This morning, I was doing Six Steps to Loving Your Church with my very small growth group (me and two church wardens). And the question asked: “What do you really love about your church at the moment?” And my answer?
Christian funerals. Yep.
Yesterday, I had the privilege of conducting the funeral of a much loved congregation member, dead suddenly from a stroke aged 83 (her bags were packed ready for a holiday trip, when she was found collapsed). She’d been widowed twice and kept her marriage vows each time with humble self-sacrifice. She was such a people person. She loved her hymns – especially ‘The King of Love My Shepherd Is’. But I won’t give you the entire eulogy.
One elderly congregation member – who has also been through some very hard times – confided quietly in me, shocked after I rang him with the new, “You know, of all the people who care for me from St Michael’s, she was the one who cared the most.”
That’s the impact Jesus has on a person.
And I deeply value the privilege a funeral provides of preaching the hope we have in Christ and his resurrection. I never say that just as a polite nod to sentiment or tradition, but because I believe Jesus is alive with all my heart, and convinced by careful investigation that the historical evidence for the resurrection is far better than most people realise. And so I am glad to
“proclaim that Christ is risen, that those who believe in him will rise with him, and that we are united with them in him” (An Australian Prayer Book).
Of course, it’s hard to know just how carefully people are listening at a funeral, and all the more for those who are hardest hit by grief. That’s why I always give the next-of-kin family members each a copy of Simon Manchester’s booklet ‘At a Time Like This‘.
It very sensitively, but clearly and practically addresses grief, and explains how and why Christians believe hope can be found in Christ in the face of death. I know of nothing better or more appropriately gospel-focussed. I generally say, “You probably don’t feel like reading anything right now. But in a week or two, when the funeral is well over, and everything has quietened down, and there’s that sense of emptiness, perhaps you might think about reading it then.”
There’s more. Every time we bury one of our own, or one of our own’s relatives, people across the congregations volunteer to supply a plate of sandwiches or biscuits for the refreshments after the service; numbers turn up to set up the chairs and tables and cups and plates and serve the tea and coffee and wash it all up and pack it away at the end. This speaks volumes to those who visit. The non-Christian guests won’t articulate it quite this way, but it’s by our love that all people will know we are Jesus’ disciples. And it goes a significant way, for some at least, in counter-acting – at a grass-roots – level the appalling publicity church failures have earned us.
Yesterday, the funeral also became an occasion for the workmen at our site, re-doing our grounds with a disabled ramp and better drainage and so on, to come to “see how they loved [her]”. I think, or at least hope, observers can sometimes notice that a Christian funeral has something different and special about it.
And one further bonus yesterday was that – despite a bit inconvenience – the funeral needed to begin not long before our church’s English classes for migrants and international students were ending. They got to see how we care for each other. But in addition, many of our congregation members, who are not normally here on Tuesday, got to see how many people from so many different countries are here and being served by our English class volunteers. “There’s so many and they seem so happy,” said one. I think it’s just great when people from across a multi-congregational parish with diverse ministries and activities get a chance to see a slice of parish life they normally only hear about in passing, and to see it really is worthwhile.
Of course, I am generally hoping not to have to conduct them. But that’s why I love Christian funerals.