I was once asked to perform the funeral for a neighbor’s son who had committed suicide. He was a hard living man who plied the waters of the Illinois River working on a barge. During his life he expressed little interest God.
God alone knows the heart, but by all outward appearances, this lack of interest did not change on the day he took his life. Like so many others in this sin torn world, he lived without God and died without him.
I felt nervous when his parents asked me to officiate at the funeral. They were not church going people. They did not want church music. Instead, they asked the funeral home to play “Proud Mary,” the song made famous by Creedence Clearwater Revival. I breathed a sigh of relief when the funeral director politely informed the family that he didn’t have a copy of that particular song on hand. But I worried that they might ask me to recite the lyrics like poetry. I imagined myself standing before the coffin chanting:
Big wheel keep on turnin’,
Proud Mary keep on burnin’,
Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’ on the river.
Instead, I preached a sermon about the foolish man who built his house on the sand: “The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash” (Matt. 7:27).
How do you offer comfort to people who have no reason to hope for it? What can you say to those whose loved ones have ordered their lives in such a way that they have left little room for God? I thought about the advice we had been given in seminary for dealing with situations like this. Back then an old school preacher with a booming voice and a soft heart who taught courses in preaching and pastoral care had urged: “Gentlemen, don’t say anything about the destiny of their loved ones. Leave that to God. Just preach the hope of the gospel and make the condition of faith plain.”
I confess that at the time I wondered if this approach was a little soft. “After all,” I reasoned, “if these people have rejected Christ, why not come right out and say it? The shock might do the mourners some good.” That was when I was young and brash. It was only after pastoral ministry took me to the bedsides, emergency rooms, and funeral visitations of my congregation that I really learned to look into the hollow eyes of grief.
So when the time came to do the funeral, I followed my old professor’s advice. I chose to trade in hope not despair. I preached the hope of gospel, making the need for faith in Christ clear, and left judgment of the deceased in the hands of God. I’m glad I did. He can handle the responsibility better than I can.