Today I went to a funeral. Perhaps I’m odd, but I find funerals, whether I’m the presiding minister or not, to engender pensiveness. Perhaps more accurately stated, I find that funerals lead me into contemplation of life’s meaning, of life’s value, of what’s most important, and of the basis for importance. Funerals punctuate the transient nature of some matters and the eternality of others. What follows is an abbreviated summary of today’s funeral, some reflections that the confrontation of death elicits, and some questions for consideration.
The mother of one of my coworkers died recently. Her body had been transported back to Atlanta from Illinois for the memorial service and a graveside service. She had been born in Atlanta in the late 1940s, but grew up in Illinois, where she earned her education, became a nurse, married, raised her family, and prospered in her nursing career. However, her spiritual hometown had remained Atlanta. And, geographically speaking, she came full circle. She was buried just miles from where she had been born.
When we entered the church, the scene was just as one might imagine. Men wore dark suits; women wore dark dresses, many donning hats; a couple of grandchildren with quizzical eyes, trying to come to terms with what it means to lose their grandmother, sat on the front pews with their mother. A family friend sang the hymn “Sweet Hour of Prayer.”
Then, the presiding minister read from Psalm 24:
Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not life up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully.
Then the minister led the congregation in prayer and several people spoke briefly of the life of the deceased. And then the minister read from Revelation 7, where John writes of the multitude extolling God and the Lamb, and of how the creation bursts forth in doxology: “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” (Rev 7:12 ESV)
One never knows, I suppose, what others are thinking, but this is what I thought: Psalm 24 teaches that the whole of creation is God’s. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” And David teaches that there is one who does ascend that hill of the Lord, the Lord of hosts. And the apostle John, a millennium after David chronologically, writes of the Lord Jesus as the Lord of hosts, mighty in battle, who conquered. And because of that Lamb, multitudes now stand in white robes, more than conquerors.
Is that what the minister was trying to teach us, his hearers? Did we all see the connections between Psalm 24 and Revelation 7? Did we all understand how conquering death is only possible if hidden in Christ, the Lord of hosts?
Some questions came to mind as I sat there in the church, as I listened and thought, and scanned the demeanors of the others:
1) What hope does an atheist have at a funeral? Is nature/material all there is? If so, why do we speak of thoughts, love, ideas, truth, sacrifice, et cetera? Those ideas, so seminal to life, are senseless if materialism is true.
2) Why is it that when obituaries are read, we remember and laud (rightly, in my view) the non-material things in the person’s life—her sacrifices, her love for her family, her compassion, her honor, her faith, et cetera, not the material things?
3) Why does it sometimes take a funeral to teach me to keep short accounts with God?
Is it not easy to fritter one’s time? Is it not easy to gain the world and lose one’s soul? It’s possible, I suppose, to even attend a funeral and not be confronted with ultimate questions.
But it’s a grave matter how one answers these questions. If Christianity is true, then death does not have the final say. Its sting has been removed for the believer. If materialism is true, we’re only dust, and it’s perhaps best to eat, drink, and be merry, as Solomon did, but later regretted.
But if Christianity is true, then we, though made of dust, have been breathed into by God himself, and are souls of infinite worth, and are called to honor him, in life and in our death. That call to think on the Christian claims, therefore, is too important to eschew. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “One must keep on pointing out that Christianity is a statement which, if false, is of no importance, and, if true, of infinite importance. The one thing it cannot be is moderately important.”