Two significant events prompt the contents of this article. Wednesday morning, I heard the news of Billy Graham’s death. He died at age 99. I’m 90 years old. I’m a retired minister, having pastored for 50-plus years – two churches in Florida, one in Oregon and three in California.
He was an avowed evangelical but not a fundamentalist. There is a significant difference. It is reported that his citywide meetings attracted a total of 125 million people in 85 countries. I have admired him since his meeting in Los Angeles in the late 1940’s. I think he and his wife, Ruth, had four children. When asked what surprised him most in life, he said, “The brevity of life.”
Two statements I remember. He said, “I do not decide who makes it into heaven. That’s God’s job.” And when Ruth was asked if she ever thought of divorce-because he was gone from their home so often, she said, “No, but murder many times.” Of course, a joke. I’m sure hundreds of his converts welcomed him into heaven.
The second significant event yesterday when Stella and I had lunch with Dr. Jill Kirchner-Rose, the pastor of Redlands United Church of Christ. Our lunch lasted for two hours. She asked me a provocative question that also triggered this article.
The question? “Doc, what was the thing that you had to do as a pastor that was your least favorite?” To be frank, it startled me. I had never thought of that question before. I had been asked several times about my favorite activities as minister, but never my least favorite. I could not answer the question, nor can I now. I enjoyed and appreciated everything I did.
But my favorite activity as minister may surprise you. It was conducting funeral services. Not because I’m morbid, but because a funeral made me feel I was doing God’s business. I took every one of the hundreds I conducted very seriously.
I always, if possible, visited members of the family prior to the service; to understand the deceased better and to pray with the survivors. I would ask them to give one word that best described the loved one. I would later include their comments in the service.
I never presumed to judge the destiny of the deceased, for a basic reason. The early leaders of the founding of Christianity believed in universalism, as I do.
Augustine injected the concept of purgatory into the Roman Catholic belief system. The Bible endorses universalism more than a belief in a judgmental God. Because of this I would close the service with this procedure. I would give the audience a question, “How many of you believe God hears your prayers?” The majority would always raise a hand.
I would then ask the audience, “Do you believe the deceased is with God?” The assent was always positive. I would then respond with the words, “I’m going to pray and ask God to tell your loved one that he/she is missed and loved and appreciated their influences.” Following my prayer, I would pronounce the Benediction with the Lord’s Prayer and a verse of Scripture.
The contents of my comments always included words of encouragement and hope for the loved ones. Such as, the words of Angelo Patri, “In one sense there is no death. The life of a soul on earth lasts beyond its departure. You will always feel that life touching yours, that spirit looking out of other’s eyes. He/she lives on in your life and in the lives of all others that knew him (her.)”
Scripture was always a part of my meditation. The 23rd Psalm. Particularly, “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.” And, “My God, even my God, will comfort you.” And, Matthew 25:21, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant, Enter thou into the joys of your Lord.”
My second favorite activity as a minister is to preach. In my Bible I have written the following words by Richard Baxter; “I preached as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men.”
About once every month I would ask the audience to remember my objective in preaching. “I do not want you to leave your brains outside the sanctuary.” I would ask them to “think something, feel something, and do something.” Then I would always pray that God would guide me in giving the sermon.
My Dad was a hard-working man with only a 6th grade education. When I informed him that I felt called by God to be a preacher, he gave me some advice that I’ve never forgotten. “Don’t have us stand all the time. We work hard and we are tired. Keep the sermon short and interesting.” I always tried, and try, to listen to his suggestion.
Then, I also received a suggestion from the minister that inspired me more than all others, Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. He was described as preaching to an audience made up of ten-years-olds. If they could understand him, everyone would.
I’ve also tried to follow his example as a newspaper columnist for thirty years. Write so that a ten-year-old can understand what I’ve written.
The Bible is made up of parables, proverbs, mythologies and laws. These – all four – are stories, not messages. They contain the messages. As a minister I sought every week to articulate that message. For example, the story of Adam and Eve. Talking to a snake is a myth. The message is that God gives every person his or her right to choose. Choice and compensation are available to every one of us.
Finally, I’ve said that if I had one sermon to preach, I would use the Parable of the Prodigal son as the basis. But the message is the “loving father” who runs to greet his prodigal son. Jesus was telling His disciples that God is like the father. He runs to greet us.
Amen. Selah So be it.