By Norris Burkes Nov 28 2021
In my forty years of ministry, I’d guess I’ve preached three times that number of funerals and fielded hundreds of comments afterwards.
But few comments ever delivered the punch I received after my father’s funeral in 1992.
Like me, my father was an ordained Southern Baptist minister. However, as many of you know, I left parish ministry for healthcare chaplaincy. While my father and I differed in certain doctrine, he taught me to love people more than I loved a dogmatic fight.
From childhood, I knew Dad was living on borrowed time with a congenital heart defect. Fortunately, doctors added a few extra years by replacing his defective valve.
But on his 65th birthday, he died in his sleep of a sudden heart attack. I was only 34 when my mother asked me to preach her husband’s funeral.
If you’ve not been to an evangelical funeral, you need to know that it is the job of the pastor to talk about the deceased for ten minutes and launch into a strong salvation message for the final twenty minutes.
This means the service becomes a “witnessing platform,” a place to convert
any unbelievers. I chose to honor my dad with the message he would want and the one the congregation would be expecting.
Being well-versed in the lingo, I did not disappoint. I preached like a Happy Chappy, grinnin’ and gunnin’ as I told stories, anecdotes, and quoted the bible forward to back. In short, I let folks know that Dad went to heaven because he accepted Jesus as his personal savior.
Then like the hundreds of services my dad preached, we ended his with a song and an invitation to anyone who needed to say the “sinner’s prayer” and become a Christian.
Afterward, people lined up to give their respects to my family. They saved the two-handed shake for me, saying “Brother Burkes, you touched my heart today.” A few winked at me, saying, “You really told it like it is, pastor.”
As the line dwindled, I peered past the man I was greeting to see the approach of a rather critical relative. A minute later, she faced me with me both barrels.
“Great sermon, Pastor Burkes.” She paused long enough for me to believe this was a compliment.
Then she said, “But where was Norris?”
My brain processed her coded comment for two seconds. I didn’t need a cereal box deciphering ring to understand her meaning.
I’d wrapped myself in my pastoral role, insulated from anguish. I’d shown up as Pastor Burkes, but locked Norris in the grief closet.
What kind of witness had I really proclaimed? To my critic, it seemed as though my father’s death transformed me into Smiling Joe Evangelist. I’d consumed a highly toxic dose of denial trying to convince myself that I was wrong to grieve.
Three months later I took my critic’s comments into my first job as a hospital chaplain. Soon they became part of a maturing wisdom I shared with patients and family. “When bad things happen” I told them, “God will give you strength, but he will also give tears in equal measure.”
While 1 Thessalonians 4:13 cautions people of faith to not carry on as “those who have no hope,” Eccl 3:4 gives counterbalance, saying “there is a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.”
Which is to say, God sustains us with resilience by baptizing us in our mourning. But in the end, “he has made everything beautiful in its time.” Eccl 3:11
By the way, if you’ve read my past columns, you’ll know that the time to laugh comes at the same time I begin to dance.
Contact Chaplain Norris at [email protected] or 10556 Combie Rd. Suite 6643 Auburn, CA 95602 or voicemail (843) 608-9715.