Our Great, High Priest

When I was a little boy, the one thing I wanted most in the world was to be a big, strong man.  While there are many reasons one has for such a desire, the premiere one was that I could then do what I wanted to do.

The thing I hated most about school was the constant reminder that I was not a man.  Nothing did this more poignantly than the need to request permission to go to the bathroom.  Oh, the granduer of just being able to rise from one’s seat and go relieve himself without first abasing himself before an adult in two significant ways: 1.  I have to pee.  My body requires of me this obedience, and should I not respond correctly, I will eventually be covered in my own waste.  2.  You can tell me “no”.

Are you serious?!

Weakness is the antithesis of greatness.  There are no grand statues of our leaders throughout history holding themselves while dancing due to their need to pee.  It, in fact, seems disrespectful to even mention it.  Greatness is strength.  Greatness is not asking permission.  Greatness is doing, not submitting.

…and yet, Jesus is our Great, High Priest precisely because of his choosing our weaknesses, limitations and position.  In fact, he didn’t just choose to be a human but to serve to the ultimate extent of the expression of our limitations – he died…naked…in front of everyone…until his own weakness meant he couldn’t breathe anymore, and so he strangled to death due to his own body’s frailty.  Remember the pleading of Jesus for a drink?  Remember those in power telling him “no” in so many ways?  No, you aren’t worthy of the title Son of Man.  No, you are not our long-awaited Messiah.  No, you aren’t in control, and we’ll prove it by killing you after torturing and humiliating you.

And this is what makes Him great.  No, I am not lessening his perpetual divinity, nor his miraculous healing of others, nor any of the other “great” things he said/did.

What makes Him great is that Jesus understands our pain, our suffering, our weakness, our temptations.  He gets it.

He also defeated them.  Not in physical prowess, but in spiritual submission to the Father.  Nothing could make Him deny the Father’s will for His life, nothing!  The Apostle Paul knew this same truth when he said, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.”

We often pray for God to make our lives easier.  Oh, that the Church would begin again to pray “Thy will be done on Earth as it is in heaven”, and in this, show Christ’s victory to the world.  The indomitable will of the submitted servant.  “You can kill me, but you can’t make me deny my LORD!!!!”  May my brothers and sisters in the Middle East, Asia and Africa be strong in the midst of their weakness, and may we be inspired by their example of following Jesus.

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The Disarming Power of Honesty

Reading glasses

Reading glasses (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.” (Eph. 4:15 NIV)

In the arms race of far too many conversations nowadays, where each is vying for their due homage from the other, there is a better way to communicate, build unity and move forward (either as an organization or as individuals in life).  This will be mind-alteringly brilliant, but hang on:

Fall in love with the Creator of the other.

A couple of simple observations:

1. God made them.

2. God didn’t screw up.

3. God made you.

4. God didn’t screw up on you either.

Within this simple matrix of beliefs, the capacity for appreciation of the other is possible without lessening your own self worth.  This person is neither my enemy nor my competitor, they are my unique equal.  Using this newfound respect, begin to look at them with the eyes of He who made them.  Begin imagining His purposes in doing so.  Call forth their magnificent potential.  Speak life-giving truth into their day.

This works well in all situations, including the escalating types, but it works best like a sucker punch – out of the blue of normalcy comes an insightful compliment, a poetically placed truth that inspires the other to be who God created them to be.  They are changed.  They exist in an elevated state for a while as the reality of another’s belief in them saturates their soul.

Nina is graceful.  Her carriage, her conversations, her soul.  It is as though she walks in a beauty pageant her every day.  She exudes and gives grace to those around her as though sowing seeds without awareness.

Scott is caring.  He loads his own back to lighten yours.  He walks lightly while carrying great weight that his family, friends and village would not notice his burden.  He is simple in these guestures without fanfare or bombast.  He smiles as he picks up some of your load, and his joy is increased.

In truly beginning to see others, you will see yourself more clearly.

Change someone’s world today.  Speak the truth in love.

How to Perform a Funeral pt.9

Matane cemetery

Matane cemetery (Photo credit: Bête à Bon-Dieu)

1. Meet With the Family.

2. Distill to One Best Trait/Quality.

3. Include Phsychological Cues.

4. Lead People to Christ/Hope.

5. Select a Text That Ties Best Trait to Christ and Eternal Life.

6. Teach About the New Heaven and New Earth.

7. Know the Basics.

8. Committal – Body and Breath.  Christ on the Cross.

9. Technology.

There are times when technology in a funeral service seems tacky (a fake bugle with a speaker in it that plays Taps so the honor guard doesn’t actually have to know how to play comes to mind), however, there are a couple ways in which technology can enrich the service in deeply meaningful ways:

A) Music.

A song has a way of cutting through the intellect and touching the emotions like few other things can.  Add to that the aspect of a favorite song of the deceased – and you have a really effective moment!  This used to mean someone tearfully trying to recreate a professional’s song to the accompaniment of a piano – which was the wrong instrumentation for said song.  The song was generally done poorly, but everyone pretended it was beautiful because that’s what you do.  Then came the burned CD by the family of the three songs they wanted played at the service – usually rushed – and therefore untried (i.e., it might not even play on your cd system) and out of order; after all they have a lot on their minds.

YouTube.com has revolutionized this part of the service for me.  Simply find the artist’s official copy and play it through the sound system of your church – you can even show the music video, if appropirate, or use a slideshow of the deceased’s pictures at the same time for greater impact.  This way you can also preview the song (even at the family meeting if possible) for best placement in the service.

B) Pictures.

One of the perennial responsibilities of a grieving family is to assemble their favorite pictures of the deceased, and pin them onto upholstered Memory boards for the visitation, viewing and funeral service.  This of course requires a lot of time and ends up damaging some of their favorite pictures of their loved one.  If the service is at the funeral home, this is still preferable to one small laptop running a slideshow (which worsens the backlog of people trying to look at the pictures due to the screen size).

A better option is a slideshow of pictures (approximately chronological) which can play on a loop in the sanctuary prior to the service, after the service and/or as a special part of the service (see A).  I like to put appropriate Scripture verses after every 6-10 slides in the slideshow.  Make sure that the fade rate is at an even pace that gives people the opportunity to really see the picture, but doesn’t slow the whole thing down to a crawl. 5-8 seconds seems to work well for each picture.  The added benefits are that you aren’t damaging the pictures with pushpins, it’s projected up on a big screen that everyone can see at the same time and digital pictures don’t have to printed off in order to be used.

C) Cell phones.

The only thing tackier than having to begin a funeral service by reminding everyone to put their phone on silent or vibrate, is to have someone’s cell phone go off in the middle of the service.  It rarely fails that the one person with the most upbeat and joy-filled ringtone receives a call during the service…then can’t dig it out of their purse/pants pocket quickly enough, and even worse – they answer it and try to whisper that they can’t talk right now!!  The least tacky way to handle it seems to be to have the funeral director remind everyone that the service will be starting shortly, and to please turn off their cell phones.  This leaves the minister free to focus on ministering.

P.S. make sure that you never leave YOUR cell phone on 🙂

How to Perform a Funeral pt.8

Matane cemetery

Matane cemetery (Photo credit: Bête à Bon-Dieu)

1. Meet With the Family.

2. Distill to One Best Trait/Quality.

3. Include Phsychological Cues.

4. Lead People to Christ/Hope.

5. Select a Text That Ties Best Trait to Christ and Eternal Life.

6. Teach About the New Heaven and New Earth.

7. Know the Basics.

8. Committal – Body and Breath.  Christ on the Cross.

When it comes to the final part of the Funeral service, the Committal can occur at the same place and time as the funeral, just at the end of the service, or it can occur at the graveside.  The basics remain the same, though the nuances will obviously change based upon location.

Keept it brief.  Texts should include the Fall, the Crucifixion and/or Paul’s discussion of Resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15.  Psalm 23 should be used here if not in the Funeral service itself.  Spend no more than 5 minutes discussing the text that was chosen, and close with the Lord’s Prayer and/or Amazing Grace.  It is a nice touch to have each of the family members select a flower from the casket arrangement as they prepare to leave.  Through all of this part of the service, weave in the main concepts of the Committal.

The theology of the Committal comes down to the foundations of our faith: Creation, Fall, Salvation, Resurrection.  You will have already expounded upon these issues as you have felt appropriate in the Funeral service itself, however, it is helpful to view this part as a physical application of these truths.

A) Creation – God formed man from the dust of the earth, and breathed his breath of life into Adam’s nostrils.  Body + Breath = Life.  The corporeal and the incorporeal, the physical and the spiritual.  The rest of the universe was created by the spoken word of God, but for humanity, he paused, shaped and breathed.  These two parts were made whole.

B) Fall – Sin enters the picture and defiles the image of God.  Death comes as God’s means of separating our spirits from our bodies, that we might be re-embodied at the last day.  This unnatural division of humanity is at once the great tragedy of life as we know it, and also the answer to our great tragedy.

C) Salvation – Christ on the Cross.  Jesus took on human flesh, and died on our behalf, saying, “into your hands, I commit my spirit.”  “Ashes to ashes and dust to dust.” covers the half of us that will remain in the ground – committed to the earth from whence it came.  Our spirits however are separated and are likewise committed into the Father’s hands, awaiting his good pleasure.

D) Resurrection – Death is an ending of the imperfect, and a waiting for the perfection that is to come.  Death is a victory for the believer who has finished the race, fought the fight and remained faithful to their Lord and Savior.  We mourn the passing of our loved ones, but not without hope.

Paul Harvey was famous for his two-part reporting, with the second half beginning with, “And now for the rest of the story.”  The Committal is all about awaiting the rest of The Story.

How to Perform a Funeral pt.7

Matane cemetery

Matane cemetery (Photo credit: Bête à Bon-Dieu)

1. Meet With the Family.

2. Distill to One Best Trait/Quality.

3. Include Phsychological Cues.

4. Lead People to Christ/Hope.

5. Select a Text That Ties Best Trait to Christ and Eternal Life.

6. Teach About the New Heaven and New Earth.

7. Know the Basics.

As with any activity, there are a lot of aspects that are assumed and not even discussed by those who do them frequently.  A finish carpenter knows to stop hitting the finish nail prior to seating it fully so as to not mar the trim – he seats it with a nail set.  It seems obvious to those who put trim up all the time – but not so obvious to the uninitiated.

Here are some basics that most attending funerals have never reallly thought about:

1. The Pastor should precede the casket.

This is an act of respect of the deceased, a visible direction for the pall bearers and a spiritual analogy of Christ leading us into New Life as the first born.  The Pastor should stand to one side of the hearse as the casket is being placed in, and should precede the casket to the burial site as well.

2. The body is laid to rest facing the East – the direction from which Christ will return.

This is becoming less common among cemeteries, as they are more concerned about efficiency of placement, and in all honesty as funerals/committals haven’t mentioned this truth – most people are completely unaware of the significance.  If the alignment is correct, I encourage you to mention it as a part of the committal.

3. The Pastor frequently rides with the Funeral Home Director to the graveside (though you can choose to drive yourself).

This is not a need to, but a personal choice.  If you need to leave quickly following the committal…drive.  In many ways, this is a continuation of #1, the Pastor precedes the casket, and leads the procession to the graveside.

4. Arrive early.

This is true of all of life, but is also true of a funeral.  No grieving family wants to have to worry about whether or not you are going to show up on time.  Arriving early also gives you plenty of opportunity to make final arrangements with the funeral home director re: the order of service.

5. Type up an order of worship, and have copies available for the Funeral Home Director.

If you have done #4, this is an excellent opportunity to make sure there are no last minute changes to said order.  I recommend getting the order of service to the director at the visitation or at least one hour prior to service.

6. Honorarium.

This is a charge that most funeral homes include in their price, and write a check to the pastor for their services.  I have no problem with this being done, however personally I have chosen to not  be paid for these services, and have made that known to our funeral home directors.  Several reasons:

A) I am on salary.  I am therefore paid already to be a pastor.  This is a pastoral function.

B) The family 9 times out of 10 is not prepared financially for a funeral, this gives you an opportunity to be the one that truly ministers to them in their time of need as a free gift.

C) I want them in my debt.  Let me explain – If I go to a store and purchase a loaf of bread, I am free to enjoy the bread with no feelings of being blessed by the grocery store.  I want the family to feel blessed, not compensated.  This will hopefully help them to reflect on why Christ’s church would give so freely.

7. Wear professional attire.

Attire should match the activity.  I wear my Muck Boots when working in the garden, swimming trunks when relaxing at the lake, and a suit and tie when performing funerals and weddings.  Remember, you are not the point.  You do not want people thinking about what you are wearing, but about what you are saying to them about life, death, Christ and eternity.

8. Know whether or not there will be others officiating at the graveside, communicate  the order early – quite often through the funeral home director.

If the deceased was a member of the Masons, the Military or some other group, there will quite often be additional elements.    Ask ahead of time.

How to Perform a Funeral pt.6

Matane cemetery

Matane cemetery (Photo credit: Bête à Bon-Dieu)

1. Meet with the Family.

2. Distill to One Best Trait/Quality.

3. Include Psychological Cues.

4. Lead People to Christ/Hope.

5. Select a Text that Ties Best Trait to Christ and Eternal Life.

6. Teach About the New Heaven and New Earth.

You remember the Tom and Jerry cartoons where one or the other of them (or maybe Spike) would get hit a little too hard, and they would bite the big one.  The next thing you would see would be an ethereal version of them floating up out of their body with a white robe, a set of wings, a harp and a halo.  They would then make their way to heaven floating in the clouds strumming said harp.

Laughable, right?  Unfortunately, Tom & Jerry did a better job of consistently teaching the American culture what heaven is going to be like than the Church did…and they screwed it up!

One of my pet peaves is to hear someone say that “God needed another angel” in an attempt to give someone comfort over the loss of a loved one.

#1. God doesn’t need.

#2. He certainly doesn’t need any more angels.

#3. Humans will NEVER be angels.  We will in fact one day rule with Christ over even the angels.

We also won’t be inhabiting some other-worldly environ, flitting about playing harps.  The Scriptures are abundantly clear that Humanity was created a physical creature, and that we will be physical creatures for all eternity.  The place we will dwell will be the New Earth (think Eden revisited), and the capital city will be the New Jerusalem which will descend to the New Earth, and God will dwell with us here.

We are body and breath, when we die, the breath leaves the body awaiting a new body.  In this in-between stage of waiting, we are seen as “sleeping” or awaiting the last day (in the case of the martyrs, crying out for justice).  Our bodies now are perishing, our bodies then will never perish…but still bodies.

When performing a funeral, don’t get teachy, and certainly don’t co-opt the service to jump up and down on your soap box about their bad theology; but weave into the service the Christian teaching about the next life.  Funerals are one of the few opportunities we have to speak to as wide a population base as Tom & Jerry got (the other being weddings).  take advantage of the opportunity to speak about our hope of eternal life, not eternal floating and harp-playing.

How to Perform a Funeral pt.5

Matane cemetery

Matane cemetery (Photo credit: Bête à Bon-Dieu)

1. Meet with the Family.

2. Distill to One Best Trait/Quality.

3. Include Psychological Cues.

4. Lead People to Christ/Hope.

5. Select a Text that Ties Best Trait to Christ and Eternal Life.

I recently preached a funeral, in which the best trait was the person’s willingness to be the one to help someone, anyone, in need.  I need to reitirate here that the perspective of the family is the key, not our interpretation – but their truth of the person. No, I am not postmodern in perspective, but it is hearing their beliefs about their loved one tied to Christ that will most dramatically impact them – not our interpretation of the individual’s life based upon a 45 minute meeting.  This trait came up over and over again in the mouths of the family.  It was this trait that I went searching the text for.

The Parable of the Good Samaritan was the passage that best tied this trait to Christ and to eternal life.  At first you would think this would have little to do with eternity, but the framing of the parable is an expert in the Law’s question of Jesus, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus responds with two questions, “What is written in the Law?” and “How do you read it?”  The expert responds with the formula of loving God and neighbor – and Jesus tells him that he is correct.  The expert trying to save face ask Jesus who his neighbor is…and the parable of the Good Samaritan ensues.

Here we have Christ, himself, speaking about eternal life within the context of helping someone (esp. a culturally despised someone) in a time of need.  Perfect!

The beauty of this approach to preaching funerals is manifold:

A) the whole of the Scriptures is opened as possibility;

B) the uniqueness of the individual can be fully reflected in a God-honoring funeral;

C) a call to action is perfectly at home at the end of the funeral service, based upon the person’s life and the Life of Christ;

D) the memory of the deceased will be inextricably tied to the message of Christ for all who attend the funeral service.