Two donkeys stood directly behind me, just beyond the country church’s cemetery fence, throughout a funeral at which I served as minister recently.  It was a lengthy grave-side service for a family member at which a few sang, but I was the only one who spoke.  Immediately after the service, a relative told me that he saw three asses during the service but that only one of them said anything.

I came across Comfort When the Shadow Falls: Encouraging the Dying and Those Affected by Grief (Abilene Christian University Press, 2019; $19.99) while preparing for that funeral.  It was recommended to me as a new and helpful resource.  The recommendation was far understated, as I soon discovered.

Comfort is a blessing for preachers, chaplains, elders, deacons, youth ministers, and others who might be called on to aid family and friends of deceased persons or to aid dying persons.  I highly recommend it to anyone involved in such work.  Offering insights from decades of experience in a pastoral voice backed up by scripture, all in an easy-to-read, highly organized format, Comfort provides meaningful ideas and teachings to the highly experienced and the new minister.

Eddie Sharp, who has over 45 years of ministry experience and who has handled over 500 funerals, truly a subject-matter expert on the topic addressed, has collaborated to write Comfort with Cheryl Mann Bacon, who served for 20 years as the chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Abilene Christian University, truly an expert in communications, and who also has had a lifelong ministry of writing obituaries and assisting organizations in crisis.  As a result, the wisdom of decades of experience of helping dying people and their friends and families, and the friends and families of deceased persons, is communicated clearly and succinctly.

The opening chapter of Comfort outlines a scripture-based theology of faithful reflection and hope for Christian ministers, both for ministers themselves and for the minister to consider in ministering to the dying and the bereaved.  Quoting supporting scripture, and emphasizing resurrection, the work of God, and resting our hope in Jesus, Comfort sketches the Old Testament views of life and death, the promise of life in the ministry of Jesus, and the impact of the death and resurrection of Jesus, setting the stage for continuing with a description of the Christian hope and the heart of the minister.  Parts of this description is autobiographical, parts are theological, and parts are pastoral advice from one who has traveled the road.  It is woven throughout the book.

Advice relative to both persons who are dying and those who have died are found in Comfort.

Individual chapters are devoted to ministry to the one who is dying, ministry to the family of the one who is dying, the basics of and planning for a funeral, more detailed considerations for a funeral, serving the unchurched in such moments, effective obituary writing, dealing with situations in which the media pays attention to a death, pastoral care in the months after a death, and how the church as a whole, in worship services and otherwise, should attend to such ministering.

Comfort expresses its advice in positive terms, nearly to a fault.  The primary author has such credibility that the positive examples speak with authority as the way it ought to be done.  The book might have benefited from a chapter or two of examples of what not to do, though, to make it even clearer.  We hear too often of some pretty awful—and scarring—things being said or done by a minister to a dying patient in the hospital or at a funeral or during the process, normally because they simply just do not know any better, and some extended descriptions of common mistakes might have aided the book’s objective.

I can speak from first-hand experience that Comfort helps the minister.  Comfort was of great help to me in helping me prepare for my first funeral and all that is associated with it.  The scriptural framing and the emphasis on Christ and the resurrection in the minister’s thought process, I found particularly encouraging.  I should emphasize that the book goes well beyond funeral preparation and that context was simply my introduction to the book.  Funerals are well-addressed, but the full panoply described above is covered well.

It might not help with relatives who think they are comedians and make smart comments to you after a funeral, but the insight offered into the serious business of pastoral care is invaluable.

Ministry is often a very lonely work.  How many of us have someone of Eddie Sharp’s experience by our side offering advice and encouragement?  Comfort feels that way.  And the clarity of expression throughout the book, surely the work and influence of Cheryl Mann Bacon, is inspiring and causes the advice and encouragement of the chapters to be seen easily and to remain in memory long after the book is set down.

Comfort When the Shadow Falls: Encouraging the Dying and Those Affected by Grief offers a pastoral voice of experience to those involved in some of the most challenging forms of pastoral-care work in ministry and does so in a clear and accessible manner.  It comes recommended by Max Lucado, Rick Atchley, and others, and will likely become a classic on its subject.


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Sources and Notes

The picture is one I took of my copy of Comfort When the Shadow Falls: Encouraging the Dying and Those Affected by Grief (Abilene Christian University Press, 2019; $19.99).