This past weekend we received the unexpected and difficult news that my brother’s wife’s mother had passed away rather unexpectedly. Although Leona had been ill for quite some time, her body gave way rather suddenly even though she was in a major hospital receiving treatments for a disease she had been battling for quite a while.
As a result, we made plans to be with the family to remember Leona’s life and also to celebrate our confidence that her eternal destiny had been established many decades ago when she received Christ into her life and had walked faithfully with Him for these many years.
The small town from which she haled, Coudersport, Pennsylvania, is like most small towns in America. The people are generally friendly and establish patterns or routines of life that they tend to nurture rather than change over time.
My brother and his wife contacted Leona’s pastor and he immediately agreed to lead the Memorial Service on Monday morning. The reception of friends and guests took place the day before in the local funeral home.
At first, I thought this might be one of those occasions where I would attend such an event and not have any specific responsibilities. This allows me to engage the family and to be fully present with them rather than worrying about logistics and details of pulling together a service.
However, that perception was short lived. It turned out that the local church pastor was not able to do the graveside interment service because of a previous and important commitment he’d made quite a while ago. Consequently, my brother asked if I would handle that one portion of the arrangements, which I was very happy to do.
It’s not unusual in our immediate surroundings for people to pay their respects at the funeral home but not make it to the funeral service if it happens to be on a week day. However, this was not the case in this community. A good number of people came by the funeral home on Sunday, but at least as many if not more came to the funeral service on Monday morning at 11 a.m. The real surprise was that fully half of those people made their way to a rural cemetery some 20 minutes outside of town. What I thought would be a very brief and intimate time with the family and a couple of friends, turned out to be a gathering of 60 or more people who had come to pay their respects right up to the time of the burial itself.
One thing my brother had asked of me was that if the pastor had not given a clear gospel message in the service, that I do so at the graveside for the sake of those who may be in attendance who are not sure of their own personal faith. Of course, I agreed to do so.
However, when we arrived at the cemetery, it was the middle of the day but the temperatures were barely above 40 degrees and the wind was blowing steadily over hundreds of acres of wide open farm land. Thankfully, the grave-site itself was surrounded by a line of mature pine trees which blocked the wind and provided some protection from the elements.
It is normal at the graveside to keep remarks to just a few minutes, a reading or two from scripture and a prayer of commitment of the loved one into the hands of God as well as for comfort and strength for the family. However, I was also reminded that I had promised my brother that I would present the gospel to those who came.
I knew that I probably had 5 minutes or less to give this message and to do it in a way that was appropriate to this circumstance and yet personal enough for everyone to relate to what was being said.
Even though I spent some time thinking about it the night before, I really don’t remember how I began the message, but I quickly moved to the basis of Leona’s assurance of her eternal destination and then rather quickly made the pivot to asking each person in attendance to consider their own relationship with God and their own confidence in their eternal destiny.
At that moment, I knew I had the attention of everyone who was present. It was a not an awkward silence, but rather a deep and decisive moment when people were brought face to face with the reality that all of us will one day end up in the same place that Leona was before us that day.
I invited everyone who had either “lost their way” with God over the years or had “never really been on God’s path for their life” to pray with me. I then began a simple prayer of confession, repentance and receiving God’s gift of redemption by faith in His grace as revealed in Jesus.
What happened in the two minutes that followed was very dramatic. When I began the prayer, phrase by phrase, it was clear that a significant number of people were praying out loud with me. I had made it very clear that only if people wanted to know God’s plan for their life and to receive Christ’s gift of redemption, should they pray. My sense was that there were at least 20 people or more who wanted to know what is in the heart of most every human being: that is, what is my eternal destiny? They wanted to know that they would live beyond this life in a relationship with God their Creator and Redeemer.
Following the prayer, I confessed to those who gathered that my only regret was that I was not going to be able to be around to meet with any one who prayed but strongly encouraged them to tell a friend, someone they knew who had personal faith, a leader in their church or even a pastor. It’s all that I could do, but in the end, it’s all that I was responsible to do before God.
I learned a number of things throughout this experience. M ost important to me was the reminder that people everywhere are still desperately hungry to know how to have a relationship with God that’s real to them and provides them with a clear and historically validated source of confidence and peace with God concerning their future.
The fact is that no matter where we live and no matter how we encounter others around these issues, our responsibility is simply to share what we have discovered; never pressuring anyone, but on the other hand, not missing the opportunity to hold forth the promise of forgiveness of sin and eternal life.
This is the question that most every honest person wants to have answered in some way. Agnostics and atheists may argue that they won’t believe anything they can’t prove, but that’s not true. They believe all kinds of things that they can’t prove that have to do with living every day. Prove to me that everyone driving on the roads will stay in their proper lane on your way to work and not force you into a guard rail. You can’t do it … that’s an act of faith.
In the same way, we can’t physically prove what we claim, but we can point to the evidence that Christ has risen from the dead and has been given authority over all things in heaven and in earth and graciously offers to us forgiveness of sins and an unimaginably incredible life beyond the grave. It’s something that everyone should know.