Today I stood on a grassy knoll in a cemetery in Newport, Tennessee. It was a warm June day, but there was a refreshing wind blowing as the graveside service began. Terri and I had come over to be with a friend whose dad had died.
When it was time for the funeral to start, my friend was the first to speak. It was apparent that he was exhausted from months of sitting in hospitals and watching his dad as he went under Hospice care. His mom and wife were there. This had been a long ordeal for the family. I looked around and only recognized a couple of people.
People go to funerals to show respect for the deceased or to support the family of the deceased. As my friend said, funerals are not for the dead, but for the living. My friend, who is more like a brother than a friend, did as fine a job of speaking at a funeral as anyone I’ve ever met. He’s a layman, by the way, not a preacher.
I’ve been to enough funerals to know that I’m often embarrassed by what preachers say at funerals. They preach people into heaven who lived like hell. They say the deceased loved their family when they were abusive or had divorced their spouse. They cover up what everyone at the funeral knows. We are so afraid to offend people that we offend God by giving the impression that all roads lead to God and everyone ends up in heaven. Preachers will have to give an account one day for what they’ve said at funerals, leading the mourners to believe there really is no need for the gospel, the blood, or a changed life.
My friend didn’t fall into the preacher trap. He rose to the occasion. He honored his dad. He talked about how his dad could paint a picture and make fishing lures, guns, and more. He talked about times they went on vacations as a family. He honored his dad as his dad. He focused on the positive things his dad had taught him, but he didn’t preach him into heaven.
Then he turned to the gospel. My friend talked to his dad about the gospel numerous times, but there was little evidence his dad had made any kind of life change or decision for Christ. He was a good man, but that’s not what gets us into heaven. As my friend shared, he walked through the two Evangelism Explosion questions and asked us to consider our response if God were to ask, “Why should I let you into my heaven?”
My friend walked that fine line between loving someone and telling the truth. He was kind because he was grieving certain realities and because his mom was there. He was honest and kind. No one should talk about eternal matters lightly.
If there is fruit in a person’s life, little has to be said. If there is no fruit, nothing has to be said. Sometimes I hear funerals and wonder who they are talking about. They seem to lay a tray of artificial fruit on the casket because there’s no real fruit. What little fruit there might have been is rotten. I’m grateful for a layman who had more integrity than some preachers. He should preach because he “gets it” when it comes to the issues of salvation, righteousness, forgiveness, and the cross. He wasn’t ashamed of the gospel today. In a difficult hour, his light shined.
As he shared the gospel he simply said, “If my dad could say something today, he would say, ‘What you do with Jesus matters.’” That’s truth in its purest form. What we do with Jesus does matter. The saved would say that to us. The lost who have rejected the gospel would cry out from hell if they could. Like the rich man in hell, they would want someone to go and tell their families and friends.
The preacher who followed my friend preached from three passages. He preached on John 14, Psalm 23 and the Second Coming. I stood on that grassy knoll thinking, “Did he hear anything my friend said?” He was reading and speaking truths reserved for believers. Comfort is built on truth. Comfort is not built on platitudes. The preacher (who is supposed to be the expert) didn’t draw the net. The table was set, the Word had been given, the crowd was there, but he failed to follow up with “after what you’ve heard, what is keeping you from trusting Jesus?”
I am very, very proud of my friend on this tough day. He said the right things. His heavenly Father is pleased with him today. As I walked away, I thought to myself, “Even if the dead lack the ability to speak, there was a message this day.” My friend said his dad wanted him to speak at the funeral, but he didn’t tell him what to say. So my friend just talked about Jesus. There was a faithful witness given today. It was given by a son who knew the truth.
I would say to my friend, “You have made your heavenly Father proud this day. You honored your father as the Scripture commands. You encouraged your mom. You stood tall as a man of God. Most of all, you made your heavenly Father the focus of your life and message. It sounded like your heavenly Father had told you what to say at your earthly father’s funeral.”
That’s why my friend is a friend of God, a joint heir with Christ, and has learned the blessings of being a part of the family of God. He, like many of us, knows that our brothers and sisters in Christ can mean more to us than even our physical relatives.
Yes, people go to funerals to show respect for the deceased or to support the family. But everyone left today without excuse. They heard the gospel from my friend. It was clear and concise. He didn’t sugar coat it. He laid it out for any and all to hear. I’m sure some of those folks have watched my friend grow up in these hills. Today, if they were listening, my friend was a man’s man, a bold witness, and a grateful son.
On a warm summer day in East Tennessee, I was reminded by a layman that telling the truth in love is always the right thing to do…even when it’s difficult.
(copyright 2010, Michael C. Catt)
Michael served as the President of the Large Church Roundtable, the Southern Baptist Convention as an IMB Trustee, President of the Georgia Baptist Convention’s Preaching Conference, Vice President of the Georgia Baptist Convention, and President of the 2008 Southern Baptist Convention Pastors’ Conference. He has spoken at conferences, colleges, seminaries, rallies, camps, NBA and college chapel services, well as The Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove. Michael is the recipient of The Martin Luther King Award, The MLK Unity Award, and a Georgia Senate Resolution in recognition of his work in the community and in racial reconciliation.
Michael and his wife, Terri, have two grown daughters, Erin and Hayley.