We’ve just had the experience that within one week two friends were called out of this life into the next. Maybe that’s a sign of me aging. I recall that some twenty years ago the monthly letters from my mother often contained a list of friends and fellow church members who had died. In one letter she remarked that one of the down-sides of living to a ripe old age was that you get to go to so many funerals of friends and relatives.
The deaths of these past days has caused me to reflect on two issues that both relate to our Christian witness.
First there’s the way we die.
In one of the congregations I served I regularly visited a nursing home where one of our members was the matron in charge. One morning I happened to walk past the nurses station and noticed some quite animated discussion amongst the staff. I asked matron what the issue was. She commented: “We had two people die last night at opposite ends of the home and in quite opposite ways. At one end of the building an elderly lady died using her last breaths to scream obscenities at heaven. At the other end of the building an elderly lady died surrounded by relatives and friends singing hymns of praise to God – with her joining in as long as she was able. That stark contrast has had our staff talking all morning.”
I’ve seen that happen frequently over the years. To die well in confident assurance of faith can be a powerful witness to family, friends and even strangers – such as nursing staff who are looking on. Witnessing is not just something we do in our life… we also do it in our death… because witnessing is not just something we do in words alone but also in deeds.
Both our friends who died this week died well and when we die well unbelievers will often sit up and take notice.
Second there is the funeral.
I was asked to “officiate” at the funeral of the first man who died. I’ve put the word officiate in quotation marks because I really didn’t do much officiating. The man’s body was cremated privately by the undertakers but his widow mentioned that she was inviting a few close friends and relatives around to her home for a wake – and would I attend and say a few appropriate words.
After enjoying a very lovely afternoon tea the widow announced that it was her husband’s will to play a number of Christian songs – so we sat back and listened to a pipe-band play Amazing Grace and then to Mario Lanza singing, “I’ll walk with God”. That was already a powerful witness. She then invited me to say a few words. I read from Psalm 90, made a few brief comments and then in prayer gave thanks for the life of the dearly departed and prayed for the Lord to comfort the grieving.
I think I’ve learned over the years something about reading body language – and if I’m correct then there were people there who not only were not Christians but who were uncomfortable at being a captive audience to a Bible reading and prayer. Nevertheless others spoke to me afterwards in appreciation and I know that the Word of the Lord is powerful to open the most stubborn heart to the message of His grace and mercy.
So how can we make sure that our own final witness is effective?
The answer is: by living our lives now as effective witnesses to the gospel of Jesus. If we don’t live in the comfort of the gospel now it will be all but impossible to die in the comfort of that gospel.
This morning before writing this blog I phoned the other widow to express our condolences and to wish her strength for the funeral that would take place later that day. I particularly expressed the prayer that the funeral would be a powerful testimony to the grace of God. We both agreed that this would be the case – because that’s how John had lived his life.