When I go to the dentist to have work done on my teeth, with the exception of a cleaning, I get a shot of Novocaine.  For about two hours, I don’t have any pain.  It starts out feeling pressure and then moves to a tingling sensation until finally, I get the feeling back in my mouth.  On another occasion, I got a shot to numb an area on my face.  And still several more times, my eyes have gotten drops to numb them for laser surgery.

Numb is good most of the time.  It helps us not feel physical pain.  But when we talk about numbness because of a tragedy, there is a dark side too.  If being numb means we don’t feel pain, that can be a blessing.  But otherwise, numbness can keep us from feeling anything.  We can’t think clearly, we are distracted, we sometimes … don’t care about much.

Numbness blocks memories too.  When grief runs deep, some people can’t remember the funerals of their loved ones.  The blurred memories usually never become clear.

How do we get the feelings back that so deeply desire?  The medicine wears off.  But it isn’t as simple as that with our emotions.  Perhaps we should do what David did after his infant son died.  We should get up and worship God (II Samuel 12).  Maybe we should recognize the presence of God and cry out to Him (Psalm 18:6).  God doesn’t reject our cries.

Will we ever get over being numb?  It can disappear in a short time… like Novocaine.  It can stay with us for a long time like a physical wound that is healing.  Eventually, we will feel again.  And we will still remember.

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Where There is Hope

“That’s messed up if that’s all there is.”

Those were the words from the son-in-law of the woman whose funeral I conducted today. My mind immediately went to the Scripture that says, “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable.” (I Corinthians 15:19)

I’m convinced that this isn’t all there is. The young man was right. If this is all there is, that’s messed up. But God has had another plan for those who have given their lives to Him. It’s an Eternal place where we have a hope fulfilled. Here is what the Bible says about it:

“Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. Also there was no more sea. Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.” Revelation 21:1-4

Actually, that doesn’t sound messed up. Instead, it gives me comfort for what is ahead. There are some who don’t have that same hope. It’s because they haven’t trusted that God is who He says He is. They don’t follow His commands. They don’t rejoice in His salvation. Therefore, there is no hope.

People grieve in different ways. The Bible tells us we can “weep with those who weep.” At the same time, we can “rejoice with those who rejoice.” (Romans 12:15) For the Christian, those two things, which seem to contradict one another, are important. Both are emotions of the heart. When God tells us we can weep, He’s indicating the purpose of a compassionate heart. To rejoice means we are excited about our loved ones place in Eternity. The Apostle Paul says, “We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” (II Corinthians 5:8)

The hope Christians have for what happens beyond this life is magnificent! We will never have to ask, “Is this the only life we have to to look forward to?”

I don’t know everyone’s relationship with God. But sometimes I think I might. Other than some who have told me to my face that they are atheists and others who tell me they are Believers, I can’t tell who trusts that there is an Eternal Creator and Savior.

The Apostle Paul tries to show the Christians in Thessalonica that there is a different kind of understanding when people die. He assures them that the grief from Christians can be united with hope for those faithful who have gone before them.

“But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope.” I Thessalonians 4:13

Yes, there is a grand Eternity in the presence of God for believers. If we rest on only this life without hope for another one with God, “that’s messed up.”

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He Cried

When I called the woman’s father to talk about his daughter’s funeral, he was quite nice.  He was a soft-spoken man who spent a few minutes with me on the phone only to say “she was a perfect daughter.”  There was nothing else for him to say.  He didn’t know any of her hobbies or friends.  He wasn’t aware of her favorite foods or music or even if she went to church.

That’s because she had become a recluse with her boyfriend over the previous 10 years.  She was 70 years old when she died.

When I arrived at the funeral home, I met with the woman’s oldest son who also was very nice.  He said very matter-of-fact, “I really can’t tell you much about mom.  I’ve hardly seen her in the last 10 years.  Once she got with her boyfriend, she just stopped coming around.”  Her daughter told me the same thing.  The youngest did too.

The eulogy was very brief.  Many of them are.  But this was the one I had to add some “color” to the information I had just to let everyone know that this woman still had value in the eyes of God.

There were no tears at the service, but it wasn’t because she wasn’t loved.  They just didn’t flow.

At the cemetery, I read Scripture and prayed and thought the family would pick up and go home.  But, instead, the oldest son got up to say something else.  And he cried first.  And again.  He took a couple of deep breaths and started again.

“Life is short, as the pastor said.  We need to spend time together as a family before it’s too late.  We don’t know when we’ll take our last breath.”  Then he cried again.

He cried because he had lost his mother before she died.

The stories of life sometimes have the shortest chapters.  There’s not much information because no one knows what to say.  Yet, there still is a message here:  Value life.  Spend time together.  Ask the right questions.  Laugh. Love.  And then when the time comes, your eulogy won’t be a one-liner.

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No Turning Back

In Ohio, the wishes of the spouse of the deceased take priority over anyone else, according to a Funeral Director.  At a most recent funeral, the spouse wanted an open casket while the mother of the deceased wanted it closed for the service.  The spouse refused.  Understandably, the mother was very upset and didn’t stay for the service.  It was not the first time I’ve seen a battle for “rights.”

From my perspective, I would have sought a compromise, but the end result might have been the same.  So feelings were hurt and the division in the family grew wider.  I’m not sure it will ever be healed.

Everyone grieves in his or her own way.  There are feelings of anger, dismay, loneliness, and empty feelings that don’t go away.  The mother was significantly distraught.  The spouse was, too.  But neither could come to a meeting of the minds.

Life is too short for that kind of thing.  It’s too short to argue over details of a funeral service, or an inheritance, or who gets a flag.

Life is so short, that before long, we have forgotten to say, “I love you” one last time.  Once the casket is closed, the family relationship may never be healed.  Some will look back and regret a decision and want reconciliation, but not everyone is up for that.  Egos have to be put aside for the sake of needed comfort and strength.  Anger toward another family member has to go away.

Once a decision is made like the one above, there is no turning back.  Hopefully, there will be a day that the two family members will reconcile.  Hopefully.

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Transformation in a Short Time

The funeral I conducted tonight started out tense.  The family had gathered an hour before to speak informally about their loved one.  Two of the adult children and two grandchildren shared some thoughts.  Someone from the audience encouraged the family to “come together”, but the a grandson rejected the idea because he saw no use in it.  There was no yelling, no fights, and no one walked out.  But it was tense.

It was my turn then.  I immediately talked about the value and brevity of life.  I encouraged reconciliation.  God is the giver and sustainer of life and He prepares us for an eternity.  Our God loves us.  Because life is short, I told everyone that it might be best to tell each other “I love you.”

When it was time to pray, there weren’t too many dry eyes.  Afterwards, there were hugs and “I love you” for those that needed them.

It amazes me, but doesn’t surprise me, what the power of the presence of God will do to convict the heart in times like these.

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It Isn’t Supposed to Happen Like This

At least, that’s what we think.

We are conditioned to believe that only the old die, so when the young die, we just don’t get it.  Children aren’t supposed to die before their parents.  Parents aren’t supposed to die in their 30’s or 40’s or 50’s.    We’re supposed to live into our 80’s or 90’s and peacefully die in our sleep.

But we know better and that’s hard.   It isn’t that we can’t ever face it, we just don’t want to.  Nobody does.

Psalm 39:4 says, “Lord, make me to know my end, And what is the measure of my days,
That I may know how frail I am.”

James 4:14 says, “whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away.”

The hardest time anyone will ever have with the death of a loved one is not the brevity of life.  It will be a life without hope for eternal life.  Grief is real and it is necessary.  Yet, hope in Christ will give us strength through it.

Cherish the life God gave you, no matter how brief it might be.

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Preparing for Loss

Almost every time I meet with a family to discuss the funeral of their loved one, I hear the memories come flowing out.  I don’t necessarily have to include everything they say, but some of those memories are important to share.

Most everyone will chuckle of Jeannette’s love of the QVC network or when Joe accidentally put transmission fluid in the oil reserve.   Families will be reminded of Grandma’s mashed potatoes and German chocolate cake; how brother Ted could fix anything.

The best thoughts are about the infectious smile, the generosity, the love of animals, the kind word, the wisdom of age, and the commitment of prayers for the family.

The reason for these memories is because they have become the foundation of the lives well lived.  There will be nothing to remember if those things were not done.  But they were.

And while we engage in life together, the stories are being written only to be told at the funeral (albeit a summary), and then cherished for other people to read or hear about in the future.  Tell the young ones over and over.  Let them be part of the family while family is still living.  Then let them be reminded as they grow older.

My in-laws are getting older and they are having a harder time getting around.  They are now in Assisted Living.  My wife and I prepare, but not because we think their time on earth is over soon, but because that’s what families are supposed to do.

I lived 20 years of my own life before I met them.  And in they years following, I can remember my mother-in-law’s understanding of what gifts to buy for family at Christmas; my father-in-law’s shared thoughts on what he watched on the Discovery Channel.  So many more chapters and each with a special message.

When the eulogy is preached, you’ll reach into the recesses of your minds and hearts and it’ll come to you… the things you prepared for that day.

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My friend “J” died last week, suddenly.   She was a tough woman on the outside, funny, straight-forward.  There wasn’t a fake thing about her.  She told it like it was.  And then there was the soft heart many people did not know.  There were things she’d tell me about her life and they mirrored a lot of mine.  We talked about her faith and how different it was from “churchianity.”  She really did love Jesus.

But she died and it was a big shock.  No more talks about things that she needed to talk about.  She IS in the hands of our Savior.

I told her brother that I pray for God’s Perfect Peace for the family.   Then, I thought, Can we have God’s perfect peace and grieve at the same time?  Oh, I already know the answer, because this is not the first time a friend, or a family member, has died and I’ve had to grieve.

Grief is real and it’s expected.  It may mean heavy hearts, lots of tears, and an emptiness that will never be filled.  But it also can mean a “strange” sense of joy… no more pain, no more sorrows, no more anguishing for that loved one.  They are free, we say.  More than that, though.  In the hands of Jesus, we find comfort.

So, the question again… can we have God’s perfect peace and grieve at the same time?  The answer is “YES”!  Notice the emphasis I give.  It’s a resounding YES.  That’s because we still have hope apart from this place.  If we’re going to leave it, we want to go someplace better.  And that’s what God through Christ offers.  We grieve because we’re told in the Bible that we can (“mourn with those who mourn” — Romans 12:15).  But God’s perfect peace takes us through that rough time.

Suddenly…”J” died.  Just as suddenly, she’s in God’s hands.  I pray for His perfect peace for all of you who read this.

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Stories Keep Getting Told

My friend James was a cheerleader.  No, not that kind.  He’d never have looked good in a skirt.  Not sure he could have done flips either, but I never asked.

Instead, James was a cheerleader-supporter of so many things.  He was honest in the things he did and it showed by the things he was involved with.  He was a cheerleader for the local sports teams.  He lived his last couple of years in the house where he was raised– right behind the high school football field.  Even if he didn’t attend a game once in awhile, he’d walk over to the concession stand to buy something so he could support them that way.

He was a cheerleader for friends.  It was easy for James to make friends.  He was a simple guy who didn’t look for trouble.  He was a tall man who towered over everyone, it seems.  It was like he was protecting them somehow.  He’d laugh along with the rest of them.   It’s no surprise that people came in great number to his funeral.

James was a cheerleader for his community.  He’d come to many of the events whether it was in a church or outside in a park.  He was friends with just about every council member and the mayor.

He cheered for his wife of almost 28 years.  He cheered for his dad whom he loved deeply.  He let his mother-in-law live in a house that he moved out of so she wouldn’t have to pay rent anymore.

He was also a cheerleader for the church.  He attended Sunday School and worship.  He was excited and honored when he was chosen to be a Deacon.  He’d serve communion, read Scripture, and pray.  He’d greet people no matter who they were.  He came with his wife to special events.

But most of all, James was a cheerleader for God.   He talked about God to his friends without shame.  He prayed for people and he asked for prayers for himself.   When he’d come to Bible study, he’d usually have a question that would be meant to draw him closer to God.

That was his foundation for life — God.  Now James is walking with God for eternity.  And he leaves story after story behind for his family and friends.

What about YOUR story?  Who or what are YOU a cheerleader for?  When it comes to the end of your life, will your family and friends say you were a “good and faithful servant”?

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A Reunion

Kathy was my step-sister.  Her dad married my mom in 1971 in the greatest little chapel in the world… our living room.  That’s where a lot of family weddings took place.  Kathy sat next to me during the brief ceremony and we gave each other a look that would say, “Ok, we’re related now.”  We teased each other often.  She was a junior in high school and I was in 6th grade.  She rolled her eyes a lot in the time she lived in our house until she left and got married (in our living room).  Our parents divorced, but we didn’t.

Time.  Very fast forward,  because I didn’t see or hear from Kathy until I got acquainted with Facebook.  Then, it was like we picked up where we left off.  Our talks were comfortable and full of teases.  She liked beer and I’d always say, “Yuck.”

Then, Kathy got sick.  She battled cancer and had major surgery.  I prayed she’d get better from the surgery and I told her so.  But things just got worse.  Her husband died.  She mourned his passing.  And she got sicker.  Kathy asked if I could come see her and I found a way.  She was in a rehab, learning to use muscles again, including walking.  We visited for a couple of hours, reminiscing about our teen years.  We talked about our reunion we had three years earlier when my mother passed away.

I left Kathy that day.  My last words to her included the only prayer I had ever had with her.  Then a hug.  And I headed back from South Bend, Indiana to my home in Cincinnati.  Two weeks later, I got word that Kathy had passed away peacefully.  Her sister Janine told me that my visit gave her the comfort she needed for her last day.

My trip back to my home town in Michigan came a few days later.  I met many of Kathy’s family, some I hadn’t seen in nearly 40 years.  The memorial service was very personal and I went away cherishing our reunion and our last time we spoke.

It is a time like this that all of us need to treasure, because life is really, really short.

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When Peace Like a River…

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