By Ken Gurly
Someone could reasonably ask, “Is any one service more special than the other?” I think this is a fair question, because we recognize that each time we gather in God’s house is indeed a special occasion filled with endless possibilities. Where two or three gather in His name, His matchless presence is in our midst. Yet, in the hearts and minds of people there are some occasions that are more significant than others.
Rites of passage from one phase of life to the next, significant transitions from the cradle to the grave—baby dedications, graduations, weddings, anniversaries, retirements, and funerals — should be commemorated and celebrated. Indeed, as natural families dissolve, the spiritual family plays an ever-increasing role in honoring these meaningful moments in members’ lives.
A minister is also called upon to speak at various church and ministerial functions such as anniversary services, groundbreakings, building dedications, and pastoral transitions. Each event presents unique opportunities to help people seize the moment, embrace some key thoughts, and look forward to the future. At special moments in Scripture, in places such as Moriah, Bethel, and Beersheba, God revealed Himself in special ways. Special events can unlock unique aspects of the divine.
In the fictional village of Anatevka, the impoverished Tevye and Golde struggled to marry off their five dowerless daughters. One of the potential suitors was a struggling tailor who saved enough to buy a used sewing machine. While the villagers busied themselves celebrating the tailor’s joy, the village rabbi appeared.
“Rabbi,” the townsfolk cried, “Is there a blessing for a sewing machine?”
“There is a blessing for everything,” the rabbi responded.
There is indeed a blessing for everything. We weep with those who weep; we rejoice with those who rejoice. This is at the heart of all special occasions.
When We Weep Together
A loss becomes more bearable when it is not borne alone.
We speak often about walking alone through valleys, but I sometimes wonder if this isn’t just the selfishness of sorrow speaking. By its nature, suffering tends to isolate. Our flesh wants nothing more than to raise the drawbridge, batten down the hatches, and shutter the windows. And, as is typical with fleshly responses, this is about the worst thing we can do.
The community of faith—the koinonia of spiritual fellowship—is essential during such times. When the disciples of John the Baptist heard the news that their mentor was dead, they mournfully buried his body and then promptly went to tell Jesus (Matthew 14:12). Some things cannot be borne alone.
If you are called upon to speak at an occasion marked by tears—whether it is a funeral, a memorial of a tragedy, or an event that marks a sorrowful transition, here are a few ways to keep the significance in view:
First, embrace the pain. I have listened to funeral sermons and wondered if I was in a funeral or a nursery graduation. I have heard poetry, stories, memories, and verbal tributes, but it never gets beneath the fifth rib. This is less about the sugarcoating of loss and more about being lost in the first stage of grief: denial. Someone must embrace the pain and say, “We have suffered a significant loss.”
Second, help make sense of it all. Admittedly, there are some losses for which there seems to be no rhyme or reason. As a new pastor I stood at the foot of three caskets of a new convert couple and their baby who were killed in a senseless head-on collision with a drunk driver. Yet, where there is a why in a hearer’s spirit, there is an opening for God to move. And there is always an opportunity to point them to Calvary where the most senseless slaying of the innocent by the wicked brought redemption for all.
Third, assure them of Heaven’s help and of a brighter day coming. We are never closer to God than when our spirits are broken and our hearts are crushed. When there’s nothing left but God, we have enough to start afresh. Remind the grieving of this.
Fourth, remember that grief rhymes with brief. Never more is the admonition to “stand up, speak up, and shut up” more applicable than in times of tears. This is true for a variety of reasons: first, you are probably one of several speakers and should respect the time limits; second, the attention span of a grieving person is incredibly brief; third, hurting people need more than words.
Fifth, make it personal. I was privileged to sit behind the families of the Challenger Seven at the NASA memorial service when then President Ronald Reagan gave his “surly bonds of earth” speech. Afterwards, he walked down to the families, looked each in the eye and thanked them for their sacrifices and assured them of his prayers. The press remembered his words; the families remembered his actions.
When We Rejoice Together
The weepers are many; the rejoicers are few. Consider the attendance at funerals over anniversary celebration. We wax in lamentation, but wane in celebration.
It was the desire of the father in the parable of the prodigal son that everyone joins in the festivities, but the older brother stayed away. Some people find reasons not to celebrate.
If you are asked to speak at a celebratory event—a wedding, anniversary, baby dedication, graduation, or such—make sure you add to the joy of the matter. Here are a few things you can do to add significance to and to heighten the joy of the moment:
First, make certain people know the what and who. This may seem obvious, but I have sat mystified through various services and meetings without knowing the purpose of the meeting. Confusion is a joy-killer. Also, it is good to emphasize who is being honored. Call the person’s name again and again. State, restate, underscore, embolden, highlight, and emphasize the identity of the person being honored and why the person is being honored.
Second, take the time to do some discovery. Know the timelines, personages, and significant events, that gave rise to the celebration. This helps you speak with confidence. Do some informal interviews in phone and email conversations. Understand the significance of the moment to make it more significant.
Third, find a memorable way to express your joy. One of the most beautiful services I remember was a pastoral transition service and the outgoing pastor presented the incoming pastor a shepherd’s staff. He talked about the role of a shepherd and how the sheep needed and looked to the pastor. That shepherd staff became a symbol of the pastoral office to everyone present and when the outgoing pastor placed it in the hands of the incoming pastor, it was over. More than anything else this cemented in peoples’ minds the identity of their shepherd.
Fourth, locate spiritual and historical parallels. Frame the time in the context of something significant. For example, if the special event takes place on a significant day that has meaning to the person, mention it and draw parallels. Perhaps the event itself is in a memorable place to the person or others. Again, mention it and draw the parallels.
Fifth, speak a blessing over the occasion. We often fail to recognize the power of such words. Remember the five elements of the patriarchal blessing in the Old Testament: appropriate and meaningful touch, words of love and acceptance, value placed on the child, acknowledgement of a special future, and genuine commitment. Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and when a person chooses to deliberately speak life into a joyful occasion, the significance is amplified.
A Few Final Thoughts
It is rare that a person can rehash the language and theme from a past special occasion for a present one. In fact, it is perhaps the greatest curse of such occasions—the recycled language of the past. Fresh bread is needed to keep the significance in each special occasion.
For example, I perform on average twelve to fifteen weddings each year. There are some things that are standard in each wedding: declaration of intent, question, vows, pronouncement, and presentation. Yet, the preacher should not fall into the habit of making each wedding a cookie-cutter of the previous one. In fact, the preacher should abide by the traditional dictum for the bride’s attire on her wedding day: “something old, something new.” Wedding vows remain the same, but the wedding message should change.
Finally, remember whose voice you really are. In any special occasion you speak for God, for the witnesses both visible and invisible, and for the past and future generations. You give voice to all who are truly important in the moment and out of it. You bring the eternal into the momentary, and this brings a high degree of relevance and a higher dose of significance.
The above article, “Making Special Services Significant,” is written by Ken Gurley. The article was excerpted from Forward Magazine.
The material is copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.