June 14, 2017
Years ago I had a friend pass away from a sudden and unexpected heart attack; he was in his mid 50’s. Naturally his death was a shock and the events that surrounded the days, weeks and months afterward were painful. But it could be that nothing was more difficult than the phone call I made several days after he died. I called his office to speak to his secretary (also a friend) and see how she was doing. She was not back to work yet so the phone recording came on. She had not yet changed the message so my friend who had died and was already buried “answered” with a pleasant message about no one being there and to leave my name and phone number and he would call back as soon as possible. I hung the phone up with what I’m sure was a stunned look on my face and began to openly weep in my office… alone… thankfully.
This past week I discovered that my cell phone keeps all of my text messages. I guess I actually knew that but what I didn’t know was that they were taking up quite a bit of memory space. So I spent 15 minutes scrolling back through several years of texts marking them for deletion. In the process I came across two “conversations” with folks who are now deceased. Can I just admit how strange that was? And can I also tell you that going to my phone list and hitting the “delete” button for their names was agonizing. My father died 15 years ago and I still have his number saved in my phone. Is that odd? I don’t really know. I just know that it has something to do with the permanence of death. Taking those small but final steps in saying “goodbye” for what might be all eternity is excruciating.
“Have you no hope?” some might ask. “Where is your faith?” comes from another direction. “What about the resurrection of the dead?” a third voice chimes. And last “What about Jesus?” Listen. On most days I believe in all of that… for myself. I cannot speak to the faith of others very well. When we talk about faith we are talking about “heart language” to a great degree. (Yes, for sure our heads have to be engaged as well.) Knowing or reading the heart of another is a quagmire of façades, confusion, feelings and best intentions. I barely know my own heart on many occasions let alone the true desires and intentions of another. I have known way too many “great Christians” who have abandoned the faith… if they ever actually had any. Sadly, I suspect we will not find some of the “finest Christians we have even known” in Glory. And conversely… well, you get it. Why? Because God is a God of the heart! He does know us. He sees through our façades. He knows the truth about our “best intentions.” He knows us better than we know ourselves. Is that frightening? Sometimes it is. Does God know my brokenness? Of course, He does… even I know about that. And anyone who knows me, knows I’m broken. But God knows every chasm and minute, hair-like crack hiding behind the façade I put out there for others to see. Does God know my sin? YES!! And like my brokenness, so do others. But He also knows all the shades of darkness in my soul. No one else knows that.
Do I have hope in the resurrection… yes. Do I have assurance for others… no, because I cannot know their hearts. Thus I often find myself in the midst of a theological quagmire. There is “hope” and there is “fear and uncertainty.” “Hope” for those who confess Christ. “Fear and uncertainty” for those about which I’m unsure.
Occasionally, I get asked to do funerals for folks I don’t know. Families who have no connection to a church have a loved one die and a minister gets called in; one who is totally unfamiliar to them. These are difficult circumstances for all pastors. How do we provide “hope” in the midst of sorrow when it seems that grandma, dad or whomever had no semblance of faith? I cannot say with any integrity, “Have ‘hope’ because your loved one is in the presence of Jesus.” So, what do I do? Well, I don’t know about other ministers, but I preach the Good News of Jesus making no comment on the eternal abode of the deceased. I allow the family to decide what they want regarding themselves and their loved one. I don’t know if that seems cruel and insensitive, or not. I really don’t.
Honestly, I started this rumination 2 weeks ago and I don’t know how to end it. I just know that the death of a loved one can be daunting. Assurances, in some cases, are hard to come by. In the end we all leave ourselves in the hands of a loving and merciful God.