As the prelude music to R.C. Sproul’s funeral service faded, Pastor Don Bailey emerged from the darkness and stepped to the podium.
Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised, and his greatness is unsearchable... My mouth will speak the praise of the Lord, and let all flesh bless his holy name forever and ever,” he said, reading from Psalm 145.
Then, on behalf of the Sproul family, he welcomed those gathered.
Notice that he opened the funeral with God-breathed words, not his own. They set the tone in a way that no other words could. That reading of Psalm 145 declared the eternal truth of God’s nature, captured the heartbeat of R.C.’s ministry, and ministered to the need of the hour.
When I was a seminary student, I was required to interview a pastor to learn about conducting funeral services. In that interview, Dr. Roy Blackwood emphatically stated that the pastor’s first words at a funeral or memorial service ought to be God’s words.
And so, Dr. Blackwood helpfully instructed me, the opening words of the funeral ought never be something like:
We welcome you today...”
“On behalf of the family...”
“John was a great friend to many of you...”
“We gather to remember…”
“Let us turn to Scripture...”
Rather, use words such as:
The Lord is my shepherd…” from Psalm 23
“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God…” from Isaiah 40
"The Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble; he knows those who take refuge in him." from Nahum 1
“I am the resurrection and the life…” from John 11
“What then shall we say to these things?…” from Romans 8
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort… from 2 Corinthians 1
These or another suitable text of Scripture should fill the ears of those who have gathered to grieve, remember, and hope.
Time and again, I have seen the wisdom of these words as I have led funerals and watched them be led. No words speak to mourners like the living word of God. No words set the tone for a service like Scriptural words of comfort. No words arrest the attention of casual observers like the words of the risen Christ.
Pastors, remember this: let your opening words at every funeral be the words of the living God.
Finally, note that this article is specifically for pastors. Yes, this is out of the ordinary at Gentle Reformation where we aim “to consider the people in the pews rather than professors and pastors as our primary audience.”
So, if you are one of the people in the pews, please pray for and encourage your pastor in his work. Give him grace if you see him open a funeral otherwise than with Scripture. The counsel of this article is merely meant to be a word of wisdom; it is not a divine directive. And, for those of you in the pews, apply the same principle by using God's words as of first priority when you comfort your grief-stricken friends personally.