A pastor friend mentioned a while ago that, as pastors, we minister to the living about the living and the dead. It was an intriguing concept and one that I have often mused over when I find myself in those ministry situations.
When I have a dedication of a child (since we Baptists do not baptize infants) I often think of the future that this child will have. The parents, siblings and other relatives have been blessed by God with a new life – a life of opportunity, a life of struggles, and a life of achievements. In the words of Dr. Christy Wilson, we can proclaim the future with certainty because the future is as bright as the promises of God. It is not our knowledge of the future or ability to predict what will happen that makes us optimistic, but our faith in the gracious and good God.
On the opposite side are our words to those grieving for the dead. A number of years ago, a young lady called me to talk about her mother whose funeral I have done a couple of months ago. The eulogy was done by a member of the family. It was filled with wonderful memories and they followed the Jewish proverb which says that in the day of grief one should be kind to the dead. I was given the information by the funeral director that she was a member of a Baptist Church and I was able to find the time when she was baptized and some of the activities that she has done. I received enough material to create a wonderful worship service.
What I said in the service made the daughter think and so she gave me a call. She was aware of all the data that I was given, but there was also a long interim phase. Her mother went astray and lived a very sinful life. The daughter was taken in by other members of the family and grew up with them. She reconciled with her mother and had some wonderful years, but then the mother succumbed to a horrible sickness. Whenever she would try to start a conversation about God, the mother cursed her and God.
Theological studies enable us to give all sorts of answers. One can talk about the fact that “once saved, a person is always saved.” In other words, God does not play salvation games with us – we are not saved one day and lost another day. One can talk about the fact that sometimes suffering has a purifying effect – God allows suffering in our bodies in order to purify us of all sorts of dross. One can also talk about the many things that can happen between God and a person in final moments, as it happened between the thief on the cross and Jesus. The recognition of the thief about who Jesus was brought him the assurance that the thief would be with Jesus in Paradise on that Good Friday afternoon.
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Pastorally, I want to live in the context of Isaiah who tells me, “Comfort, Comfort ye my people, bring good tidings to Zion.” The evidence in the story above was lopsided. What the daughter remembered was a person who during the life that she knew rarely, if ever, reflected any of the goodness of God based on the baptismal vows that she made. Was that conversion authentic? Was that baptism indeed a declaration of what had taken place inside the heart?
The harder the daughter pressed for answers, the less comfortable I was with my answers. It is true that our life is an indication of the one whom we serve – if we serve God we will reflect the goodness, graciousness, and love of God. If we serve the evil one, we will reflect the qualities that he is known for – evil, lies, discord, hate. I know that until the last moment the call of God to us is “Come to me.” Because of that, I cannot say who is in and who is out of the kingdom of God.
If I make a mistake, I would rather side with the angels and the wonderful mercy of God.