Results tagged “funerals” from Reformation21 Blog

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.

Hope in death

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Not long before Christmas, a father in the Lord went home. For those who lived in my part of the world, Mr Cherry - as he was almost invariably known - was an institution. He died at the age of 95, declining health having kept him only for a few months from his beloved task of preaching the gospel. A keen birdwatcher, his eyes were keen to the end, though his ears had begun to fail him. My two abiding memories of him are of his sitting on the front row of a local ministers' fraternal, so ensuring that he would not miss a word, with those clear eyes fixed on the preacher from underneath a quite phenomenal pair of eyebrows, and of his magazine renewals at the Banner of Truth Conference each year until recently. He would look at me quite seriously, quite gently, and ask for one year's subscription: "Yes, just one year. At this point in my life, Jeremy, anything more would not be wise stewardship." My abiding sense of him is the fragrance of Christ that he brought with him. To hear Mr Cherry pray was to be carried quickly and surely into the presence of a familiar yet hallowed God.

I was not able to be at his funeral. We had a service that day for senior citizens, and we could not imagine that Mr Cherry would wish us to cancel or postpone that for his sake. My parents, however, who knew him well, were able to go. A few days later, my father and I were discussing a passage in Joseph Ivimey's History of the English Baptists, in which Ivimey describes the funeral of another aged servant of the Lord, Dr Andrew Gifford (1700-1784), a pastor at Eagle Street, London. Gifford knew George Whitefield well and loved him dearly. Going to hear Whitefield preach on one occasion, godly Gifford is reported to have said, "I am going to light my farthing rushlight at his flaming torch." That rushlight of Gifford's nevertheless proved a good guide to many, for it was reported of him that when he was more than eighty years old he was more active and zealous in his master's work than many young men of twenty-five.

Ivimey reports Gifford's death thus:
In his last days, while confined by affliction, his friends who visited him said, they found him always in a happy, spiritual, resigned frame; his soul resting on Christ alone for salvation. He often cried out under his heavy pains, but would presently say, " I cannot help groaning, but though I groan, I trust I do not grumble." Three days before his death, being asked how he did; he said, "I am in great pain, but bless God, this is not hell! blessed be God, this is not hell! blessed be God for Jesus Christ." In the last hours of life, being asked whether any of his friends should be sent for, he replied, " I want no friend but Christ; I wish to see no friend but Christ." Some of his last words were, "Oh, what should I do now, were it not for Jesus Christ? What should I do now, were it not for an interest in Jesus Christ?" Thus while affectionately recommending the Saviour to those who were about his bed, he fell asleep in Jesus, about eight o'clock, Saturday evening, June 19, 1784; in the eighty-fourth year of his age; and about the sixtieth of his public ministry. (3:603-604)
Ivimey goes on to report on Gifford's funeral. Some readers may know Bunhill Fields, the old Dissenting burial ground in London where many of the Lord's choice servants are resting. It was here that Dr Gifford was buried. Ivimey records:
The remains of Dr. Gifford were interred on Friday morning, July 2, 1784, in Bunhill-fields, very early in the morning; according to the request of the deceased, who had often wished he might be buried, even earlier than six o'clock, "to testify his faith in the resurrection of Christ, who arose early on the first day of the week, and likewise his hope of the resurrection morning at the last day." It was on this occasion, that the very intimate friend of Dr. Gifford, the Rev. John Ryland of Northampton, while standing on a tomb-stone, delivered that remarkable oration, contrasting the first and second coming of Christ; the powerful eloquence of which has been compared, by no incompetent judge, to the thundering eloquence of Demosthenes. (3:604-605)
Not all of us can dream of preaching on the first and second coming of Christ with "the thundering eloquence of Demosthenes." Not many of us will have the privilege of preaching at the funeral of a man like Andrew Gifford or Harry Cherry. But we can so live and serve as to die the death of the righteous, and - when we have the privilege of preaching at the funeral of a child of God - we can and must preach in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through Jesus Christ. Here is Ryland's closing address, ringing out across the tombs of Bunhill Fields, and which in its essence might have been well spoken at the grave of Mr Cherry:
Who can tell the triumphs of our Redeemer's soul, in the prospect he had of this island of Great Britain, of London, and its ministers and churches; of his saving the dear deceased man, and millions more yet unborn!

With respect to our departed friend, who has left our world at the age of eighty-four, it is no hard matter to tell where a man is gone, who has lived almost all his life, or if we can only say fifty years, in the exercise of his faith in Christ, and repentance towards God: in love to mankind, preaching in an evangelical strain through the whole course of his ministry. As to his character I will leave that to be set in a proper light by my younger brother. And now we can with the greatest truth use the common words, in the form of service in the Church of England;-- "We commit this body to the ground, in sure and certain hope of a resurrection to eternal life, through Jesus Christ our Lord."

Farewell, thou dear old man! We leave thee in possession of death till the resurrection day: but we will bear witness against thee, oh king of terrors, at the mouth of this dungeon; thou shalt not always have possession of this dead body; it shall be demanded of thee by the great Conqueror, and at that moment thou shalt resign thy prisoner. Oh ye ministers of Christ, ye people of God, ye surrounding spectators, prepare, prepare to meet this old servant of Christ, at that day, at that hour, when this whole place shall be all nothing, but life and death shall be swallowed up in victory. (3:605)