The Pastor on Verge of Jordan
“When I tread the verge of Jordan,
may my anxious fears subside,
death of death and Hell’s destruction,
land me safe on Canaan’s side.”
The River Jordan has long been a metaphor for death. John Bunyan immortalized this meme for the Church in The Pilgrim’s Progress. No one gets into the Celestial City without crossing the river. When I entered the ministry, I have very little idea of how often I would be treading on Jordan’s banks with those who were waving goodbye to loved ones.
One of the most precious, but challenging privileges of the pastoral ministry is to help people with their losses. I have conducted about two dozen funerals in my seven years at Hillcrest Baptist, and it doesn’t get any easier. The curse bares its fangs most ferociously at the time of death and mourning. It is in the dark vale that the brunt of sin’s curse presses on us and leaves us floundering in anguish. The curse is always there, day in and day out, from flat tires to stubbed toes, from unemployment to infertility, from broken vows to broken hearts. But it is in death that the shadow of uncertainty looms darkest, and the fumes of fear are most pungent.
This is when the pastor is expected to be prepared beyond what is reasonable. He is meant to be the proverbial James Bond of spiritual warfare. A one-man attack force armed with answers, equipped with encouragement, au fait with funeral arraignments and estate management, and versed in the verses that will vanquish the darkness. It’s a tallish order, but if the pastor won’t accept this mission impossible, who else is there?
I’ve buried believers and unbelievers, elderly and babies, strangers and friends; and for each there are variegated realities to grapple with. Depending on their biblical background, the questions from the family come from different angles. Where is the soul now? Why did God allow this? When will the pain go away? What can we do to ensure that we will be reunited?
These deep issues are usually the type of somber discussion we avoid for most of our lives, if it can be helped. Most people only do business with the most important questions of life and death at the time of their loss. This is the time the pastor needs to play the shepherd, and guide the lost, nurture the weak, hold the fumbling, and help heal the smarting wounds inflicted by the teeth of the curse.
What hope is there for the family who might not understand or believe the biblical truths about the afterlife?
When counseling unbelievers, the primary task is to point them to the Savior. Only the Fatherly care of the Creator can bring the mystery of death into perspective. Only a relationship with Jesus can alleviate the loss. Only the presence of the Holy Spirit can bring the supernatural peace that surpasses understanding. If the deceased was a believer, the gospel is an easy aid to apply. It is only in Jesus that reuniting is possible. If the departed was an unbeliever, it may be best to initially avoid discussing the afterlife because of the unbearable implications, and focus on the present need for peace and comfort and personal assurance that comes from Jesus. None of this is easy. And I’m sure there are many ways of approaching this. I never feel ready for a funeral. As Paul would say, “Who is sufficient for these things?”
But it is when believers who are mourning the loss of a believing loved one, that the answers are most readily available. Dispensing comfort to a believer grieving the loss of another believer is like popping Pez out of a dispenser. There is no complicated wrangling over theories, there is no need to gently disabuse anyone of false hope, there is no pressing theological conundrum that needs to be unravelled. It doesn’t make the loss easier, just provides the path to recovery; a path of hope and healing, which is unique to those who are in Christ who have been temporarily separated from others in Christ.
Tomorrow we’ll look at the five ways to grieve in a way that gives God glory.