Lessons from the House of Mourning

“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.”

Ecclesiastes 7:2

Last weekend I attended a graduation and a funeral. On Friday night our daughter, Kate, graduated from the nursing program at VCU, on Saturday there was a celebration of life at RGC for Bruce Mika. In 24 hours I experienced both the mourning and the feasting the preacher of Ecclesiastes describes above.

As much as we all enjoy parties, weddings, births, graduations, and the like, God reminds us here that there are valuable and vital lessons to be learned standing at the side of a grave, or seated in a memorial service. Why is it better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasting? What are we, the living, to lay into our hearts during such times? Following are five lessons I’m learning from going to the house of mourning.

  1. Death is coming for each one of us.

This may seem obvious, but do we really believe this? When we are young we can feel immortal and be ready to take enormous risks because death may seem such a remote possibility. As we age, our culture constantly reinforces to us that we can look young, stay strong, be fit, and keep postponing the inevitable. Who talks about death? Our movies and news may be full of death, but most of us are utterly unprepared to encounter death personally. “We now keep death at a distance” writes Rob Moll[1], leaving us unprepared for our own death and also uncertain with how to visit and care for the dying and  grieving. The house of mourning reminds us that, sooner or later, death is coming for each of us.

  1. Funerals are time to take stock of our own lives.

We attend memorial services and celebrations of life to remember a family member or a friend who has passed away (see how it’s more comfortable for me to say “passed away” than “died”?). Yet the wise will do well to do some self-reflection during these times. We live in an age when we are constantly on the move, endlessly connected through our devices to an endless stream of voices and visuals. When do we stop, get quiet, and reflect on who we are and how we are living? Funerals are a gift to do this. This morning, I read in my Bible the final words over King Jehoram: “He was thirty-two years old when he began to reign, and he reigned eight years in Jerusalem. And he departed to no one’s regret.” (2 Chronicles 21:20).  He was rich and powerful, and no one missed him when he was gone. At the house of mourning we can take stock of how we are living now in light of how we hope to be remembered then.

  1. The surprising impact of a quiet life, lived well for God’s glory.

My experience with Bruce Mika was that he was a quiet man. He wasn’t the life of the party; he was the guy who made sure the supplies were there to make the party happen. I never saw him on TV, never read about him in the newspaper. He never held a prominent leadership role in our church, he didn’t live in a mansion or write best-selling books. Yet over 500 people packed into our building last Saturday to honor a man who was a quiet servant. He pulled sound cable and soldered wires, quietly volunteering hundreds or more likely thousands of hours to make the sound system in our building work. He loved his wife, cared deeply for his children. He worked hard at his job and was honest and reliable. He served. One of his friends commented to me that, visiting him in the hospital, she’d never seen his hands so clean. Normally, she said, there’d be oil under his fingernails, usually from working on someone else’s car. At the house of mourning we can learn that a quiet life lived for the glory of God can have an enormous impact.

  1. This life is the dot, not the line.

Our world does a poor job of teaching us that there is a life to come, that our days in this life are no more than a vapor, a dot on a line that stretches to eternity. Funerals remind us of this, as we hear voices like these:

“…you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God,  and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.”

1 Thessalonians 1:9-10

“Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.”

1 John 3:2

“you…by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”

1 Peter 1:5

  1. Jesus is a great Redeemer.

When Bruce was in his early 20’s, he was, as he put it, on a highway to jail. He was a daily user of alcohol and drugs, he was going nowhere in his career, and he was in trouble with the law. Who could have predicted then that he would become the man we honored last Saturday? Yet when he encountered Jesus and became a committed follower, his life took a dramatically different path. Christ set him free to be a servant to so many of us. The Spirit transformed him into a steady, faithful man who kept his promises and who patiently endured years of suffering from leukemia. The house of mourning reminds me that people can change, for better or worse, and the gospel is still the power of God for salvation to all who call upon God through Christ.

Mark Mullery

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[1] Rob Moll, The Art of Dying, p. 16.