What do you say in the face of death? What do you say to grieving family, friends, or neighbors? What has been said to you when you lost a loved one?
There’s the awkward moment in the greeting line at the funeral home. There is a hesitation the first time you see a friend after his mom died. There is the debate over whether you should call, stop by, or send a card. Or what do you say a month later, or on the one year anniversary?
Knowing there are a variety of circumstances and contexts, here are a few things to say at death.
This is a message for fake Christians. Which, by the way, includes you . . . and me.
We put on a face. Pretend to be someone who is not truly us. Conceal what's real in order to appear attractive.
As a Christian, do you ever feel pressure to be someone you're not?
Tomorrow I get on a bus with 55 teenagers and ten adults from my church. Twelve hours later, we'll join 25,000 teens in New Orleans for an event that occurs every three years in my church body: the National Youth Gathering.
Miles of walking ("Oops, that's Bourbon Street.")
Crowds of sweaty high school students.
Speakers, bands, and mass gatherings in the Superdome.
Why do this?
If Christianity is only about "going to church," the church is in trouble.
If the church only exists for one hour a week, there are 167 hours that are void of the presence of God's people.
Eleven years ago I was sitting in a chapel packed with 1,000 people. My name was called and I walked forward. I was about to discover where I would be a pastor.
I thought I was going to Denver. Or possibly back to my native Minnesota or nearby Wisconsin. Instead, I was headed just a few miles south of the seminary campus. I forced a smile in front of a thousand people as I returned to my seat in disappointment.
Today is Call Day at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO. There will be many sweaty palms as candidates find out where they will relocate their life and ministry. Many will probably say what I said. "That's not where I wanted to go."
Here are three things I learned from Call Day. True for pastors, or anyone called to a place they'd rather not go.
My 10-year-old daughter surprised me with a simple question. We were driving to church when she asked why we celebrate Easter year after year. It wasn't a rebellious question, rather a curious one. "It's the same story every year. If we know it already, why do we do it again and again?"
It seems a simple and practical inquiry. Why keep doing something if we seem to "get it already?" In our school systems, after you master one lesson, you move on to the next. This could be applied to Christmas as well. Or for that matter, weekly worship.
Why do we keep gathering around the same old story again and again? I've heard:
"How's work?" I'm asked.
"Every ten days I want to quit." I've given this answer a few times in recent months. Am I really going to turn in my keys? Probably not . . . but maybe.
Anything of significance is worth sacrificing for. And anything worth sacrificing for will leave you with a "tenth day." Nine days can be good, even great. But about every tenth we are sobered by harsh reality.
As a pastor, I hold the hands of widows at the graveside of their husbands. I'm called when a problem has spiraled into a crisis. I point people to "the one thing needful" when they're frantically over-committed and don't have time for it. I love people who don't want to be loved. I lead people who sometimes don't want to be led.
So, yeah. Every ten days I ask, "Can I do this?"
"Am I any good?"
"Am I making a difference?"
"Am I a failure?"
"Is this worth it?"
Not technology or real estate. Not education or technical skills. Not even time, although it's related. The most valuable commodity in American society today is genuine community.
Economically, the United States is number one in the world (a GDP of more than $17 trillion). But in terms of overall well-being, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found the U.S. rates 15th. Fourteen other countries are generally happier and healthier.
Baseball's ratings are declining, and it's fanbase is aging. In an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal, Matthew Futterman shows how baseball is on a mission to be relevant in a fast-changing culture.
Sounds a bit like the church in America. Aging, declining in numbers, and denominations collapsing. Baseball has been known as "America's game." And Christianity has been known as "America's religion." You could argue against both of those today.
What is the baseline of knowledge for a Christian? Martin Luther referred to three components as "the minimum of knowledge required of a Christian" (Large Catechism). Just as a craftsman knows the fundamentals of his craft, every Christian ought to know:
The Ten Commandments
The Lord's Prayer
And not simply to recite them, but practice and grow in them. Meditate, pray, live, explore their implications, institute them in daily life.
The Creed ("I believe") states who God is and what he does.
The Ten Commandments are God's intended picture of what it means to live a human life.
The Lord's Prayer is how we are to relate and communicate with the living God through all of life's challenges.
Two factors of modern society make these three baseline components evermore important.
1.) We live in a complex society. Therefore simplicity provides a focus that cuts through the overwhelming volumes of information that exist.
2.) We live in an increasingly post-Christian society. So the basic tenets of Christianity take on greater significance. When "everyone went to church," the creed was less provocative. As fewer people speak the creed, it grows more profound.
Luther recommended weekly examinations on these three components. Tell me how that goes in your home. Even if you don't quiz yourself or your family, his point was to never believe that you've mastered the basics. The basics are a depth to be mined for a lfietime. A well with no bottom.
We are always living with what we believe (creed), how to live (commandments), and how to call on God through the trials of life (Lord's Prayer).
Luther noted, "These have been the heritage of Christendom from ancient times . . . so that all who wish to be Christians in fact as well as in name, both young and old, may be well trained in them."
At my church, we begin a series on the Ten Commandments on April 19th. "Set Free to Live Free."