The life of a pastor can be a burdensome joy. For me, Thursday was the clearest example of this yet. It was a day filled with difficulty. Opportunity was also in the air. Like a coin flipping head over tails, my emotions were revolving nonstop. One moment I was glad to be there; the next, I wanted to be just about anywhere else.
The night before, I tossed and turned and hardly slept a wink. My alarm buzzed at 5:00am and my feet hit the floor. Though the day had just begun, I was already tired. As unfair as it was, I got up even before the sun did. (Sunrise should be the earliest that any human being has to crawl out of bed. At least that’s my opinion.)
As I stood beneath the hot water streaming down upon me, my prayers went up to God like the steam rising from the shower floor. I prayed as I shaved. Since God can understand strange tongues, I suspect He had no problem interpreting the garbled prayers that I uttered as I even brushed my teeth. I felt like I was repeating myself – praying the same thing over and over and over and over. (Ever find yourself praying that way?) I looked at my face in the foggy mirror. My eyes were red.
Soon, I put on my best black suit, my cleanest white shirt, and the most pastoral tie I could find. I first drove to our empty church building to talk-out and scratch-out a few last minute notes that would clarify my thoughts. As the sun rose over the distant mountains, and the orange light streamed through the tall eastern windows, I stood alone in the aisles of our quiet, cavernous sanctuary and breathed a final, personal prayer, “God, I want to do this well. Help me. Please.”
I then drove to Roanoke and spent the better part of my morning shaking the hands, learning the names and hugging the necks of people that I did not know. Then I did something that most people will never do…
…I preached a stranger’s funeral.
Just over two weeks ago, now, the city of Roanoke woke up to the early Friday morning news that a double (technically triple) homicide had taken place. What the news outlets speculated to be a drug deal-gone-bad, resulted in two bullets shot and three lives taken: a 38 year old man, his 35 year old girlfriend and their 10 week-along baby, still in the womb. The details of the crime were quite gruesome. It’s sufficient to say that the man was cremated, out of necessity.
As soon as the news spread a manhunt was underway. Technically, there were two. As the police began hunting for a suspect, the grieving family also began hunting. They were hunting for a pastor to do the funeral. It may seem odd to us, but here was a family living in central Virginia who had absolutely no ties to any church.
Through an unexpected, albeit providential, string of relationships, I received a call, early that next Saturday morning, asking if I would be willing to preach the young man’s funeral. I told the person, “Let me check my calendar and call you back.” Knowing some of the circumstances and initial, scant details, a small part of me was secretly hoping that I had a week crammed full of appointments. I didn’t.
Seeing how obviously unbusy I was, I told my wife, “I don’t see any reason why I couldn’t do it.” As soon as those words tumbled out of my mouth, I realized just how selfish they were. I was looking for an excuse to avoid this uncomfortable situation.
Having heard the stories from my father’s ministry, I knew that this task would be just about the most awkward and difficult situation of my entire career. Truthfully, it was.
“Maybe some other pastor will volunteer” I secretly thought. But no one did. In about an hour’s time, the Holy Spirit scolded me and changed my heart. My attitude went from “why couldn’t I ” to “why wouldn’t I.” Here was a family asking for a pastor who was willing to speak. I knew one. In fact, I was one.
There I was, last Thursday at 11:00am. The moment had finally arrived to do what I had anticipated since my early morning began. As I stepped up to the microphone and looked out before me, what I saw was a disconcerting sight. The pulpit was strange. The room was strange. Ninety-eight percent of the faces were strange. But I took reassurance in this: the gospel I was about the preach was not strange. It was very familiar. That was comforting to me.
While I stumbled a bit through my rather awkward attempt to speak personally about a man that I had never met, one thing kept driving me: get to the gospel. This was the budding opportunity of the hour.
I was speaking to a sobbing sister, a mourning mother and a row of crying cousins. It’s no surprise that the audience was made up of some gangbangers and drug dealers too. It was a moment pregnant with a very apparent gospel-need.
I’ll be the first to admit, it wasn’t my best sermon ever. In fact, a few people (who I suspect were annoyed with my Jesus-talk), even walked out in the middle of the message. Oddly enough, there was even one man who apparently felt like my quoting John 3:16 was a good time for him to walk down the aisle in plain sight of everyone, pull his cell phone from his pocket, and snap a few pictures of the urn. So much about the day was strange, but so much about my message was familiar, at least to me.
For those wondering, here’s the gist of what I preached at a stranger’s funeral.
1. Death is a reminder that life is constantly changing. But God never changes.
2. Tragedy can come very close to us; but God wants to come even closer.
3. God knows your hurt and wants to be your shelter today.
4. The only way to come to God is through faith in His Son, Jesus Christ.
At one point, suspecting my audience’s skepticism, I spoke on their behalf asking, “Some of you are probably thinking, ‘Why should I turn to God? How do I know He even cares? God doesn’t know how I feel. He doesn’t know my pain. He doesn’t know what this is like’.”
I told them that God knew much better than they might realize. For you see, God also had a thirty-something year old son who was murdered at the hands of sinful people.
Jesus’ death, however, was not just a tragedy. It was a triumphant victory for everyone who believes in Him. I tried to nudge a skeptical and hardened group towards Christ as best I could. God must now work.
I prayed the final prayer, closed my black notebook and sat down. “So that’s what it’s like to preacher a stranger’s funeral,” I thought to myself. It was an incredible burden and, yet, an unspeakable joy.