Smiling through the tears

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There seems to be a growing appetite for funerals that seek to avoid the fact of death. This tendency is developing not only outside but within the church. Typically, the day's business begins with the burial (or, indeed, the cremation), getting the bit in which death cannot be avoided out of the way, and often the bit in which 'religion' might be obliged to intrude at least a little. Then the gathering is able to ditch the serious element and move on to a 'celebration of life' followed not so much by a reception as by a continuation of the celebration in something more like full-on party mode.

I wonder if, for the world, this is just a desperate attempt to avoid the horror and finality of death, a way of not having to face the fact of departure, or of swamping the sorrow of the last goodbye in a wave of sentimental remembrance in which assurances that these memories will never die and that the departed will always be with us figure prominently. Is it an attempt to sentimentalise death and anaesthetise the heart against the miseries of the grave?

When this model intrudes into the church it is even more out of place. Of all people, believers in God through Christ ought to be able to face the facts of death soberly, honestly and joyfully. There is, of course, legitimate scope for the glad remembrance of the one who has gone home, an offering of thanks to God for the blessings received by the departed friend or family member and for the blessings bestowed through him or her. It is a time for facing - often painfully - the sorrows of loss, and the reality that we will not see that face or enjoy that relationship again in this life, and recalling the delights of the friendship we have enjoyed. Yet, at the same time, our sorrow is tempered with the joy that the one lost to us is not lost to God, but has gained Christ in a particular way and has been gained by him in a distinctive sense. We are those who sorrow because we recognise the ravages of sin and its cruel impact, as our Lord did at the grave of Lazarus, but we are those whose hope cannot be dented by death itself, for we know that Christ has triumphed over the grave.

In recent days it has been my privilege to attend Christian funerals that were true to this spirit: they were sober, sorrowful, joyful, hopeful occasions. They were fitting testimonies to the character and priorities of those who have gone before us, they were full of Christ as the Saviour of those who call upon him and from whom not even death can separate his people, and they were opportunities for the saints to express their sorrow and testify to their hope. The death of the saints is precious in the eyes of the Lord, and we ought to make as much of him in our passing as we have in our going. It is the best testimony we can offer to those who are not yet in the kingdom of God.

Let us not, then, as Christians, slide into that sappy sentimentality which looks at anything but the tomb as if we can make it all go away. Let us rather be marked by that sanctified realism and vibrant faith that can look into the grave, mourning over the one who lies there but confident that it will one day be empty, and so smile through the tears.
Posted June 12, 2013 @ 4:21 AM by Jeremy Walker
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