The Reason Christians Sing at Funerals

The following are words I spoke last week (16 October) at a Wake Service for K P Waran, the legendary Malaysian Journalist and Executive Editor at The New Straits Times, Malaysia. (I am related to him by marriage.)

I recall these words today, my 59th birthday, against the background of this verse from the Bible (Ecclesiastes 7:2):

”It is better to go to the house of mourning
than to go to the house of feasting,
for this is the end of all mankind,
and the living will lay it to heart.”

What is Christian worship and why are we doing it now?

The American author Annie Dillard once compared worship to a play we have been rehearsing for 2,000 years, but haven’t worked out the kinks. We rehearse this play called Christian worship because we want to refresh our memory of our part in the Christian story. And that is what the services around a funeral are all about.

Someone we love has died. So, once again we get out our old scripts, assemble on stage and act out one more time the great and hopeful drama of how the Christian life moves from death to life. None of us is an expert at this. Some of us limp, all of us have trouble remembering our lines and many weep as they move across the stage, singing songs with titles such as these – which we will sing this evening:

Hosanna in the highest
Amazing grace
Still
Jesus lover of my soul
Abide with me

We are who we are. Every one of us is flawed. We will never work out the kinks. But that’s not the goal. The goal is to know this story in this play so well that we know it by heart.

The Christian view of death

At death we have to move a body here and there. It is the gospel story which tells us the truth about where the “here” and the “there” are.

The good news of the Christian story says the “here” is the life we have shared in faith and the “there” is the place in the arms of God to which our brother or sister has gone.

According to those who are tutored by Christ, all of life is a journey, a pilgrimage toward “a safe lodging and a holy rest, and peace at the last.”

The Christian life, whether it is that of someone who was baptised weeks ago or decades ago, is shaped in the pattern of Christ’s own life and Death. The apostle Paul summed it up in his letter to Christians in Rome:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Romans 6:3-5)

We believe our brother has not passed away. We believe he has passed on, to what a Christian song writer called “that beautiful shore.” That is so especially powerful an expression for a sailor like Waran.

Christians believe in the resurrection of the body

Christians do not believe a dead body can “pollute” them. We will not wash ourselves before we re-enter our homes tonight or after the funeral.

Though we will cremate the body of Waran, to return him to the dust from which he, like us, is made, we believe he, together with us, will be resurrected. Our confidence lies in our belief in the resurrection of Christ.

The brilliant and much celebrated Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, for a very long time did not believe Christ was resurrected. About twenty years after he rejected belief in the resurrection of Christ, he changed his mind. He wrote:

The closing words of the Apostolic Creed in which the Christian hope of the fulfilment of life is expressed, were, as I remember it, an offence and a stumbling block to young theologians at the time my generation graduated from theological seminaries. … We were not certain we could honestly express our faith in such a formula …

The twenty years that divide that time from this have brought great changes in theological thought. … Yet some of us have been persuaded to take the stone which was then rejected and make it the head of the corner. In other words, there is no part of the Apostles’ Creed which, in our present opinion, expresses the whole genius of the Christian faith more nearly than just the despised phrase: “I believe in the resurrection of the body.”

Friends, I have spoken tonight about why Christians conduct services of worship and why we have done so tonight: I said we re-enact a play about the gospel story to remind ourselves of the part we have in it. I have spoken about what Christians believe about death: I said we think it is not a passing away but a passing on, a passing to, to a better place. And I have spoken about the resurrection of Christ, something we once rejected, but has now become the centre of our faith.

Kathrika!

I end with this brinjal, called in Tamil, kathrika. I have chosen kathrika to remind you of Waran, the son, brother, friend, boss, father, husband par excellence.

One of those who wrote tributes to Waran on Facebook said Waran would yell kathrika! when he came across something which he believed to be wrong and must be changed. As editor, he asked his writers to make changes, to make corrections.

One of the striking things about the glowing messages which have poured out about Waran is that no one said Waran is a Christian. That is so, my friends, because it was only in the last years of his life, in the last weeks of his life, that he said kathrika! to his prior beliefs about the resurrection. Waran believed Christ was raised from the dead, and he began to centre and to align his life around Christ.

Like Niebuhr and many others before him, Waran changed his mind. He asked to be baptised, to declare that he was a Christian. When you recall him, remember this too: Waran, the great story teller, chose to be part of a greater story, the Christian story.

I am indebted to Thomas Long’s book “Accompany Them with Singing: The Christian Funeral” for much of the material I have included here. I warmly commend it to you.

This article was first published in Rest Stop Thoughts

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