On two occasions this past year, the most important message I spoke in church during the weekend was not my sermon; it was a remembrance of my parents.
There was a time when pastors would have frowned on that statement. Maybe some still do. My dad might well have been one of them.
Dad made it clear that at his funeral we were to preach Christ and only Christ. The talk I gave was not what he had in mind. He would have been disappointed to think I would waste everybody’s time talking about him at his funeral. Mom would have been similarly uncomfortable with the attention I focused on her at her service.
Yet I don’t feel a bit apologetic about what I did.
When I was new in ministry, I asked my more experienced younger brother for some wisdom on funerals. He told me that funerals were about three things: mourning a loss, celebrating a life, and holding on to the promises of God. Best advice I’ve ever received as a pastor. You’ll notice, though, that’s two more things on the agenda than the standard funeral used to include. I can now say from experience I think those additions are a great thing.
Funerals, after all, are not for the deceased; those people are in good hands. Funerals are for those who remain behind. As thrilled as we may be for the peace in which Mom and Dad reside, we who are left behind miss them. We’re hurting, and the pain can be intense.
The process for healing begins with mourning a loss and celebrating a specific life that God made possible and shared with us. We do not glorify the person; we celebrate the person–that gift from God. We say thank you to God for that gift. We say thank you through the tears of mourning and through the laughter of celebration, and we do it in detail because, as my parents taught me, a thank you is best when it is specific.
Saying thank you is what I was called to do at my parents’ memorial services. It’s what I encourage the family to do at all funerals.
The third part of the agenda, and the main mission of the preacher at such times, is to bring the hope, the promise, the Gospel. The better the family and friends do the first two tasks, the better the pastor can focus on the third.
With encouragement, many mourners are able to accomplish the celebration part. For my part, Mom and Dad lived in such a way that it was easy to celebrate their lives as examples of the wonders of God’s creation.
For some people, mourning overwhelms celebration and they can’t do a public thank you. For such people, my job as a pastor becomes more complex. I must try to accomplish all three elements in my sermon, and that is especially difficult if I am not well-acquainted with the deceased.
But that is the task, and it must be done for the healing to begin. Lives of loved ones are tremendous gifts from God. We give thanks for those gifts.
Celebrate the life and let the healing begin.