Sorry for the seemingly morbid title for this post. This month of March is a strange month for me and my wife. It is the month we celebrate our 30th Wedding Anniversary, thankyou, thankyou, thankyou!!! However, it is also the month we remember our son Daniel who died the day before our wedding anniversary 19 years ago. I write this very personal blog because we are coming very close to Holy Week and Easter, and I wanted to get a reflection in on death and life before we get swamped by all those festivities.
Since I was Deaconed in 1996 I have done so many funerals that I have lost count, but what I haven’t lost count of is the number of children I have buried, 6. My son, 2 from suicide, one house fire, one farm accident, and one from cancer. The youngest was six, the oldest 17. When Daniel died I had to decide whether or not I believed in this life after death stuff, and if I believed in God. I found out the answer was a big yes to both, but my understanding was altered.
One of the difficulties we face in our world at the moment is that due to advances in science life expectancy is getting longer. As a result we are less likely to face the reality of death, until adulthood. Coupled with that we try to sanitise death by speaking about “crossing over”, “passing on” and other very bland terms. It seems you use anything but the word death. I am not really sure why we have gone away from the robust attitude to death in the past. It is not that long ago that when a person died, they did so at home, the family gathered around, washed the body down, and they started a period of mourning. Now we go to hospital, or a nursing home, receive, what is now some of the best palliative care available, and we die, often alone. By the way I am all in favour of great palliative care, but we seem to have taken some of the human experience out of the experience of death, and being with the dying. When it comes to the funeral, the casket is placed as far away from the people as possible, in its own alcove separating the living from the dead, unless of course you are in a church. We pay our respects and we leave. Get on with living.
I think that part of the problem for the world is that, what can you say about death if you have no concept as many have of life beyond the grave. We speak about the person becoming a star, or something else we can hang onto for a time, but eventually the self made paradigm collapses and we are left with nothing, sometimes not even a memory.
God, on the other hand, and as a result, the church, has a very robust attitude to death. God takes death very seriously. God is about life, about living, but God takes the reality of death seriously, because death is a part of this thing we call life. Through the Old Testament there is a sense of those who have died living in some shadowy world, however, over time there came this understanding that there was more to death. In 1Samuel 28 Saul goes to the witch of Endor to call the prophet Samuel from the dead, Samuel is really ticked off, “Why have you disturbed me?” he asks Saul. The encounter is intriguing because it is one of the first examples of the possibility of life beyond the grave, and a glimpse of the possibility of resurrection. In the Apocryphal Book Wisdom of Solomon we read;
But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and there shall no torment touch them. In the sight of the unwise they seemed to die: and their departure is taken for misery, And their going from us to be utter destruction: but they are in peace. For though they be punished in the sight of men, yet is their hope full of immortality.
Here is an early glimpse of the understanding that death is not the end. In Lamentations 3 we read in part;
My soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, “Gone is my glory and all that I had hoped for from the Lord.” But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end, they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
Here the writer is exploring the depths of pain and despair that one feels at the death of a loved one. I have certainly felt that with Daniel’s death. However, the writer does not stop with the pain, the writer continues on to remind himself there is another day, and God’s mercies are new each day. The pain doesn’t go away, but it now has a context by which we might be able to function despite the pain. The critical line is, “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope.” A sense of a future is vital in dealing with death, and that is why the church has a fabulous message that we need to embrace about death if we are truly to embrace life.
The New Testament and the Jesus event brings a new focus and a new reality to what was hinted in the Old Testament. When Jesus came and lived his life, he had three critical encounters with people that transformed them and gave them a new understanding of life, and death, and how life is transformed in Him. In Mark 5 and Luke 8 Jesus is asked to heal a little girl. By the time he gets there she has died. He takes the parents into the room and three disciples, and he raises her from death to life. The people are astounded. They knew she had died, they knew what death looked like and they knew she was dead and now she was alive. In Luke 7 Jesus goes to a village called Nain. On his way in, there is a funeral procession coming out. A young man has died, and they have had the funeral, and they are going to bury him. Jesus stops the procession and raises the young man from the dead and restores him to his mother, to the astonishment of the procession. In John 11 Jesus’ great mate Lazarus dies. He gets to the home four days after the funeral and burial. In this account Martha ticks off Jesus big time, “If you had been here my brother would not have died.” Jesus’ response to her is quite enigmatic. “Your brother will rise.” In other words he seems to be saying to her, what are you worried about it is only death. Martha responds with what seems to be an accepted understanding in Jewish faith of the day, “I know he will rise on the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus replies, “I am the resurrection and the life.” In other words, you are right to hope in the way that you do, but that hope is not an event or a just time in the future, although it is certainly that, but the hope you have expressed is actually in a person and that person is standing right in front of you, do you believe? So Jesus has given her a means of looking beyond the desolation of the grave, and futility of the grave and said to her, there is hope in me. Believe. Finally, on the cross on Good Friday Jesus dies on the cross. In this way he puts all that he has shown in the previous encounters into the practical reality of his own death, and demonstrates hope in His Father.
Yet even hereis a tantalising glimpse as to our future beyond the grave and the hope we have. There are two thieves, one on the right, and one on the left. One says, remember me when you come into your kingdom. Jesus replies, “This very day you will be with me in Paradise.” We can only guess as to what that means, but we not its not resurrection for that happens only for Jesus three days later. What it does help us reflect on is that which was hinted back with the prophet Samuel that life beyond the grave is rest, until the resurrection. Jesus on the cross when he dies cries out, “Father, into your hands I commit my Spirit.” In other words, he is saying to God, I trust you to deal graciously and justly with me and my life. He is vindicated by being raised on the third day.
All this points to a tantalising reality that death is not the end. In fact, for the early Christians the resurrection of Jesus was the turning point. Yes the raising of Jairus’ daughter, the widows son at Nain, and Lazarus were all spectacular and told the people that Jesus had power over life and death. However, all three would eventually die, but they did so knowing that life was not all that there was. The resurrection of Jesus changed and transformed the disciples because Jesus’ resurrection was different to the other three.
In our church when I conduct a funeral service we have the casket and standing at the foot of the casket is the Easter candle which is brought in to the church on Easter Day at the earliest service. It is the candle that signifies that Jesus is risen. I point out to people gathered there that there are two symbols at war with each other. The casket that says death is the end, and the candle that says, no it isn’t. I can say that because of the hope we have in Jesus, and the reality of His resurrection.
It is so important that we have a good balanced grip on life and death. Life needs to be lived to the fullest, and we need to rejoice in our lives, because we hold on to them with a gossamer thin thread. Life can so easily and arbitrarily be taken away from us. However, and it is a big, However, this life is not all that there is. Death is not the end. This does not mean that we can gloat or not take death into account, for we must, but what we need to do is put death in perspective, through the lens of the Risen Jesus. I mourn Daniels’s death to this day, and at this time of the year I find it particularly difficult because of the timing that leads to his death. I wish I had him back, I would hand back to God everything I have learnt since Daniel died, for the cost of my learning has been far too high. However, this I call to mind and therefore I have hope, the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end, they are new every morning great is God’s faithfulness. I live my life to the fullest, and I do not look forward to the day I will die, for I like this life, and I like living it. I love my wife, my children, the parish and my friends. I enjoy being alive. I live my life, however, in the shadow of Daniel’s death, but like the Psalmist I fear no evil for I know that God is with me, and while I do not look forward to it, I do not fear death. The death of Daniel as traumatic as it has been and continues to be, although different, has taught me to find hope in death, and strangely in finding hope in death, discovering a new meaning for life, and a new meaning for living. Life is not benign, but God is loving, caring, compassionate, and desiring to be at the centre of our lives so that He can give us new meaning in our lives, new hope, and new life.