How Funerals Made Me a Pastor-Theologian

September 19, 2016

I began my journey in pastoral ministry at a small-ish, rural, traditional church. It was the church where I furiously worked to finish my PhD dissertation while also figuring out adulthood and marriage. But the church was dying. I don’t mean this a figurative comment on the church’s health—though that would have been true as well. But this church was dying physically. It was an older congregation, and sadly, we celebrated far more funerals than weddings or births or baptisms. But there were many lessons to be learned.

I was the associate pastor in this church—a ministerial rookie long on book knowledge and short on pastoral experience. My lead pastor wisely let me get my feet wet by carving out a niche for me in our many funeral services. He would preach the funeral message. I would open the service with a reading from Scripture and pray. It was a good system, and we grew to be an excellent tag-team. But I quickly realized I couldn’t simply read a verse or even a meaningful passage of Scripture and be done. No—in those difficult moments, I wanted to offer those who gathered more. I wanted to set their grief and the death we were facing in a larger biblical framework. Thus began my education.

In the spirit of more liturgical traditions—who had more wisdom than this low church Baptist had ever given them credit for—I gathered readings from the Psalms, Old Testament, New Testament, and the Gospels. I matched themes and texts and built space into our funeral service for these more substantial readings—alternating among four or five arrangements of texts because, frankly, it seemed to be every other month that a funeral was scheduled.

Two things happened: First, people were helped. At the conclusion of the service, believers and non-believers alike regularly began to approach me, thanking me for the reading. It seemed simply reading well-chosen Scriptures with little to no exposition was illuminating, helpful, hope-giving. Who knew?! (Cf. Isa 55:10–11.)

Second, I myself began to grasp the soul-stirring hope of the gospel in all its redemptive historical force. As we cried out to God from the depths of fallen humanity’s brokenness, with the stark evidence of creation’s groaning staring us in the face (Ps 130:1), I was wrecked afresh by God’s exquisite holiness: “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” (Ps 130:3). But with him there is plentiful redemption—there is forgiveness and steadfast love (130:4, 7). Because of this I looked forward to the rich feast the LORD of hosts would serve his people upon his holy mountain. With aching longing, I looked for the day when he would swallow up the covering cast over the peoples, the veil spread over the nations (Isa 25:6–7). He himself would deal with the sinful rebellion that subverted his majestic reign and sullied his perfect creation. And he would do it through his Son—declaring that all who came to the Son by repentance and faith he would never cast out, but instead would raise from death on the last day (Jn 6:37). On this day death itself would be abolished, and the reproach of our shameful rebellion would be no more (Isa 25:7–8). In place of bitter tears, there would be this exultant exclamation: “Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. This is the Lord; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation” (Isa 25:9). The wait over, the dwelling place of God would be with humanity once again (Rev 21:3). We would be his people and he our God, and as the new heaven and earth descended, he would make all things new as they were in Eden (Rev 21:1, 4–5).

This hope—the full-orbed masterpiece of God’s redemption—penetrated my soul in ways no Creation-Fall-Redemption-Consummation schema ever had before. I came to see that the theology I knew and loved so well had deep consequence not just for the heads, but also the hearts of my sheep. Creation and Providence, Scripture, Theology Proper, Christology, Anthropology, Soteriology, Eschatology—these mattered deeply, even for my rural, homespun setting. Though they were oblivious to the categories, the resources of both biblical and systematic theology informed those funeral services, and will forever mark my trajectory as a pastor. The intense pastoral needs of those funerals and the ample resources of Scripture informed by Christian doctrine together made me who I am—a pastor-theologian, or at least an aspiring one.

From my own narrative and development, I commend just a few thoughts to fellow pastor-theologians on the way:

First, give your church the gospel. Give them the good news that through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection God is reconciling the world to himself. But also give them big picture of God’s redemptive work—what he’s doing in Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Consummation. Matt Chandler usefully calls these complementary perspectives “the gospel on the ground” and “the gospel in the air.” Resolve to make this message the heart of funerals and weddings, sermons and counseling sessions, hospital visits and new members’ classes.

Second, give your church sound doctrine. In a groaning world where the wrong seems oft so strong, they need the robust hope that a sovereign, triune God has spoken clearly in his Word, and he is the ruler yet. Don’t fall for the false notion that theology is not practical. Rather, labor to show its connection to life under the sun.

Third and finally, model for your people faithful whole-Bible hermeneutics. Teach them to see Christ in all the Scriptures and to read the Bible redemptive-historically. And if you’re unsure how to do that yourself, pick up a copy of Vaughan Roberts’s God’s Big Picture or Graeme Goldsworthy’s Gospel and Kingdom and feast.

Being a pastor-theologian, I’ve learned, isn’t so much about the books I read or the things I write, though these are important. The measure of a pastor-theologian is the day to day shape his shepherding ministry takes—including funerals.

 

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