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.

Basic Human Courtesy

I have to admit that last week was one of the more grueling weeks of the 2018-19 year. I was moving non-stop from Monday morning until the men’s Bible Study group last night. From morning until evening, every minute was pretty much accounted for. I suppose I wouldn’t even bother to mention this if it weren’t for something that happened earlier in the week that pretty much doubled the weight of the calendar’s challenges. Although, in the right frame of mind, what occurred bore valuable lessons well worth sharing.

The story begins with a funeral—and it was one of the most contentious circumstances in all my years as a pastor.

The first of the facts is that much of the funeral was pre-arranged. It was to be a Lutheran service coming to its conclusion in a Lutheran cemetery. The Bible readings and hymns were all selected years ago. I was present when they were chosen. I assisted in the choosing and I wrote them down. The funeral home handling the burial details had them recorded, too. It was also decided at the time that I would preach and preside at the funeral. And why wouldn’t I? I’d been regularly tending to this person’s spiritual care for over a decade, and in many ways, was counted as an extension of the family.

Thankfully, these plans went pretty much unscathed. And the one change that was eventually made to the plans—the fact that Pastor Pies did the preaching—was more than appropriate. He’d cared for the deceased for plenty more years than I.

And so, the trouble began as it relates to who and what we are as Lutheran Christians and what that actually means when it mixes with the “however the spirit moves you” flavor of Christianity trending in America.

If you know anything about Our Savior in Hartland—which I’m assuming many of you do—then you know it is a confessional Lutheran church of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. We hold to the historic rites and ceremonies as the best means for carrying and communicating the Christian Gospel for faith. The person being buried was a lifelong and devout LC-MS Lutheran Christian and a longtime member of this congregation. One would assume that with such well-established and careful intentions by the deceased and her pastor, the funeral event would be fairly easy for the extended family to navigate, and one might think that the contours of Lutheran doctrine and practice would be an assumed rudder for steering the funeral ship through rough waters for a group of people stricken by grief.

But the essential dilemma is that the one representing the family was by no means Lutheran, and throughout the process desired that I know it.

For example, the derogatory word “sanctimonious” comes to mind. Along with a few choice expletives and a couple of times of hanging up on me, I was called this pretty straightforwardly as I treaded as carefully as possible, doing my best to hold to our doctrine and practice. But still, through every careful explanation, I was told that all this congregation really cares about is its doctrine and holier-than-thou fluff, which was further explained as being something “no real Christian cares about. Real Christians care about people, not doctrines.”

Unfortunately, it only got uglier from there. Statements like “I hate your stupid doctrines” and “I hope your dog dies” were words crassly stitched into the conversation’s fabric.

Yes, someone actually wished for the death of my dog. I suppose it’s a good thing I don’t have one.

Anyway, herein is the first lesson I think we can learn.

I know that to many in mainstream evangelical Christianity, a traditional Lutheran funeral service can seem a little stiff. This is true for various reasons, one of which being that we don’t see a funeral as a free-for-all therapy session in the face of grief. It’s a time to hover with the preeminent and saving truth of the Gospel. With that, we’re not ones to let anyone and everyone get up in the midst of the service to speak about whatever as it relates to the deceased. It’s not that eulogies are bad. They have their place. It’s just that between the Invocation and Benediction of a Lutheran funeral service, something else is to occur entirely. We are to be laser-focused on the Gospel of eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ. The fluff of the world gives way to the sturdy underpinnings of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins and the hope that comes for facing the last enemy, which is Death (1 Corinthians 15:26). This means we hold to the belief that little Susie’s poem about auntie would be better suited during the viewing or while folks are fellowshipping at the luncheon. It’s not going to happen during the service.

We also don’t give room for anyone and everyone to assist with the liturgy or do the Bible readings. We believe as the scriptures teach, that pastors are the ones called to stand in the stead and by the command of Christ in these things. Pastors are, as Saint Paul says, stewards of the mysteries of God (1 Corinthians 4:1). With that, if Cousin Sally wants to be a part of the service, at the most it’ll be to sing a solo stanza from a pre-determined hymn.

Speaking of hymnody, we don’t typically allow secular music to be played during the service, either. Why? Mainly because of the first point I made, but also because it’s just flat out dangerous. Frank Sinatra’s “I Did It My Way” may have been a beloved song for many in the family, but like it or not, it preaches a theological message that is about as counterintuitive to the Christian message as it gets.

A funeral is a holy event, and if the pastor is doing his job, he’ll get in between the world’s things and the Church’s things—for the sake of the people. He’ll protect and encourage the rites and ceremonies—the words and motions and places and times that make sure that everyone in the house of the Lord knows nothing less than that God is unquestionably present and at work for our good. Doctrine and practice, the rites and ceremonies of a funeral, all are in place to communicate an unclouded Gospel and provide genuine comfort.

The last of this—and you’ve probably guessed it already—is that in a traditional Lutheran funeral, God pretty much does all the talking. He has the first and last word on everything. He does this through the reading of His holy scriptures. Through the preaching, He showers His merciful love on heartbroken listeners like a torrential rain on a drying landscape. Even the hymns we sing and prayers we pray are a resonation of this bountiful relief found only in the risen Savior, Jesus. There’s no room for the world’s transient attempts at comfort in the face of Death. They’re completely out of their league in this regard—an atom-sized splinter of import in comparison to the saving message of Christ and Him crucified and raised so that Death would be defanged and we would live eternally.

That’s the first lesson—the world says, “I want it my way,” while God intends something far more substantial.

There are at least two more lessons that come to mind. But before I share them, I ask you to be prepared to really contemplate them—to really think about what I’m saying. I say this because in our radically individualized world, far too often will folks believe they’re thinking something through, but in reality, they’re merely rearranging their personal agendas in order to build better defenses around what they already believe and want so desperately to continue believing.

I’m asking for you to really think about this stuff.

The second lesson is that, while I won’t assume to speak for you, I’m guessing that any one of us would expect pastors—no matter the denomination—to take their ordination vows seriously. A Lutheran pastor intends to keep to the doctrines and practices to which he has subscribed just as a Baptist, Methodist, or Pentecostal would. With that, I can assure you that even as I’d never expect for a pastor from another denomination to come into my church and tell me how things ought to be done, I’d never step foot into his church expecting him to abide by Lutheran practices. If I were to engage in such behavior, it would only expose the cracks in my character as opposed to revealing another pastor’s seemingly offensive practices. In other words, he’s not the jerk. I am.

This stirs a final lesson.

Basic human courtesy is still a thing among Christians, right? I mean, it still exists, yes?

I know that plenty among the Christian ranks expel a lot of energy critiquing the doctrine and practices of other congregations or denominations. No denomination is immune from engaging in such banter. Every Baptist has his Lutheran joke. Every Lutheran has his Baptist joke. Trust me, I get why this happens. Doctrine and practice matter, and denominations differ greatly on some pretty significant things. I do my fair share of speaking to this very topic during the Sunday morning Bible study here at Our Savior. I want my people to know the differences. Saint Paul makes that very point in 1 Corinthians 11:17-19. In my efforts in the public square, I do the same thing. I take every opportunity to show how bad doctrines producing bad practices has the potential for harming the efforts of the Church Universal as we attempt to face off together with the princes of this world. In both of these forums, plenty of folks have shared with me that when they see something happening in a church that is clearly unfaithful, they cringe with a desire to fix it. And again, rightly so. Once more, Paul was concerned about these things among the churches and pastors. He wasn’t messing around when he instructed Timothy to watch his doctrine and life (practices) closely. By doing this, Timothy would save both himself and his hearers (1 Timothy 4:16).

Still, as much as any of us might find concern for a church’s handling of its own doctrine and practices among its own people, it remains a basic human courtesy to keep your commentary to yourself while right in the middle of it, especially if you find yourself in a situation where you are the recipient of the church’s efforts. Your silence in those moments doesn’t mean you approve, but rather that you have the ability for discerning self-restraint. Talk about it as much as you want with whomever you want after it’s all over, but in the midst of it, be respectful. Prove by your silence in that moment the integrity of the words you may find yourself using in the next. Plenty move forward in these circumstances bent on establishing proper piety, but fewer these days are making their way to an opponent with that piety immersed in the tenderness of humility.

I dare say that such self-restraint is an incredibly important asset that serves very well in any and all conversations, especially those designed to communicate critiques across theological borders.

I suppose in the end, there are plenty more lessons we can learn from this situation. Suffice it to say that this is enough for now.

As I said, I pray you will consider these things, and if anything, you’ll understand why pastors hold the line in this regard. Don’t shout and swear at him. Don’t wish dreadful things upon him. Give him the benefit of the doubt that he’s not trying to be offensive. He’s just trying to do his job. He’s just trying to be faithful.

Twenty Go In, Nineteen Leave

I want to start off by repeating what I’ve said in a few places already, which is that I am so thankful to all who stepped up to help with Pastor Heckert’s funeral this past Saturday. I know that many of you know exactly what I mean when I say that it’s sometimes hard enough to actively serve when you feel a little more like you belong in the pews alongside everyone else in the church family receiving the ministering of the Gospel. It’s a strange dynamic, and yet your diligence to see to the care of Ilona, Paula, Mark, Stephen, and all of the Heckert family illuminated the event with the love of Christ in ways that I’ll forever struggle to describe with words that do justice.

Your faithful deeds—offshoots of the Holy Spirit alive within you by the Gospel—were pleasing to the Lord, and neither I nor the Heckerts will ever forget them.

And so now, as we go forward knowing that God will bring to us comfort and peace…

Even though it’s often very hard to see in the midst of what equally seems to be a swirling tempest of worldly reason, I know by faith that this is true. I know as Job knew that even as my flesh will return to the dust, I will stand before the Lord and see Him with my own eyes. I, you, all of us will rise again in the flesh and we will be together in the glories of heaven for all eternity.

Let me put this into the perspective I had just before I left for the cemetery on Saturday.

After the luncheon, I made my way back to the church where I put some things away and then made some preparations for the Sunday morning Divine Service. Knowing I had about five minutes before I needed to leave to get to the cemetery on time, I sat down and rendered some thoughts on Facebook. Here’s what I wrote.

——————–

We’ll be leaving in a few moments to put into the bosom of the earth the mortal remains of our dear friend and pastor, Jakob K. Heckert. The words of the Creed regarding our Savior, Jesus, ring in our ears: “…was crucified, died, and was buried.”

Buried. Considering the events of Death, the stinger at the tip of this word carries a very unique venom.

Of course Jakob is in heaven, but in a very human sense, until the cemetery he was with us. There he was in his bed at home. There he was in the casket at the funeral home. There he was in the casket in the narthex. Even though the lid was closed, there he was beneath it and under the pall during the Divine Service. There he was in the back of the coach. There he was for any of us at any moment to reach out and touch.

There he was.

But now twenty of us will enter the cemetery and only nineteen will leave. We will be less one person, one friend.

In such a moment, the words from the Creed just beyond those describing the Lord’s victorious death and consequent burial are so desperately needed: “He descended into hell. The third day He rose again from the dead.”

Resurrection. Think on this.

“I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus said. “He who believes in Me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in Me will never die.” Twenty believers enter the cemetery sturdied by the Gospel for faith. Twenty believers traverse a muddy landscape pocked with headstones, and they go knowing that even if any or all must remain behind, all twenty will rise again.

That’s the anti-venom of promise given in the moment that disarms the sting.

——————-

These words are a reflection of the wrestling between the sinner and the saint—the sinner seeing a somber gathering of people in a place full of dead bodies; the saint seeing that which the Holy Spirit has worked in believers, which is full trust in the promise—and eventual reality—of the resurrection of all flesh as it has been won by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, our Savior.

With that, there’s a reason we say the Christian creeds each and every Sunday. The words of such a Gospel confession are important enough that they must be ever at the edge of our hearts and minds, as well as resting at the tip of our tongues. We need a clear confession of the Christian faith when the fog of reason is threatening to overcome us.

It sure did threaten me on Saturday. But I’m confident that the Holy Spirit worked within me trust in the promise to know that even in such moments, Christ holds onto me with both hands, and He will never leave nor forsake me. He intends that I would look upon Death—the formidable foe that it is—and see a toothless, clawless, and defeated specter; one that has no hold on me. And if this is true, then the graves of the faithful are little more than beds in the earth that keep our remains until our God says the word, the angels move into place, the trumpet sounds, and the souls of God’s people in heaven are reunited to their resurrected bodies—now perfected—and we are ushered before the throne in the flesh.

That’s the endpoint for the buried body of a Christian—eternity in heaven, and not the ground.

I pray this same comfort and knowledge for you. It certainly is yours as much as it is mine.

In the meantime, call me if you need me—if you are struggling, need help with some tougher questions, or just want to talk to someone who will listen as God’s servant and respond with His voice. These are some of the many reasons I’m here, and second to the preaching and teaching of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments, they are some of the most important.