A Funeral for a Friend

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bill6Preaching at the church you grew up in has some challenges. Many of the funerals I do are for people I have known my entire life. The blessing is that the funerals end up being very personal and heart-felt experiences.

The bane is . . . well . . . they’re my friends.

I recently expressed my grief for a longtime friend in an email:

There once was a boy who came to church all by himself . . .

He didn’t come from a bad family, they just didn’t attend church. But in the small town where he grew up there wasn’t much else to do. There weren’t many opportunities to spend time with his friends outside of school, so church was a social place for him. Little by little, though, he learned to enjoy it for more than just the social aspect. He began to understand the love of God for the first time.

But much of church life is built around family. Father/Son banquets were awkward and lonely. Church picnics made him feel like a third wheel. Every now and then there would be a potluck after church and people would ask him if he was going to stay. He always told them he couldn’t because he needed to be home for lunch. The truth is, the idea of coming to a potluck without food seemed rude to him. He was also pretty sure he didn’t know how to make a casserole.

So one day he approached the parents of his friend Randy and told them he would like to go to the potluck but he didn’t have anything to bring. He asked them (very politely, mind you) if they could adopt him for the day. They said, “Sure!” and when the potluck came they handed him his plate and tableware and put him in line with them.

The boy was happy, his belly was full and he never suspected that Randy’s mom didn’t know how to make a casserole either.

And, at the next potluck, Randy’s mom told him she had already adopted him!

I owe so much of my love for the church to people like Bill and Nancy Carreon, people who welcomed me into their homes and included me as part of their family when I felt very excluded. I don’t think I would have come to understand the love of God without experiencing the love they had for me.

 This funeral was difficult and intensely personal. However, I can’t express enough what a great blessing it was. We had a year to prepare for this one. In that time Bill and I visited for many hours, talking and praying and encouraging. Bill shared his wishes with me. Our talks about death were honest–and sometimes even hilarious.

But a week later and I’m still feeling it. I do a good job of keeping myself composed during funerals. I feel like that’s a gift God has given me. However, it means I postpone my own grieving. In the days that followed the funeral I really felt the weight of it–physically and emotionally.

The funeral was on Thursday and Friday I spent the day doing hospital and nursing home calls. Friday night I went to bed early and slept nearly 10 hours. I think my body was trying to tell me something.

Dr. Sackett always told us, “Be known for your funerals.” I took that seriously and pour as much as I can into them.

Bill had his songs all picked out, which saved me a lot of last-minute work. In fact, I started working on a few extras before he has passed. I started working on this video the Friday before he died. A special gift from Mike Weaver made it all the more special.


A Quick Tip for Funeral Sermons – Timeline

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I do a lot of funerals. Occasionally I’ll find myself in a position where I’m doing a funeral for a person I don’t know or barely know. Often these are people who have been in nursing homes for years and family members and friends don’t have a lot of information to offer.

You want to honor the person’s life and bring some much needed perspective for those in attendance. I’ve found a very good resource in this website: The History Timeline of the Twentieth Century.

At a recent funeral for a 90 year old lady I had never met, I started my message like this:

Betty was born the year the Winter Olympics were first held. She was one year old when Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” was first published, but when she was 2 Winnie-the-Pooh was first published. At age three Babe Ruth hit his home run record and when she was four bubble gum was invented, the first Mickey Mouse cartoon premiered and penicillin was discovered. That sounds like a very good year for four year olds.

I continued on to age 10, then 15 and 16 (hallmark years for most of us) then hit the highlights of 20, 30, 40 and on out. I try to put a mix of the history that defined the decades with the fun things that defined the generations.

After bringing her up to our times I continued the message with this:

Many of the things that people of my generation have always taken for granted, that we believe have always been there, Betty lived without and experienced first-hand. A life like that gives one remarkable perspective–a perspective that cannot be matched.

But what is ninety years in God’s perspective? Peter tells us, “But do not forget this one thing, dear friends:With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.” Time impresses us. Ninety years is amazing to us, but to God it is a mere drop in the bucket.

From there I spend some time talking about what we gain from God’s perspective–and his patience. The hope we can have because he doesn’t count time like us.

It’s a quick and easy way to put a funeral message together for someone who you otherwise don’t know. In fact, many of those in attendance may not really know the person–they’re there to honor an ancient relative. But using the timeline gives them a point of connection. Suddenly they’re the same age and discovering history with them.

The response to these messages is amazing. I’ve actually had people request I do this for their relatives when they pass too.

I have to admit, though, as I’ve gotten older the timeline is less impressive to me. I miss the days when I could mention, “He was eight years old the last time the Cubs won the World Series!”


Those Very Difficult Funeral Sermons

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I hesitated posting this message but after talking to the family of the deceased I was told to post it if I felt it might help someone. I certainly hope it can.

I try to put a lot of effort into funeral sermons. Back in Bible College, my ministry professor told us, “Be known for your funerals.” I took those words to heart and have really tried to do my best. I’ve done a lot of them too. I have a mortician friend who often uses me for difficult funerals. I’ve done a lot of state funded funerals for families that have next to nothing. I’ve also done a few for people living in group homes for the developmentally disabled. Those are very dear to my heart.

And I’ve done suicides.

Those are never easy, but this one was exceptionally difficult. A young man in our church took his own life. We’re a small community and everyone knows everyone else. The whole town was rocked. Over the course of the week following the suicide, we had high school students in our building for counseling and simply a place to get away and be together. We met with them in the schools, on the streets, anywhere they were.

Speaking at such an event is difficult enough. Knowing what to say and how to bring peace into the situation can seem impossible. It may have been if it weren’t for my own loss through suicide.

In 1999 my brother took his life. In the midst of that terrible experience I had what I can only describe as a very unique touch from God and an awareness of His presence like never before. There’s not enough room here to write about it, but maybe I will later. The verse at the center of this sermon was also at the center of my heart through that experience. Psalm 90:12, “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.”

I’ve had many positive comments following this message. People have told me they were amazed how I didn’t shy away from the issue of suicide but addressed it with love and grace. The family told me they were comforted because I seemed to know exactly what to say.

Truth be told, Austin’s funeral sermon was the one I would have preached for my brother if I could have. I used my own pain and what I’ve learned in the fifteen years since to address the situation in front of us. I think Rick Warren is right, “Don’t waste your pain; let God heal it, recycle it, utilize it and use it to bless other people. Use your pain as a model for your message and a witness to the world.”