This is the annual time of year some Christians roll their eyes as they tsk-tsk over eggs and bunnies smothering the real meaning of Easter.
Cemeteries have an uncanny ability to zip the lips of the optimist. And the younger the deceased, the more mute the optimist becomes.
I remember two things about Ms. Sally: she wore a hat to church every Sunday and the grownups were always whispering serious things about her.
This is the night when the earth is without form, and void, and darkness is over the face of the deep.* And the Spirit of God moves upon the face of the waters. Then God says, “Let there be light,” and there is light. The seal of the darkness is broken and the morning of the first creation breaks forth out of night.
In a valley gorged on dead men's bones,
With femurs and skulls twixt sticks and stones,
A graveyard prophet with Spirit breath
Exhaled a sermon that buried death.
We’re messed up people with messed up bodies. All of us. Even Miss America gets hemorrhoids.The Fall mocks us in our own skin. We’re all walking sermons. Our bodies preach what life is like in a world groaning under the weight of evil. And it’s a life that eventually reduces our flesh to worm food.
In a couple of days, many pastors and priests will stand at the altar holding up a grey thumb, like hitchhikers waiting to ride shotgun with Jesus. It’s Ash Wednesday, A sea of smudged foreheads. Kids smearing black all over themselves, mom and dad, and the back of the pew. All in all, it’s the dirtiest day in the church year.
The only politician mentioned in the creeds of Christianity is the one responsible for executing its founder. Of Jesus we confess that he was crucified for us “under Pontius Pilate” (Nicene Creed) and “suffered under Pontius Pilate,” (Apostles’ Creed). That is the church’s political statement every Sunday.
Peel back the outward layers of churchiness, stick a microphone to heart of Christians, and ask, ''Why do you really want to go to heaven?'' The answer, “to be with Jesus” will, I suspect, be low on the list, if it makes the cut at all.
You will not be the same after you finish reading this post. I don't mean that the words and thoughts will profoundly move you; I simply mean that you will change.
Easter is the day when Jesus says to the world, “Behold, I am making all things new.” He makes you new in Himself. He gives you a new identity. You are no longer the children of this world, but the children of a heavenly Father. He will enfold you in His arms and never let you go.
Over a million people are buried there in unmarked graves. Only one, the first child in New York City who died of AIDS, rests in an isolated plot. All others are interred in long trenches. Cheap, pine coffins are stacked three high, two across for adults; five high, twenty across, for infants.
On Easter, Jesus finally finished writing Genesis 1-2. He stepped out of the tomb, took pen in hand, and wrote on the Torah scroll, “And there was evening, and there was morning, the seventh day.” He began the eighth day, after which there is no other.
No event in my life has proven to be of more lasting significance than my funeral. I remember it well. The church, the pastor, my family, but especially the grave. Some say that I should live like I'm dying, as if that's the secret to a happy life. But that won't do for me. I will not, I cannot, live like I'm dying because I've already died. I've had my funeral.
I was young, but no so young that I can't recall the particulars. I was robed in white, like the martyrs. There were steps going down, down into the grave. It was wet, the water in the tomb cold as it slowly enveloped my body. The pastor put a hand over my mouth, another between my shoulder blades, and backward I fell into the dark waters, buried beneath Noah's flood, the Red Sea, Jordan's stream, all the way down into a borrowed tomb outside Jerusalem where a crucified man lay waiting for me. I opened my eyes under the water and beheld him. He was reaching for me. He took my hand.
He spoke, "Chad, do you know where you are?" I said, "Sir, you know." And he smiled as no man has ever smiled. Then he said to me, "Arise."
The surface of the grave exploded. Water rippling like an earthquake around me. Angels winged their way around the sanctuary, belting out Alleluias. Smoke was filling the church from the incense of the saints. God above was splitting the veil twixt heaven and earth to say, "This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased."
I opened my eyes to a funeral gone bad. Or rather, gone good. For I had died, been buried, and now stood alive for the first time in my life on the Easter side of Good Friday, wearing the skin of God's Son, feeling the beat of his blood pumping in my heart, the breath of his Spirit in my lungs. I was a living man. I was past death. I was now in Christ.
Since my watery funeral, when I died to sin and rose in Christ, I do not live like I'm dying. I live as one who has already died and whose life is hidden with Christ in God.
What is baptism? It is this.
There will come a day, perhaps sooner, perhaps later, when the man in the coffin will be me. They say the dead don’t care, but I’m not dead yet, so as long as I’m still alive, I’d like to have some say in what goes on at my funeral. And, truth be told, I think the dead do care. Not that they will be privy to the details of what happens at their own funerals, but they still care about the world, about their family, about the church. The saints in heaven continue to pray for those who are still on their earthly pilgrimage, so how could they not care about them?
Because I do care now, and will care even after I’m with the Lord, here are some things I hope and pray are not said at my funeral. I care about those who will be there, about what they will hear. I want the truth to be spoken, the truth about sin, the truth about death, and, above all, the truth about the love of God in Jesus Christ.
So, please don’t say…
1. He was a good man. Don’t turn my funeral into a celebration of my moral resume. For one thing, I don’t have one. I’m guilty of far more immoral acts than moral ones. Secondly, even if I were the male equivalent of Mother Teresa, don’t eulogize me. Talk about the goodness of the Spirit who calls, gathers, enlightens, sanctifies, and keeps us in the true faith. Talk about our good Father who’s made us all His children in baptism. Talk about the good Husband that Christ is to His bride, the church. Don’t say, “He was a good man,” but “our good God loved this sinful man.”
2. Chad...Chad...Chad. I don’t want to be the focus of my own funeral. I was not the center of the liturgy on Sunday mornings, so why should it be any different during my funeral liturgy? If anyone’s name comes up over and over, let it be the name that is above every name—Jesus. He is the one who has conquered death. He is the one in whose arms I will have died. He is the one, the only one, who gives hope to the bereaved. Let me decrease that Christ may increase.
3. God now has another angel. Heaven is not going to de-humanize me. In fact, once I am resurrected on the last day, I will be more human than ever before, for my human soul and human body will finally be in a glorified state that’s free of sin. People don’t become angels in heaven any more than they become gods or trees or puppies. The creature we are now, we shall be forever. God has enough angels already. All He wants is more of His children in the place Jesus has prepared for them.
4. We are not here to mourn Chad’s death, but to celebrate his life. So-called “Celebrations of Life” (which I have written against in "The Tragic Death of the Funeral") do a disservice to the mourners for they deny or euphemize death. The gift of life cannot fully be embraced if we disregard the reality of death, along with sin, its ultimate cause. Whatever the apparent reason for my decease may be—a sickness, accident, or old age—the real reason is because I was conceived and born in sin, and I built atop that sinful nature a mountain’s worth of actual sins. The only person’s life to celebrate at a funeral is the Savior conceived of the virgin Mary, who became our sin on the cursed tree that we might become His righteousness in the blessed font, who buried sin and death in the empty tomb He left behind on Easter morning.
5. Chad would not want us to weep. When Lazarus died, Jesus wept. Those tears betoken a God who’s fully human, who experienced the sadness and grief we all do at the death of those we love. To cry is not to deny that our friend or family member is with the Lord, but to acknowledge that in this vale of tears there is still death, still loss, still suffering. I do want those who mourn my death to weep, not for my sake, but for their own, for it is an integral part of the healing process. But while they weep, let them remember that in the new heavens and new earth, God “shall wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there shall no longer be any death; there shall no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain,” (Revelation 21:4).
6. What’s in that coffin is just the shell of Chad. What’s in that coffin is the body that was fearfully and wonderfully made when our Father wove me together in my mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13-14). What’s in that coffin is the body that Jesus baptized into His own body to make me part of Him. What’s in that coffin is the body that ate the saving body of Jesus, and drank His forgiving blood in the Supper, that I might consume the medicine of immortality. And what’s in that coffin is the body that, when the last trumpet shall sound, will burst from my grave as a body glorified and ready to be reunited with my soul. My body is God’s creation, an essential part of my identity as a human being. It is not a shell. It is God’s gift to me. And one day I’ll get it back, alive, restored, perfected to be like the resurrected body of Jesus.
Of course, there’s always more that could be added to this list—and perhaps you’d like to add more in the comments below—but I believe these get the point across. I want the beginning of my funeral to be focused on Jesus, as well as the middle, as well as the end, as well as every point in between. I care about those who will attend. Let them hear the good news, especially in the context of this sobering reminder of mortality, that neither death, nor life, nor anything else in all creation, can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ, our Lord, for He is the resurrection and the life.
**Here is a short YouTube video in which I talk about death, so-called "natural death," the hope we have in the resurrection of Christ.
I’ve yet to meet parents who want their children to grow up and become penniless beggars. When our nest is empty, we want their joy to be full. We urge them to keep their nose in the books. Hone a skill. Earn a degree. Land a good job. And, when the time is right, and they find Mr. or Ms. Right, we want them to marry and eventually give us grandchildren we can spoil. We want our children to grow up and lead happy, fulfilled lives in whatever vocations the Lord gives them. No parents want their children to mature into something less than their full, human potential. I am the father of two teenagers, a son and daughter. Now, I’m sure that if I were to sit down with God and have a discussion about the future of my children, we wouldn’t see eye-to-eye on lots of things. I’m a selfish, short-sighted mortal, after all, and He’s, well, all-knowing and all-holy and all-that. But disagreements on details aside, we would concur on the One Big Thing: both God and I want my son and daughter to reach their full, human potential.
How will they reach this magical moment, this milestone on the journey of life? Perhaps by chasing their dreams, pursuing their passions with a heart wholly devoted to the attainment of whatever goals they set for themselves in life? As good as that might sound, no, that won’t get them there. Perhaps by devoting their lives to the service of others, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, healing the sick, putting every person’s interests ahead of their own? As wonderful as that would be, no, that won’t get them there either. Perhaps by becoming a voice for the oppressed, a defender of the life of the unborn, an advocate for victims of hate and prejudice and violence? As worthy as that would be, no, that won’t help them reach their full, human potential either.
To become everything God wants them to be, my children must first become the one thing they don’t want to be. They must become dead. But it’s a special kind of death; it’s not so much the omega of life as the alpha of life. To become that complete human being, my children—indeed, every person—must be united in death to the only complete human being who has ever lived. Full human potential is not a trophy achieved; it is a gift received. And it is received by bodily unity with Jesus Christ, with the one, unique man who is everything God wants a human to be. That unification takes places by a watery death that miraculously joins us to this complete man who gave His complete self for the complete salvation of a world gone completely wrong. Full human potential is reached when a person is embodied with the man who is also God by baptism into Him.
It is a fully true but also fully hidden reality—this unity with God in Jesus via baptism. It is fully true, for “all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death. We have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life,” (Romans 6:2-3). And “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old things have passed away; behold new things have come,” (2 Corinthians 5:17). But it is also a hidden reality, for “you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory,” (Colossians 3:3-4).
This is the now-and-not-yet reality of the Christian life, the is-and-will-be-ness of the faith. In Christ we have already reached our full, human potential. We have partaken of the divine nature by being grafted into the human nature of that one man who is also God (2 Peter 1:4). And yet we await, with all creation, the day of resurrection, when the resurrection of Jesus will have its way with us, when His coming back to life will restore life back to us. On the Last Day the full reality of what happened on our baptismal day will be unveiled.
My son and daughter reached their full, human potential when they were mere babies, a few days old, when they were united to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in a simple baptismal font at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, in Wellston, Oklahoma. Whatever they grow up to be, to pursue, to achieve, I know that the most important thing that could ever happen to them has already taken place. They became children of the heavenly Father, partakers of a gift that they, and I, will fully see revealed when Christ returns in glory.
Let’s break the rules of reality for a moment, and imagine that I can attend my own funeral. I’m present as mourner and mourned, dead and alive. Were I to stand alongside my casket, and speak to others of what lies in that box of mortality, how might I describe it? Shall I gesture toward the 6’ 2”, brown-haired, blue-eyed cold and lifeless corpse and say, “My friends, that is body of Chad Bird inside the coffin”? Or, shall I get a bit wordy, and elaborate on what this thing is that’s filling up the casket, by saying, “That is the empty shell that Chad inhabited while in this life, but, being in a better place now, he needs that hollow husk no more”? What should I say?
If the roles were reversed, and you stood alongside your own coffin, tell me, what words would you choose?
Here’s why it’s important: the answer to “What lies in my casket?” also reveals the answer to “What kind of Christianity lies within my heart?” What we confess concerning a corpse confesses much about how deep, or how shallow, is our understanding of the importance of the incarnation of Jesus, his death, and his (as well as our own) resurrection.
There is nothing bad or unspiritual about your body. When the Lord wove you together within your mother’s womb, he didn’t take a pure, clean soul and encase it within an impure, inferior hunk of flesh. He created you a complete person of body and soul, no part superior or inferior to the other, no part more or less spiritual than the other. Similarly, when the Son of God came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary—when God became man—he became what we are: a full human being, body and soul. He assumed all that we are, in order that all that we are, he might redeem. God was not ashamed to assume our human nature. It was not somehow beneath him. Willingly and lovingly, he became one of us. And he remains one of us. God too has a human body.
Not only is there nothing bad or unspiritual about your body; there is also nothing temporary about it. Yes, because there is sin in the world, and sin produces death, your body will one day die an earthly death. Your body and soul will separate—your body will remain on earth, your soul go to be with Christ to await the resurrection. But while this separation of body and soul is temporary, your body is not. At his return, on the last day, Christ will reunite your soul to your body, raise and glorify your body, make your body like his own. In other words, you will be Eastered by Jesus. He will do for you and to you what he has already done himself on the day of his resurrection. The body conceived within the virgin, the body that grew into that of a man, the body that ate and drank and suffered and died—that flesh and blood body of Jesus was made alive on Easter day. And when Jesus, in that selfsame body returns to claim you as his own, he will make you to be as he is.
As true as it is that when believers die, they go to be with Jesus in heaven, sometimes I fear we talk too much about that and not nearly enough about the resurrection of the body. The end goal of the Christian faith is not merely to go to heaven, but for Jesus to resurrect our bodies so that, as a whole person, body and soul, perfected and glorified, we might spend eternity with him. That is our true and final hope: the full experience of Christ’s Easter victory in our own bodies.
So what is that in your casket? It is not an empty shell or a hollow husk. To speak that way is to insult the Creator, to disparage the incarnation of Jesus, and to ignore or even deny the coming reunion of body and soul in the resurrection. What is in that casket is the body that God the Father created; a body that God baptized into Jesus’ own body; a body that should be treated with respect; a body that will lay in wait for the last day; a body that will be reformed and glorified on the day it is rejoined to your soul.
It was a call that would haunt him to his dying day. He listened, speechless; hung up the phone, speechless; and walked away, words still failing him. He didn't know where he was going. He just went. And when he finally stopped, he stood on the edge of a familiar pier, watching the western sun slowly immerse itself into a watery horizon. Why, why, why? Was this part of God's plan? How could it be? Aswirl in unanswerable questions, he sat there, at that place where, so many times before, he'd sat with the one with whom he would never sit again in this life. He put a beer to his lips and drank, regretting loss and remembering life, on this lonely pier. So goes the story in a song, ''Drink a Beer,'' recently released by country superstar, Luke Bryan. It's a far cry from his typical girl-chasing, bar hopping, tailgate-partying kind of hit. But this one is more personal, almost autobiographical, sung by an artist who hides a mountain of past grief behind his country boy smile. For when he was nineteen, days before his move to Nashville to pursue his musical dreams, Luke suffered the loss of his only brother, whose life was cut short in a car accident. And years later, right after he finally made it big, and performed in the Grand Ole Opry, his only sister died suddenly at her home. Luke Bryan may sing plenty of party songs, but his life has been anything but a party.
Someday we'll all be the singer in Luke's song. Maybe you already have. The details vary, of course, but we too struggle to repair the heart broken by the tragic death of someone we love. We're dazed, angry, speechless. Unanswerable questions scream for answers. We wish like mad we could reach over and touch our spouse or parent or sibling or close friend just one more time. But all that remains are memories.
We have our own “pier,” where we sit and remember our way back to better days, before the thief called death stole our beloved away. Maybe that pier is a café table, or a park bench, or a bed that has grown far too spacious now. It's more than a place of remembrance though, for that “pier” somehow seems to bear within itself fragments of the one we've lost, almost like a faint aroma that only we have the capacity to smell. For that reason, at that place we feel closer to the person. There remembrance is more vivid.
As psychologically or emotionally helpful as such “piers” may be, the stubborn fact remains that the deceased is absent. She is not in the bed where you used to make love. He is not on the pier where you drank beer together. There is no intersection of worlds, where the afterlife and the present-life overlap. You may raise your beer to toast an absent friend with whom a lifetime of memories were made, but you’re not really drinking with the dead. You may even speak aloud to the person you’ve lost, but her voice does not respond or blend with your own. Your chosen pier may be a spot of surreal remembrance, but it is not a place of real presence. Believe it or not, however, such a place does exist.
Once a week I have supper at a place where I drink with the dead. There is no beer, but there’s plenty of wine. My grandfathers and grandmother are there, a high school classmate at whose funeral I was a pallbearer, a dear friend who lost his battle with cancer in 2006. They join me, and I them, around a table. We sing together. We pray together. We may be in different worlds, but here their world and my world overlap, pulled together by the Lord who rules over the past, the present, and the future. The dead really are present, because they really are not dead. In fact, they are more alive now than they ever were before they died.
Once a week I walk up to an altar that is far better than any pier. The God of heaven and earth, of the living and the dead, is enthroned thereon. He transforms it into a table, prepares a feast, and serves as host of the supper that we call the “Lord’s.” And he brings guests with him. Accompanying Jesus are my grandparents and friends and all those who, through death, transitioned from life with Christ here to a better life with Christ there. Where he is, there are they. Our prayers mix and mingle, as they pray for me, and I pray with them, for all those in need of the Lord’s grace and favor. Jesus feeds me there, and satisfies my thirst, putting into my dying body his living body, pouring into my mortal veins his immortal blood.
In this world, death will inevitably come calling for those we love. Bereft of their presence with us, we’ll visit our “piers” and relive, in memory, all those times we shared. We will await a grand reunion in heaven, where, with our Lord, we will be united once more in a life of happiness that will never be cut short. But between now and then, around an altar, around the Lord, around the supper that bears his name, we and our loved ones already reunite, for we are everlastingly united as members of the body of Jesus, who has conquered death and made us alive in him.
Sit on your piers, and remember the dead, if you wish. But more importantly, kneel at the altar, and commune with the dead, who are very much alive in our living and life-giving Lord.
As the monochromatic greens of summer slowly morph into autumn's vivid hues, creation clears its throat to deliver its annual sermon on the inevitable decline of life. It's a homily we feel in our bones as temperatures shrivel to single digits. We see it as the gap twixt dawn and dusk abbreviates, as night’s conquest of the territory of day advances. As a double insult to the aged, this seasonal prelude to winter, this harbinger of the death of all things, bites deeper as we stumble toward the grave. The earth puts on a fine charade, mimicking vitality, perpetuating the myth of golden vibrancy. But she gives herself away, for nothing gold can stay. In the words of Robert Frost:
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
Ancient is the cosmic demise. The roots of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil snaked fathomless into the soil of the earth, piercing the very core of our world. The sap of death sank through those roots to the heart of the universe. Eden sank to grief, and slowly the cosmos has been dying ever since, subjected to futility, groaning and suffering as with the pangs of childbirth. Every earthquake is the tremble of her brittle bones, every flood the cascade of her tears. She waits, long still she waits, for redemption and freedom. And while she does, nothing gold can stay.
But this dying world is still the world of our living God, who graces us with tokens of a final renewal. As leaf subsides to leaf, and frost to snow, and snow to ice, there comes a day when the gold of nature sprouts anew. The mercury ascends as the sun pulls us closer to its warm embrace. The beasts of the field begin their baby-making again. Out of soil, hardened by cold, imprisoned by snow, burst defiant vegetation. That early leaf, a flower, may last yet an hour, but in that hour is another sermon, one that proclaims spring after winter, life after death, Easter after Good Friday.
Nothing gold can stay. What can stay, however, is something far more precious than gold, and of a far different hue. Crimson can stay, for such are the stains on the body of a man who has vacated the grave of December for the resurrection of April. He has redeemed us, not with gold and silver, but with his holy, precious blood. There he stands, the Lord of creation, saying, “Lo, I make all things new.” He stays. He does not sink. He does not subside. And those who live in him, they stay, they live, they abide, for he and he alone is the resurrection and the life for all.