Tag Archives: Funeral

At Some Point, One Must Return Home

Then the family heads of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and Levites—everyone whose heart God had moved—prepared to go up and build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem.
Ezra 1:5 (NIV)

When I was a young man I spent five years in pastoral ministry. Three of those years were spent in a very small town here in Iowa. During those years I officiated a lot of funerals. Not only were these funerals for members of my congregation, but the local Funeral Home Director also called me when there was a family who had no particular faith tradition or church home. As a result, I spent a generous amount of time with grieving families.

During these funerals, I began to observe families in all of their glorious dysfunctions. I noticed, in particular, that these sad occasions brought prodigal children home, and that in many cases the children had not been home for many years. This taught me a life lesson: “At some point, one has to return home.” (By the way, this became the inspiration for my play, Ham Buns and Potato Salad.)

For the past few months on this chapter-a-day journey, I’ve been going through books related to what’s known as the “exilic” period when the Hebrews were taken captive and lived in exile under the ancient Assyrian, Babylonian, Mede, and Persian empires. Today I begin walking through the two books (Ezra and Nehemiah) that tell the story of the exiles return to Jerusalem and their work to reconstruct Solomon’s Temple and the protective walls of the city.

For the exiled Hebrews, their return had been something they’d longed for. Right at the beginning of today’s chapter, it’s mentioned that they’d been clinging to the prophecy of Jeremiah that the Babylonian captivity would last 70 years (Jer 25:11-12). The time for return finally arrives. At some point, one has to return home.

Reading today’s chapter, it’s easy to assume that Cyrus felt some special affection toward the exiled Hebrews and their religion. However, the decree and subsequent provision of temple articles stolen by Nebuchadnezzar represented a shift in Empirical policy. Earlier empires had ruled with an iron hand, destroying native temples and demanding that captured peoples adopt the culture of the conquerors. Cyrus, however, realized that allowing captured peoples to return to their homes and rebuild their native temples and shrines was good policy. He did the same for other peoples, as well. The move created goodwill with the people of his empire. In the case of Judah, the move also provided him with allies and a friendly outpost between himself and the yet unconquered kingdom of Egypt.

This morning I find myself thinking about returning home. It can look so different for different individuals. It might be a joyous reunion for some. For others, it’s a necessary immersion back into messy family dysfunction. There are those for whom the return home is a long-awaited return from exile. In many cases, it’s an important and necessary step in addressing past wrongs, emotional injuries, and spiritual blocks so that one can progress in his or her life journey. In many cases, I’ve observed that one can’t move forward until he or she makes the trek and faces the past. I, myself, discovered it a necessary stretch of my own journey.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself whispering a quiet prayer for those who have yet to return, those who have returned, and those who find themselves amidst the struggle of returning home.

The Epitaph Being Written Today

“He passed away, to no one’s regret….”
2 Chronicles 21:20 (NIV)

Earlier in my life journey I spent a few years in pastoral ministry. I served in a rural community with many aging citizens. I found myself performing an unexpected number of funerals which led to my befriending the local funeral director. As a result, I found myself doing even more funerals as my friend would often call me when the deceased or the deceased’s family had no connection with a local pastor or church.

I encountered an amazingly diverse number of experiences in those few years. I observed beautifully warm family gatherings honoring individuals who left a legacy of love. I observed fractured families who refused to be in the same room with their family members. Factions would take turns paying their last respects to the deceased. I officiated services for individuals who, at the end of their lives, were completely alone and virtually no one came to pay their respects. And, I presided over funerals for individuals who appeared to be universally despised, those in attendance at the funeral sharing with me that they were there to say “Good riddance.”

After several chapters in which the Chronicler shares a rather expansive story of King Jehoshaphat, today’s chapter succinctly describes the brief reign of Jehoshaphat’s son, Jehoram. It was eight years of division and chaos rooted in Jehoshaphat’s ill-fated decision to make a marriage alliance with the evil King Ahab of Israel which set off a chain-reaction of tragedy.

Jehoram married a daughter of Ahab and Jezebel. By the Chronicler’s account, Jehoram was sucked into the dysfunctional family and religious system of his in-laws. This couldn’t have made him popular with his brothers who had been given some regional authority by their father (which made them potential rivals to Jehoram). Jehoram kills off all of his brothers to solidify his hold on the throne. Neighboring enemies, observing the internal political chaos, choose to attack Judah and take advantage of this moment of weakness. It works. Jehoram’s reign ends after eight short, bloody years marked by internal strife, fraternal murder, and failure in almost every respect.

The Chronicler’s epitaph: “He passed away to no one’s regret.”

What a sobering reality to mull over in my hotel room this morning. What kind of epitaph have I been writing over my life journey? What adjectives have attached themselves to my legacy? Love? Anger? Kindness? Pride? Faithfulness? Selfishness? Generosity? Greed? Failure? Redemption?

In the quiet I’m thinking about the opportunity I have this day and every day, in every relationship, in every interaction to make a positive difference. Even a life journey littered with tragic failure can chart a new waypoint each day. It’s never too late. That’s what the word “repentance” literally means: to turn and move in the opposite direction. In my experience, positive life change rarely happens in a moment. Rather, it begins with one willful decision to make a change of direction.

I’m thinking about some of those individuals from years ago with whom I only became acquainted as a body in a casket. What would have been different had I known them, had a chance to interact with them before their journeys end? I don’t know.

But it’s not too late for the people with whom I will interact today.

Final Words

The words of Jeremiah end here.
Jeremiah 51:64 (NIV)

Along my journey I’ve had the privilege of officiating a  host of funerals. Some of them have been family members with whom I’ve had a life-long relationship. Many have been complete strangers to me. No matter the case, I’ve always approached these meaningful events with a desire to honor the person, her/her family, and to comfort those loved ones by telling the person’s story well.

I usually start by simply meeting with the family and asking them questions. As I listen, a story begins to emerge about the deceased, what the person did with his/her life, how he/she impacted the people around them, and what his/her journey was really about. I’ve got to be honest, sometimes the story is heart-warming, and other times it is painfully tragic. Either way, there is always a story to tell.

One of the things I’ve most appreciated about this long slog through Jeremiah’s prophetic anthology is the realization that we have a fairly thorough retrospective of Jeremiah’s 40 years of prophetic works from beginning to end. Jeremiah had a very specific message to convey throughout his career: Babylon was going to destroy his city of Jerusalem and take his people into exile. Then, Babylon would eventually suffer the same fate. When the former happens as prophesied, Jeremiah sends the latter message with a servant headed to Babylon. With that act, the editors tell us that they are Jeremiah’s final words (though the story ends with tomorrow’s final chapter).

Jeremiah’s words were never popular. He was threatened, attacked, imprisoned, left to die, and yet he always remained “on message.” He stuck doggedly to the message God gave him. When the Babylonians showed him unusual mercy for his prophetic “support” of their invasion, Jeremiah didn’t hesitate to tell them that their turn was coming. He never backed down. He completed the job. He stuck to the mission.

This morning I’m thinking about the end of Jeremiah’s words, and it’s prompting thoughts about my own life, and my own story. Someday the responsibility will likely fall on someone to listen to my family members and to sum up my story in just a few minutes of oratory. With each day of my journey I slowly pen that story. I hope it’s not unlike Jeremiah’s: sticking to the mission, completing the course set before me. More than anything, I hope the theme of the story is love.

Time to Wake Up

Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.
1 Thessalonians 4:13 (NIV)

One of my all-time favorite memories took place during the visitation of my Grandma Golly’s funeral. It had been a long evening of meeting family and friends at the funeral home. Grandma’s lifeless body lay in the open casket in the large room. The crowd had thinned out some, but there was still the din of hushed conversation throughout the room.

Suddenly I caught a blur out of the corner of my eye as my four-year-old nephew, Solomon, came tearing around the perimeter of the room. He came to an abrupt stop right in front of the casket. In a sweeping gesture he looked at the toy watch on his wrist.

Okay, everybody!” Solomon shouted at the top of his lungs, “It’s time for grandma to WAKE UP!”

My nephew Solomon

Many years ago I spent five years employed in pastoral ministry. I happened to serve in a rural area of Iowa where the demographic tilted towards the older side of the spectrum. For this reason, I officiated a lot of funerals. I got to know the local funeral directors so well that they began calling me whenever they had a family of the deceased with no ties to a local church. This meant that I officiated even more funerals. (My experiences with the mixture of rural Iowa, family relationships, and death became the inspiration for my play Ham Buns and Potato Salad.)

Officiating so many funerals allowed me to witness a broad range of families in their grieving. I saw families in total chaos, families in conflict, and families whose genuine love and affection for their deceased loved one and one another were obvious. I watched family members conniving for their share of the estate, family members actively avoiding one another, as well as family members enjoying the opportunity to be reunited with loved ones after long years apart. It is fascinating to observe.

Perhaps its because of my experience with so many funerals that death doesn’t phase me like I observe it does for many others. Yes, the emotions and stages of grief associated with the loss of a loved one are common to all. Even Jesus cried at the tomb of Lazarus before He called him back to life. Nevertheless, if I truly believe what I profess to believe, then it should ultimately impact the way I think and feel about death. Jesus’ story is essentially about life through death. Death is a part of the eternal equation Jesus presented. As a follower of Jesus I believe I’m called to embrace death as a passage to Life rather than mourn it as some kind of dead end.

Jesus said… I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” John 11:25-26 (NIV) [emphasis added]

Yes, I do. Which is another reason why I have always loved young Solomon for his innocent outburst before Grandma Golly’s casket. Thanks for the laugh, little man. My faith in Jesus tells me that Grandma is more awake than you or I can possibly imagine. The person who needs to be continually reminded to “wake up” to that fact is me.

Stories Behind the Blurbs

He judged Israel twenty-three years. Then he died, and was buried at Shamir.
Judges 10:2 (NRSV)

I had my annual physical this past week. In just over four months I will hit one of those birthdays with a zero in it, and medically things kick into gear with this one. There are more tests, and more questions, and more pleas for precaution. I have the rare experience of having the same doctor who cut open my 11 year old leg to remove a giant chunk of skateboard now sticking his finger up my backside to check my prostate (Sorry…TMI).

So it is that my thoughts have wandered into the big picture considerations of life’s journey in recent days. I’m asking the GPS recalibration questions of life’s road:

  • Where have I been?
  • Where am I at?
  • Where am I going?

One of the interesting things I have observed as we journey through the Book of Judges is that there are Judges for whom chapters are devoted to telling their stories. Then, there are judges like Tola and Jair in todays’ chapter who are mentioned in passing. Tola led for 23 years. Period. End of story. Jair led 22 years, had 30 sons who rode 30 donkeys and lived in 30 towns. Done.

Garrison Keillor, in one of his Lake Wobegon monologues, made the observation that a small town newspaper isn’t really the news. What a small town newspaper prints is just a table of contents to what’s really happening (which will never be printed). I have come to realize that the same thing is true of obituaries.

Having officiated my share of funerals over the years, I’ve come to realize that the two or three paragraphs printed in the newspaper and read in the funeral service don’t really tell the story of a persons life any more than the silly numerical trivia of Jair’s sons can possibly be the totality of his tale. It’s when you sit around the living room with grieving spouses, children, and grandchildren eating a day old donut brought to the house by a well meaning neighbor that you begin to catch a hint of it. Hearing their memories in the privacy of home, away from the public eye and amidst the din of screaming children, you hear stories of quiet strength, simple love, and moments that changed life for an individual.

Tola and Jair may not have had stories that fill chapters in the Great Story. I know, however, that there is more to the stories behind the blurbs we read today. So it is with all of us. Very few of us get more than a two or three paragraph summation at the end of this journey. But, that’s not the whole story by a long shot. The real story is being written daily in our relationships, our words, our gestures, and our seemingly insignificant acts of kindness and love.

So how’s my story going as I approach mile marker 50?
Where have I been?
Where am I at?
Where am I going?

December 11. It’s about time to watch It’s a Wonderful Life again.

The Latest 12-6-2015

After hosting Thanksgiving a few weeks ago, Wendy and I spent the rest of the weekend hunkering down at home. Thanksgiving evening was spent watching a family movie with Taylor and Suzanna (This is Where I Leave You). We enjoyed the movie, though Suzanna fell asleep, which is not unusual (see featured photo of this post).

One of the priorities on the honey-do list since moving into our house has been getting shelves built in the storage room downstairs. So, on Saturday I was up early finishing walls and beginning the task. It took me about 10 hours without break, but we have 24 feet of shelving for all of our “stuff” (and Taylor’s “stuff” and Madison’s “stuff” and Suzanna’s “stuff”).

Storage Room Before Shelves
Before
After!
After!

Needless to say, I was fairly tired and sore, so Sunday would have been a day of rest and routine. It started out routine: Breakfast with CBS Sunday Morning and church, but then we headed to the Community Center to sell tickets for USP’s production of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Wendy and I stepped down from our Board positions, but we’re continuing to volunteer our time in other ways. Wendy heads up ticket sales and I am doing web and social media. Once ticket sales were done we headed home to watch the Vikings (they won!). In the evening we walked down the street to McQuade Pub for cocktails and conversation which was the perfect cap to the holiday weekend.

Aslan is on the loose!

The weather continues to be unseasonably warm. Highs have been in the 50’s the past few days. Wendy and I continued to sell tickets for the USP show on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday evenings. We stayed to watch the show on Thursday.

On Friday night we were invited over to the Burch’s for a late dinner and stayed late into the evening. On Saturday morning I drove to Des Moines for the funeral of Doug Appleby. Doug’s brother Dan was in my class at Hoover. We and our siblings were all in the youth group together at First Federated Church back in the day. It was a bit of a sober homecoming of sorts with friends I hadn’t seen in many years. Doug was a great kid, a veteran, a family man, and a man of faith. There was a lot of love and hope at the funeral.

Wendy and Beck at V-Dub Pub

Kev, Beck and the kids came to Pella last night. The kids went to the play with grandma and grandpa while we adults enjoyed dinner together. After the kids returned we all hung out downstairs in V-Dub Pub and watched the Iowa Hawkeyes blow their lead and lose the Big10 championship game.

We’ll help with tickets for the closing USP performance this afternoon. It’s a sell-out. We’re hosting the cast party here at Vander Well Manor. Looking forward to celebrating with the cast and crew.

Come on, Grandma!

On Remember When Wednesdays, I look back at a post from the past and publish it again for newer readers. Having posted about the topic of grief and loss this morning, I thought it apropos to share this memory which I published back in January of 2008 (and which still makes me laugh whenever I think of it)…

He said these things, and then announced, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep. I’m going to wake him up.” John 11:11 (TM)

When my Grandma Golly died, the girls were only 3 or 4 years old. Our nephews, Sam and Sol, were the same ages. The entire family had been at the funeral home for the long hours of visitation. There had been a steady stream of visitors, friends and family throughout the evening to share in our grief.

Like most toddlers, the reason for the occasion was lost on the girls and their male cousins who took the opportunity to run around the funeral home playing together. Late that evening, all was quiet in the visitation room as most everyone but family and a few dear friends had departed.

My nephew Solomon, ripping around the room in a playful fury, stopped short right in front of the casket. He looked at the lifeless body of his great grandmother lying before him. He looked at his wrist (where there was no watch), and then shouted at the top of his lungs for all to hear…

“IT’S TIME FOR GRANDMA TO WAKE UP!”

…If you only have faith as a little child.