Coming Back to a Funeral ©

Retired Central Texas Conference Pastor Richard Chaffin read an unusual line from Scripture as we listened intently around the grave of Pastor Tom Wood.

“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.” (John 1:6, NRSV)

Pastor Tom Wood
Rev. Chaffin commented that this was an unusual passage to read at a funeral, and yet, it was so appropriate. In this case, “There was man sent from God whose name was Tom.” With gentle but clear faithfulness, Rev. Chaffin proclaimed the Gospel and celebrated the very great witness of a good man – a man from God – Tom Wood. He called us back to the heart of our resurrection faith. 


“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.” (John14:1-3)

Tom served the last 17 years as part-time local pastor at Itasca UMC with great faithfulness and marvelous pastoral care. As we gathered at the grave site, carefully masked and graciously (but firmly) spaced at appropriate social distances by the funeral director, I could not help but think to myself “what a tragedy.” My heart and my prayers go out to his widow Cathy, the members of Itasca UMC and the entire Itasca community. Pastor Chaffin spoke well and truly when he said, “In all my years as a minister, I never knew a man as good.”

Our Ongoing Response to the Global Pandemic

For most of July, Jolynn and I have been in West Virginia at our retirement house (my retirement date has been moved from Sept. 1, 2020 to Jan. 1, 2022) without TV or internet. As I return to Fort Worth and am back to work as the active resident bishop of the Central Texas Conference, the death total from COVID-19 in the United States now stands at nearly 160,000 with more than 4.8 million diagnosed cases (according to Aug. 6 data from the CDC). Worldwide, the total number of cases exceeds 19 million with more than 714,000 deaths (according to data published Aug. 7). No one, absolutely no one is immune from the impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic. 
Much earlier this year (April 21), I blogged about our Christian response to the pandemic. In that blog, I wrote the following:

“Our basic response should not be defined by demanding our rights but by sacrifice and service. Such is the lesson of the earliest Christians and such is Christ’s claim upon us today.Jesus said to everyone, ‘All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross daily, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me will save them.’” (Luke 9:23-24) . . . At a minimum, this is time for sacrifice, which may present itself dressed in the simple clothes of patience, perseverance and kindness. From such a stance we are led by Christ to service in a host of different forms and ways.”

Recently. I heard someone say that “God wouldn’t allow someone to get COVID-19 in worship.”  While well intended, such thinking is dangerous and wrong. Do we not know, have we not heard, “he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matthew 5:45) The speaker of that teaching is Jesus. The instructions lead us back to God’s magnificent love for all people and His creative genius. Religion and science are not opposites nor enemies but reflections of creation by a just and loving God. The questions swirling around “God allowing” the pandemic raise issues of evil, tragedy and disaster in our world. Theologically, this is known as theodicy (i.e. the study of divine goodness and God’s providence in relation to the existence of evil in the world). I wish to recommend God and the Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavirus and Its Aftermath by N. T. Wright (one of the world’s leading New Testament scholars and former Bishop of Durham in the Church of England).

A Deep Appreciation
Jolynn Lowry and granddaughter Grace whip up some goodies during a visit to the Lowry's retirement house in West Virginia.
One of my discoveries while on vacation is how hard it is to worship online as a family. One Sunday morning, we gathered with our daughter Sarah, son-in-law Steven, and grandchildren Grace (7) and Sam (4) to share in the online worship of Mt. Olivet UMC, Arlington, Virginia (their home church). We found the service meaningful and even moving – but it was hard! Four-year-old Sam pitched a fit in the middle of the service (over what I never figured out); the music was excellent, but it was hard to follow and participate (though we tried mightily). I could go on with other examples, but I suspect many of you know full well the difficulties of connecting with online worship. As good as it is, we longed for in-person sharing. In fact, the following week we worshipped with our son Nathan, daughter-in-law Abigail and a couple from their church who have formed their own “quarantine bubble.” Our two other grandchildren (Simon – who just turned 5 – and his two-year-old brother Adam) and their friends’ son Jin Young (age 3) had already been put in bed for the night. The two couples asked that I serve communion. I think all six of us found the service deeply moving.

In these experiences, I have gained even greater appreciation for what pastors of local churches and lay members are dealing with in seeking to faithfully worship. Please accept my great appreciation and respect for all you are doing as pastors. Please also accept my great respect for parents who seek to faithfully lead their families in the faith during this difficult time. It is well to remember the promise of Jesus, “remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)
Once again allow me to state: The best of us wrestle with how and when to “reopen.” And yet, especially we who call ourselves Christian, should give pause. Our basic response should not be defined by demanding our rights but by sacrifice and service. Such is the lesson of the earliest Christians and such is Christ’s claim upon us today.
May we be gracious and patient in ministry together. It is good to be back in Central Texas.