Posts tagged ‘funeral’

July 23, 2012

The Church Gets it Right

Yesterday, Washington Plaza Baptist hosted a memorial service for the brother and brother in-law of two of our devoted church leaders, Mark. The congregation was almost full of those who came to pay their respects. It wasn’t full because everyone in the room had a relationship with the deceased or even had met Mark, but many people came out of love for the family. Mark suffered much from his battle with Huntington’s disease, a genetic condition and died at age 42.

Through weekly updates during Sunday prayers, our church community watched Mark’s family members care for their brother with love, faithfulness and steadfastness, even in the face of ongoing frustrations with the health care system in our state that often wanted to make him someone else’s problem as his functions declined. The journey had been a long one and we had been by their side all the way.

As I led the service and gazed out on the congregation, I could help but think that this is what happens when the church gets it right. We love in community. We live in community. We die in community.  And when one of us is hurting, all of us hurt too. Together we sit with side by side as we encounter some of life’s most difficult life junctures.

When we came to the portion of the service when it was time to share personal tributes, my two church members got up to read this litany about their beloved brother. I can’t tell you how proud I was– not only was it a beautiful, theologically rich responsive prayer, but I know it came from the hearts of two folks I know and love much. As their pastor I’ve seen their spiritual journeys unfold over the past two years at a rapid pace (having recently baptized them both) and I knew this moment of being surrounded by their church family was a tangible sign of what I”ve been teaching all this time. The church is so important in our lives because when life hands us the worst we can imagine, we get to be reminded that we are NEVER alone. God meets us in the hands and feet of others.

Those who endure the greatest suffering can become our greatest teachers. This was certainly a lesson, I believe, we all gained out of the memorial service yesterday. Every life is of value. Every life has gifts to share. Every life deserves to be celebrated.  The church gets it right when we teach, and love and nurture the faith into others. I was just glad to witness it yesterday!

Our brother: A sufferer and a teacher

Mark had a challenging life filled with many struggles and much pain

He taught us how to find humor and laughter in everything


Mark suffered from a genetic disease called Huntington’s

He showed us how to endure and survive and never give up


Mark fought to numb life’s constant pain with alcohol

He showed us strength renewal by joining Alcoholics Anonymous


Mark never cared about material possessions or money

He taught us how to be humble and enjoy the simple things in life


Mark was hit by a car as a child and had life altering surgery

He taught us once again how to have strength and survive


Mark never had any money, but freely gave of it

He taught us the true meaning of generosity and compassion


Mark was easy to please and loved doing puzzles and playing cards

He taught us to enjoy the simple things in life


Mark had a debilitating motorcycle accident as an adult

He taught us once again to fight for life and never give up


People took advantage of Mark at times

Mark taught us forgiveness and to trust like a child


Mark had innocent eyes and a childlike stare

He taught us how to see truth and honesty and love


Mark had a very strong work ethic

Mark taught us the meaning of honor and character


Mark gave his last pack of cigarettes to a homeless person

He taught us how to always put other’s needs first


Mark had parents that hurt and disappointed him

Mark taught us to always respond with love and forgiveness no matter what


Mark lost everything when he went to jail

Mark taught us that if we trust God, HE will always provide… and God provided Effrain


Through Mark’s challenging life of struggle and suffering, Mark finally grew weary and tired.  THE LORD SAID “Mark shall suffer no more,”  SO GOD BROUGHT MARK HOME.  And still MARK REMAINS IN OUR HEART

Mark taught us the meaning of LOVE:

Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous, it does not brag, and it is not proud. Love is not rude, it is not selfish, and does not get upset with others. Love does not count up wrongs that have been done. Love takes no pleasure in evil but rejoices over the truth.  Love patiently accepts all things.  It always trusts, always hopes, and always endures.   Love never ends.

Mark showed us how to talk like a child – think like a child – reason like a child – love like a child.   We can see Mark’s reflection, like looking onto the perfect mirror.   I pray that we can always see clearly. We must remember that of all things that continue forever:  faith, hope, and love, THE GREATEST of these is love.    Mark knew this better than anyone !

February 19, 2012

Whitney Houston Took Us to Church

Today, Whitney Houston took me to church.

This afternoon from 12 noon- 4 pm I watched the entire Whitney Houston funeral via the life stream. By the end, as her body left the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, New Jersey while Whitney’s version of “I Will Always Loved You” played, I was in tears. I couldn’t believe how moved I became or how not restless I was through the entire service.

Initially, I sat down to watch the service out of pure vocational obligation– when religion holds a promote place in the public square (i.e. a church service is featured prominently on national tv) I feel it is my pastoral responsiblity to watch. But, I kept watching because of the poignant, faith-filled words and that the most unlikely of preachers and speakers brought to the gathering.

Though I am a child of the 80s and grew up dancing around the house with a hairbrush singing, “I Want to Dance with Somebody,” I wouldn’t have not considered myself a die-hard Whitney fan. In fact, have been among the folks who have stood back during the media spectacle of the past week saying under my breath, “What is all this fuss about? It’s not like we knew her personally.” But, maybe all of us just thought we did.

The bright light of fame begins to convince us, with any well-known celebrity, that we are their friend too. It is easy to believe that we too grew up on their same street as a child, shared a coffee meeting with them last week or in some cases, or that we’ve read journals of their deepest thoughts. With such a bright light, it’s true, I like millions of others, I believed too, that I knew Whitney (even though such is of course false).  Even with all the illusions of a celebrity’s passing, death is death. And, death evokes sadness. When death comes too soon, when mothers bury daughters, when teenage daughters face life without their mothers, and when the future seems spoiled in the questions of “what could have been?” we cry.  What a daughter, what a mother, and what a voice that we’ll never hear in this life again!

In this grief, all of us went to church.

As the sermon began, Rev. Marvin Winans, a family friend, commented how much he respected Cissy Houston (Whitney’s mom’s) leadership in bringing the funeral to her childhood church. While pressure in the planning process intensified to include a large public concert or memorial service, Mama Houston (as they called her) stuck to her gut. Knowing that her baby was brought into the world in church, she’d need to go from the world from it too.  And, Marvin Winans, went on to say to Cissy directly, “You were responsible for bringing the world to church today.”

And for the entire four hours of non-interrupted television on CNN, we, as onlookers, sat with grief of a music icon gone with God’s hope of resurrection given at the center. 

From Tyler Perry really getting into a message about grace leading us our life through, as it did for Whitney to Kevin Costner describing their shared Baptist upbringing and abiding friendship, to family members and other business associates highlighting Whitney’s spiritual compass and love of scripture, even with all of the demons she went to battle with: it was church. The funeral was authentic, life-giving, straight talking, love filled, church. For me, it was four hours well spent of  spirit filled connection with God with other faith seekers– nevermind how famous, affluent, poor or unknown they may be. Together in person, on cable news, or via the internet, we went to church.

In this trip to church, the spirit from which this service flowed represented for me the best of what this place can be:

  • People of all backgrounds, races and nationalities joining together in community
  • Deep grief finding a place of expression for it is good not to cry alone
  • The gospel of hope shared even in the darkness of death. Like Bishop T.D. Jakes said, “we are a people of Sundays . . . death does not win; love does!”
  • People for whom this place is not normally “their thing” being welcomed with open arms: politicians, newscasters who experienced a worship service the first time in their lives, and those whose ambitions have long left regular church attendance behind (well, maybe not Bobby Brown, but that’s another story)
  • Those who have made some bad decisions in their life (i.e. Whitney) being celebrated for the good within them, not the bad because hey, we have all messed up in one way or another! (Who are we to throw stones?)
  • Compassion filled truth talking. Cissy Houston being told by her daughter-in-law, “You did all you could to help Whitney. There are some people for whom even Jesus couldn’t heal if they didn’t want it. You did all you could. You should be proud.” And, Kevin Costner sharing a story about some of the deep insecurities and fears spoke aloud by Whitney to him. Costner saying, “Whitney always wondering if people loved HER or image of her?” And Costner making things clear: “No people didn’t just like you, Whitney; they loved you!”
  • And, above all, praise of God grounding all things. The service began in praise, moved in praise of God (one of my favorite moments being when CeCe Winans leading the congregation in “Jesus Loves Me”), and ended in praise of God as the choir sang, “Let the Church Say Amen.”

Thank you Whitney for taking us to church today. The spirit of the life you lead, the legacy you left behind, and the faith that carried you (even when life seemed like too big of load to carry you sought to keep going and learning from your mistakes) uplifted our hearts. And, though we will miss you in this life, we know this after church today: your spirit soars on praise of your Creator. Can I get an Amen?

September 4, 2011

Lord, Have Mercy

Sweet baby boy, I will think of you every Halloween when I pass out candy to the trick-or-treaters, wondering what kind of candy your favorite would be. I will think of you every Thanksgiving, setting out a place for you, wondering what type of food would have been your favorite. I will think of you every Christmas morning as your older brother comes bouncing down the stairs, with eager eyes to see what Santa brought him. I will wonder which gifts you would have gotten and what joy it would have brought to your face too . . .

Such were the words shared by a grief striken mother last night over the her deceased son who lived a grand total of 21 days. This child born normally at 38 weeks soon developed a serious heart condition in his second week of life which overtook the strong fighter in him, one week later. This mom who took her newborn to a well-baby check-up, believing all was well, witnessed her child never coming home after this. In the hospital, the doctors did the best he could, but nothing more could be done. And, in those moments of this child taking his last breath when he should have been at home, crying, eating and sleeping, a parents’ worst nightmare came true.

For the mourners who gathered at the funeral home, the sadness was so thick it seemed to suffocate ever attempt of breathe in the room. On the altar, in a “Moses basket” laid a little boy with his eyes shut, so sweet looking that you could have thought he was just napping.  But this was an eternal kind of nap.

I served as the pastor at this event, even though I’d never met his parents and the three-year old brother until a couple of hours before the service began. I came into this situation as a volunteer pastor through a relationship I have with a local funeral home to provide spiritual care to those who do not have a formal church home, but want a religious service. 

Countless pastors, I know, don’t enjoy or offer to do services like this, but it was a choice I made when I first began full-time ministry to at least try it. It was a great way, at first, to gain experience in one of the most important rituals of pastoral life and to meet a community need. But, the more I’ve done these type of services, the more I’ve found doing such funerals as an essential part of my job. Unexpectant deaths are when pastors are needed the most, right? I am so glad that the church which employs me full-time makes allowances in my schedule to have this kind of ministry.

As I walked in the room, I thought I was strong enough to handle what I would find, especially with the natural distance already between us, but I was wrong. The baby on the altar wrapped in a brand new blue polka dot receiving blanket surrounded by baby-blue stuffed animals and teething rings, sought to do me in too.

Even before the mother and father gave their sorrow filled tribute to their son that they’d barely had the chance to get to know, I could only think of how devastating such a loss would be for weeks, months, and years to come. Everything this family had come to know and trust about birth, life and hope was shattered. Why would a loving God allow such a thing to happen? Why must this family suffer so?

As the representative of God in the room, I really didn’t want to speak, for knew I was in the midst of so many skeptics. I was in the mist of so many (including myself for that matter) who wanted to shake a fist at God and say, “Why?”  The more I thought of it, I’d almost rather pass out blankets and lead the gathered community of family and friends in a wailing session. Such only seemed appropriate.

But, in my professional calling, I found words to say, “Jesus says, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the life, the one who wipes every tear from every eye and makes all things new.”

And in the hours since the service completed, I can’t seem to get out of my mind the images of that sweet baby boy in that dream crushing basket, and his energetic toddler brother, running around the funeral home, unaware really that this story as a human being had been forever altered, and this tear-stained mother’s dress that she never intended to wear on such a day that she would never want to wear again.

I have to pray for this family because only a prayer would seem to do. My prayer is for the survival of hope– hope that can out weight the darkest of days, the loneliness of nights, and the most discouraging of afternoons when these two parents feel they have nothing more to life for. I pray for this older brother who will soon be asking questions as to where the baby is. I pray for this family’s close family and friends who will play a significant role in their care in the months going forward. I would ask you to pray for them too as we all say together, “Lord, have mercy.”

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