Life is a Miracle. Death is a Mystery.

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A longtime friend of Terry’s and mine, Doreen Bohrer, passed away last week. She was a pastor’s wife, talented musician, great polka dancer, dedicated educator, and gifted administrator. She loved the Lord, loved life, and loved her family.

Her memorial service was held earlier this week at Christ Lutheran Church in Austin. A good friend of mine, Dr. Bill Knippa, preached and led the service. I was also invited to participate by reading scripture, leading the prayers, and offering these pastoral comments:

It’s never easy to lose a loved one, either after a long illness or unexpectedly and inexplicably. Death is a part of life. Old Testament King David said: “We are here for only a moment, visitors and strangers in the land as our ancestors were before us. Our days on earth are like a passing shadow, gone so soon without a trace.” 1 Chron. 19:14-15

Who can understand the miracle of life and the mystery of death? Life is a miraculous co-mingling of systems: circulatory, digestive, endocrine, exocrine, lymphatic, muscular, nervous, renal, reproductive, respiratory, and skeletal, each working with the others to sustain in the body what we call life.  

Death is a deep, dark mystery. One moment a person is warm, animated, conversant, mobile, alive. The next moment the body of that same person is cold, still, silent, vacant, dead. A beautiful woman or handsome man in a casket deteriorates into a pile of dust and a box of bones or is reduced in a cremation furnace into only a pile of ashes. Death is a reality of life that awaits us all. 

The most helpful insight I’ve ever heard about life and death came from Terry’s and my own daughter. When she was three years old, little Angie asked the thoughtfully perceptive question: “Daddy, when a person dies does he take off his body?”

For a moment I was completely stumped! After reflecting and recovering, I replied: “Yes. That’s exactly what happens when a person dies.” To this day, over 45 years later, I still turn to that insightful understanding when death occurs.

To me, the most easily understandable explanation of life is that everyone has a body in which that person’s soul or spirit, that person’s real being, resides as long as he or she is living on this earth. When death occurs, that person’s soul or spirit leaves the body and moves on. Angie had it right. The person who dies takes off his or her body and leaves it behind.

That’s what’s in the box in this sanctuary – the physical body inherited and inhabited by the soul, the spirit, the real being, the true essence of the woman we knew and loved. That body was baptized in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That body was the home of a soul redeemed by the blood of Christ. That body was the temple of the Holy Spirit. That body contained the woman who lived her life as both saint and sinner.

Where has that real being gone, the soul or spirit that animated her body for over 79 years? Jesus answers that question: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

The real being that resided in this body has gone out of this world to eternal life in heaven. Eternal means everlasting, undying, perpetual, endless, ceaseless, timeless, infinite, immortal, never ending.  

It’s hard to comprehend how someone can go on living or existing forever, in a place where the pain and problems of this earth no longer exist. But that’s the promise of God, through Christ our Lord.

Believing that promise gives me hope. And I pray it gives hope and comfort to each of you as well!

Doreen had taken time in advance of her death to plan her memorial service. It’s tough for family to try to guess what their departed loved one might have wanted. Taking care of those important details is a great relief to an already grieving family.

We at Legacy Deo have a Funeral Planning Guide – Celebrating  Victory in Christ – available to you at no cost. Request your electronic or printed copy by emailing me GBJK@LegacyDeo.org.

God bless your day!

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The Precious Gift of Life

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“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…Then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” That’s how the book of Genesis describes the beginning of life on earth.

Since the time of creation, mankind has survived tragedy and trauma, death and devastation. People have experienced joys and sorrows, blessings and difficulties, victories and defeats.

Through it all, the precious gift of life has been passed from one generation to another. The normal cycle of life is for babies to be born and for old people to die. But things don’t always happen as predictably as that.

This week Terry and I attended a memorial service for the daughter of a longtime friend, Nita Horn. I buried Nita’s husband 33 years ago. In the past few years she’s also lost her son, son-in-law, and daughter. That’s not the way things are supposed to be, even for a 90 year old.

Also consider the seemingly countless number of recent incidences of unexpected violence. Yet another one occurred this past Sunday at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.

Like many of the 3,000 small towns in Texas, Sutherland Springs was virtually unknown until last Sunday. Now this small community about 30 miles east of San Antonio is etched into the memories of people around the world, all because of the demonic act of one man who killed 26 people in a church. Many of them were children, with most of their expected life ahead of them.

In all cases where life is lost, especially unexpectedly, I’m struck anew by the precious gift of life and how fragile that gift really is. So take a moment to call, write, or in any way possible to tell someone you love how precious he or she is to you. And thank God for bringing that person into your life.

Memorial Service for +Ralph Arthur Bohlmann+

Ralph BohlmannFor God So Loved the World (John 3:16-17)

Jesus said: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. 

I Am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life (John 14:1-3, 6)

Jesus also said: “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also… I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Grace, mercy, and peace, from God our Father and from our Lord Jesus Christ!

The first time I saw Ralph Bohlmann was at the national LCMS convention in Dallas in 1977. He was a distinguished looking man who spoke eloquently, evangelically and pastorally about a matter of great importance. I was quite impressed with his obvious leadership skill and ability. Little did I know what the Lord had in store for him and littler did I know what the Lord had in store for me. I certainly never expected to be here today.

During our years in St. Louis from 2001-2010, Terry and I were together with Ralph and his wife Pat on a number of enjoyable occasions. I also had the privilege of taking Dr. Bohlmann to lunch on his birthday, almost annually. Often Sam Nafzger was with us. Both are theological giants whose friendship I will always cherish.

The occasion that brings us to this place on this day at this hour is the death of a man who was dearly loved and deeply respected by many. His service as parish pastor, CTCR leader, professor and president of Concordia Seminary in St. Louis and president of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod demonstrated humility, integrity, keen intellect and a heart for the Gospel of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

In addition, notwithstanding the attention and accolades bestowed upon those who serve in such positions of responsibility and notoriety, Ralph Bohlmann took seriously his duties as husband, father and grandfather. Like many of us in public ministry of any kind, the stresses and stretches on his time and energy no doubt at least occasionally and perhaps more often than he would have liked, demanded his attention, diverted his priorities and diluted the quality of time spent with his wife, his children and grandchildren. Many of us can identify with that from our own personal experience!

Be that as it may, Ralph Bohlmann dearly loved his wife Pat, their son Paul, their daughter Lynn, and their grandsons Jesse and Lucas. You are the ones most personally affected by the death of a man you knew as Dad and Grandpa. You are the ones who will miss the sound of his voice on the phone, the warmth of the hugs he shared when you were together and the security of knowing he was there to lean on in times when only a father or grandfather can provide what’s needed. But now he’s gone. He died.

That’s a painful statement! He died. It’s a dark mystery, this thing called death. How can it be that one moment a person is warm, animated, conversant, mobile and alive, while the very next moment the body of that same person is cold, still, silent, vacant and dead? How can it be that a beautiful woman or a handsome man can over time deteriorate into a pile of dust and a box of bones?

The most helpful insight I’ve ever heard about life and death came from my own daughter, when she was three years old. As I stepped out of the shower in preparation for the funeral of a beloved member of the congregation I was serving at the time, I was greeted by little Angie, who asked the thoughtfully perceptive question: “Daddy, when a person dies does he take off his body?”

For a moment I was completely stumped, by my three year old daughter! As I reflected and recovered, I replied: “Yes! That’s exactly what happens when a person dies!” And to this day, over 40 years later, I still turn to that insightful understanding when death occurs.

The ancients used to think of life as consisting of three parts: body, soul and spirit. In my simple way of thinking, it’s hard to distinguish between soul and spirit, so I simply speak of body and soul or body and spirit. To me, the most easily understandable explanation of life is that everyone has a body in which that person’s soul or spirit, that person’s real being, resides as long as he or she is living on this earth. When death occurs, that person’s soul or spirit leaves the body behind and moves on. Angie had it right. The person who dies takes off his or her body and leaves it behind.

That’s what’s in this box. The physical body inherited and inhabited by the soul, the spirit, the real being, the true essence of the man we knew as Ralph Bohlmann, Dad, Grandpa. This body was baptized in the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This body was the home of a soul redeemed by the blood of Christ. This body was the temple of the Holy Spirit. This body contained the man Ralph Bohlmann, who lived his life as both saint and sinner.

So then, where in the world has the real being gone, the soul or spirit of Ralph Bohlmann that animated his body for 84 years? Jesus himself answers that question: 16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

That’s the answer. The real being that resided in this body for over eight decades has gone to eternal life. Eternal life. Ever wonder what that’s like? I have. And still do. Eternal means everlasting, undying, perpetual, endless, ceaseless, timeless, infinite, immortal, and never ending.

My brain says “Hold it! That doesn’t compute! I can’t begin to comprehend how life can never end because my experience this side of heaven tells me that everyone I’ve ever known has had or will have, at some point in time, an ending.” I simply cannot understand how someone can go on living or existing forever. But that’s the promise of God. Believing that promise gives me hope.

The words of Jesus read a few moments ago give us not only hope but also assurance. God so loved the world … How much did he love the world? So much that he gave … his Son … his only Son. And unless you’re unfamiliar with the basic beliefs of Christianity, you know what that gift cost God the Father—the very life of his only Son, Jesus.

Terry and I have a son. I love him very much. I love him and the other members of my family more than I love anyone else in the world. I don’t love the world enough to give up my son. I’m not God. God is God. And God gave his Son to this world for a purpose.

St. John writes: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” What would cause God to love the world and its inhabitants, even the most unlovable person you can think of, so much that he would send his Son to a painful death on the cross for the life and salvation of the world and everyone in it?

The Bible says “God is love.” (1 John 4:16) A God of love is constrained to do what he is. Parents love their children and are willing to do anything to protect and save them from harm and danger. God is our Father. He loves us. He was willing to do anything to save and protect us from eternal condemnation, even to sacrifice his Son on the altar of a cross.

The sacrifice Jesus paid is the sacrifice that ended all sacrifices. Instead of bringing animals to temples to be killed so their blood can be sprinkled on the altar and their flesh consumed with fire to gain the attention of God in heaven so he will look down with favor upon his sinful people, as the Old Testament people were commanded to do, we look to Jesus, the Lamb of God. His death on the cross has taken away the sin of the world, once and for all and assures eternal life for all who accept this free gift!

Jesus spoke of his love for the world: “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”

That’s where Ralph Bohlmann has been since Sunday evening. That’s where Pat Bohlmann has been since September 14, 2012. That’s where my father and Terry’s parents are. That’s where your loved ones are whose life on earth has ended in faith. That’s where, by the grace of God, you and I will also be someday when our life here on earth is over. And in the place that Jesus has prepared for us, we will spend eternity with him.

Although impossible to confirm veracity beyond the shadow of a doubt, testimonies from people who have gone through what is called a “near death experience” in a place appearing to be heaven give a glimpse of the eternal life awaiting believers in Christ.

These near death experiences occurred when individuals were thought and even in many instances declared to be clinically dead, usually as a result of traumatic injury, drowning, choking, auto accident, etc., but later came back to life.

People who have had such an experience have repeatedly testified, as reported in a book titled “Imagine Heaven,” that they saw a man “wearing a robe of brilliant white light down to his ankles, held together by a gold sash, with piercing eyes that see right into your soul, yet also draw you in with a magnetic warmth and love.” They also experienced reunification with family members, both previously known and unknown.

That sounds an awful lot like the way I picture Jesus and life in heaven. Imagine a life that never ends in the presence of someone who draws you near with warmth and love. That someone is Jesus! Imagine being reunited with loved ones forever. That is heaven!

And how do we get there? One day Jesus saw Thomas, who later doubted that Jesus had really come back to life after his crucifixion and burial. Jesus said to Thomas: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Jesus is the way to eternal life. Jesus is the only way to eternal life!

Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles! The Jesus who spent lots of time on earth hanging out with sinners, including prostitutes and tax collectors, looks at you and at me the same way he looked at them. Not as saints whose lives were perfect but as people who are lost and in need of a Savior.

The same Jesus who brought his dear friend Lazarus back to life even after Lazarus had been buried in a tomb for four days has promised to bring us back to life someday. And though Lazarus died again, he, with all believers in Christ, has been given a life that never ends. That’s the life awaiting you, me and all believers in Christ.

So it is that a stranger to Christianity might walk into this beautiful chapel and observe a crowd of people mourning the loss of a beloved father, grandfather and highly respected church leader, yet singing songs without grieving as those who have no hope.

A few moments ago we sang “Abide with me.” It’s a beautiful hymn, solemn in spirit, rich in meaning, courageous in confronting the end of life on earth:

  • Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory? I triumph still if Thou abide with me!
  • In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.

And as we say in Texas, we’re fixin’ to sing “O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come. Be Thou our guard while troubles last and our eternal home!” I encourage you to sing from your heart the words from this hymn that provide hope for the future.

Sing this hymn with thankful hearts that the God of the universe loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, that everyone might have eternal life! He died for all! That’s the great news we Christians are called to proclaim to the people of the world who live in doubt, in darkness, in despair.

And sing with thanksgiving and joy in your heart that Jesus has gone to prepare a place for you and for me, even as Ralph and Pat Bohlmann already abide in the place he has prepared for them!

My prayer for you, Paul, Lynn, Jesse and Lucas, is that your hearts will be filled with constant hope and quiet joy. Remember the time you spent with the man whose vacated body, redeemed by the blood of Jesus, is in this box. And look forward to the time when you will see him again, in heaven, where life eternal will be yours as well.

In the Name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit! Amen!

 

Funeral/Memorial Service/Celebration of Life

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Funeral/Memorial Service/Celebration of Life

Those are all words that mean different things to different people. Essentially similar, they are events precipitated by death and usually take place in a church, a funeral home or a cemetery.

Early in my ministry I dreaded conducting a funeral service, which is the term we used in those days. Today, at a much different stage of life and ministry, I see these events as opportunities for heart to heart conversation with those in attendance about topics that truly matter to every person. So while I don’t look forward to funerals, neither do I dread conducting them.

When I attend a funeral or memorial service or celebration of life I listen closely for answers to questions about the nature of life, death, eternity, heaven, hell, sin, grace, hope, assurance and resurrection. And when I conduct one, I take great care to address these fundamental questions.

These days of my life, I’m more likely to attend than to conduct. When the service is nothing more than nice words about the nice guy in the large or little box that becomes the visual and emotional focal point for attendees, I leave the church or funeral home or cemetery with some emotions:

  • Sorrow for the loved ones of the deceased, who received little, if any, lasting comfort.
  • Regret that those in attendance left with as many questions as they had when they came.
  • Sadness that unbelievers in the audience didn’t hear the precious word of Christ’s love.
  • Anger at a wasted opportunity to influence eternally at an impressionable moment.
  • Frustration that the pastor didn’t comprehend the real needs of the people at his feet.
  • Concern that this might be the only opportunity for someone to hear the Gospel.

My words of encouragement to pastors who conduct a burial service are these:

  • Don’t be afraid to talk about death, including the inevitability of your own.
  • Remind attendees that they, like the deceased before them, will end up in a box.
  • Address from the crucible of experience the miracle of life and the mystery of death.
  • Freely quote from Scripture what God says about life after death.
  • Carefully distinguish Law and Gospel, using both to touch lives and hearts.
  • Pray fervently for the Spirit’s movement in those lives and hearts.

In so doing, a funeral or memorial service can truly become a celebration of life!

May the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you always!