Funerals include celebrating lives well lived and are the occasion for gratitude as well as introspection.

Solomon said, “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart” (Eccl. 7:2). Colleagues and I took this admonition seriously and joined family and friends in rejoicing, remembering, and reflecting at the funeral service for a former professor, Rev. Dr. Henry Zwaanstra. It was good to do so. Death, “the destiny of everyone,” meant that a faithful servant of Christ and the church could now rest fully from his labors. Carefully chosen songs reflected the interests and choices of a student of history. A daughter spoke with love and admiration for a gracious father. A fishing buddy shared stories of a playful “Zwanee.” A fellow pastor spoke eloquently about a professor’s intellectual prowess.

Officiant Len VanderZee used texts taken from 1 Timothy, a passage where Paul addressed a young colleague with words of encouragement and challenge. He noted that Henry had done the same for many aspiring seminary students. Vander Zee concluded with words from 2 Timothy 4:7, in which Paul reflects on having “finished the race” and “kept the faith.” Applying those words to Henry and acknowledging his contributions, he described Zwaanstra as a “churchman.” As he did so, he remarked that this accolade is used very little today.  I recall muttering a quick, “That’s for sure!”

This utterance also occasioned some further reflection, if not introspection. A colleague my age sharing the pew shared my opinion. Why are we so reluctant these days to use the description “churchman” (or “churchwoman”)? Has it become acceptable—if not desirable—to be anti-church but ever so pro-Jesus? Did not Jesus, upon Peter’s confession, say, “I will build my church?” Is Paul so misguided in his language of the church as “the bride of Christ?” Do our hymns and formularies use similar metaphoric language incorrectly? Should we really encourage our children to love Jesus but not his church? Wouldn’t doing so be, or isn’t doing so, a distortion of the “body of Christ” language of 2 Corinthians 12?

Funerals as houses of mourning include celebrating lives well lived and are the occasion for gratitude as well as introspection—a timely thing! Attending this faithful churchman’s funeral made me wonder, Would I be described as a churchman? Do I want to be? Why would I be called one? Would Jesus be so described?

I think so.

About the Author

Rev. George Vink is a retired Christian Reformed pastor and author of the devotional book Walking in the Word.