[Editor’s note: Today’s post comes from a good friend of the blog, Rich Ryan. In 1993 Rich joined grace bible church in Midlothian, VA where, since 2004, he now serves as the Pastor-teacher. The following article begins a new discussion on the subject of funerals. This is a topic that is difficult, personal, and always reflects one’s theology for good or for ill. Over the next few posts, we hope to provide some pastoral insight into ministering to those who grieve.]
By Rich Ryan
Nothing can fully prepare you for it. As I reflect over the most challenging sermons I have preached, no difficult text or exegetical conundrum has ever been as difficult as preaching a memorial service for a close family member. Put any family member in that slot, mother, father, brother, sister, wife, or child.
In October of 2006 I got the call that my closest (in age) brother was admitted to the hospital with a brain tumor. After a successful surgery to remove it, we were sucker punched again to find out that this was simply a deposit of a much larger cancer that was in his liver, pancreas and bones. The diagnosis was, “Stage-4, terminal.”
At that moment our family was thrown onto the stage of suffering. To be sure, his immediate family has known exceedingly more pain than any of us have, but as a family, we’ve known joy and grief in ways that are honestly inexpressible. On one hand you are able to rejoice that your brother, who loves the Lord, is going home. It presses you to live and affirm your alien residency. At the same time, like Jesus with Lazarus, you are gripped with the overwhelming grief that sin permeates this world and its effects are real and relentless.
As the weeks unfolded after Tim’s diagnosis I had many excellent talks with my brother. We talked practically about God’s sovereignty in ways I never have before. Honestly friends, “Trust God” can ring hollow in the ears of a person whose entire life has just ground to a halt. All their dreams and aspirations for life with their family have just been cut tragically short. I did a lot of listening, weeping and mourning with him.
One night as I was driving home from his house (about 90 miles away) my wife asked me the question I hoped no one would ask, “Do you think they will ask you to do the funeral?” You see, up to this point in ministry, I had officiated at three funerals. Honestly, they are very difficult for me. I am VERY emotional and I’ve struggled to get through the service when the person was a close friend. How could I possibly do my brother’s funeral? Our answer was a steadfast, “No!”
But in time, God worked in my heart to show me what I would be missing. Hundreds and hundreds of people would be there – my brother was a popular guy. Most of my extended family would be there. Many of his friends and business associates would be there, mourning the tragic events that shortened this father of four’s life to a mere 47 years. Questions would abound – Why him? Why so young? Maybe even, “Why would God allow this?”
After preaching through John I came to realize that God often uses the stages of suffering to make himself known to the unbelieving world. Jesus said it would happen and even prayed that God would do that in John 16 and 17. So as I prayerfully considered my significant failings at emotional services, I realized that this was too great an opportunity to pass up.
Who cares if I blubber my way through parts of it? Who cares if it’s the worst delivery I’ve ever given? What mattered most is that many in this crowd were hopelessly lost in their sin. I had the only answer to cure their hopelessness and I had a captive audience, gripped by the nearness of eternity. I had the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ. How could I not tell them the good news? So, by God’s good grace, I took up the mantle and prepared my sermon for my brother’s memorial service.
What makes it the hardest sermon you’ll ever preach is the emotional tug of war that will go on within you. On one hand you’ll know that your brother is in glory, no pain, no cancer, no tears and sleepless nights of agony. You’ll smile and shout, “Hallelujah!” Yet on the other hand you’ll look at the faces of his wife and kids, your mom and dad, your brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews and know that no Thanksgiving will ever be the same, no Christmas will ever be the same. There will always be one empty chair and you’ll miss his renditions of the favorite family stories. You’ll miss his laugh and smile so much. You know you’ll see him again soon, but for the moment, the vapor that is this life will seem like an eternity. In the midst of all of that, you’ll have to preach words of hope and comfort to lost and dying souls. This is the paradox of unspeakable joy mixed with profound grief. Possibly, this is a mere hint of what the Apostle means when he reminds the church with a gentle caution, “to not grieve as do the rest who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 1:13).
By Matt Waymeyer
[See Part One here]
In his book, He Is Not Silent, Al Mohler raises a provocative question: “If you picked an evangelical church at random and attended a Sunday morning service there, how likely is it that you would hear a faithful expository sermon, one that takes its message and its structure from the biblical text?”[i] In most communities the odds would not be very good. As Steven Lawson has suggested, when it comes to solid Bible preaching there is nothing short of a famine in the land.[ii]
In the eyes of many, expository preaching is simply no longer relevant because it fails to connect in any kind of meaningful way with the average person in today’s culture. This criticism, of course, is hardly new. Back in 1928, a prominent liberal Baptist minister named Harry Emerson Fosdick wrote an article for Harper’s Magazine entitled, “What’s the Matter with Preaching?” In the article, Fosdick wrote:
Many preachers indulge habitually in what they call expository sermons. They take a passage from Scripture, and, proceeding on the assumption that the people attending the church that morning are deeply concerned about what the passage means, they spend their half hour or more on historical exposition of the verse or the chapter, ending with some attendant practical applications to the auditors. Could any procedure be more surely predestined to dullness and futility? Who seriously supposes that, as a matter of fact, one in a hundred of the congregation cares (to start with) what Moses, Isaiah, Paul, or John meant in those special verses, or came to church deeply concerned about it. Nobody else who talks to the public so assumes that the vital interests of the people are located in the meaning of words spoken 2000 years ago.[iii]
Fosdick himself died in 1969, but his view of expository preaching lives on. Many still see it as the epitome of dullness and futility. Many still insist that it fails to connect to the vital interests of the average person in the congregation. Many still believe it is doomed to failure because it hasn’t kept up with the evolving needs of contemporary culture.
According to Mohler, this rapid decline of expository preaching has been one of most troubling developments of the last several decades.
Numerous influential voices within evangelicalism are suggesting that the age of the expository sermon is now past. In its place, some contemporary preachers now substitute messages intentionally designed to reach secular or superficial congregations—messages that avoid preaching a biblical text and thus avoid a potentially embarrassing confrontation with biblical truth.[iv]
Various alternatives to expository preaching may indeed connect with the masses and fill the pews, but at what cost? Time will eventually tell.
[i]Mohler, He Is Not Silent, 50.
[ii]Steven J. Lawson, Famine in the Land: A Passionate Call for Expository Preaching (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2003).
[iii]Harry Emerson Fosdick, “What Is the Matter with Preaching?” in Mike Graves, ed. What’s the Matter with Preaching Today? (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 9.
By Matt Waymeyer
In September of 1982—more than a decade before the rise of the Internet—journalist Allen Neuharth launched a newspaper that would revolutionize the world of print media. What made USA Today so unique is that its approach and design were based on the most thorough market research ever performed on behalf of a newspaper. By surveying readers about their likes and dislikes, Neuharth was able to present the news in a way that catered to the desires of his potential audience.
In his research, Neuharth discovered that people liked lots of color, lots of pictures, and lots of graphics. They wanted short, easy-to-read articles that didn’t continue on a later page. They wanted less international news and more human interest stories. In short, they wanted something that reminded them more of television than a newspaper. So that’s what he gave them. And even though critics began referring to USA Today as “the junk food of journalism,” the end product was an amazing success, at least in terms of circulation.
Unfortunately, many churches today have taken a similar approach to designing their worship services. The trends reveal that people want less doctrine and more drama, less preaching and more props, less declaration and more dialogue. They want short, easy-to-listen-to sermons that don’t get too deep and that don’t focus too much on God and not enough on me. In short, they want something that reminds them of the Sunday morning edition of USA Today. And that’s exactly what they’re given.
In the process, essential elements of biblical worship are often compromised, if not abandoned altogether. One of the most common casualties is the faithful proclamation of the Word of God. For this reason, churches that are committed to the expositional preaching of Scripture are becoming increasingly difficult to find. As David Jackman writes:
For every pulpit won, another seems to be lost, not necessarily to heresy, but to the Bible being relegated from the [driver’s] seat to the passenger seat, where it makes a useful companion, a map to be consulted from time to time, but does not really determine the direction of the car.[i]
One study of 200 evangelical sermons found that neither the content nor the organization of the message arose from a biblical passage in more than half of those sermons. In his book, Why Johnny Can’t Preach, T. David Gordon estimates that of all the sermons he has heard in the past 25 years, less than 10 percent were demonstrably based on a biblical text.[ii] Instead, the content of most sermons was simply asserted, presumably on the authority of the preacher himself. In too many churches the Bible has indeed been relegated to the passenger’s seat.
In contrast, the goal of expository preaching is to get back to the Book—to uphold the authority of Scripture by proclaiming the message of God Himself. The expository preacher has been divinely commissioned to stand before the people and declare with authority: “Thus sayeth the Lord!” He is, in a very real sense, the mouthpiece of Yahweh who has been called to speak forth the utterances of God (1 Pet 4:10). To those who believe that the relevance of expository preaching has long since past, this may seem naïve. But for those who take seriously the biblical mandate to “preach the Word” (2 Tim 4:2), it’s the only option worth considering.
The goal of this series is very simple—to clarify the nature of expository preaching and to explain why it is so crucial to the future of the church. This is not a manual on how to prepare a message or preach a sermon, but rather a call to exalt the supremacy of Scripture in the pulpit. Our ultimate desire is not only to strengthen and encourage those who have already committed themselves to the proclamation of God’s Word, but also to challenge those who may have exchanged that proclamation for something else. After all, junk food may be relatively harmless when it comes to reading a newspaper. But not when it comes to feeding the soul.
[i]David Jackman, “What’s So Special About Preaching?” Inaugural EMA Address on Preaching, 2006.
[ii]T. David Gordon, Why Johnny Can’t Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messenger (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R Publishing Company, 2009), 18.
Matt Waymeyer is a regular contributor to Expository Thoughts. He is a husband and father of five and Instructor in Bible Exposition and New Testament at The Master's Seminary in Sun Valley, CA.
By Paul Lamey
Immediately after he passed away, a nurse came in and made an empty attempt at comfort, “He’s in a better place” she said. As soon as the words were uttered they seemed to bounce around the room with nowhere to comfortably land. For the sake of context, this was spoken to a dear woman, only nanoseconds removed from the loss of her husband and best friend of forty-eight years. Better place? Really? Is it wise to tell a woman who has just lost the closest of human relationships that your husband is better off because he’s no longer here with you? Regardless of intentions and whatever this might mean, I’m convinced that Christians can do better.
Now this is not to open a discussion on the nature of heaven. I believe that “heaven is for real,” not because some four year old has an out of body experience and lives to tell about it. Heaven, like hell, is real because the Bible assumes the veracity of both. Christians are often easily duped into throwing out the Bible and taking up second-hand experiences as proof of this and that. We should remember that the Bible is sufficient reason enough to believe that after our earthly existence, our souls will be immediately present with Christ and will await a future resurrection of our bodies in which the ultimate destination (i.e., place) becomes a new heaven a new earth. This I know because the Bible tells me so.
Could this be what that poor nurse was getting at? Was she attempting to emphasize that, “he’s in a better place”? If so, it would seem that the weight of scripture would be on her side. The great Apostle surely indicates as much, stating that to be absent from the body is “to be at home with the Lord” (emphasis mine, 2 Cor 5:8). Also, we believe in the immortality of the soul so if it’s not here then it has to be somewhere. So if this were her intention she would be theologically correct on a number of points. However, I don’t think this is what she was aiming for.
The problem of the nurse’s hollow comfort is one that is painfully acute with Christians. We want to say something, anything that might bring comfort so we grab for aphorisms that have been handed down to us by our own experiences or from the self-help section at the Christian bookstore. In so doing, we grab the mantle laid down by the likes of Job’s friends. He too had questions about “place” and the afterlife. Poor Job wondered, “Man expires, and where is he?” (Job 14:10). His friend, Eliphaz, chimes in and says that such questions are “useless talk” and then proceeds to wax on about his life experiences.
You see the problem is not with the technicality of the answer from the nurse. On the theological merits, she was correct—he was in a better place. The problem is that the suffering widow was not asking a question. She was grieving, sobbing, and her mind was undoubtedly racing in many directions. The nurse was answering a question, that at least in that instant, no one was asking. In such moments it is imperative that Christians learn the discipline and wisdom of holding our tongues. This is not to say that we take up vows of silence when thrust into these situations but less is more.
The Proverbs speak of the delight of a “timely word” (15:23). If we were to unpack the fullness of what this means then we would see that it is a word that is measured with wisdom, truth, and patient compassion. A timely word can be a word delayed either in a letter, email, or note of sympathy. A timely word may be a conversation over coffee months later when important questions do arise. A timely word may be no word at all, at least in that moment.
I was recently reminded of this from the likes of an atheist no less. In a sad Vanity Fair essay Christopher Hitchens, who is suffering from esophageal cancer, says something that I was unable to forget:
So far, I have decided to take whatever my disease can throw at me, and to stay combative even while taking the measure of my inevitable decline. I repeat, this is no more than what a healthy person has to do in slower motion. It is our common fate. In either case, though, one can dispense with facile maxims that don’t live up to their apparent billing.
In the essay, Hitchens was bemoaning the dictum that “whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” This line, probably adapted from Nitzsche who borrowed it from Goethe, rings hollow for Hitchens. It’s nothing more than a “facile maxim.” This led me to wonder, do we Christians have our own mottos that have a ring of truth in the moment yet fail to deliver (“live up to their apparent billing”)? You bet we do, so let us agree to part ways with them and redeem our conversations. This will mean that when we do speak, it will be the truth in love with the goal of helping one another mature in Christ (Eph 4:15).
(Paul Lamey is a husband and father of four. He is the pastor-teacher of Grace Community Church in Huntsville, AL and the editor-in-chief of Expository Thoughts)
Expository Thoughts is a blog dedicated to accurately understanding the Bible, ministry, and culture. Fellows include: Editor-in-Chief: Dr. Paul Lamey, Pastor of Preaching at Grace Community Church, Huntsville, AL; Dr. Matt Waymeyer, Instructor of Bible Exposition and New Testament at The Master's Seminary, Sun Valley, CA; Dr. Randy McKinion, Associate Professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages at Shepherds Theological Seminary, Cary, NC.