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.

Give Jesus to Your Children

I don’t know about you, but I sort of feel like the summer is already flying by far too quickly. It seems like only a few days ago we were getting ready for the last day of school and the celebrations that followed, now we’re nearing the middle of July! Time certainly does fly right by!

I know that in the days leading up to the break, Jennifer and the kids put together a list of the extra things they wanted to try to do this summer, such as visits to the park, picnics, swimming, and a host of other things. The heat has been somewhat of an obstacle for several of the activities. My own personal list involved doing a whole lot less than normal—in fact, a whole lot of nothing—and yet I’ve found myself in the middle of finishing a basement renovation before Joshua’s graduation party this Saturday. It wasn’t necessarily how I was planning to spend my midsummer evenings, but looking at it long term, it will be worth the effort when it’s done. I suppose there are a lot of things we can view from this same perspective.

Considering my son Joshua and looking back over the years, I’m sure that just like me, you can think on times when raising your own children was a difficult task. In fact, you might say it was one of the most challenging endeavors that the Lord ever allowed. It’s not uncommon for Jennifer and me to turn at look at one another in any particular circumstance involving our children and say, “Would you have ever thought you’d be here right now?” The answer is almost always, “No.” And it’s an honest no, because when either of us was younger—still kids, in a sense—who’d have thought we’d ever really be on the other end of the strange situations that we were imposing on our own parents. Forget the diaper changes. Over the course of years, that seems easy to me now. I’m talking about the late night in the Emergency Room because the child made a poor choice on the jungle gym, or terrifying diagnosis, or a conversation of comfort and encouragement in the face of a friend’s harsh words, or the seemingly never-ending sanitizing when the Rota virus is sweeping through the house, or sorting through a situation when the child did something wrong and found himself in trouble, or the countless hours of cleaning only to see everything wrecked again in less than ten minutes, or the arguments about this or that issue. I could go on and on, and I’m sure that most anything I’d share would resonate with many of you. But the point is that a lot goes into seeing a child through to adulthood, and while many of the events are not what we may have wanted or expected, I stand here at the edge of our first child’s graduation from high school and I say that the work was worth it.

But having said this, there’s a more important point that needs to be shared, and it’s that without the Lord and His Gospel being at the heart of the effort, there’d have been no chance of true success. And by success, I don’t mean that the child manages to stay out of prison and instead gets a great job, has a great marriage, and is a productive member of society. What I mean is that the child has been raised in a way to know the savior, Jesus Christ, and the forgiveness of sins He has won by His life, death, and resurrection. This is most important.

I’m pretty sure I once shared in a sermon that while I’ve had many goals as a dad, the most important thing to me is that when I’m well situated in the midst of heaven’s eternity, at some point along the way, my wife and children will be within arm’s reach, and I’ll be able to turn to them and say, “I’m so glad you’re here.” That’s what I want most. And so all of the effort now, no matter how challenging it may be, has as its main strategy the effort to keep Jesus in the middle of it all.

Always be willing to give Jesus to your children. And I encourage you to do this as much as you can while you can. Of course this means being faithful in worship, but it also means keeping Christ at the center of life’s occurrences—both good and bad. Again, things may or may not turn out for success in this life. Our children may stray. They may get into some serious, life-altering trouble. But in the end, their hearts will have been regularly cultivated to know that, ultimately, Christians are not inheritors of this world. We are inheritors of the world to come, and so we continue to introduce Christ to our families knowing that the Word of the Gospel is powerful, and in the hour of deepest need, there is the promise of forgiveness no matter how long and hard the road has been.

It will be a moment when the effort seemed so challenging—and sometimes even hopeless—but in the end, it will have been worth it.

I pray the Lord’s blessings by this Gospel to you and your family. I am most certainly confident that it is the only true message of power that can actually change human history and establish the best future for our kids.

Circling the Wagons

This community—Our Savior Evangelical Lutheran Church and School—is truly a family. How do I know this? Well, first of all, and in a practical sense, when I sent out that urgent message last week about a member of this church in need of employment, I didn’t get responses of mere well wishes; that is, none among you epitomized the scathing words in James 2:16 regarding others in genuine need: “If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?”

Instead, the family’s wagons were circled in support of this church member.

Within minutes of sending the email, I received from you offers for prayer as well as viable leads. Within hours, I’d received more viable leads, several text messages, and some really generous help that could only make the person’s résumé better. By the end of the day, the email had been shared with others outside of our circles. Because of your efforts, it reached several employers willing to talk with the person and others ready to hire him right away.

Besides all of this, how else do I know that Our Savior is truly a family?

Because God says so by His word. Not only does He refer to us as members of one body, each with different roles and yet belonging to each other (Romans 12:5), but Jesus call us His brothers and sisters (Hebrews 2:11). This is possible by virtue of our baptism into Him (Galatians 3:26-29). Having been baptized into Christ, you have become God’s children. You are sons and daughters of the Holy One, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, you are heirs of the heavenly kingdom. Thankfully, God has promised in Jesus Christ to work in and through you the very things you accomplished for one of our family members in need (Philippians 1:6).

I’m glad to call all of you my family. It’s a blessing of the Lord, and its one for which I give daily thanks.