It seems strange to say this but some of the most fulfilling moments of ministry for me, have been funerals. If I could make more time for funeral services and memorial services I would, because whether the family is a part of my congregation or they’re just from around town and in need of a minister, preparing for a funeral service is when we are all at our most honest. It is precisely the time we become most aware of our greatest need, our need for God.
In the last year I’ve officiated seven funeral services and only two of them were for members of my congregation. When the call comes it’s never ideal. It’s always an interruption, but that’s good because it should be. Death is an interruption. It disrupts our rhythm, patterns and expectations. Death is one of the only things that make us stop and drop everything. That’s why when I’m asked to officiate a service for a family from around town I’m almost excited, because I get to see what God has been doing in their lives and through the life of their loved one. Whether the family members are followers of Jesus or not, I am being given an opportunity to share with these strangers and neighbors an open and honest reflection of what God has been doing, even when they didn’t know God was there. That’s because a funeral is all about God’s prevenient grace, or what I like to call, the poetry of life.
As I speak with the family by phone, setting up a time we can meet, I try to be attentive to what their grief is revealing within them. Sometimes that initial phone call is quick and to the point, but sometimes these family members are already wrestling with very specific regrets, laments, or gifts and graces. When we do finally sit down together I ask them to share with me what they’ve been going through the last day or two, and then I ask them what stories or memories from the deceased’s life have surfaced the most. This might require a bit of prompting, but oftentimes once the right question has been asked or comment has been shared, the stories just start coming. Over the course of this hour (or less) I am making constant little notes and capturing quotes on a pad of paper, trying to hang on the highlights, the highs and the lows, the blessings and the burdens. As I do this I’m prayerfully reflecting on how these smaller stories and memories reflect or are connected to the greater story, God’s story.
Sometimes as I make notes a specific passage of Scripture or verse comes to mind, or sometimes the family speaks of a favorite passage, hymn or song. In any case, I come away from that meeting asking God to reveal to me his poetry, to show me how I can share with these newfound friends the hope we have in Jesus Christ. How I can share with them a word that will open up their hearts and minds to the God who is drawing closer to them? Sometimes this is a bit of a process and I have to prime the pump by reading a few of my previous funeral homilies; and I do call them homilies, not because they follow the lectionary (they don’t) but because they are brief and reflective, not expository teachings like the Sunday sermon. Nevertheless, if time permits, I usually let these thoughts, notes and prayers sit for a day, and by the time I return a specific passage or verse has come into focus.
Typically, a funeral homily ranges from 700 – 1000 words for me. It’s short, brief and to the point; and really it shouldn’t be too difficult because the point is the evidence of God’s hand in this individual’s life. Through the memory of this man or woman Christ will be made manifest. If their story is filled with regret or the family is torn in strife, don’t pretend like it’s not there, we’re not called to share a hope that is nostalgic or sentimental. The hope we have in Christ meets us here, in the midst of a harsh and hurting world. If there is resentment or strife, acknowledge the pain, carefully and graciously articulate it, but then point to the evidence of he who is greater,he who is faithful and true in spite of our circumstances and failure.
Because that is the potential, and that is what can be so fulfilling about a funeral, it levels the playing field and makes us all aware of our need for God. Whether the deceased or family members are followers of Jesus or not, their faith is not the point; that’s not our role. A funeral is a worship service but it does not require an altar call. Instead our role and responsibility is to proclaim the poetry of life and the evidence of God’s prevenient grace. With prayerful, discerning and carefully crafted words we are called to open up the evidence of God for all to see. We are sharing a final word, a brief reflection about the God of all hope, and we’re inviting them to see, maybe for the first time, the God who is standing close beside them in their grief.