Lecture 06: Pastoral Care and Death (Part 2)
I want to close this last session by talking about some questions that go back to death and then maybe if we have time, some broader questions about what we have covered in these last couple of sessions.
A. How should immediate family members be involved in the service?
We’ve talked about immediate family members and how they should be involved during a service. Again, it is important that we show real sensitivity by not forcing people with, “You really ought to say something” when maybe they really don’t. Some people just want to grieve. Also allowing those who want to say something, but giving them guidelines too, so they don’t end up speaking for 20 minutes.
B. Cremation or burial?
Cremation or burial? That is often a question that comes up. Burial, from the scriptural side, seems to be the Biblical pattern, but I do not find anywhere that I’m aware of where scripture forbids cremation. In one sense, the issue is the resurrection of the body and that is going to happen no matter what state our body is in. So I don’t think there is anything about cremation that should cause us to step back from it for ecological reasons or cost reasons. People more and more are choosing this.
I think it is in the best interest in service to the family to say, Here are some pros and cons about all of the above. So, to be informed. I think what we want to do is discourage people who would prey on people in their emotional moment because if you really show love to this person, you should spend thousands upon thousands. I have told my wife, “Look, it is all transitory. The cheapest method is fine because it’s not about the body.”
C. Graveside service only?
Graveside service only? Again, it may be appropriate in certain circumstances. Age might be a factor, prolonged illness, etc. There is no right or wrong here.
D. Memorial gifts rather than flowers?
Memorial gifts rather than flowers? I don’t think that is a bad idea, considering the temporal nature of flowers. People like beauty, so it’s not a right or wrong question. Here is what I say when it comes to gifts. Sometimes there is that little note that says, “I would like to leave this gift” and people often like to say, “I would like to encourage any memorial gifts to go to such-and-such.” Pastorally some of the best advice here is, don’t designate anything in the church. The board may have for 10 years said, We don’t need stained windows, glass windows. Our resources need to go to other things. Then someone will circumvent that with memorial funds. I like to say that if you really want to serve the church and you want to leave a gift to the church, just say, “Gifts will go to Village Church.” Then let the community decide the best way to deal with that gift. Again, it is not a hard and fast rule. Sometimes people really want to leave something that they want to be remembered for. Just use wisdom, like in all things.
E. Open vs. closed casket?
Open vs a closed casket? Again, that is a difficult question. One can go either way. I have found that an open casket helps people to come to grips with the reality, because sometimes people still can’t believe a person is dead. They were sure they saw him in Fred Meyer last week. Sometimes an open casket can help bring closure. However,the benefit of a closed casket is, it allows you to remember a person in life. Some people that I have gone by their casket in death, I still remember them that way. I think it’s the wishes of the family, but I like to present the pros and cons.
F. Infant death
Infant death is one of the hardest. I would say to this, you need to treat it with dignity, with a burial, with ministering to the family. Sometimes families just want to let the hospital take it. No, our theology of life would say that this is a life that lived for a certain portion, whether it is 100 years or a day, and there should be some dignity.
G. Wills or living trusts?
Wills or living trusts? This depends upon one’s situation. But I think one should see an attorney quickly and look at the pros and cons.
Obituaries? I don’t know if the Oregonian for example, where we live, still does a pre-one, but I know they have become very expensive if you go beyond a certain amount. You’ll just have to decide if that is a good thing.
Embalmed? It is not required by Oregon law last I checked.
J. Suicide and murder
Suicide and murder you obviously can’t treat the same, so be prepared to know what to say. It is very hard. Suicide is becoming more a sort of a way people like to deal with depression or difficulties. I don’t mind saying to people while I seek to bring comfort and all and talk about the tragedy of it all, to say that it is not the unpardonable sin that I can see in scripture, so let’s remove that concern. However, there may be no more self-centered act on earth than suicide because you are thinking only of yourself.
I remember once I did a suicide for a kid who was about 22. The church was packed. He was popular. All of his friends were there. They formed a band. They wrote a song and a tribute. There were all these pictures. I could see that if I didn’t say the right things, people would go, “You know, it’s not a bad way to go. You go out when you’re popular and strong, everybody cries and remembers you. It is better than when you’re 97 and there are only three people who show up who are still alive who remembered you.”
I knew at that moment I had to look right into their eyes and say, “This has left unbelievable harm and hurt to a family for the rest of their lives, not to mention the people that had to come and deal with the mess afterward. So if you want to see any glory in this, there is no glory in this. It is a tragedy. It is sad. It is not unforgivable. God can be here in all of this.” I remember the parents in this particular case. He took his life on Mother’s Day, and that Mother’s Day for that mom is going to be etched there forever. I want to make sure that whenever I do a service where there is suicide, to in the strongest way to help people see that this is not an option for life. We are going to have to be prepared to say the right things because it has become a huge issue.
Murder I think has been the most difficult one for me. I did a service for a kid that you might remember a few years ago at Seattle Pacific University, a random guy came in and shot him and killed him. He didn’t know him at all, just kind of crazy. The family is a great part of our church and of course, it took them a long time. I think in one sense they will never recover. They had such great hopes and dreams. For about two years I did not see the family at all. They were so confused. How could God? You have to be really careful. If you say, “God controls all things and He is providential” then they are going, “Why didn’t God intervene? Why couldn’t He protect my son?” If God is not providential, then that is scary too. You are walking a sort of tightrope and I remember the Lord led me to Matthew 13 where Jesus talked about the farmer who went and sowed the field. In the night the enemy came and planted the tares and the weeds. You remember, the farmer’s tenants, workers came and said, “Do you want
us to pull the weeds?” Remember what He said, “No, there will be a harvest, but if you pull up the weeds, you will pull up the wheat.”
I found that to be a text that put things in perspective to say that there is an enemy and he does plant seeds and he does cause destruction. It is sometimes our desire to make things right. But sometimes in making things right, we will do more damage than good. What that farmer was saying was, There will be a harvest. There will be a payday. Everything will be made right. That is what I told the family. There will be a day, everything will be made right. In the meantime, we need to know that God knows what He is doing.
Again, we need to be prepared. People say the craziest things, right? “God needed him up in heaven.” God doesn’t need anything and he doesn’t need anyone. We think it sounds nice, but then you have a person saying, “But I needed him.” People don’t know what to say. That is why it is important that you are very careful what you say, to model to people. Just be prepared. Over 33 years I have dealt with death in all kinds of ways.
II. Final Thoughts
Some final thoughts.
A. Keep a file. I have kept a file on every funeral, every memorial service I’ve done, and I find I go back to that every time to think, What did I say? It is a place I collect thoughts, add articles, clippings, poems. You will need them all.
B. Discover really good funeral homes. There are good ones and bad ones.
C. Know how to advise.
D. Become acquainted with the stages of grief.
E. Build bridges with the family in the last days.
F. Prepare your people in advance as I’ve said and make sure they fill these things out.
III. More Questions
Emily, you are one of the younger people in this room. I’m thinking, when I talk about death and advanced directives and seeing attorneys and the grief process, what are you thinking? Is this relevant?
Emily: For me, yes, it is very relevant. I think about what you said earlier, that death is a reality. Even me at 24, I live with my parents, but we have taken in my two grandmas and they are in the death process. So just seeing that and seeing my parents walk through that with them and understanding that one day I will have to do that with my parents. Also, unexpected death. I have had friends who have overdosed and have died suddenly, so I think you have to be sticking your head in the sand if you don’t think death is a part of life. It is easier when I’m younger to put that in the back of my mind, but I will have to deal with it one day.
Dr. Johnson: Let me probe a little further and ask this question. For people in your generation, in their twenties, what do you think pastors need to understand when it comes to issues of death, things that they think about, questions that they wrestle with? What are the things you think they need to hear?
Emily: With my faith, thinking about death, just understanding that Jesus, who we follow, was murdered at 33. That is the reality. You can’t ignore reality, really. I don’t know what else. There is so much death in the Bible. Jesus tells us that is what we are going to have to go through. But there is a tremendous comfort and we don’t have a Savior who can’t sympathize with our weaknesses.
Dr. Johnson: This was kind of true of me I think in my twenties. We live in a certain denial too, don’t we? We think, That is something a long ways off and I don’t have to think about.
Emily: Yes, it’s easier to just put that in the back of your mind. I have to remind myself that it’s a part of life. It is hard.
Dr. Johnson: It is an unpredictable part of life.
Emily: I feel right now like I’m going to live forever. I can’t even imagine.
Dr. Johnson: We move through this phase of thinking we are immortal. Then as we get older, we are reminded of our mortality. Either way, it would seem scripture would advise the wise to always be prepared.
Emily: In one of the Psalms it says that we are vapor and we are unwise to think that we are going to be here forever.
Dr. Johnson: ?_____(14:12.4), vapor of vapors. What else about pastoral care to the dying or to the sick, or to those behind closed doors?
Emily: I wanted to ask a little bit more about how you navigate talking with people who are unbelievers and have somebody die. How do you walk people through that?
Dr. Johnson: I find in a lot of cases, people are pretty numb and overcome with despair. There is not much to say, from their side anyway. It is like a bad dream sometimes. It is something they just want to get over as quickly as possible. They want to move on. They don’t want to dwell and think about it. It becomes a more difficult place to extend pastoral care, particularly if they are not interested in God.
I think you have to be really good at reading people, reading where they are at, knowing what you want to say that is authentic, as I have talked about. Focusing on the hope we have in God. Certainly somewhere getting to the Gospel, to say that death is not the end; that there is this hope of life eternal and that it is a decision nonetheless we have to make, everyone has to make. The decision that Bob here made, I don’t know if any of us can say with complete certainty where he was even in his final moments. But again, this is what I know about God and that is, we are all sinful. We are all worthy of not being in eternity with God. We have been separated. But God’s grace has made it possible for us to have eternal life.
It is a great opportunity to share our faith, right? But again, it has to be done in an appropriate way that doesn’t sound like you are hijacking people’s grief, taking advantage of the moment.
Question: I had a good friend whose wife, she was about 55, died three or four years ago. He told me later she came to him and said, “I have a question. How do you die?” It is a really interesting question. She knew from cancer, her body was going to give out. But she wanted to know, How do I as a Christian with a strong faith, how do I die? It was an interesting question. Wayne was telling me about it. I don’t have an answer. That is why it was such an interesting question. Part of it you would want to say, “Do you know for sure where you’re going? Why? Can you rest in that?” I think knowing me, I would want to say, “Is there anyone I need to apologize to. Is there anything I need to set right before I pass away?” Knowing that if I didn’t do it quickly, I would probably lose the mental faculties to be able to do it.
I remember reading a poll that 100 years ago, the question was, Would you want to know if you were going to die? One hundred years ago the answer was, 90% absolutely. To put stuff in order. If you asked it now, 90% would say, No, I don’t want to know, I want it to be really fast. I guess I’m old fashioned, but I want to kind of get things in order, see my kids. But that is my personality.
Dr. Johnson: Yet in a certain way, we never know when that moment is going to come, so in one sense it should be on our minds every day, right? I was thinking about this last week, that there is this transition with Paul wherein Philippians 3 he says, “I press on to lay hold of why God laid hold of me.” I like that phrase. He looked at life as trying to grab hold of why God grabbed hold of him, which I think is a great statement about life, of grabbing hold of our purpose, why God uniquely made me for such a season as this.
But then in Timothy, he says, “I have fought the fight, I have finished the course, I have run the race.” I don’t think it was a very long period of time between Philippians 3 and 2 Timothy 4, but somewhere Paul, in one moment was saying, There is still more here. Not that I have completed it, or finished the course, right? Then in Timothy he says, I have finished the course.
I think maybe part of the answer to the question she is raising is, kind of to know where you are. I wonder if we do come to a place, maybe like Paul, where we go, “I think I have finished now.” Most of us are living in Philippians 3 right now. Here is Paul in prison, still saying, “I want to grasp God’s purpose for my life.” I find that amazing. He is still living for the future. But then somewhere he comes to grips with his mortality and his end.
What I also know is that sometimes at the very end, things happen that are mysteries. People suddenly have a vision of heaven or God or something, right? My mom tells me that she was sitting with Dad and suddenly he had the greatest smile she had ever seen on his face, and then he died. What did he see? I am aware that a number of people have. So how do you die? In one part, we have to say, we never know the moment. We don’t know what happens in those final moments. I’m thinking, I hope it goes that way for me. I would like to have a big smile just before I leave this earth.
Question: I have another question. To listen to you talk about what you did at Village is exhausting to me. You must have been really busy doing that and working at the seminary. If a church is committed to a small group ministry, aggressively committed to small groups, is it fair to say that a lot of those things that you had to do really should have been picked up by the small group?
Dr. Johnson: I don’t want to imply that they weren’t. It is not that I was running around doing all of these things. I was simply trying to fulfill the part and role that I needed to play, but I was not covering it all. I am passionate about small groups. As I have told small groups in the past, “You are my first line of defense. If I get hurt, you are the group I want to see around the bed at the hospital, more than anybody else.” That is what I tried to instill in small groups. They are at the front of the pack when it comes to caring.
I think a pastor then has to carefully discern where he needs to be. He can’t be at all of them. But the fundamental thing I had to deal with, I had two churches that were both about 300-350 people. They were big enough we could do things, but they were small enough I could go through the church directory and know pretty much everybody. At Village, half the people I really did not know. I struggled because I really was brought up under the mentoring of people like Eugene Peterson, who just instilled in me the importance of being a shepherd, a pastor.
When you get into a larger church, there is the pull to be more of a manager, a corporate head, a CEO. I said before the Lord, I feared I was compromising my identity in going to Village because I didn’t want to stop being a pastor. I had to somehow figure out how to be a pastor still. Which means I still had to retain some of those essential tasks I did in smaller churches, but also realize I can’t, like in my smaller churches, be there for most people. I could not here. But it didn’t change the fact that I still had to be that pastor, I still had to be a shepherd. I don’t mean in any way to imply I was doing it all. I wouldn’t have survived.
Question: I don’t think you were saying that. I was just trying to figure out the distribution of jobs. I have one other quick question. I’ll probably wish I hadn’t because it is kind of silly. I have often told my wife, I wanted to be cremated and I want a destination funeral. I said, “Instead of wasting all that money on a casket, just take my kids and my grandkids and go to Hawaii and throw my ashes in Maui, somewhere out there. Have a riot on me.” She says, “Sure, sure, you will be dead, I’ll do whatever I want.” There is nothing wrong with wanting a destination funeral, I don’t think, and of celebrating. It is a mix you were talking about between grieving and just rejoicing at a life well lived. I am assuming you would say, “You have to allow for both.”
Dr. Johnson: I think so. I think you can go too far on one hand and almost cross from grief into despair. You can go too far the other and bypass grief and celebrate and not give time for the necessary process of loss.
There is a book on fasting that makes the point – and I think there is some integrity in it – that much of the fasting we see in scripture is related to mourning and loss, that is when people fast. Again, there is a time to take a time out from things we find pleasure and comfort in. It is a little bit like Ecclesiastes 7 that says, “It is better to be in the house of mourning than in the place of feasting.” Remember why it says that? It says it is better to be in a house of mourning because therein you reflect upon life, I’m kind of paraphrasing a little bit. Let’s face it, often when I go to a memorial service, it causes me to really take stock of where I am and what is important to me and what I am thinking. When I am at a party, I’m not thinking of those things. I think we might be withholding something people really need in our passing, that helps them to prepare their life. But I get what you are saying, too.
Question: I should have two services. Have a mourning one here and a rejoicing one in Maui?
Dr. Johnson: I think what you should do is have a service: We remember, we reflect, we go home and we mourn and we comfort one another. Then thirty days later we go to Hawaii and celebrate the fact that I’m in eternity. That could work. I think just trying to do it on the same day is a little much.
Question: I have a question about the first lecture where you were talking about the contrast between being involved and having people just thinking they are spectators in church. I am wondering what you think the role of small groups is in that. Is small groups one way to encourage people to be involved?
Dr. Johnson: I think it’s a great way to help get people in the story. I like to use phrases like “getting people in the story.” If people are in the story, then they tend to invest in the story, especially if they are part of the story. I think a lot of times we go to people and we really try to say, You need to be faithful and give. But if people aren’t in the story, it is a lot harder for them to give.
Part of it is, I want people to see themselves as part of the story. That means that that small group has to be faithful to what small groups should do. A lot of small groups are just chit-chatting around the table, eating and munching, maybe a little prayer, maybe reading a Bible verse and then going on our way. When it should be a time to challenge each other and hold each other accountable, take communion together, talk about how God is using us, talk about our gifts, encourage one another to be faithful.
We had sort of a saying at Village that the bigger we get, the smaller we need to get. I think that is a good balance. I think churches that don’t have strong, strong small group ministries are going to put a lot of pressure on pastors to do what small groups can do.
By the way, small groups can also be a great training place for under-shepherds. People who lead small groups in a sense are shepherding, so it is vital.
Question: I was in a church one time where on a regular basis they would have somebody stand up and just talk about what God did in their life. There are other churches I have been in where they see that as something that is distracting from the morning service. Have you ever had anything like that in churches that you have pastored? Do you think that is something that is helpful?
Dr. Johnson: I am a real proponent of faith stories. I like to look out there and try to be tracking with people. People will inevitably have a faith story, something where God did intervene, did something amazing in their life. I like to discover those and then invite a faith story, knowing that a lot of unbelievers will probably remember that more than my sermon.
Some of the rules are, holding the microphone. I started becoming more aware of this in my last days at Village. I wish I had done it a lot earlier, that whenever I invite someone to share a faith story, I might say, “Bill has a faith story that I would like for you to hear. First of all, Bill, I am going to ask you, How did you give your life to Christ? When did that happen?” What we don’t let people hear enough is, salvation, so that people, especially unbelieving, can say, “Something happened.” The more we can repeat that, the better, so whenever you invite somebody up, just say, “Before we go any further, tell us quickly how you came to Christ.” Then maybe move from there to say, “God did something pretty dramatic in your life recently. In a couple of moments, tell us what happened.” So faith stories. I think the more we do that, the more we encourage people then to look for God to do something dramatic.