Sunday, August 28, 2011

Memorial Teaching Opportunities

I’ve said it before and hope it bears repeating: nothing focuses perspective on what’s important more than a funeral. First, it’s incontrovertible proof of everyone’s mortality. Second, if done well, a memorial service clears away the irrelevant components of life down here and shows us what’s what. Or at least that should be an expected result. The responsibility of having eyes to see and ears to hear, of course, lies with each individual.

The service I’ve just returned from was, indeed, the celebration of a life well lived. The gentleman so honored was not perfect, nor did he pretend to be. But he knew Who was and had rested his case with Christ for more than 65 years. That single decision opened the door for all the precious virtue, honor, duty, dignity, compassion, sacrifice, and love that characterized his life in the intervening decades. His children and extended family, and friends testified to that clearly.

And isn’t that what we all want, when we’ve reached the point of departure? In our secret hearts, don’t we hope that our life will have mattered, that we will have been a positive influence on at least a few others…not only that they will miss us, but that they will be better from having had us in their lives?

Many years ago now, I was given a book of children’s prayers on the occasion of my oldest child’s birth. It was a nicely illustrated, dust-jacketed little volume, but I set it aside rather than read it to my little son. The reason was that certain pages of this sweet little book lied. And I know that lies come from a place that I don’t want to have represented in my home. Adjacent to adorable pictures of wooly sheep and the occasional verse from Psalms were innocuous-sounding epithets like this: “All roads lead to heaven.” Carefully detailed drawings of little children attired in costumes from around the world ascended into a doorway above the copy. So cute, was it, that I questioned whether I was being ridiculous or mean-spirited in my balking.

But, if Truth is true, lies cannot be. Let’s be honest—which means adhering to what is true. Lies are maliciously motivated, deceitful grasps at the heels of eternal beings. All roads don’t lead to heaven. Only one does.

I maintain that had the man celebrated today not followed Christ, this ceremony would have been very different, if it happened at all. Unless they have some vested interest in perjuring themselves before others, most people will not say things about others—particularly at a funeral—that they don’t know to be true. Why would you?

I’ve been to funeral services for both believers and non-believers, and they have little in common other than acknowledging the departure of the deceased.

Funerals for people devoid of commitment to Christ are earth-rooted. They may be ‘beautiful services,’ but that doesn’t last much beyond the exit door. It’s often considered “a shame” that the deceased is gone, but the observations tend to stop there.

What’s the truth? The truth is that the spirit, the essence of that person, is continuing on in the spiritual realm…and this reality, by the way, has only two destinations. All the greeting card-hopes and angry assertions to the contrary can’t change the reality. Either “to die is gain,” as Paul reminds us [Phil. 1:21], and “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord,” [2 Cor. 5:8] or there awaits the pain of unceasing awareness that grace was rejected and the penalty of agony is deserved.

There are those who have said this is just ‘my religion’ talking. There’s often little value in challenging this viewpoint.

But I find it interesting to note the latent, undeniable testimony of remembrance services. Just as most human hearts retain a vestige of the innate knowledge of good and evil, so do most gatherings of remembrance subtly reveal this. It seems to me that if the life of the deceased did not acknowledge this, there is little evidence of hope in the farewell service.

Hope is forward-looking. And only one path triumphantly passes through the doors of mortality because only one faith has a God that defeated death. I’ve never had occasion to go to a Hindu, Muslim or other non-Judeo Christian memorial service. But I’ve attended many nominally ‘christian’ or faith-less services. There’s a difference. And it doesn’t only have to do with the speakers or order of service. In the absence of a firm hope, there is emptiness.

Several years ago, when the war in Iraq was still in full fury, I read an article in WORLD magazine about Dover Air Force Base. This installation bears a special burden because the bodies of soldiers killed in combat arrive here before being turned over to families. A doctor interviewed recalled the peculiar rigors of his position: his job was to study the broken remains of young people killed in violent circumstance…day in and day out. But he also testified that there was an enormous difference that he could not help but notice in family members who came to claim their dead. Those with a foundation of faith “do much better” than those without. I don’t think that is a random observation.

Those who deny the spiritual dimension of mortal life will not see the evidence no matter how much it surrounds them. Closed eyes don’t see. But when this mortal life ends, it opens into a new reality, and the eyelids must be pried apart.

I recall hearing a radio news report on the passing of renowned astronomist Carl Sagan whose later life seemed dedicated to the assertion that all there is of life is empirically known, and that the earth we inhabit is not a created wonder but, instead, a ‘pale blue dot’ as one of his book titles has it. At his death, his wife reportedly asserted that Sagan had met death remaining true to his convictions. “There was no deathbed conversion or religious experience.”

Similarly, noted speaker and author Christopher Hitchens, battling terminal cancer, is aware that his personal end is imminent. Knowing this, he has been quoted as saying he appreciates the well wishes and even the prayers of others. But he remains steadfastly confident in his refusal to bow his knee. I watched a recent TV interview where he plainly told the interviewer that, should there be reports of him “coming to God” as his life comes to a close, “it will not be true. Do not credit such accounts.” If only his opinion was capable of shaping ultimate reality. But it is not.

If the testimony of the natural world, the impact of Christianity on world history, or the lives of serious Christians are not enough to convince you, maybe you need to become a student of funerals.

I find they provide persuasive teachable moments.

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