Reflections on the Funeral for Barbara Bush

The funeral for Barbara Bush was held on April 21st of this year in Houston, Texas. Wife for 73 years to George H. W. Bush, a former president of The United States, Mrs. Bush died at 92 years of age.

Days later I located the funeral service on the Internet and watched it throughout in my study here in Canada. Fifteen hundred by-invitation-only worshipers packed the sanctuary of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church.

Only a day or so before her death Mrs. Bush had decided there were to be no more ambulance rides to the hospital. She was 92 and said, I’m not afraid of death, adding, I know there’s a great God who will care for me.

The sanctuary of St. Martins appeared simple and beautiful; the tones of the pipe organ were mellow; the choir richly resonant; and the ordained personnel wore white clerical robes.

The Episcopalian liturgy was more fully prescribed than I am used to but that is partly a matter of training and taste.

I was interested in the content of the service — what was said and sung — because in the last fifty years funerals have changed fundamentally on this continent. Thomas G. Long writes about this change in his highly researched book: Accompany Them With Singing —The Christian Funeral. 

These days, the words “funeral service” are less often used than in the past. Now, the event is  more commonly called, “A Celebration of Life.”

Observing a death with a “celebration of life” may mean some or all of the following: that the body of the deceased is not present, having been interred or cremated a day or so before; the time between death and the celebratory service may be more extended than usual; and tributes to the deceased may be the main feature of the service. These gatherings are intended to be positive events, often punctuated by moments of laughter as memories are reviewed.

In a service for the “celebration of life” the Christian content may not be lacking. There may be singing and Scripture readings and even a brief homily but these are subordinated to the many and various tributes. The reason put forward for this change is that it is better to rejoice over the life of the departed than to grieve over the departed’s death.

As I watched and vicariously participated in the St. Martin’s service I was moved by the dominant place the Bible was given. The passages as read actually bound the service together and grounded the whole event in the Sacred Scriptures.

As the casket was brought slowly down the aisle, the Pastor read from a medley of Bible passages:

He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live, and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God. For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone. If we live we live to the Lord, and if we die we die to the Lord. So whether we live or die we belong to the Lord. Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord.

Later in the service a layperson read the passage from Ecclesiastes beginning, There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under heaven, a time to be born and a time to die… Another read a portion of 2 Corinthians 5.

At a later point in this traditional funeral service, a group of young women, whom I took to be Barbara Bush’s daughters and/or granddaughters, gathered around a microphone and read in succession from Proverbs 31, which describes “a wife of noble character.

Interspersed among these several readings, a soloist sang the Gospel song, I Come To The Garden Alone, and the choir filled the sanctuary with the jubilant measures of The Holy City.

There were tributes, one from President Bush’s historian, John Beacham, one by a special friend of Mrs. Bush, Susan Garrett Baker, and one by her son, Jed. The remarks in each case were carefully prepared.

The pastor told of Barbara Bush’s request back in 2015 to be confirmed: that is, to formally affirm her Christian faith during a rite of the church and be made a church member. She said, “I’m a Christian and I want to be confirmed.” Her son Jed, speaking on behalf of the family, told of her recent comment: “I believe in Jesus and he is my Savior; I know I’ll be in a beautiful place.”

Near the end of this funeral service, the congregation was called upon to recite together The Apostles’ Creed — a corporate statement of orthodox Christian truth

It was not just Scripture and Creed that made the Gospel dominant in this service. At the outset the congregation sang, Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the God of Creation, and toward the end, at Barbara’s prior request, the congregation sang, Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee, God of Glory, God of Love — both lyrical confessions of faith worshiping the Majesty of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

In the book previously mentioned, Accompany Them With Singing — The Christian Funeral, Thomas G. Long writes that a good funeral draws private grief and personal loss so fully into the Gospel that mourning becomes not only consoled but transformed.

In essence, a good funeral combines acknowledgement of a great loss, the good news of the Gospel, and for believers, the celebration of a life in Christ, all in proper proportion.

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Photo credit: U.S. National Archives (Image in Public Domain, via flickr.com)

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Are We Paying Enough Attention to Children in the Church?

When my mother saw I was serious about answering a call to the ministry, she gave me only one word of advice. She said, “Don, be sure to pay attention to the children.”

I’m sure she meant: speak to them; inquire of their well-being; make a place for them in the life of the congregation; be sure they are instructed in the basics of the faith — all of which would seem excellent counsel.

My mother’s words were consistent with our Lord’s response when Jesus’ disciples thought him too busy to be bothered with children who were brought to him.

Jesus rebuked his followers, saying, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14). He then gathered the little ones around him and blessed them.

My Mother’s advice was given in the mid-forties of the Twentieth Century and we are now nearly through the second decade of the Twenty-first Century. Things have changed in fundamental ways in 70 years!

In the intervening years many subcultures on our continent have rapidly secularized. That is, they no longer have  reverence for an Unseen Presence who rules over all.   Persons who accept this cultural shift seem to be grounding all reality in the present visible world only.

Still, I would say that my Mother’s few words two generations ago and our Lord’s attitude toward children remain the pattern for us today.

And based upon my years in ministry, I offer two of many possible concrete suggestions about the children among us in these secular times.

First, a congregation should take a hard look periodically at whether the Bible is being presented to children from their early years onward. Is it foundational to all family activities and church ministries?

That is, is the Bible being read daily in Christian homes, connecting church and home in religious practice? Are children learning the Bible’s timeless stories and their lessons — like the story of David and Goliath, Ruth and Naomi, and especially the stories of Jesus, and his words and miracles?

Against the apparent increase of “sophisticated” and widespread antagonism to the Christian faith, the Bible is the first line of defense as well as our guidebook, and our children need to be more rooted than ever in the Sacred Scriptures.

My second suggestion deals with the increasingly aggressive secularization of sex education in public schools, countering, even scorning, Christian teaching.

Affirmation of sexual practices contrary to both nature and Christian moral teaching is being taught more aggressively and explicitly in public schools.  For example, it’s reported that in some places sexual practices that are neither normal nor healthy are being presented with approval and even encouraged in the teaching of young children.

At the time of writing concerned parents in Canada, the United States and Australia are being called upon to treat April 23 as a “day out.” On that day children are to be kept home from their schools in protest.

Do our Lord’s words pertain in this? Bringing the little ones to Jesus must also include protecting them insofar as possible from instruction that would counter our Lord’s teaching and the authority of Holy Scripture.

It is now many years since I served as a pastor over a congregation. In reflection I’m sure my mother’s advice affected my thinking to the benefit of my congregations and their children.

If I were returned to the assignment of pastoring a church, I would be even more committed to heed my Mother’s advice to pay attention to the children and their need for both teaching and protection.

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Photo credit: Philippe Put (via flickr.com)

If We Claim That Jesus Talks to Us, Is That a Sign of Mental Illness?

Recently, on ABC’s  morning show, The View, comedian Joy Behar spoke insultingly of the Christian faith, provoking widespread protests. The network reportedly received 45,000 complaints.

Behar had conducted an on-air interview with the Vice President of the United States, Michael Pence, in which he said he seeks direction from Jesus for decisions he makes and he receives answers from him.

Ms. Behar quipped on a later show that when you talk to Jesus that is one thing but when you say Jesus talks to you that may be a sign of mental illness.

She has since apologized to the vice president and, at his request, to the public at large.

This exchange raises a question believers and unbelievers alike would do well to ponder: Does the Christian faith claim that the Lord Jesus communicates with believers in an understandable way?

Jesus, who came from the Father, certainly spoke to humankind during his time on earth. Saint Mark tells us Jesus went into the region of Galilee “proclaiming” (Mark 1:14). On another occasion a leper pled with him to be made clean of his disease and Jesus said to him, “Be Clean” (Mark 1:40). To such speaking, the four Gospels testify repeatedly.

The Old Testament bears witness that even before Jesus came to live among us God did communicate with humans. God carried on an extensive dialogue with Moses (Exodus 19). He spoke to his chosen people as a whole: “This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel says” (Jeremiah 31:23). He also spoke to individuals, e.g.: “Then God said to Jacob. (Genesis 35:1)

And to worshipers then and now God speaks through the Book of the Psalms: I sought the Lord and he answered me (Psalm 34:4). But did such communications continue after Jesus finished his ministry on earth and ascended into heaven?

A strong assurance that they did was lodged in his promise given to the Apostles on the eve of his crucifixion: And I will ask the Father and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever — the Spirit of truth. (John 14:16)

Jesus had been their Counselor. Now he would send another Counselor who would carry on a comparable ministry of communication — speaking changeless truth to them! But is this assured to all following generations, including us and Vice President Pence?

Nearly three decades after Jesus’ ascension, a Rabbi was approaching the city of Damascus. His intention was to persecute Jews he found following what he viewed as the “Jesus cult.” Suddenly he was blinded by a light so bright that he fell to the ground.

Hearing an audible voice he asked “Who are you, Lord”? With great clarity the answer he received was: “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:5). The Living Christ spoke in human language to Saul of Tarsus, who became the Apostle Paul.

There are multiplied millions of serious Christians who share Vice President Pence’s conviction that Jesus talks to his followers even today — not trivially but certainly on faith and life matters.

Such throngs believe it is not beyond God’s power to speak audibly, thought this way is not most usual. Far more, they “hear” him speaking to them through Scriptures read and preached and through his Holy Spirit’s inward promptings to an awakened conscience.

And so, without being considered mentally ill, Christians can say with reverence that Jesus does speak by whatever means he chooses and we are to listen, ponder his words, correlate them with Scripture and wise counsel, and ask for the reassuring inner witness of conscience.

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Photo credit: Michael Vadon (via flickr.com)

How Billy Graham Kept His Focus For a Lifetime

Billy Graham, evangelist, is with the Lord. He died on February 21, 2018, at 99 years of age, a widely recognized and greatly admired Christian.

We saw the outpouring of love and respect shown for him in the week following his death, both in Charlotte, North Carolina, his birthplace, and in the capitol in Washington D.C.

Despite his advanced age and his years of growing seclusion, the public had not forgotten him. Who Billy Graham was and how he would be remembered shone through most clearly at his funeral on Friday, March 2, 2018.

It is reported that 2800 invitations were sent out and more than 2000 invitees were able to be there, coming from as far away as South Korea.

Held in a large tent, erected on the grounds of the Billy Graham Library near his reconstructed childhood home in Charlotte, North Carolina, the funeral was joyful, reflecting in several ways the faith in Christ that Billy Graham, his deceased wife, Ruth, and the larger family connection shared openly.

The Gospel of the world’s Savior and its wonderful promise of eternal life for believers was celebrated at the funeral both in personal testimony, prayer, song, and Scripture reading. There was laughter and there were tears, all undergirded by the Christian hope of life everlasting.

How did Billy Graham’s journey begin? There is on record a certificate of his graduation from the beginners Sunday School class of the Graham family’s church when he was six years of age, so he had the advantage of early Christian training.

Still, he had to have his own awakening to saving grace through faith and at 16 years of age Graham had a decisive conversion to Christ under the ministry of evangelist Mordecai Ham. His interest in church that had been flagging was clearly awakened.

Later, during a late night walk around a golf course near where he was attending Bible school he prostrated himself at the eighteenth hole and answered yes to God’s call to full time ministry.

His consequent worldview must surely be attributed to his deep faith commitment to Biblical truth, grounded in the staunch Presbyterian upbringing of his early years. His adult framework for life was wholesomely moral but not moralistic.

Before his ministry developed, and after a serious struggle with the issue of the authority of the Bible, he committed himself to the Christian Scriptures — affirming their utter truthfulness and trustworthiness. The spot where that commitment was made while in California bears a marker.

He was an evangelist from the start of his ministry. His message was the Gospel of Jesus Christ, his Savior and Lord, preached with resonance and urgency.

His theme was God’s love for sinners, but within that framework he spoke with candor of Jesus’ warnings about the alternatives of heaven or hell, urgently calling sinners to repentance.

His commitment never varied or changed. His messages were punctuated constantly with the declaration, “the Bible says.”

He was not only an evangelist himself; his contributions to the cause of world evangelism are astounding: He was the founder of The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Decision Magazine, Christianity Today, The International Congress on World Evangelism and much more.

In reviewing his many contributions to the cause of Christian evangelism, one must ask, how can one person do so much?

From the start he preached the Gospel under the authority of the Scriptures and worked with a team; his team members kept their focus sharp and protected one another from compromising situations; his beloved wife, Ruth, supported him in his work wholeheartedly; he made himself accountable to a governing board; he did not handle or assign campaign funds personally.

Billy Graham’s grave is next to that of his wife, Ruth, near the entrance to the library bearing his name in Charlotte. The simple headstone of his grave bears his name, Billy Graham, and with it, these simple words to describe his life:

PREACHER OF THE GOSPEL OF THE LORD JESUS CHRIST. JOHN 14:6

 

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Photo credit: Jessica Johnson (via flickr.com)

Boys Must Become Good Men

Hollywood movie mogul, Harvey Weinstein, has been in the news for several weeks. It appears that he used his powerful position in the entertainment industry to abuse in unspeakable ways women striving to rise to stardom.

Close associates of Weinstein claim complete ignorance of his offenses, but a large number of women believe his abuse was widely known by them but was protected, not rebuked.

Similar scandals have erupted at Amazon, Fidelity, and NBC News, but we don’t have final information on any of these.

As the stories unfold, however, we are likely to hear counselors explain rightly that the evil conduct of these men is driven not by sexual desire but by an excessive need to dominate women in cruel and humiliating ways.

If charged, these men are likely to experience long days, even months, in court leading in some cases to jail time or other punishments.

For the offended, it will take years to achieve justice and some measure of healing. The expertise not only of lawyers, but also psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, rehabilitation centers, therapy groups, ministers, priests, and rabbis will be called upon. Such wounds go deep.

It seems to me that parallel to all this two questions deserve the attention of large numbers of citizens: First, when do grown men take their first steps towards character-grounded respect for womanhood? Second, What are the resources Judeo-Christian understanding provides?

First, the training for respectful conduct toward women begins unconsciously with what boys learn in early childhood — particularly what they learn from how their dad treats their mother.

But the boys’ learning is cumulative over time from a great variety of sources such as: the strength of family cohesion, what goes on at the playground; the influence of a kindergarten teacher; what their friends laugh at; what they learn in Sunday School; the friendships they develop: print media; endless television; and pornography. The influences are numerous.

Second, the primary Christian resource is the Bible and the primary classroom is the home. Genesis 1 tells us that God created everything that exists.

It is God’s world, and he is everywhere present and all-knowing. Little boys can grasp early that he sees our every thought and action. Thus, conscience is reinforced and respect for others engendered.

The recent news has been dark, and impresses upon us that we have an oncoming generation of little boys to train to show respect across gender lines.

The oft-repeated saying, Boys will be boys usually used to excuse some mischief — needs to be changed to Boys will be men — fine men — because that’s where we should be leading them.

 

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Photo credit: Frank Boston (via flickr.com)

Did the Eclipse Prompt You to Reflect?

Recently, the moon totally eclipsed the sun even though the far more distant sun is 1000 times larger than the moon. It was a rare spectacle.

Advance notice of this phenomenon brought people from far and near — tens of thousands of them — to be under the total eclipse’s charted path all across America, and to witness the phenomenon.

How could it be known almost to the second where the total eclipse would manifest itself at any particular time of that day? And that the total eclipse in every case would last for two minutes?

The moon performed magnificently.

One telecaster, microphone in hand, moved among a crowd of viewers sprawled across a large area in Oregon, asking: What word describes it for you?” One after another said with enthusiasm, “Awesome.” “Awesome.” Awesome.” Awesome was the only word that seemed adequate.

Awesome: “Causing feelings of fear, or wonder, or awe.” Or “causing overwhelming feelings of reverence.”

For Christians, our awe at the mystery and magnificence of the heavenly bodies is amplified dramatically by the opening words of the Scriptures: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1).

God exists, and the universe he spoke into splendid order exists. Both sun and moon are his doing. Verse one of Genesis 1 is like the topic sentence of the Bible.

The Bible quickly takes us beyond the heavenly bodies themselves to insist that a Divine Mind creates and sustains the order of Nature and He, maker of sun and moon and everything else, is to be worshiped.

The prophet Jeremiah prays, “Ah, Sovereign Lord, you have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and outstretched arm. Nothing is too hard for you” (Jeremiah 32:17). Think of that!

Or turning to the hymnbook of the ancient church, the Psalter, we come across these words to guide us in our reflection: “My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth” (Psalm 121:2).

We cross into the New Testament and find the call to reflection on God’s creation becomes even more revealing. Consider, for example, a portion of the Apostle Paul’s hymn to the supremacy of Christ:

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him” (Colossians 1:15,16).

The crowds that gathered all across America on August 21 of this year with their special glasses and picture-taking devices dispersed as quickly as they gathered. I assume some will reflect again and again on what they viewed. It was spectacular. Others will perhaps soon forget the wonder of the moment and go on to other things.

May those who enjoy the wonders of nature also treasure their Creator and his revelation to humankind through the coming of our Redeemer, Jesus the Christ, recalling with awe that “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made” (John 1:3)

Photo credit: Bernd Thaller (via flickr.com)

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It’s Time for the Church to Shine

7945046588_dd7ef1ef1e_mIn the reportage of the battle for the American presidency, the airwaves of late have been full of epithets, unproven charges and vulgarity. The charges and emotional responses to them hang in the air unresolved long after they are spoken, and the battles rage on.

Society of course has legal procedures for dealing with such things. But to paraphrase Miss Manners, etiquette exists to resolve such matters outside of court and we seem as a western society to be neglecting etiquette these days. As well, western culture has centuries of jurisprudence to draw on.

But in times of high emotion we can easily descend to incivility and injustice toward others. In the church, as in society, we can depend upon etiquette and unenforced virtue to render apology and make restitution, or the church’s legal apparatus can be utilized. If we do neither, wounds go unhealed and our Lord is displeased.

In conversation with an ordained minister of one of America’s largest denominations recently I learned that he has such a passion for fair play and integrity in his church that he is spending much time in his retirement years as counsel to ministers who he believes are not getting just treatment under his denomination’s laws.

It seems to me that when in society the injunction to “love your neighbor as yourself” is so often disregarded, it is a good time for the church to shine with obedience to both grace and fair play. We have such a longstanding and rich source of procedures for promoting neighbor love, and a collection of examples in the Christian Scriptures from which to take our bearings.

For example, early on in the development of the early church, the Apostles heard complaints of alleged wrongs committed by Hebrew Jews against Grecian Jews regarding the unfair distribution of aid among the Greek-speaking widows (Acts 6:1–5). The Apostles didn’t say, “stop complaining” or in any other way disregard the complaint. They called the whole Jerusalem church together and asked them to put forward seven men of sterling Christian character to be sure the Greek widows were not neglected. That done, they then appointed seven disciples (who had Greek names) for this purpose.

And thanks to this wise and fair action of leaders, the work of evangelism went on with effect. The church grew, the account says. A contingent of Jewish priests even came to faith and joined the ranks of the church.

It was not as though the Apostles were plowing new ground. They had a source book — the Old Testament, richly endowed with teaching about justice. Consider for example, King David’s abject repentance when brought face to face with his sin by the prophet Nathan, prompting his psalm of repentance, “Create in me a new heart, O Lord.” Or the Lord’s charge through eighth century prophet, Zechariah: “Speak the truth to each other, and render true and sound judgments in your courts” (Zechariah 8:16).

Or the custom of having elders who gathered at the city gate settle disputes that were brought to them. The Christian cause has always had a place for individual repentance in response to the “court of personal conscience” and also for committees, and even courts to reconcile differences between brothers and sisters, and to redress objective wrongs.

This is an excellent time in secular history for the church to examine its commitment to fair and righteous dealings, both in the community of believers itself and in the broader community where the people of God are to shine as lights in the darkness. But leaders must have the heart of a King David, and the courage of a prophet Nathan as they pursue righteousness for themselves and those they lead.

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Photo credit: Bernd Baltz (via flickr.com)