Thursday, February 23, 2012

Why Everyone Should Attend At Least One Funeral Per Week

I think I've stumbled onto something profound (and yes, a little disturbing). I think that everyone should try to attend at least one funeral each and every week. I know, I'm a freak, right? Just hear me out...

This morning I went to the funeral of a man who's adult daughter attends our church. I did not go because I knew the man but because I know and love his daughter, Jackie, and her husband. In fact, I had never met the man. But, after today, I have been deeply affected by this man's life and legacy. Today I was moved to tears by the stories about this man as told by his family and friends. A man I had never met in life touched me even while his physical body lay in a casket. That's pretty strange, right?

As a pastor, I am around death, suffering, and "the effects of sin" perhaps more often than most other people. I am still not quite comfortable with death. There is something inherently unsettling about it's inevitability and finality. But, my perspective on death, and my understanding of all the emotions and needs of people while death is passing by, has changed dramatically. Don't misunderstand me; I'm not some sick-o guy with a demented affinity for death. I guess I am just coming to view death less and less out of a perspective of fear and more from a perspective which sees it in the context of God's grand story.

I'm becoming more acutely aware that something profound happens to me at funerals. Whether it is the funeral of a beloved and godly person, like the man whose funeral I attended today, or that of a person who never made time for God in life, I think there is something good, healthy, and necessary that happens to us when we are forced to look death in the face. In other words, I think God uses death for those of us left behind to help us move forward in a way that better pleases Him. I think that we tend to quickly forget what matters most in life, and "death" is a not-so-subtle-but-altogether-effective reminder of what really counts.

Here are a few reasons why I think everyone should attend at least one funeral a week:

1) Because at funerals we are reminded of our frailty and of the preciousness of life. I'd suspect that the thought runs through most people's mind at some point during a funeral that one day they'll be the one laying in the casket. "Life is a vapor", James says (4:14). We are reminded of our own mortality when we are forced to look upon the face of a deceased loved one. Funerals remind us that life is still a place of brokenness. We are forced to admit that things change, people leave, and pain is an inevitable part of life in the here-and-now.

2) Because at funerals we are reminded of just how precious and important family is to us. At every funeral I attend my thoughts somehow begin to drift from what I'm hearing about the "dearly departed" to what my loved ones and friends might have to say about me. I am forced to face the condition of my life and to evaluate honestly and inwardly how I am living my life. Funerals remind us that one day we will be gone and the people we love will be the most important things we leave behind. Not our work, not our money, and not even our reputation; no, it will be our children and grandchildren, friends and others who have been influenced by us which are the most valuable of things we can't bring to heaven with us. Today, while sitting through this funeral, I experienced a renewed passion to be the kind of husband and father that I know God wants me to be. We are making an impact--either for the "better" or for the "worse"--on the people we love every day.

3) Because at funerals we are reminded of just how amazing God's grace is. I used to be uncomfortable when I heard people go on and on about "how great" so and so was during their lifetime. But now I realize, if the deceased person loved Jesus Christ and was living from a God-centered orientation, then the "goodness" that we speak of in a person at their funeral is nothing else than the graciousness of God being lived out through the power of the Holy Spirit in their life. Jackie's father was a man of tremendous faith and today I learned that he was an awesome husband, father, and church leader because he was yielded to God's life. It was really his faith in Christ that shaped him and enabled him to be the noble man that many said goodbye to today. God did not bring death, we did. We (humanity) rebelled and sinned. God is the author of life and even in death He brings the hope of resurrection out of the ashes of suffering.

So, that's why I think it would be profitable for all of us to spend a little more time in the "house of mourning" than in the "house of laughter". I doubt that anyone (including myself) will take my advice, but maybe it at least gets you thinking.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Giving "Up" vs. Giving "In"

Today is, apparently, the first day of Lent, which is also known as Ash Wednesday. (Actually, I was reminded of this earlier this morning when I met a friend for breakfast at a local diner and a smattering of the patrons had smudge marks on their foreheads. I nearly said something to the first lady I saw...awkward!) The truth is, growing up in my particular Christian tradition, there was no difference between Ash Wednesday and "any other" Wednesday. Honestly, I wouldn't have recognized the beginning of Lent if it walked up and introduced itself to me. It has only been recently that I've come to know anything about the religious significance of the Lenten season.

So, I'm probably the least qualified person to say anything about Lent. I am not going to attempt an explanation of it nor am I going to present an argument against it. I'm simply going to ask a question. (Yea right, Dan!)

Okay, before I come to my question I think it is important to have at least a little understanding of the the religious purpose or significance behind Lent. Adherents of the Roman Church, Eastern Orthodox, Lutherans, Methodists, Anglicans, and many Presbyterians and even some Baptists (!) all observe Lent. (Yes, that means that if you don't observe Lent, then you are in the minority of "Christendom".) Lent comes from a Latin word which means "fortieth" and was used to identify the period of forty days whereby the religiously minded person dedicated themselves towards penitential preparation through such acts as fasting, prayer, penance, charity giving, and confession. This period of time varies for some traditions but for the majority it seems to run from Ash Wednesday until Easter Sunday. Many have written about the relationship of Jesus' forty days of testing in the wilderness as an (the?) example for the religious observance of Lent. So...that basically exhausts everything I know about Lent. (Thanks, Wikipedia!) The bottom line, I've come to learn, is that Lent is primarily about demonstrating to God one's religious sincerity by giving up something.

In recent years I've heard of people giving up all sorts of crazy things for Lent. People give up anything from chocolate to cigarettes, or even coffee! People give up watching a certain television program, from watching any television, or attending any entertainment at all. The idea is that, for a definite period of time, one is to show their devotion to God by deleting something that they enjoy, something they regularly engage in, from their life. Sort of a religious "addition-by-subtraction" experiment.

But (finally!) here is my question: Is God really more concerned with what we "give up" than He is with what we "give in"? In other words, is God somehow pleased with man for showing a small amount of self-restraint for a short period of time? Is God's cosmic ego somehow stroked by the religious gymnastics people perform (like not smoking for forty days)? Simply put, is our relationship with God based on negatives (things we don't do) or positives (things we do)?

It seems to me, the more I come to know the God of the Bible, that He is far more concerned about us "giving in"--fully, totally, completely--to His life and will than He is about us temporarily "giving up" something as a ritual of worship. Even though I think there is a glimmer of godliness that may be found in Lent, that it certainly is Biblical to humble oneself in the sight of the Lord intentionally, practically, and genuinely, I still can't help but feel broken-hearted for all the people who actually believe that not watching American Idol for forty days is going to show up on their final record. God wants us to yield to His wisdom all the time because that is when we are most blessed.

Micah 6:8 beautifully says, "He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God." I could be wrong, but I don't believe that I am, God desires that we demonstrate our commitment to Him by doing His will--loving others, helping others, serving others, being truthful, tender, and honest--not simply by "giving up" something. I guess I am just learning more and more each day that true righteousness and life in God is a matter of losing myself in God's love, way, and will--all day, every day...On the other hand, I suppose it wouldn't hurt my spiritual walk to give up ESPN for a few weeks...Nah!!!