Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Preaching Over the Dead

Death Certificates are bare facts typewritten on a form. They are used for legal and formal purposes, and convey “vital” information about the person deceased. Actually, the facts and the information are from “vital,” They hide more than they reveal. Do not ever think you know a person based on a death certificate.

There are, thankfully, other forms of information. Personal information is gleaned from such things as one’s personal effects, job records, and insurance policies. One is able to know more of the interests and struggles in which the deceased was involved, perhaps through club records and health reports. Writings, hobby products, and artistic expressions give evidence of an inner person that others could know and with whom they could engage.

Another form of personal information is the memories that family, friends, neighbors and associates have of the deceased. I would argue that their memories are personal in a different sense, in that they reveal as much about the person with the memories as they do about the person being remembered. Nevertheless, one is able to begin to see the deceased actually involved in personal relationships, whether those relationships were healthy or lousy. And because of the “final” setting, the memories shared are skewed to the congenial. One must not speak evil of the one that she could hardly bear when alive.

And so I preach over the dead. I don’t preach to the dead, and I am able to say relatively little about the dead. I preach with the realization that here is a person that I hardly knew, and barely know. I preach to the living, to the hurting. I preach about ultimate, not temporal, realities. And I preach about Christ.

One might argue that I know this Christ only from his death certificate. They would maintain that the Scriptures contain only a few, verifiable facts that establish approximate bookends to a historically distant life. They would say that the personal information is of the form of legends, and that the memories have been exaggerated and edited. They would say that I speak of that which I could not possibly know, and that is permitted, because one is allowed such liberties at times like this.

But I am a pastor – a helper and a healer. And one does not help by circulating myths and mistakes. One does not heal by serving up legends and lies. There is more to this than reciting meaningless facts and trying to make those who remain feel better. If that’s all there is, then I would rather go make something, or do something – something more than fill an empty space with empty words.

The preacher seeks to articulate an unseen truth about a person that is alive, who has experienced death and has come to life again, offering hope that there is a resurrection for those who would link their dying lives to his living one. He must speak about a person that he knows, personally, and presently. He speaks to those in the assembly, and, at the same time, is engaged in conversation with the one about whom he is preaching. Peter’s words must be true for the one who preaches over the dead:

“Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory,”
(1Pet. 1:8, ESV)

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