Full Text for Pastoral Theology and Practice- Volume 59 - Funerals for Suicides or Unbelievers (Video)

"PASTORAL THEOLOGY & PRACTICE" PROF. HAROLD SENKBEIL & DR. RICHARD WARNECK CAPTIONING PROVIDED BY: CAPTION FIRST, INC. P.O. BOX 1924 Lombard, IL 60148 1-800-825-7234 * * * * * This is being provided in a rough-draft format. Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART) is provided in Order to facilitate communication accessibility and may not be a totally verbatim record of the proceedings * * * * * >> NICK: I can see that there are a number of tough questions surrounding funerals. For instance, may a pastor conduct a Christian burial for a person who is known to be an unbeliever? What about a person who committed suicide? Can he or she receive a Christian burial? What should a pastor say in such circumstances? >> DR. RICHARD WARNECK: Nick, the pastor's funeral ministry is perhaps one of the most vital aspects of his pastoral care, and you raise a couple of very substantive questions. The question about a Christian who takes his or her own life, let's address that question first. I'll start with a reflection on earlier pastoral practice a generation or two ago. When a person took his or her life, the presumption was that he or she denied themselves the opportunity to repent of that sin. Now, this was really pressed by pastors in a former generation, and so they backed away. I remember my father's ministry. He was very hesitant to conduct a funeral service, much less a burial rite�for a person who took their own life, arguing, as I indicated, that, well, if the person denied himself or herself the opportunity to repent, it's doubtful that he or she died as a Christian, and that probably forecloses on the church's ministry, which is to conduct Christian burial for Christians. That, of course, is the basic principle. Nick, I think that since that time, the behavioral sciences have been a great help to us. We do not understand why a person takes his or her life, but psychology has helped us to comprehend, perhaps, some of the circumstances a little more clearly. Today, we approach this matter in a more pastoral and obliging manner, and I think for good reason. I myself find it difficult to believe that when a Christian takes his or her life that that action is itself a denial of their faith in their Lord Jesus Christ. Dr.�Senkbeil talked about tentatio, one of these mental and theological and soul stirring afflictions that a pastor and a theologian and has over a particular point of doctrine or a particular practice, and this is one of my. I wrestled with this matter very much. But we take a different approach today and it kind of goes along this line. No one can really ascertain what is going on in the mind of a person who decides to end their life. That's beyond our comprehension. So we leave all of that in the hands of God. He knows. Let's leave things there. What we do know is that this person was a member of our Christian fellowship, was a Christian, used the means of grace, and on that basis we say the individual was a Christian and we're going to give them Christian burial and leave everything else to the judgment of God. So that's our approach on this. I do want to alert you, however, Nick, that there are a lot of things going on in a bereaved family that are extremely difficult when a person, by surprise, suddenly takes his or her life. There are feelings, deep feelings. On the one hand, great love for their loved one who is gone and a sense of loss. That is countered, however, by feelings of anger. Why did he or why did she do this to us and bring this great sorrow upon us volitionally, taking his or her life? You got all this going on. And then there are feelings of recrimination. Is there something that we could have done in the family to prevent our loved one moving to the pressie piece and going over? How could we have prevented it? What did we overlook? These kinds of feelings among the bereaved. And being mindful of this, you as a pastor will want to work very skillfully and very sensitively with these folks. And in the conduct of the service, particularly your sermon message, you might take a couple of steps here. I'll just kind of lay them out as I recall them. First of all, it's well in a message to at least indirectly acknowledge what has happened. Without being judgmental at all, but this has happened. And it was an unusual circumstance. Many things we don't comprehend. We recognize and I think it's fair to say this that the Lord prohibits in the fifth commandment that we take life at all, including our own life. But then quickly add: We don't know what was in the mind and heart of our loved one and we leave that to a gracious and merciful God. All of that is in His hands. And now you want to assure the bereaved family and friends that God still cares for them and extends to them His love and His strength by His Holy Spirit in such an hour and through the death and resurrection of Christ who conquers all of these ills and all of these evils ultimately and keeps us for Himself for eternity. Something along those lines might be a way to approach the ministry to bereaved persons in that instance. But the answer to your question do we conduct Christian funerals for people who committed suicide? Yes, we do and we certainly should. Even though it's very much a shift in practice from former years. Okay. The larger question is: Do we conduct a Christian burial for a person who was a known professing unbeliever? And those circumstances arise frequently this way. A Christian member of your congregation, Nick, may be married to a person who is not a church member and maybe more than that is just very skeptical about God and maybe somewhat cynical about religion and really wants to have nothing to do with Christianity. That may be the case. Or there may be a person in the circle of friends of some of your Christian people who are very much like that. Now, such a person dies. And people don't know where to turn. They come to the pastor. Can you serve us? Can you have the funeral for our loved one, our friend, knowing full well the negative attitudes toward Christianity, toward the Lord, toward God and so on, what do you say? Well, our basic principle operative here is that Christian burial is for Christ-confessing Christians. It just has to be that way. And the implications are that a person who is a professed nonchristian, say for 50, 60 years of their life, and they've been very open about their resistance to the Gospel even though they've been invited and urged by relatives and friends to join the church or inquire about the Christian faith, no, didn't want to have anything to do with it, it seems that a Christian service, then, kind of imposes on that posture of that individual unduly. And one questions whether this is even fair. Besides that, our practice has been influenced by such texts in the Old Testament such as Jeremiah Chapter 22 where the prophet was very vocal and visible in Jerusalem about the death of King Jehoichim and said that his body should not receive even respectable burial because of his wickedness. And it should be dragged and cast for the beyond the gates of Jerusalem. Kind of a severe passage, versus 18 to 19 of Jeremiah 22. And then sometimes Jesus' words "follow me and leave the dead to bury their own dead." that's sometimes engaged here in our former teaching of pastoral theology. So you have this in the background, as well. Nevertheless, pastorally, you are facing a family. And many pastors will say that's the highest priority, it's ministering to the living. And the pastor fairly well should take and officiate at a funeral of this nature and of this kind. Well, maybe something in between, we might suggest, Nick. Chances are the family or the circle of friends will understand, as Christians the duplicity here and the difficulty here. Still, the pastor can minister to these bereaved persons informally during this time. And my own recommendation would be if you are pressed to have a service for such a person, that you make it a private service. And maybe it could even be limited to a committal at a cemetery or mausoleum or wherever the remains are going to be disposed. Maybe limit it to that but you're still serving the folks. And you might indicate to them that the committal sayings will be somewhat different than they have heard maybe at other Christian funerals. You cannot attest to a person who is a professed unbeliever that he is a Christian. I don't know that you can commit his remains to God in the name of the triune God as we do and the wording of the committal. And you might indicate to the family that things will be said and stated just a little differently. And they should expect that. But you're still serving them and you're able to pray with them and do a couple of the other things that are in our normal funeral rite. So maybe that's the way to handle that very difficult question. You see, Nick, the reason I would encourage if you take such a funeral and you accept responsibility for it that you make it private is this: The Christian church at a funeral always is executing and the pastor is exercising the public ministry of the Christian church, which involves the confession of the Christian church in the triune God. Christians are very Creedal. That's very important. And it's important that nothing in the worship, in this instance a funeral service, is contradicting that confession. The deceased brings his or her own witness. I'm speaking much beyond the emotional situation here. It just is one of those things. A person who was an unbeliever and an unprofessing Christian brings a certain witness that really should not be contradictory to the public profession of faith of the church. So I give an example to my students of an individual who was a very public person, let's say in the town, who is a professed unbeliever, has resisted every opportunity to even inquire about the Christian faith, but his or her Lutheran relatives come and want the pastor to have this big public funeral where the aldermen, the police department, the fire department and all kinds of civic clubs, the whole city or town is going to be present there. It's very difficult for a pastor in his public ministry to conduct a Christian service when he has the witness of the deceased, which is quite contra distinct. Although I'm well aware of a different opinion on this where some pastors say whatever the setting, it's an opportunity to preach the Gospel, go ahead and do it. Okay. These are alternatives. And you, Nick, and your fellows in the classes and learning will have to make some of your own decisions on this. But the basic principle is still that we conduct funerals as Christians for Christian persons. Nick, can we move on to a slightly different issue that might enforce the notion that we're about the ministry of the Christian church here by considering this issue. I think it was at least latent in your question. Why are we as pastors involved in the funeral business at all? As a pastor who for more than a decade was working as many as 50, 55 funerals a year, I'll tell you, once in a while that question arises. Just what are we doing here? I have a couple of points to make on this. I'm a firm believer that the theology surrounding the body, if you will, after all, that's what a funeral and a burial is all about, committal. It's dealing with the remains of someone who has died. In this instance, a professing Christian. How shall we do that? Are we simply driven by funeral customs in the culture? No. There's a real theology here. I'll just light on it briefly. It goes like this. Surrounding the body here is, first of all, the subject of creation. "The Lord God formed man out of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils and he became a living being." Genesis 2 verse 7. Mankind in the body was created in the image of God. So creation's a first factor. Second factor, redemption. The apostle asked the rhetorical question, "Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? That your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you? Indeed, you are not your own. You are bought with a price." Paul's talking about the person, the whole person, soul and body, redemption. Third point, resurrection. It's our belief as Christians that our bodies, wherever they landed, whatever their state, for long, for short, whatever, will one day be raised as Jesus indicates in John Chapter 5. "The hour is coming when all in the tombs will hear his voice and come forth." And as Paul reiterates in 1 Thessalonians 4:16. So the resurrection of the body which we confess in our Creed is the third factor. Fourth is translation, or glorification. The Christian can anticipate not only their body being raised but that body glorified and transformed as Paul speaks of it in I Corinthians 15 and Philippians Chapter 3. I just think that there's some powerful theology here that really helps to raise our funeral practice far and above customs, traditions and whatever might be driving things in the culture. And this really helps the pastor realize that he is about some serious business, the Lord's business, when he is conducting a service which is the Christian way of disposing of the remains of a Christian after he or she has died. So that's an accent that I wanted to bring at the close of this particular subject. I hope it is helpful to you. * * * * * This is being provided in a rough-draft format. Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART) is provided in Order to facilitate communication accessibility and may not be a totally verbatim record of the proceedings * * * * *