For the past two years I have served as the Chaplain for the Westchester Detachment of the Marine Corps League. During that time we have lost 14 members of our detachment and thankfully I have not had to visit funeral homes that frequently on average of those deaths. These Marines though are from the “Old Corps,” guys that served either in World War II, Korea, Vietnam and as recent as Iraq or Afghanistan.
Often though, I find out about the death of these Marines mostly via email and wish that I might have been able to visit some of these guys before they pass on into eternity. Of course, as a Chaplain, as a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, I want to help these men to know with certainty that their sins have been forgiven and that if their faith is in Christ, for the salvation of their souls and not in any of the works they have done, to think would earn them a place in heaven that is the hope of eternal life I wish for them.
Well, this post is about a visit to the family of one of our deceased members, William F. Decker. I received an email informing me that he had died and that family and friends could come to the Funeral home in Valhalla, New York on Sunday evening, April 25th.
In the past two years, I have been asked twice in advance to preach and two other times without notice at all. Each time is challenging, personally and even more, spiritually. This time would be a bit different and an even greater challenge as a Chaplain.
One of the most difficult aspects of my position as a Chaplain is visiting the family and offering my condolences for their loss, especially when I had no idea their family member had been sick. For Mr. William Decker, this was again the case for me and I acknowledged my disappointment about that to his children that evening.
As each of the children were introduced to me they asked if I would like to say a prayer since I was there. I informed them that typically what happens in these circumstances of a Chaplain’s visit to the funeral home is a passage of Scripture is read, there is a brief message and then a closing prayer.
The children looked at each other and asked if that was acceptable and they were in agreement and wanted to know when I would like to begin. I requested a few minutes alone to go and pray and then would be back to begin.
I found one of the employees at the funeral home and asked him where I might be able to go and spend some time in prayer before preaching and he took me upstairs and offered the display room of caskets and wondered if this would be ok. I said it was fine and I asked for a chair.
He must have thought it was weird for a minister to be in the casket display room to pray, but I didn’t. I just needed a place where I could be alone and talk to God, only I wasn’t talking much, I was crying a lot.
I was so overcome with emotion in my heart that I began to cry because of this opportunity that God had given to me and I needed His help to get through this time of ministry.
Just like the lyrics from the old time hymn, I Need Thee Every Hour and I indeed needed Him then, O did I need Him! I knew there was nothing that I could do of my own will to satisfy the grieving souls that night. I couldn’t speak about Mr. Decker’s life, nor could I speak about the condition of his spiritual life either, but I could and needed to speak to those that were alive who would hear the Gospel. I was calling out to God for help and needed His Holy Spirit to overcome me and speak through me this evening. I was just His vessel that was being used this night and wanted to be used for His glory.
When I was finished, I slowly made my way through the many guests that were there that Sunday evening and stood in the corner, out of sight from everyone else except the children. When one of the son’s saw me, he asked if I was ready and I acknowledged that I was. He then proceeded to get everyone’s attention, informing them that I was there to say a prayer and then I asked everyone if they could be seated.
The room probably had more than 100 people there and there were probably 15 more standing in the hallway looking in and listening. I am always terrified when I am asked to preach, but that is mostly because the fear that I have is toward God, not in a frightening way, but in a holy and awesome way because people are looking at someone who is about to speak for God and I had better not misinterpret or lead people incorrectly to obtaining salvation, which is through faith in Jesus Christ. My mouth had become dry very fast and maybe because I had cried so much before in prayer.
I began addressing the visitors by informing them who I was and stated the purpose of my visit. I stated that it is never easy to be in this position, before any group of people, to speak to them about death and eternity. While I would speak the truth of Scripture, many people despise the very words of the Bible and often the very person that speaks from it too and I hope that would not be the case tonight.
My message began by reading 2 Corinthians 5:1-11 and explaining from this passage that our bodies are on a steady decline and will one day cease from functioning and when that day comes, each person will stand before God to learn the fate of their eternal lives. Some will go on to heaven and some will go to hell, there is no in between.
While we may be clothed nicely here on earth or even in a casket, what will each person be clothed with in eternity? Will it be the robe of the righteousness of Christ or will it be the same filthy rags of sin that God sees that have not been washed in the blood of Christ?
Each person will be fully present before God when their mortal lives have ended and it will either be a terror to see or a joy to behold and both hinge on what you have done with Christ in your life.
I stated that during one of Billy Graham’s crusades he had said that God has given us an opportunity to confront our own mortality and has done so for us tonight with Mr. Decker. We must all re-evaluate our lives before God and turn to Him while there is still time. The only way to do that was to come to God in faith through His Son Jesus Christ and repent of your sins.
All the while that I was speaking, I was still nervous, my mouth was still terribly dry and my voice continued to crack with emotion. The Bible was closed in my hands with my finger inserted between the pages to keep my place, but I was rubbing the cover like I was nervous before an exam as more than a hundred people sat there intensely and reverently I’ll say, listening to the preacher preach.
I closed by reading from chapter 3 of John’s Gospel, verses 16 and 17, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.”
Before I began my closing prayer, I urged those who heard me to seriously consider what they have heard and to come to God in faith, through Christ for the forgiveness of their sins. There is no other way to God in heaven, except through faith in Christ.
When I was finished, the children had come up to me and thanked me for coming. The daughter had said thank you too and she had said, “You have no idea what an answer to prayer you were tonight. My husband and I are Christians and we were hoping that someone would be able to preach the Gospel to our friends and family.”
Hearing this now made me cry again, but these tears were tears of joy at the realization that God answered both of our prayers that night.
As I walked back to my car, one gentleman approached me and said, “Reverend, that was a powerful sermon you gave. I didn’t know there were was such a thing as a Marine Corps League, how do I join?” Well, I said thank you and got his number and will be inviting him to our next detachment meeting.
What an awesome night that was. I had no idea what to expect and never do when I visit a funeral home for one of our members. But I’m so grateful and humbled to know that God would use me at a time like that, to be an answer to prayer and a vessel of light that others may come to see, the Glory of the Cross at Calvary, for themselves.
Semper fi in Christ.
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Meyers, R. (2006). e-Sword. The sword of the Lord with an electronic edge (Verson 7.8) [Computer software]. Scripture taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.