A while back, my wife and I attended the wake and memorial service of a friend from a prior church we attended. He was in his 50's, died unexpectedly, and left behind a wife and an adult daughter. It was hard to see him laying in that coffin, especially since he was only few years older than me. He was a faithful Christian and a hard worker, who also served his country and played the trombone like nobody's business. He was active on his church's worship team, and was always ready to lend a hand to whoever needed it. One of his more memorable traits was his boisterous and loud personality. He was always quick with a joke and would tell stories that you just know couldn't be all true. He was well liked, and the turn out at his church was great.
The memorial service was for the most part exactly what you'd expect. People paying tribute to a husband, father, brother and friend. We heard great stories and loving memories. They're was music and plenty of pictures and videos on the big screen. Then came time for some preaching. Discomfort quickly developed as I squirmed in my seat. The sermon compared my friend's life with the apostle Paul's life and faithfulness. We heard how he served and loved like Paul. We heard how faithful he was in doing whatever God called him to do like Paul. "So like Paul this friend was, so like this apostle. Surely he was sitting in God's throne room, blowing his trombone sweetly before God now."
And then "it" came…
It came with kindness and devoid of the harshness of the old-time preachers, damning people to hell, but it came nonetheless. That call for us to "examine our lives" and consider if we are serving like that, loving like that, worshipping like that. Are we being faithful like Paul and our brother here? I'm not using the exact words, but it was the gist of what the preacher was saying. He said it as he compared Paul's life of faithfulness and my friend's life lived. Like a checklist, the preacher marked off the accomplishments one at a time, so we might see this exemplary life and make it our example to strive for, to live out. Loving father? Check. Caring husband? Check. Sold out for God? BIG CHECK!
It all came rushing back as guilt and fear gripped me. I thought,"All my boxes are unchecked! I know certain people who would have hugged me, exclaiming about how great that is. "God is convicting you! Now, what are you going to do about it?" But… It wasn't conviction, it was guilt and condemnation all over again. It was fear of not measuring up. It was, "God will never say to me well done, good and faithful servant." I felt the air thicken around me as panic and worry set in, making it hard to breathe. Thoughts swirled around like a tornado in my head. "Why do I stay a Christian? Why do I bother? I'll never measure up to expectations and will always disappoint people around me." Yes, it happens that fast!
The pastor with noble intentions, was doing the best he can to present an opportunity for salvation to this captive audience of believers, backsliders, and heathens. I believe without hesitation, that he had genuine concern for me and everyone else there and wanted to see us all come to know this Christ or reaffirm our hope in him, that our friend who left us way too early, had. Maybe, hopefully, in that moment, God did use this final remembrance of our dear friend to stir hearts towards salvation and faith in Christ. I pray it so.
I know I can't expect this because of the type of church it was, but I wish that message could have been presented a little differently. I wish he would've had presented a picture of our friend as a man who loved and served both family and friends as well as God and Country, but did so out of what was done on his behalf not as accomplishment before God to prove to us his salvation was genuine. I wish the call that went out was that God saved our friend by no work of his own. That at the end of the day, how much you did in this world may or may not be cashed in for greater rewards before God, but what puts you before God, fully justified and completely redeemed from the curse of sin and death, is Christ. This Savior who lived a life to give you God's friendship, died to deflect any and all punishment you may have deserved and rose again to bring you life forever in his kingdom. I wish this message had not been, "check yourself", but "check yourself at the door because Christ has done it all for you!"
Our friend knew this, with all his faults and failures no different than our own. No words need ever be spoken, because our minds convict us daily. Our lips and actions betray us often. When they do, we have an advocate whispering forgiveness in the ear of the Father. He is reminding Him and us of those three precious words, "IT IS FINISHED!" When the checklist of "good Christian behavior" lays unmarked on the table, stained by old coffee rings, there is still no condemnation for you. That's what I want people to know. This is what Christ does for you. EVERYTHING!
Our friend knows this now. Better than the pastor who called for every head bowed and eye closed. Better than those that feel compelled to measure up to God's impossible standard to feel justified before him. And he knows it better than this weak-weary failure that does his best to express himself here before you now.
I lift my glass to you friend and honor the Savior who has rescued and redeemed you. You left us all way too soon. If you are pulling on that trombone in God's throne room, it's because he loves you terrifically.
A theological misfit landing in the area of Lutheranism, Dominick has come to deeply appreciate the truth of scripture as defined by the distinction between Law and Gospel. He has found freedom in knowing that Christ is his substitute on even his worst days. He has been for the course of his church life everything from chair-stacker to men's ministry leader. He is blessed with a wonderful wife and two great young men, which he can say without a doubt, he doesn't deserve. He counts among his favorite things: Star Trek, classic superhero comics, movies, Yankees and yes, he admits to it, the Knicks. He enjoys a good conversation and good food. Finally, he is grateful for the opportunity to share the message of God's Grace among all these great teachers, pastors and theologians and hopes he doesn't mess up big time. But then again, that's what grace is for, right?