Frederich Buechner wrote:“It’s hard not to believe that somehow or other there’s always going to be another time with them, another day, so the chances are we won’t know it’s the last time, and therefore it won’t have the terrible sadness about it that the Last Supper of Jesus must have had (Secrets in the Dark, 266).”
Indeed. The Last Supper of our Lord must have been a hard time for those who loved our Lord. But because Jesus Christ went to the cross to pay the penalty for our sin, went to the grave to defeat it and free us from it, and rose again for our justification, the act of death, for a believer, is a doorway into glory. “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord” where it is a “far better” place. And today, as I sat three rows away from the pulpit of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, close enough to see the wood relief work of Luther’s “heart” emblem and Calvin’s “heart promptly and sincerely” offered in open palms, I saw a celebration. We use those words so often to try and describe events in our lives, including funerals. We hope, it seems, that if we can change the language we can alter our feelings. And we usually fail, but nobody blames us. But I can honestly say that this event, while ordered and reverent (we wonder, really, if “celebration” and “reverence” cannot be used to describe the one in the same act), was most assuredly joyous. From the opening Doxology to the closing Hallelujah chorus, a “man and his ministry” (the title of the first authorized biography of Jim Kennedy) were honored and the man’s Savior was most certainly worshipped. The Rev. Dr. Ron Sigenthaler, the Executive Pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, acted as the liturgist to lead us through the service. And he did so with his characteristic pastoral warmth. The presence of one of the Assistant Pastors of the church reminded us all that Kennedy was a churchman and the officiant chosen to conduct the service was a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America. A word about the music today: from Diane Bish’s masterful and nostalgic playing on the world famous Riffatti organ, Gail Smith’s skilful, imaginative piano, and the touching Youth Bell Choir, to the tremendous choral work of the choir under the direction of Dr. John L. Wilson, the music was worshipful and poigniant. I loved the singing of “O God Our Help in Ages Past.” And I cannot stop singing, “No More Night,” the best anthem of the day by the choir. As we sang “time bears all her sons away” it was not a moment of sadness, really, but the truth that we knew would come to pass and has now happened in Dr. Kennedy’s life. The Scripture reading was from Jeremiah 33:3 and Philippians 1:18-23. I rejoiced in my heart as I heard him read the passage:
Yes, and I will rejoice, 19for I know that(A) through your prayers and(B) the help of(C) the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, 20as it is my eager expectation and hope(D) that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full(E) courage now as always Christ(F)will be honored in my body,(G) whether by life or by death. 21For to me(H) to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 23(I) I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is(J) to depart and(K)be with Christ, for that is far better.
There were testimonies that were honoring. We heard from the President as Mr. Timothy Goeglein read a personal message from President and Mrs. Bush. Dr. Frank Wright, the President of the National Religious Broadcasters (formerly the Director of the D. James Kennedy Center for Christian Statesmanship), reflected on the steadfastness of his mentor, his boss and his friend. Dr. Sterling W. Huston of the Billy Graham Association and the Chairman of the Board of Evangelism Explosion brought greetings of Billy Graham. Mr. Richard DeVos, the founder of Amway, reflected on how the two of them, himself and Jim Kennedy, had similar visions in 1959, to equip others to equip others. But Rich DeVos told of how he was won by the more compelling vision of Jim Kennedy for he was seeking souls for Christ. In a moment of great honesty and challenge, this great man who helped bring about D. James Kennedy’s visions and dreams, challenged the congregation to remember that Coral Ridge was and is not “Kennedy’s church” but “Christ’s church” and it will go on, and be stronger in its own way. The best of the testimonies from Jennifer Kennedy Cassidy, Dr. and Mrs. Kennedy’s poised and confident daughter. As she ascended the steps into the chancel and approached the lecturn, she received a standing ovation. Her care of her father, along with Mrs. Kennedy, was constant, loving and, of course, public. I wondered if the crowd was thanking her for her caregiving as much as anything. I know I was. She said that she was thankful for two things: for her father leading her to Jesus Christ, and for her father and mother choosing her. She told of how her parents adopted her when she was three weeks old. And she told of how her father told her that he had already wanted a daughter to take care of Ann should he die before she did. In a poignant and beautiful moment, Mrs. Cassidy said that when she was about 8 or 9 years old she decided that she would call her father “Jim” and her mother “Ann.” Her dad put up with that for about a week. He then gently sat her down and told her that there were many people who called him “Jim” but only one person on the whole planet who called him “Daddy.” And so she thanked her “Daddy.” And most of us wiped tears from our eyes as we stood and applauded her courage and her faith. The message was delivered by Dr. James Dobson, Founder and Chairman of the Board of Focus on the Family. His message was right on target. He not only reflected on his friendship, honored the memory of James Kennedy, remembered their common labors for righteousness in America, but also challenged us to remember that God still calls. He spoke about a new generation to replace the giant oaks that have fallen. And I think most of us felt his charge very personally.True to form, we ended with singing the Hallelujah Chorus. And then, ceremonially, the wooden casket holding the remains of D. James Kennedy was led out by Reverend Sigenthaler to the sounds of Amazing Grace on (how else for a Presbyterian minister”?) the bagpipe. It was beautiful. And it was challenging. And it was all reverent and it was a celebration at the same time. We all sensed that the oak has fallen, but others will now arise, other saplings will take on greater life through this moment.
The “Lamplighter for Christ” has gone. But his light is not out. It is not only glowing brightly, but is being passed to others all over the world.
How grateful I am that I was there. I will never forget it. And I cannot help but think, even now, of the day when I too will make that journey to be with Jesus Christ.
“Do you know for sure that you are going to heaven if you died tonight?” You can. That is what God’s Word is written for. “These things are written that you may know that you have eternal life” says John. But, to quote Dr. Kennedy, “If God were to say to you, ‘Why should I let you into My heaven? What would you say?'” My friend, there is only one answer: the life and death of Jesus Christ. How I pray you know Him as your Savior. And then take the lamp and go in search of others to light as well. For this is the Great Commission to us all.
Note: We owe a special debt of gratitude to Mrs. Joanne Kahlke. My dear friend of many years led a dedicated team and gave of her peerless administrative management skills to serve as Special Project Manager for the funeral service of Dr. Kennedy. I personally witnessed Joanne juggling White House West Wing communications and schedules, VIPs, press releases, national and local media, and all with a confidence that caused Dr. Kennedy to value her so. Thank you Joanne. Because you and your husband, Steve, and your wonderful team led operations so well, we worshipped on that day with undistracted wonder. Thank you.