I have decided it gets more difficult to do funerals the longer you are in a congregation. That might sound strange considering the longer you are in a place, the better you get to know folks, and the better you are able to capture who they were in a funeral sermon.
That is most certainly true; however, there is an emotional price that one pays. For the longer you are in a place, the better you get to know someone, the more emotionally attached you get to that person as well.
I've heard time and again people tell me that it must be hard to do a funeral for someone you don't know. Well, the dirty secret is--it isn't. You just have to do some homework. You visit with family members. You call friends of the person. You try to get a snapshot of the person through their eyes, and once you have it, you can put together a sermon pretty easily.
It gets harder when you really know someone. There is so much to work through. So many stories. So many conversations. How can you condense it down to a fifteen minute sermon? I mean, not only must I capture the essence of this person, but I also must convey the Gospel. If you go to a funeral and do not hear the Good News that this person is now sharing eternal life with Christ, with God, then you have gotten gypped. Any pastor worth his or her salt must convey this message. Conveying such a message while holding up a person's personality can be difficult, especially if you know the person well. The temptation is to talk about the person's qualities and character traits so much that you lose sight of the Gospel.
Case in point is the funeral that I must do this week for a long time congregation member. Ellie Mae is one of those folks in a congregation who actually reminds a person of a family member. In Ellie Mae's case, she reminded me of my grandmother--almost to a tee. I told her that on numerous occasions. In many ways, she treated me as a grandson.
That means, she was on me about quite a few things. She didn't like it when I grew a goattee. She didn't like it when my wife didn't wear a dress. She wasn't afraid to let me know where she stood on things I did or said. But she wasn't malicious about it--not at all. She was simply stating her opinion, and I respected and loved her for that. And because she treated me in such a fashion, like a grandson, I was able to get away with things with her that some pastors never could have. Without getting ugly, I could shoot my mouth off back at her and get away with it. Only once did she raise her cane toward me, but two things were to my advantage: 1. She was in church. 2. I had a head start.
When you have such a relationship with someone, it makes burying them more difficult. Ellie Mae and I had laughed together. We walked through some difficult times together--her dealing with lymphoma, two strokes, and memory loss. I stood over her on Monday as she labored for breath as her body died. It can take its toll.
But, I have to remind myself what I am called to do. I am called to announce the Good News. I am called to live by it. If I really believe that Ellie Mae is a Child of God whom the Lord will never forsake... If I really believe that I will one day see Ellie Mae again... If I really believe the promises of God... then I cannot break down weeping as though her death is the most awful thing that could have happened. I must stand before my congregation on Thursday and announce that we are not saying farewell to Ellie Mae. We are not saying goodby forever. We are simply telling her, "see you later," as we gather to give thanks to God for her life. Weep because you will miss her for the time being, but do not grieve as one who has no hope.