Sunday Devotions: Joel's Funeral
Psalm 95, Psalm 103, Romans 8
O come, let us sing to the Lord;
let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!
Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;
let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!
Our lectionary psalm for today is a call to worship, a call that reaches us differently in different circumstances.
Too often, the call to worship is the familiar sound of a call to routine. O come, for it is that certain time on that certain day when we always go to a certain place to sing the same songs to the Lord.
Every so often, though, we are so full of joy and gratitude that we need no prompting. If we don’t actually tell others, Come, let us sing to the Lord, our very lives shine forth the invitation to worship.
And then there are the occasions when the call to worship has to penetrate layers of doubt or grief or fear to be heard as even a whisper. At such times, we don’t need a reminder to gather for worship, but encouragement to come into God’s presence with whatever we have to offer, however little it sounds like thanksgiving or praise. O come, for you can do this; let us groan in pain and cry out in anger to the rock of our salvation!
That’s what it felt like to read this psalm yesterday, on the way to a funeral for a friend who died of cancer at age 40, leaving behind his wife and their three young children.
It had been a few years since I’d last seen Joel. He and I had attended the same church for over a decade, started families at about the same time, and chatted about Bethel (where Joel had studied, college and seminary, and occasionally taught). When my family moved to a different church, he and I lost touch. However, our kids have the same piano teacher, so as everyone returned from COVID last spring, Joel and I ran into each other at the spring recital.
I couldn’t believe my eyes. Joel was an athlete, a former basketball player who ran marathons, but he looked so depleted that I wasn’t sure how he was standing upright. Layers of clothing kept him from shivering on a warm evening in late May.
Joel had won an earlier bout with cancer, but it was back, and it had metastasized. He looked healthier the last time I saw him, at the Christmas piano recital, and I hoped for a miraculous recovery. But before we were too far into the new year, I heard that Joel had entered hospice care. He died on the 1st; ten days later we gathered for his memorial service.
For the Lord is a great God
and a great King above all gods….
O come, let us worship and bow down;
let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!
Psalm 95:3, 6
Today’s psalm is part of a series extolling the virtues of God as king, the righteous lawgiver and mighty lord who protects his people. But it’s no easy thing to proclaim the just power of God at the funeral of a faithful man cut down in the middle of a rich, fulfilling life. “Bless the Lord… who heals all your diseases” (Ps 103:2-3), read one of Joel’s closest friends, except that he said distresses instead of diseases. Another reader could barely speak the hopeful words of Romans 8 through a voice choked by raw grief.
And yet, at the very hour when any reasonable person could have begun to doubt that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us” (Rom 8:18), I felt the flickering of grace in the words of a song sung with tender strength by its writer:
I can't remember a trial or a pain
He did not recycle to bring me gain
I can't remember one single regret
In serving God only and trusting His hand
All I have need of, His hand will provide
He's always been faithful to me
His hand. The same hand that formed valleys and peaks, land and seas (Ps 95:4-5), the hand that formed humanity out of the dust to which we shall all return,that hand holds each and every one of us in its protective grasp: “For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand” (Ps 95:7).
Slowly, I realized that all of us called to gather in that sanctuary were being held by that hand. For God was tending to us his sheep through the final work of a pastor he had called to ministry: Joel himself.
We learned that Joel had not only selected every song, scripture, and prayer in the service, but written the very remembrances that two close friends shared. A hospital chaplain who had spent his career tending to the spiritual needs of the sick and the dying — too many of them children — and comforting those who survived them, Joel knew the words his friends needed to say, the words that all of us needed to hear.
As strengthened in spirit as he was weakened in body, Joel loved his family and friends to the end, as God had loved him. As God loves each of us — with a love from which nothing in all of creation — not cancer, not death itself — can separate us (Rom 8:39).
So come — out of sorrow or out of joy, or even out of habit — and this morning let us enter God’s presence with thanksgiving. And let us give thanks for the work and witness of his servant Joel.
Next week I’ll resume my series on the Lord’s Prayer. But if you want to keep following along with the lectionary, those readings are 1 Samuel 16:1-13, Psalm 23, John 9:1-41, and Ephesians 5:8-14.
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“For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust” (Ps 103:14).