by on April 20, 2015 in Funerals, Passion, Personal growth

 

Doing the wave

Funerals tend to be somber affairs. Graveside services tend to be held on the coldest, wettest day of the year. Families tend to be teary eyed and mournful. Which made the laughter at last week’s funeral so out of character, but healing nonetheless.

A funeral home down the street from the church asked me to perform a wake and a funeral for an unchurched family. I was told going in that the deceased was a football fan. When I arrived at the wake on Wednesday evening, I saw several poster boards full of pictures from his life. In several photos, the individual was wearing a Dallas Cowboys jersey or standing in front of a poster with the saying, “How about those Cowboys!” I commented on that fact during my remarks to the large crowd of family and friends in attendance.

On Friday morning, the family gathered for a private memorial service. Just before the funeral director began the service, one of the family members said, “We need to do a wave!” Sure enough, the wave proceeded from left to right down the front row, and then repeated the pattern in the next row, all the way through the 25+ family members. I commented that I lived in Seattle for a number of years where the wave was created. (It was created by a trumpet player in the band at the University of Washington.) However, this was the first time I had ever seen it at a funeral. One of the family members commented that the deceased would have insisted on it, in fact, the individual was probably laughing right then.

 
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Posted by on April 16, 2015 in Fun, Funerals

 

Presenting the gospel at a wake

One of my convictions and commitments is that I would always present the gospel whenever I performed a wedding or a funeral. Both audiences tend to include a wide range of people—religious, irreligious, god-fearing, agnostics, Christ followers, and atheists. The occasion might be the only time the individual will be in church. I don’t want them to leave without hearing even the briefest mention of how to have a relationship with God.

When the funeral is for someone whom I know to be saved, I am straightforward and direct in talking about their relationship with Christ and the fact that based on the promises of Scripture, they are right now in God’s presence. The challenge is how to present the gospel graciously when I don’t know the person at all, or when I have grave doubts about their salvation.

Fortunately, I came across some ideas presented by Dan S. Lloyd in his book, Leading Today’s Funerals: A Pastoral guide for improving bereavement ministry. I wrote in a previous post about how I adapted his thoughts into my own presentation I use during a funeral for an unchurched person.

This week I was asked by a local funeral home to conduct a wake, a funeral, and a graveside service for an unchurched individual. Since I didn’t want to repeat myself at the wake and the funeral, I needed to develop another way of sensitively presenting the gospel. Again, I adapted some of Dan Lloyd’s thoughts into my own words.

After beginning the wake with prayer, I read John 14:1-6 to emphasize the hope we have in Jesus. The family asked for the Lord’s Prayer to be read as well. I introduced the prayer by saying that this prayer teaches us to depend on God for all things including the forgiveness of sin. I then went on to paint the contrast between the uncertainty of life and the certainty of heaven.

I’m sure we’d all agree that life is uncertain. The apostle James wrote in his letter (4:14), “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.”

None of us planned to be here tonight. If I asked you last Wednesday what you were going to be doing right now, none of you would have said, “I’ll be at a wake.”

Life is uncertain. None of us knows how long our life will last. We don’t know if this will be our last breath.

While life is uncertain, heaven is very certain. Things on earth can go sideways. Plans fail, and people fail, but Jesus never fails. John 14:1-6, the passage I read earlier, tells us that Jesus promised to provide an eternal home in heaven for all who come to the Father through him.

Luke 16 tells the story of a rich man who died. After his death, he met Abraham and begged him to send someone to tell his family and friends to make the right spiritual choices before death.

I believe ____________ would send a similar message to us as well. He would want us to know that life is uncertain. He would want us to know that each of us will stand before God and answer for what we did in this life. He would want us to know that we can only enter heaven by asking Jesus to forgive our sins. ____________ would encourage each of us to be ready for our death by receiving Jesus Christ as Savior without delay.

To do that, you can simply say, “Dear Lord, I want to go to heaven. I know I can’t get to heaven because my sins are blocking the way. I know that Jesus died on the cross to forgive all my sins. Please forgive my sins and allow me to enter heaven because of my faith in Jesus. Thank you for forgiving me and making me part of your family.”

I then closed the wake in prayer. When I conduct the funeral later this week, I will present the gospel using my other approach.

 
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Posted by on April 9, 2015 in Funerals, Quotes, Scripture

 

Clowning around

I spoke this afternoon at a memorial service for one of our church’s longtime members. The service was held at the senior center where she last resided. Prior to my part in the program, they played the song, “Send in the clowns.” I wonder if they were trying to tell me something. Hmmm.

 
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Posted by on May 8, 2014 in Fun, Funerals