But that someday is not yet. It is our certain future when our blessed Savior returns in glory and in power, but it is not now.
My dad died recently. Or, to put it more gently, he passed away, went to glory, is no longer with us, and has gone home. It’s amazing how many euphemisms there are for death when you think about it. But I prefer to say that he died because that’s how the Bible describes it.
I love my dad. He was a loving father and husband, a sincere churchman, a successful businessman, and had a great sense of humor. Sometimes he was just goofy and silly, always with the intent to make his family laugh. I have so many great memories of him and am thankful to the Lord for his life, and his vital part in my life.
Toward the end of his life, he suffered from Parkinson’s disease and dementia. It was very difficult for my family and me to watch the decline. We were watching death at work, in slow motion. Finally, at eighty-eight years old, he died.
In the United Reformed churches, the federation in which I serve as a minister of the Word, we recognize that funerals are not ecclesiastical but are family affairs. And as a pastor of more than thirty years I’ve been asked by many families to officiate a loved one’s funeral. Doing so, I’ve always sought to accomplish two things: to bring biblical words of comfort to the family and friends, and to proclaim the gospel to all who are present.
So, I was not surprised when my dear mom asked me if I would be willing to lead my father’s funeral service. After considering that request and praying about it and knowing my own grief, I respectfully declined. I know several colleagues in ministry who have led their parent’s funeral, and I’m sure they had good reasons to do so. But I determined that for me, in this situation, I would rather not officiate.
One practical reason is that my dad’s pastor had visited him faithfully, and he was able and willing to lead the funeral service. But, in all honesty, that was not the primary reason. The truth is that I wanted to enter the house of mourning and be comforted.
Ecclesiastes 3 is a well-known and beloved wisdom passage: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven . . . A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance” (vv. 1, 4). Funerals, it seems to me, are appropriate times to weep, to mourn. And that’s okay. In fact, that’s good. Ecclesiastes 7:1–4 is sadly less known though equally wise: “A good name is better than precious ointment, and the day of death than the day of birth. It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.”
Throughout our lives we have many “celebrations of life”: birthdays, holidays, graduations, weddings, anniversaries, reunions, retirement parties, and the list goes on. These are happy times in which we rightly celebrate and rejoice. But shouldn’t we also have a time and place to mourn? Can’t a funeral be a funeral? I’m not in favor of calling it a “celebration of life.” Solomon is telling us that it’s at funerals that we humans are confronted with our mortality. It’s at funerals that we learn to number our days so that we may get a heart of wisdom (Ps. 90:12). God’s Word is teaching us that, in some way, mourning at a funeral opens our hearts and minds to wisdom. The wisdom to fear the Lord. The wisdom to know that our time in this world is fleeting. The wisdom to cling to Jesus who alone is the way, the truth, and the life.
My dad had just died, and I wanted to mourn. I needed to feel afresh my own revulsion of death. It isn’t right. It isn’t natural. It’s a terrible intrusion. It’s awful! I wanted to weep over it. I wanted the truth—that “the wages of sin is death”—to sink in deeply and to weep over my own sin, my dad’s sin, Adam’s sin. I didn’t want to anesthetize the pain I was feeling, or ignore it, or suppress it, which I would have had to do if I were leading the service up front. I didn’t want to put on a stiff upper lip.
No, I wanted to mourn. I needed to go to my heavenly Father and say, “Abba, I’m hurting.” I needed to hear from the God of all comfort who comforts us in all our affliction (2 Cor. 1:3–4). This time, I would rather not be the mouthpiece who speaks, but the listener who hears and receives.
This does not mean I want to wallow in grief. I know the end of the story, and every Sunday when I join with God’s people in worship, I am rejoicing that this life in this world is not the end. I’m joining with other believers to worship our Savior who died and rose again. First Thessalonians 4:13–14 says, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.”
I rejoice that my dad’s soul and all souls who die in the Lord are with Jesus in paradise (Luke 23:43). This is why our heavenly Father gave his only begotten Son. In Christ, those who die in the Lord will not perish everlastingly but will have everlasting life. And I long for the day when Christ returns in triumph and the dead bodies will be raised, reunited with the souls, and enjoy that everlasting life in the new heavens and the new earth.
This is my hope, and the hope of every Christian. That means when we grieve at a funeral, it’s different than the grief of an unbeliever. Ours is the grief of separation from a loved one that understands the separation is temporary. It understands that death is a defeated enemy. Christ has triumphed and is now preparing a place for us.
But that does not mean death doesn’t exist and isn’t real. We haven’t yet entered that blessed final state of our existence in the new heavens and the new earth. Now, today, on this old earth, those “former things” are present things. Death is a reality that really hurts. Here we still have pain and shed tears and mourn.
Death came near to me recently, and I’m thankful that I could mourn. And with those tears I’m crying out with even greater intensity, “Come, Lord Jesus! Come quickly!”
Rev. Derrick J. Vander Meulen is pastor at Coram Deo Reformation Church (URC) in Littleton, CO.