Sacred Moment

sacred momentI had the privelege and honor to pray for a woman just before she died yesterday.  It was a beautiful, sacred time!

We often think of sacred moments as birth, salvation, baptism, membership, wedding and births; but our culture chooses to not think about the fact of our imminent demise as something beautiful anymore.  In fact, most of our culture has almost no connection with it at all.  That’s what happens to people in hospitals and nursing homes with “professionals” around them.  No longer is it even considered something that children should witness, let alone have a visceral understanding of.  I am told that children aren’t able to deal with it, but what I have found is that if they don’t have to deal with it as a child, they don’t see it as normal, and are unable (or unwilling) to deal with it in a healthy manner as adults.  100% seems like normal to me.

Death happens.  Life’s breath slips slowly, yet suddenly away.

In the midst of reflecting on this (now normal for me) event, a saleswoman commented how sad that must have been.  My response was that death is never sad – a life lived well leads to a victorious death, a life lived poorly is sad – death is just the statement that you have finished the race.  How we run that race is what is happy or sad.

There is something sacred about a child’s birth.  Awe-inspiring, moving and meaningful.  The breath of life enters their nostrils, and we are introduced to this person that we love already – before we know them.

There is something sacred about a person’s death too.  Awe-inspiring, moving and meaningful.  The breath of life leaves their body, and we love the person that we have known.

Don’t rob yourself of the sacred moment of a loved one’s passing.  Embrace them through the entirety of life; as you have embraced the race, embrace the finish line!

“For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure.  I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.  Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day – and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” – St. Paul  (2 Timothy 4:6-8, NIV)

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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.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.4

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.

The goal of the service is not to preach the deceased into eternal life (you can’t), nor is it to convince the living of the sinfulness of the errors of the deceased (they already know).  The goal is, as always, to lead people to a closer relationship with their Creator through Jesus Christ his only begotten son.

Given that the people you will be preaching to chose to come to this person’s funeral service, odds are that they at least don’t want to hear someone speak badly of them.  If you do, Christianity will be seen as judgemental and pharisaical – not holy and desirable.  If you speak falsely in order to praise the individual – you will be known to be a liar and therefore a peddlar of lies – Christianity will be discounted as either so easy they must be one too, or a pack of lies not to be trusted.

Fortunately, there is another option: speak the truth in love.

The truth you should speak isn’t where the deceased may or may not be (unless of course you knew them to be a devout Christian who had their name written in the Lamb’s Book of Life), but of God’s desire to spend eternity with them.  One of my favorite ways of stating this truth is, “If______________ could come and share one truth with you, it would be to choose Jesus.”  Think of the rich man in the parable who wanted to tell his family to not make the same choices he had made.

Ultimately you want to focus their desires on their own eternities and their loved ones’ eternities that can still be saved.  If the focus is too much on the deceased, then their emotional impetus will be to reflect both the good and the bad of that person’s life.  Our mission is to focus them on the good of the deceased, tie it to the ultimate source of all good things – God, and lead them to honor both with their lives from this point forward.

How to Perform a Funeral pt.3

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.

I know that I just told you to avoid cookie-cutter funerals where you can interchange names with very little substantive difference, and I stand by that; however, there are certain aspects of a funeral/memorial service that make it feel like a funeral service.  When you attend a wedding, 1 Corinthians 13, the unity candle, “Dearly Beloved”, and a white dress are some of those iconic aspects that ring true for a wedding.  These help the people involved in the wedding to be able to believe that they are now married, that a substantive change has occurred in their lives.  The same thing is true for a funeral.

Including aspects that are part of the “branding” of a funeral service will psychologically help the family to move through the stages of grief.  This is a balancing act between a cookie-cutter funeral and a service that is emotionally confusing.  The weaving together of the uniqueness of the person with the traditional aspects of a funeral will create the right balance of psychological truths that communicates that their loved one has truly died.

Here is my list that I always try to include in the service:

1. Obituary reading.

I generally begin the service with this as the family has personally chosen these words to describe their loved one.  2 notes – A) make sure you know how to pronounce all the names prior to reading them, and B) leave off the end of the obituary where they are informing the public where the service will be.

2. Psalm 23.

My Mother once sagely informed me that cliches only become cliches because they are true.  This passage of Scripture is used so heavily for funerals because it works so well.  Include it, but don’t use it as the primary text for your message (usually, make an exception only when it best fits the uniqueness of the person as well).

3. Amazing Grace.

One of those songs that people who have only a passing knowledge of the Church recognize and relate with.  Like the 23rd Psalm, it works great.  The tone of the song, the meaning of the song and especially the triumphant final verse all put the right sense into the service.  If performing a graveside, I will generally save this song until then.  There is a beautiful, haunting quality to it being sung a capella in a cemetery.

4. The LORD’s Prayer.

This is one of the only times that I use the KJV.  It is a poetic rendering of the Greek, and due to its regular use in most churches, it has a powerful grounding influence for the Christians in attendance.  It also adds a dynamic of sharing together as both the pastor and the congregation pray together.

Are there any “old faithfuls” that you use?

How to Perform a Funeral pt. 2

Matane cemetery

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

1. Meet with the Family.

2. Distill to one best trait/quality.

While one of the great reasons for meeting with the family is to provide a place of cathartic healing for them, the primary reason is to be able to perform a funeral/memorial service that will accurately honor their loved one in an excellent way.  One of the best ways to do this is to hear through the various stories/jokes/fond recollections a common thread that is core to who this person was.  This needs to be what you are secretly listening for during the entire meeting, and you should only feel free to move on to the actual service planning once you have detected that unmistakeable note.

The rest of the service planning then needs to revolve around this truth.  Three points about death and a sappy poem, do not a good funeral make!  Resist the urge to cookie-cutter your way through this (which is easy to do once you have a few under your belt, and the family probably won’t notice…but that’s the point – they won’t notice!!  This service should crystallize their thinking of their loved one and give them a clarion call of how to be a better person throughout the rest of their life.  They should notice.) with a couple of go-to texts and a song of Amazing Grace.

In ministry, your words will roll off of people far more frequently than they will penetrate to the heart.  Funerals are a teachable moment, when their resistance to things spiritual is at an all-time low.  Don’t screw it up!  Let me repeat, don’t screw it up!!

“When the pupil is ready, the teacher appears.”  Too often pastors perform bland services that are more routine than challenging, more aimed at not stirring the pot than changing lives.  Many of the people you get to minister to in these times haven’t darkened a church door in years.  The pupil is ready, make sure you show up.

Invariably, this best trait is what was most like Christ about the person.  Tie the scarlet thread of salvation to them through this poignant truth, and you are over half way there (yeah, I know there are 8 more points to come, but you really are over half way there).  When preaching the service, this one trait will give you an honest bridge to talk about the things of God in a way that you will be heard.

Waste Not

English: A picture of compost soil

English: A picture of compost soil (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Life cycles.  Birth, growth, maturity, fruitfulness, senescence, death, decay.  These are normally seen as joy followed by mourning.  Who doesn’t celebrate with that first green shoot poking through the soil, or the anticipation of a strong, young plant that is beginning to bud?  Not to mention the joy and enjoyment of fruitfulness – the point of the plant (as many would see it).   Likewise, there is always a sense of loss as a specific plant has finished yielding its fruit, and begins to wilt and fall to the ground and die.

The gardener, however, sees things a little bit differently.  That single plant was a part of something far greater, far older and far more significant.  The gardener knows that the compost they lovingly put in the garden prior to transplanting the young, vibrant plant came from other plants and fruit that had lived, grown and died – only to give new life to the next generation.  I guess a gardener who relies upon petroleum based fertilizers, and seed packets purchased from a local grocery/hardware/home improvement center – has little visceral understanding of this truth; but if you save your own seeds from the previous generation, and keep an active compost pile from all the “waste” from your garden and kitchen, you know that life lives on.

Nothing is more healthy and life-giving than composted life.  No purchased seed packet enables you to hand-select the best of the best of each generations’ fruitfulness to pass on to the next.  Nothing supplies the needs of the young like the “waste” of the old.

Plants live and die, and in their death – they give new life to those that follow them.  You can do the same.  Honor those who have gone before, listen to the stories of their successes and failures and learn from their best and brightest moments – as well as their lessons learned the hard way.  Build into the generations that are coming along behind you, help them out as they are getting started.  Your trash might just be their treasure.

If a garden teaches you anything, it should be that nothing is wasted, nothing is useless.  All life is life-giving.

“I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed.  But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” (-Jesus, John 12:24 NIV)