By Grace Thornton
GREENVILLE, S.C. — In 37 years as a pastor, Rudy Gray sat at the bedside of many terminally ill church members. He stood at gravesides with many grieving families. He sought to speak comforting words — at least he hopes they were comforting.
But one thing he is sure of — he wasn’t fully ready to deal with bereavement in his early years of ministry.
“I think that’s one of the things most pastors aren’t thoroughly prepared for when they launch out into the ministry,” said Gray, now editor of South Carolina Baptists’ publication the Baptist Courier.
Questions swirled in his heart, practical questions in the midst of emotional moments. How do you best take care of a grieving family? What about cremation — should he support it or not? Should he always pray for the healing of terminally ill people, or are there times when — and reasons why — he shouldn’t?
“Some of these issues can be hot topics,” Gray said.
For that reason, years later as he led The Courier, Gray decided to use his pre-pastoral training as a journalist to bring a balanced look at all the parts of the conversation into one resource for pastors and church members.
That vision materialized as the July edition of the publication, with the cover, first section and concluding editorial dedicated to the subject of death and dying.
“We just wanted to provide as much information as we could so that people could read all the points of view in one place,” Gray said.
In the opening story, managing editor Butch Blume lays out a number of practical questions, from whether visitation should be held the same day as the funeral to the choice between burial and cremation.
“Ministers in South Carolina largely agree that the needs of the bereaved family should come first in the planning process,” Blume wrote, referencing a poll of pastors taken in the weeks leading up to the release of the July edition.
Frankie J. Melton Jr., pastor of Heath Springs Baptist Church and a former hospice chaplain, offers a gripping look at the importance of helping terminally ill patients accept the reality of death.
“As believers, our first inclination is always to pray for healing for those who are sick,” Melton wrote. “As a pastor and hospice chaplain, I want to give hope to those who are terminally ill. The question is, is praying for continued life on earth the only avenue of hope?”
Melton, also an assistant professor of Christian studies at North Greenville University, expressed belief in God’s power to heal and in the biblical premise of praying appropriately for healing. But he cautioned pastors and other Christians about giving false hope of healing to the terminally ill, noting, that “it is true that God can do anything, but the fact that God can do anything doesn’t mean He will.”
Melton told stories of hospice patients who didn’t take the time to reconcile with their family members or deal with other end-of-life issues because they clung to the belief that God would heal them.
He also explained that if the terminally ill don’t come to a point of acceptance of God’s sovereign timing in their life, they may struggle in their faith at the end if they aren’t healed.
“When the terminally ill come to a point of acceptance, it enables them to avoid excruciating disappointment and severe pain, and it allows them to prepare on multiple levels for death,” Melton said.
Preparation for death includes finding peace with God through His Son Jesus, resting in that salvation, wrapping up relationships on earth well and heading into glory with dignity, Melton said.
But does that glory come immediately? Are soul and body united right away? That’s the topic Walter E. Johnson, dean of North Greenville’s College of Christian Studies, tackles in his Courier article looking at the concept of the “intermediate state” and what different theologians believe about what happens between death and the resurrection.
After that, Gray examines the cremation versus burial conversation. It’s an important topic — in 2016, more people were cremated than buried in the United States, he wrote.
Gray recounts that some Christian leaders, such as R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, believe Christian tradition and Scripture favor burial over cremation.
No one Bible verse speaks against cremation, but Gray cites a recent blog by Mohler counseling Christians to choose “burial over cremation not on a verse of Scripture but on biblical reasoning.” Because Christians believe they will be resurrected, it follows that the body should be handled with respect and dignity.
Gray reports that other Christian leaders such as Billy Graham and John MacArthur say that at the resurrection it will make no difference whether a person’s body has been buried or cremated.
When it comes down to it, the choice for burial or cremation is “a highly personal decision that a number of theologians say is outside the moral law,” Gray wrote. “It is a personal choice. The greater issue is how we honor the memory of a believer who dies as we trust in God and His Word through our time of sorrow.”
In an editorial concluding the issue, Gray writes that death is one of people’s foremost fears — a fear that can be debilitating “and too often leads to denying its reality by refusing to think about it. Still, the reality of death persists, and it cannot honestly be denied.”
While death is a time of sadness, “it can also include a time of celebration — if the departed loved one was a believer,” Gray writes. “Jesus said of His ‘sheep’ in John 10:28, ‘I give eternal life to them, and they shall never perish; and no one shall snatch them out of my hand.’ ”
“Facing the reality of our own impending deaths can empower us to make the most of our remaining days with the confident assurance (from Christ) that one day, death itself will be destroyed.”