[Editor’s note: Today’s post comes from a good friend of the blog, Rich Ryan. In 1993 Rich joined grace bible church in Midlothian, VA where, since 2004, he now serves as the Pastor-teacher. The following article begins a new discussion on the subject of funerals. This is a topic that is difficult, personal, and always reflects one’s theology for good or for ill. Over the next few posts, we hope to provide some pastoral insight into ministering to those who grieve.]
By Rich Ryan
Nothing can fully prepare you for it. As I reflect over the most challenging sermons I have preached, no difficult text or exegetical conundrum has ever been as difficult as preaching a memorial service for a close family member. Put any family member in that slot, mother, father, brother, sister, wife, or child.
In October of 2006 I got the call that my closest (in age) brother was admitted to the hospital with a brain tumor. After a successful surgery to remove it, we were sucker punched again to find out that this was simply a deposit of a much larger cancer that was in his liver, pancreas and bones. The diagnosis was, “Stage-4, terminal.”
At that moment our family was thrown onto the stage of suffering. To be sure, his immediate family has known exceedingly more pain than any of us have, but as a family, we’ve known joy and grief in ways that are honestly inexpressible. On one hand you are able to rejoice that your brother, who loves the Lord, is going home. It presses you to live and affirm your alien residency. At the same time, like Jesus with Lazarus, you are gripped with the overwhelming grief that sin permeates this world and its effects are real and relentless.
As the weeks unfolded after Tim’s diagnosis I had many excellent talks with my brother. We talked practically about God’s sovereignty in ways I never have before. Honestly friends, “Trust God” can ring hollow in the ears of a person whose entire life has just ground to a halt. All their dreams and aspirations for life with their family have just been cut tragically short. I did a lot of listening, weeping and mourning with him.
One night as I was driving home from his house (about 90 miles away) my wife asked me the question I hoped no one would ask, “Do you think they will ask you to do the funeral?” You see, up to this point in ministry, I had officiated at three funerals. Honestly, they are very difficult for me. I am VERY emotional and I’ve struggled to get through the service when the person was a close friend. How could I possibly do my brother’s funeral? Our answer was a steadfast, “No!”
But in time, God worked in my heart to show me what I would be missing. Hundreds and hundreds of people would be there – my brother was a popular guy. Most of my extended family would be there. Many of his friends and business associates would be there, mourning the tragic events that shortened this father of four’s life to a mere 47 years. Questions would abound – Why him? Why so young? Maybe even, “Why would God allow this?”
After preaching through John I came to realize that God often uses the stages of suffering to make himself known to the unbelieving world. Jesus said it would happen and even prayed that God would do that in John 16 and 17. So as I prayerfully considered my significant failings at emotional services, I realized that this was too great an opportunity to pass up.
Who cares if I blubber my way through parts of it? Who cares if it’s the worst delivery I’ve ever given? What mattered most is that many in this crowd were hopelessly lost in their sin. I had the only answer to cure their hopelessness and I had a captive audience, gripped by the nearness of eternity. I had the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ. How could I not tell them the good news? So, by God’s good grace, I took up the mantle and prepared my sermon for my brother’s memorial service.
What makes it the hardest sermon you’ll ever preach is the emotional tug of war that will go on within you. On one hand you’ll know that your brother is in glory, no pain, no cancer, no tears and sleepless nights of agony. You’ll smile and shout, “Hallelujah!” Yet on the other hand you’ll look at the faces of his wife and kids, your mom and dad, your brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews and know that no Thanksgiving will ever be the same, no Christmas will ever be the same. There will always be one empty chair and you’ll miss his renditions of the favorite family stories. You’ll miss his laugh and smile so much. You know you’ll see him again soon, but for the moment, the vapor that is this life will seem like an eternity. In the midst of all of that, you’ll have to preach words of hope and comfort to lost and dying souls. This is the paradox of unspeakable joy mixed with profound grief. Possibly, this is a mere hint of what the Apostle means when he reminds the church with a gentle caution, “to not grieve as do the rest who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 1:13).