Wednesday, November 09, 2005

The Question

The Question

A good question always deserves a good answer. It is irrelevant that I might think the question is not a good one since it is usually thought of as a good one by the person who asked it. In any case, a question was asked and I believe it is important to answer. I must assume that the person who is asking - did so out of a genuine desire to gain knowledge.

A friend, whom my wife and I knew well and loved dearly, successfully committed suicide last week. We were able to travel many miles to the funeral service as well as take time to visit my father who is getting old and see a number of people whom we haven’t seen in a while. We had planned a trip out there anyway and didn’t have a date set and as unfortunate as these circumstances happened to be, we were already prepared to go.

The Question
“Why did you come so far for a funeral?”

Initial Reply
She was our friend; we loved her and have known her a long time. She was the first death out of our core group of old friends and an original member of our church. We believe these things were important.

Personal Reaction and Internal Thoughts to the Question
Being asked that question was surprising considering how long we‘ve known her. Emotions were already quite high and the sense of loss very real. Seeing her loved ones distraught and her children alone and confused only added to our sense of compassion mixed with our own feelings of grief and loss. The reactive answer would have to be; “isn’t it enough to just show up? Do we really have to answer this?” However, that would show unnecessary disrespect to the questioner.

The conversation for the next half an hour or so seemed like a rapid fire Q&A - one question after another. Most could be answered with short to the point replies but I was not inclined to entertain this question without a fair hearing of my response. Too often conversations are sidetracked and spend too much time on rabbit trails and the original question never gets an answer. So giving only a short answer did not do the question real justice.

The Answer
Of course, she was our friend. Of course, we wished to pay our last respects, and in this particular instance, we had no other selfishly motivated reason for being at her funeral. So the answer to the question had nothing to do with what we were going to get out of being there - it had everything to do with three basic things that I believe every true believer in Jesus Christ must do to fulfill our responsibility to “bear one another’s burdens”. These three things are:
1) To minister if possible.
2) To support the concept of caring Christians in the event of death.
3) To do unto others as you would have done unto you.

By this, I mean simply in the first instance that by being there, hopefully in some way, would show a sense of camaraderie and relationship that could be shared by those stricken with similar grief. Let me paraphrase C.S. Lewis when he said, ‘sometimes you don’t wish to talk or be talked to, but you dread the moments of being alone in the empty house’. There is some comfort in knowing someone is there and that talking isn’t necessary to feel comforted. There is an old saying that goes something like this: “Proclaim Christ loudly and sometimes only when you have to - use words.” In the second instance, we have attended several funerals in the last few years and it seems that almost every one has had an opportunity presented where a question was asked that for some reason, we were uniquely equipped to answer. To be available to help or minister in this way is more important than whether the opportunity is ever presented. Christians are called to be ready with an answer for the hope that we have - whether we get the opportunity to give it or not.

Caring Christians
Christians have the unique position of knowing that death is not the end of all things. Our perspective lends itself to being able to minister to hurting people in unique ways that no other worldview can possibly hope to imitate. For over two millennia, those in the Theistic worldview, Christians, Jews and Muslims have taken death seriously enough to mourn it - usually in great numbers for many days after the first memorial service had begun. Culturally the west has lost this sense of compassionate love and for as long as I can remember, seems to only be inconvenienced for an hour or two before heading off to our already too full schedules and commitments. What have we lost in this process? How are we being Christ like - if we do not show sorrow and compassion with those who are left to pick up the pieces of their lives?
When our Lord fed the five thousand, ask yourself - why were that many people there to feed? To hear the words of an itinerate preacher who at the time preferred to keep His whereabouts and deeds a secret? Or is it possible that the widely known and loved John the Baptist had just been beheaded by King Herod and those many people were mourning the loss of their teacher and loved one? I am told by a friend more closely related to that culture in the east, it was indeed probably the latter reason. This friend of mine had also been beaten and brutalized to the point of near death by enemies of the Cross - yet even he attends the funerals of his persecutors. Why, because he understands he is called to even love his enemies. By doing so, he has had unique opportunities of ministry, even to the very leaders of his attackers.
As Christians, our faith is meaningless if we cannot bring ourselves to ministering even in the simplest ways, where a prayer or a hug or a moment of holding ones hand is enough to share a bit of Christ’s love in a time of deep pain and sorrow. In the east, this kind of ongoing care continues for 40 days. Here in the west, little more than 40 minutes is all the time we have. It is vitally important that if the Christian west is to have an impact on our culture, we must show we care - especially at times of great loss when so many are grieving.

Doing Unto Others
While this last reason speaks for itself very well - let me unpack why I think it is important. For us, though we were not close to our friend over the last several years of her life and there had even been times of great disappointment in each other’s actions and words, it does not change the fact that we loved her. We will always cherish those good times we remember and all of the good things she said and did. She was indeed a special person with many qualities and uniqueness unrivaled by her friends. In reality all of her ills, all of her mistakes, all of her pain, all of her guilt - has now been finally put to rest, never to cause her any trouble ever more. Like the leaves that have fallen in the cool autumn air, they will never be returned to the tree, only new life can grow on that branch. All of her strengths - and there were many - all of her goodness and sweetness, all of her loveliness is even now even better than we can remember. She has passed from this life and its chains to the next life where she has been perfected in His loving care. He has wiped away her every tear. We remember her and honor her because we know she is a child of the one God who knows her and loves her and has shown He knows the way out of the grave. We choose to remember her in all of the good ways she was, knowing she is even better now.

As You Would Have Done Unto You
So there it is - finally the “ulterior motive”. It would be my hope that by the time my final day on this earth has come, there will be left behind those who will mourn with my loved ones - so they too will receive comfort, and rejoice with my eternal family - that I hope will have increased through the faithful witness of the Saints here in the unfaithful west and they remember the God who loves us enough to take us out of this world before we’ve had too much of it.

Why more people don’t come to funerals is a little saddening. Indeed, we all have such busy lives and the time is hard to come by, but why weren’t there a 1000 people at this funeral? Why did so many of her church family not be there? I can already think of a list of names who should have been there. The funeral home was packed for the funeral - but why wasn’t it overflowing? The Christian west needs to regain its sense of compassion and self-sacrifice, if it has any hope of reaching the postmodern culture that surrounds it. We don’t attend funerals to pray for the dead - their fate is already sealed. We go to funerals to comfort those who mourn, to express our sense of loss and to proclaim the Grace and saving power of Jesus Christ - who alone has the power over life and death. Even if you are uncomfortable sharing your faith verbally, just being there proclaims the truth of Jesus Christ. In this way, we are living sacrifices to the Gospel. Our world is broken, lost and hurting - we who have hope need to be ready to stand in the places where salt and light are needed. There is nowhere salt and light is more needed than the funerals of friends.