The Death and Burial of the Christian Faith

The school year has ended.

When anything comes to an end, it’s not unusual to think on the finality of life itself—that approaching day when each of us will inhale and then exhale for the very last time. Anticipating that final moment, rich or poor, weak or strong, legendary or just a regular Joe, each and every person will at some point betray human fragility and show concern for particular things.

In those contemplative moments, some worry they’ll die without a legacy, that perhaps they’ll simply disappear into history without having made a memorable impact on this world. Others show concern for the material comfort of their twilight years and the financial wellbeing of those they leave behind. Some invest all their worry feeling they haven’t lived their lives to the fullest, being uneasy about the career they chose, the places they’ve gone, and the things they’ve seen. Many, if not most, admit to wondering about the words others will use to describe them at their funeral. What will people say?

I’ll admit that I experience the occasional commotion from such thoughts. And why wouldn’t I? Like you, I’m human.

Still, even as these thoughts muscle in, they’re never gripping enough to haunt me. I have deeper concerns, one of which took shape two weeks ago during a funeral.

The Lord’s house was full. The family of the deceased filled the first two rows of the pulpit-side pews. Among them sat three generations of ancestry. Beyond those two pews, the room held a crowd of distant relatives and close friends.

The service began, and with it came a tidal wash of something dreadful—something I don’t want happening at my funeral.

When you think about it, a Lutheran funeral really is an easy conversation of sorts. It’s situated in God’s Word. The rhythm is one in which God speaks (through His word by way of a pastor) and the congregation responds. At this particular funeral, the cadence of the conversation was far different. The Word of God was given, but silence was almost always the reply.

I spoke the invocation, but the congregation didn’t react. I prayed. There was no response. I read aloud the Scriptures, finishing as Lutherans do with “This is the Word of the Lord,” but the people didn’t answer. Even with the liturgy and all of its components printed in detail and being held in their hands, the room was hushed at every turn, only the barest number of voices being heard. What bothered me the most is that while the pipe organ was sounding out in grandeur and carrying some of the most Gospel-potent hymns that have ever been written—hope-filled anthems that have inspired armies to charge through the flames in defense of the Gospel—still the people in the funeral sat silently. Barely a handful sang.

It’s disheartening when a mighty song of Christ’s triumph over Death is resounding and the only voices to be heard are those of the pastor and maybe two or three others.

Why did it happen this way?

I refuse to say that it’s because more and more people don’t like to sing in public. Stop by Our Savior in Hartland on a Sunday sometime and you’ll hear a full-throated resonation of liturgy and hymnody that will hastily negate that perception. I also refuse to accept the premise that the liturgy and hymns are too difficult to follow or sing. Regularly immersed in these things, I know three-year-olds who can sound them out with reverence and carefree ease. Lastly, I won’t submit to the idea that what we’re doing isn’t meeting the people where they are. That’s just an excuse for dumbing things down—for embracing anthropocentric preference over Christocentric substance—and I just won’t do it.  And besides, if we’re being honest, when it comes to the things of God, that’s not the direction the Scriptures encourage.

“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Colossians 3:1-4).

My best guess as to why a funeral might unfold this way: The Christian faith in this family died years ago and is only now being put into the casket for burial.

What I mean is that years ago, family routines were established that competed with Sunday morning worship. Years ago, perhaps during the high school years, I’m guessing that church attendance was set before the children in the home as optional. Years ago, the parents had nothing to say about how important it is to date other Christians in preparation for eventually choosing a Christian spouse. Years ago, the parents were too distracted or timid to do and say some very important things that would prepare their children for engaging in a world spinning in opposition to the Christian faith.

And now the church organ is sounding with might but the church pews are silent and weak. It’s painful, but it’s honest. One can’t sing with integrity what one doesn’t believe.

Unfortunately, this is more and more becoming the standard. Funerals are becoming more the opportunity to exist in a fumbling and uncomfortable stillness, rather than being a time of voicing a joyful hope in Christ by people who actually believe what they’re seeing, hearing, and saying.

And it’s not just funerals.

Far too many young couples are stopping by my office and asking me to preside at their wedding even as they’re already living together. Such a scenario is becoming appallingly commonplace. In tandem, there’s the ever-increasing trend of young parents requesting baptisms for their children, but they’re only interested because grandma is pestering them. They’re willing to act on the first part of Christ’s mandate, which is to baptize “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Unfortunately, they have no intention for keeping the second part—“and teach them all things”—which is the promise to raise the children in the Christian faith (Matthew 28:19-20). Both parts go together. You can’t have one without the other.

And so, coming back around to where I began…

For me personally, I suppose my chief concern is not how much money I’ll have when I die. And I suppose I don’t really care if I ever get to exotic locales on vacation. It would be nice, but I’m not salivating over it. As far as fearing that I’ve not maximized my potential, while I’m sure I could be using my talents toward more lucrative enterprises, I’m absolutely certain the Lord has me right where He wants me.

What I hope for most in the face of my own death is that, firstly, when it arrives at my door, I’ll be found trusting in Christ. I say this as I’ve been in the room with a dying person who teetered at the edge of uncertainty. Uncertainty in the face of Death is the absolute equivalent of maximum dread. It is uncontaminated terror and I’ve seen it.

And so, secondly, my hope is that none in my family will experience this terror. I hope to have passed along an uncompromising faith in Christ to my own children—one that will be more than detectable in their spouses and children, one that will more than prove itself at my funeral. My hope is that the hymns will be full, my sorrowing family will give hearty replies of thankfulness to the Lord’s comforting Gospel, and the words spoken of me by the pastor who knew me—if he chooses to speak of me at all—will be ones that in every way find their way back to Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of the faith I possessed and the faith I did all I could to secure in the hearts and minds of my own loved ones.

I don’t say this with a prideful spirit. My goal is really very simple. I want my family to be with Jesus in the glories of heaven. And as an added bonus, I want to know we’ll be within arm’s reach of one another there.

Emily Dickinson was right when she mused, “Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me.” Unless the Lord returns first, everyone will eventually be the guest of honor at a funeral. My encouragement to you is to make the most of the time you have for fortifying the Christian faith in your family. Do all that you can to be faithful in worship. Do all that you can to balance the joy of sporting commitments with the absolute priority of keeping to the baptismal mandate for raising your children in the faith. Be mindful in every circumstance to talk with them about the substance of what it is that we believe as Christians according to the Word of God and what it means to be a child of Christ in a world that isn’t all that fond of the Lord.

In the broad scheme of things, nothing else really matters all that much. Life in this world is temporary. Life in the next is eternal. Unfortunately, far too many in the church don’t even begin to think about such things until the time of parental influence is too far out of reach or Death is already applying the brakes to the carriage and preparing to stop at the door.

My proposition: Consider and act on it now. In fact, the time before us—the season of summer—is the perfect time to begin. Summer is filled with grand temptations for steering clear of Christian worship and daily devotion. But don’t. Wrestle through it with your kids and commit wholeheartedly to continued time with the Lord.

It’s the right thing to do. It’s the faithful thing. And it’ll be worth it in the end.

A Different Endgame

I wanted to take a quick moment and relay an “in the trenches” type conversation I had this past Tuesday in Lansing with a ranking member of the Michigan House of Representatives who reached out to certain local pastors and asked for help/ideas/etc. in retaining several seats that are up for grabs in the upcoming election. According to the data he shared, several seats could be lost by a mere hundred or so votes depending upon voter turnout. In the midst of the discussion, he explained to me that one particular and somewhat liberal bill was going to be dealt with on the floor of the House very soon, and would probably pass—and it’s one that guys like me would never support—but the purpose was to garner moderate opposition support while at the same time keeping the bill off of the ballot in November because it would most likely draw out opposition voters who don’t typically participate in the larger elections. If this happens, it’s likely that the conservative majority would become the minority.

It was the purest image of political maneuvering, and while I’m well familiar with it happening, in that moment between just the two of us, it made me sick to my stomach. And I told him as much.

I reminded him that while I understand our system of government and the need to maintain certain levels of power to accomplish what needs to be accomplished, while this was the obvious intent of the conversation, simply keeping power was not the endgame for folks like me. It needed to be more. I explained that what seems to happen so often is that Christians are encouraged to do what they can support certain candidates and see that they are elected, and those candidates are sold on the platforms of Pro-Life, pro-religious liberty, and pro-sanctity of Marriage—all things that matter to the Christian church and her ability to function in a society where the Gospel is free to be preached and the Christians are able to live in peace and quietness. Big promises are made—such as defunding Planned Parenthood as soon as the elections are over and the candidates are in office, passing legislation that supports traditional marriage, and engaging with the courts to protect the Church from legal assaults against Biblical conscience. But when they do finally take to their seats for the business of governance, those thing never seem to happen—even in super-majority situations. For example, here I sit and Planned Parenthood is still having Michigan dollars directed to its coffers while at the same time receiving a cut of my Federal tax dollars—all of this even after so many conservative candidates were elected on the promise to stop this.

Anyway, the reason I share this is because I felt you needed to know that while I remain committed to engaging in this way, it really is for no other reason than to intercede with those in authority on behalf of the Church, and while doing so, to make sure that they understand that we are not seeking power, but rather faithfulness to good governance. When they fall short, they need to know. When they succeed, they need to be commended. In that particular moment, I expressed my concern and disappointment.

Nevertheless, and in the end, all of this serves to highlight that there is only One in whom trust is not wasted: Jesus Christ, the Savior of the Lord. It is by His gracious rule that we make our way in this life, humbly following His lead and seeking to remain in connection to Him and the gifts of forgiveness that He provides—gifts that preserve us for eternal life—namely Word and Sacrament.

God bless and keep you. If you have any questions, be sure to reach out and to let me know.

If Your Church Doesn’t Have a Christmas Day Service…

The Feast of the Nativity is upon us!

That’s right! That night and day celebrated across the globe by the Church universal as the event of all events, second only to the Triduum—the Holy “Three Days” of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter.

As you know, Christmas Day is this Sunday, and with that we’ll keep to our regular worship schedule of 9:30 AM. I mentioned in the last email newsletter that I was wondering what attendance might be like this Sunday. I say that only because while Christmas Eve services are sure to be well attended, the actual festival day is often a bit thin. I pray you’ll make time to be in worship. In contrast to my words, I just saw a note from a fairly popular Christian author saying that he was thankful to all the Christian churches that were cancelling their Christmas Day services this Sunday. Being a pastor’s kid, he was saying that he was glad the pastors would be able to skip worship for once and find time to celebrate Christmas like everyone else.

Um. Uh… What?

Okay, I get what he thinks he’s trying to say, but he seems to have completely missed the purpose for worship by saying it. In fact, his words make it sound like time with Jesus in worship can sometimes be an inconvenience, that it has the potential for getting in the way of more important things—like time with family. As nice as that sounds, it is completely wrong and misses the mark of concern by a mile.

How about this instead? A friend of mine from back in my seminary days, Reverend Hans Fiene, he wrote a note just as recently saying that if your church doesn’t have a service on Christmas Day, transfer to one that does. Period.

I whole heartedly agree. So, if you have any friends looking for a Christ-centered celebration of the Nativity on the actual day, tell them about that church on the north side of M-59 just a little east of Fenton Road. Yeah, the one at 13667 W. Highland Road in Hartland. Not only have I heard that it’s a very friendly place, but I’ve heard that they’ve never closed their doors on a scheduled worship opportunity in 62 years. They’re pretty serious about what they do in that place—very mindful of their time with Christ.