by Matthew C. Harrison
“Pastor, I’ve got a problem.” I’ll never forget that statement and the 90-year-old man who said it to me while I visited him in an aged care facility. “What’s wrong, Henry?” I replied. “Pastor, I can’t die.” Henry was done. He felt useless. He wasn’t in his own home. And he wanted to see Jesus. Can you imagine that strange frustration? None of us can until we’ve faced it ourselves. Henry knew Jesus then, and now he knows his Savior face-to-face.
What even to say to such a profound saint? Answer: The important words are not mine, but the Lord’s. “In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins …” “Our Father who art in heaven …” “Take, eat … Take, drink; this is the true blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, shed for the forgiveness of your sins.” “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace according to Thy word …” “The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make His face shine upon you and be gracious unto you. The Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace. Amen.”
I muttered a few thoughts. “Henry, I know exactly why you’re still alive. It’s your job right now to show your family how a Christian man dies believing in Jesus.” And the Lord preserved old Henry and gave him all he needed to do just that. What a joy and honor was mine as his pastor to care for him and comfort him at that crucial time in his long life.
Pastors see a lot of death and a lot of funerals. Sometimes it’s all too much, burying friends and dear brothers and sisters in Christ one has known for decades. Familiarity with death never makes it easier, but ministering to the dying so many times takes away the unfamiliarity of what’s coming next. I suppose it helps pastors hold it together when others are falling apart. Pastors share the certainty of the resurrection of Christ as they are able to be present, calm and helpful to those facing the death of a loved one.
Most LCMS congregations are small. This means that most pastors know their parishioners well and can spend significant time with the dying. It’s a profound honor. I discovered something quite remarkable early on as a pastor. I always check the church records for a confirmation verse and use it as the sermon text, or at least as a strong theme in the sermon. It’s remarkable how often the verse fits the life of the person. I recall thinking for years that those old pastors really knew what they were doing when they chose verses for each child. I’m sure they did. But then it struck me. I became convinced that because “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Heb. 4:12), this very Word, placed upon a person in blessing, shapes lives. You will not convince me otherwise.
I often say that one of the greatest blessings of being a pastor is that people invite you into their lives to speak God’s Word at the best times, but also at the worst and saddest. And it’s a profound honor to do both for the same people. Funerals are often sad, sometimes tragic. But we have Christ. The funeral service in our Lutheran Service Book brings Jesus at every turn. The hymns sung at the deathbed and then at the funeral strengthen and encourage and point to Christ. Indeed, the truly valuable hymns have something to say in the hour of death. The Word of God and its strong testimony to Jesus and His resurrection is our only hope. And Jesus brings joy, even in death and sorrow. “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thess. 4:13–14).
The “problem of death” becomes a great opportunity to confess Jesus and to show one’s loved ones how to die in Christ and live in the certainty of a resurrection just like His.