Posts Tagged ‘Death’

dying-rose-bwc-big.jpgSince my Mom’s death in January, Sherrylee and I have spent five weeks in Europe, doing what we call site visits for the Let’s Start Talking Ministry

I think you will understand if I share with you that much of my thinking since January has been about death and dying.  I consciously decided not to write about it then because we Americans just don’t want to be reminded about our mortality too often.  We like happy endings.

The Germans even have the word Happy-end to describe American culture.  We like that—but they don’t really mean it as a compliment. They use that word more to describe Pollyannaism or a naïve positive bias toward life.

However, . . . .

Here we are just a few days from Easter, moving rapidly towards the Cross and the Tomb on Friday, so I suppose we must talk about death and dying.

The TV version of Bill O’Reilly’s book Killing Jesus was shown last Sunday. I didn’t watch it. I still haven’t recovered from Jim Bishop’s The Day Christ Died (1957) that preachers used over and over again to describe in lurid detail the horrors of the crucifixion.  You certainly haven’t forgotten the images of the savagely beaten and crucified Christ from Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2005).

But here is what I’ve been thinking:  the horrible physical suffering of Jesus was not the death that Jesus pled with His Father about in Gethsemane.  Other people have died more violently than Jesus did. Others have been tortured longer than the six hours that Jesus hung on the Cross.

Our fascination with the details of his physical death represent our own fears of death—especially a violent, painful death.

Three weeks ago, Sherrylee and I flew one stretch of our European trip on Germanwings, the same airline whose plane crashed in France last week.  That same co-pilot who on that day killed himself and all the passengers might have been sitting in the co-pilot’s seat of our flight the week before.

Should we be afraid to fly Germanwings?   Should we be afraid to fly?   Should we be afraid?

Jesus was not afraid of death.  He turned his face toward Jerusalem, saying “It’s time!”  He rode the donkey through the gates of Jerusalem amid the Hallelujah’s and the waving palm branches, fully aware that the next crowd he saw would be calling for his crucifixion.  He praised the anointing of his feet because he knew the poor would always be with them, but he would not be.  He broke the bread and drank the cup of Passover with his closest followers, knowing that his next drink would be vinegar.

Jesus was not afraid of death. He went to his death, not because of the scheming of the Jews, not because of the callousness of Pilate, not because of the cold-bloodedness of the Roman soldiers, but because He was obedient:  by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:8)

Jesus was not afraid of death.  He knew that Friday must come before Sunday, so every day of his ministry, really every day of his life, he walked deliberately toward Friday, not rushing, but at the appointed pace, and when the Friday had come, Jesus was there.

We should not be afraid of death. We have the same promise of Life that Jesus had, but as with Him, so with us, Friday must come before Sunday.  To walk in His steps means to walk deliberately toward Friday, not rushing, but at the appointed pace.

There is no promise of eighty years, no promise of a peaceful passing, no promise that we won’t die before or after someone we love, no promise of anything but that our Father will receive our spirits and keep us until Sunday morning when the dead in Christ will rise!

Life is more certain than death!  Don’t be afraid of death.

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josephWe just finished a series on Joseph, son of Jacob, at church. Such a familiar story full of dreams, threats, seduction, rise from ashes to power, surprise revelations—all the elements of great drama! I’m surprised it has not been the subject of more movies.

I learned something completely new to me this time through the old story.  Let’s start with a little back story review for those of you who have not read Genesis in a long time!

In Genesis 12, God calls Abram out of Ur of the Chaldees to go to Canaan. He promises to make of Abram a great nation. In verse 7, God also promises Abram, “To your offspring I will give this land.”

For many years, Abram is pretty nomadic, even going down to Egypt to escape a famine in Canaan, but he eventually returns to the place where he first pitched his tent and where God made him the promise of land, between Bethel and Ai for those of you with Bible maps.

But Abraham owned no land until he purchased a site near Hebron (Mamre) to bury Sarah, the cave and field of Machpelah (Genesis 23).  Two chapters later, his sons Isaac and Ishmael bury him in the same cave.

The family of promise owned so little, but God didn’t want them to forget his promise of the whole land, so when another famine came in the time of Isaac, the Lord told Isaac NOT to go to Egypt:  “Do not go down to Egypt; live in the land where I tell you to live. Stay in this land for a while, and I will be with you and will bless you. For to you and your descendants I will give all these lands and will confirm the oath I swore to your father Abraham (Gen. 26).

Isaac’s son Jacob flees the revenge of his brother Esau and must leave the promised land, but before he gets beyond its borders, God appears to him in a dream and says, “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying (Gen.28).  Only then does God allow Jacob to continue to the “lands of the eastern peoples.”

After accumulating wives, sons, and wealth, God sends him back: “I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar and where you made a vow to me. Now leave this land at once and go back to your native land (Gen. 31).’”

Upon arrival in Canaan, Jacob does purchase a plot of land near Shechem, but God keeps moving him southerly towards Bethel, where the promise of land was given to him, and where he buries his father Isaac in Mamre (Hebron) in the cave with Abraham.

So, interestingly enough, the story of Joseph starts in Genesis 37 with the words: “Jacob lived in the land where his father had stayed, the land of Canaan.”

You remember that as a very young man Joseph is sold into slavery in Egypt!  The son of promise is taken forcibly from the land of promise, but it is all the design of God. Almost 25 years later, the whole family comes to Egypt to be rescued by Joseph from the terrible seven-year famine.  They are given the land of Goshen in which to settle and they thrive and multiply there. “God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives,” Joseph tells his brothers (Gen. 50).

But Egypt was not the Promised Land, so Jacob gathers his children to his deathbed and says, “I am about to be gathered to my people. Bury me with my fathers in the cave in the field of Ephron the Hittite, the cave in the field of Machpelah, near Mamre in Canaan, which Abraham bought along with the field as a burial place from Ephron the Hittite. 31 There Abraham and his wife Sarah were buried, there Isaac and his wife Rebekah were buried, and there I buried Leah. 32 The field and the cave in it were bought from the Hittites (Gen 49).”

Joseph learned something from Jacob. When it was his turn to die, this man who had lived almost a century in Egypt, who had lived the best life an Egyptian could have—once he got out of prison—and who had children and grandchildren born and raised in Egypt, this man’s final words were, “I am about to die. But God will surely come to your aid and take you up out of this land to the land he promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” And Joseph made the Israelites swear an oath and said, “God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up from this place.”

So Joseph died at the age of a hundred and ten. And after they embalmed him, he was placed in a coffin in Egypt.

Maybe 400 years later, Moses and the people of Israel carry Joseph’s bones with them as they exit Egypt (Exodus 13)! 

So, does it make a difference where you are buried?  It certainly did to the children of Abraham.  It made a difference because they did not want to forget the promise!  And it made a difference because they wanted their children to remember the promise!

And—this is the cool part—what do you think they did with Joseph’s coffin for 400 years???  It was probably honored royally for awhile—until a Pharaoh came along who did not know Joseph—and then it was just another coffin.

But not to the emerging Hebrew nation. To them, his bones were the reminder that Egypt was not their home and that they had been promised another land.  For 400 years, kids asked their parents who was in the coffin, and they got to tell the story of Joseph and that someday his bones would go back to Canaan to rest beside his fathers in the land of promise.

Here are the takeaways:

  • Generations may pass with no resolution of the Promise, but each generation is responsible for holding on to the promise of God and bringing the next generation a little closer to its fulfillment .
  • Don’t go places that take you away from the Promise, and if you must—get home as soon as you can.
  • This world is not our Home, so don’t get too comfortable in Egypt.
  • Use the opportunity of your death and dying for your children!  Tell your children and grandchildren where you are going when you die!  Make them promise never to forget where their Home is.  Make a plan for all of you to be there!

Thank you, Lord, for the story of Joseph’s bones!

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Arlington CemeteryMy sister, who taught in minority schools in Dallas for almost 30 years, contributed a word to our vocabulary a few years ago, the word funeralize, as in We have been funeralizing a lot of people lately.

Sherrylee and I have funeralized two wonderful people in the last couple of weeks, one a 90 year-old family friend and yesterday, one of our closest friends from the twenty-two years we lived in Edmond, OK.

It would not be out of place to eulogize both of these wonderful saints, but in some ways they were very different. Paul was a church leader, a successful businessman, a strong personality, and healthy for 90 year–until the week before he died. Marlene was usually in the background, was part of a failed marriage—although her re-marriage in her last decade was blessed—and had a life full of serious—life-threatening—health issues. She was never healthy as an adult, walked with a cane the last year or so, and her death at age 62 was a release from a long-broken body.

Did you know that German cemeteries are kept liked parks!  Many are attached to churches, but even city cemeteries are usually beautiful places. Each grave is tended by either the family or by professional groundskeepers paid for by the family. Not only is this care required out of respect for the dead, but because it is not uncommon to use cemeteries as a place for a Sunday afternoon walk. I’ve heard German Christians talk about the perspective one gets by walking among the graves.

I thought about that yesterday in Oklahoma as we walked to the burial plot for Marlene. I read tombstone epitaphs for people who died fifty years ago, for a young women, for a child, for veterans, for people probably forgotten. Walking among these markers reminds us of the reality of our own short visit.

We lived in Germany just 25 years after WWII, so everyone we knew had lived during the war and lost someone. I wonder if young Germans still walk in the cemeteries?

It doesn’t sound very American, does it!  Even Decoration Day, the official day for visiting family graves and perhaps leaving at least artificial flowers, is just a relic of rural communities or of people who are very old.

When I was in high school at Fort Worth Christian, people called on our chorus to provide singers for their family member’s funeral, so I have sung at dozens if not a hundred funerals. As a boy, I hated the sadness and thought it was a kind of punishment ritual for the living.  That was youthful ignorance.

The Apostle Paul said, “We do not grieve as others who have no hope!” (I Thessalonians 4:13). Christians–above all others–understand funerals and cemeteries to be just markers, markers written not with permanent ink, but with pencil that will simply be erased by the Day of the Lord.

The sadness of funerals still makes me cry. It’s the sting of death—for which we were not created, but which we must experience.  But death has no victory.

“Since we have been united with him in his death, we will also be raised to life as he was” (Romans 6:5).

If we Americans don’t walk in cemeteries to gain perspective, let’s at least not be afraid of funerals. We have to somehow come to believe—really believe–what John revealed: “Happy are those who die in the Lord from now on. Yes, says the Spirit, they are happy indeed . . . “ (Revelation 14:13)

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Smithfield Cemetery

Memorial Day used to be called Decoration Day in most places in the United States.  This annual event probably started as a memorializing of soldiers who fell during the Civil War, at first only the Union soldiers and then, a little later, even the slain Confederate soldiers.  Somewhere around the beginning of the 20th century, the general public adopted the event for their dead loved ones, regardless of military experience.

I had about twenty minutes to kill yesterday before my haircut appointment, so I decided to walk through the cemetery that abuts the parking lot to the hair salon.  The sign says “Historical Smithfield Cemetery,“  a notice that piqued my curiosity about why it was historical.  I found two graves of interest to me. The first was the grave of Eli Smith, recognized as the donor of the land for the church and cemetery and for whom the original town of Smithfield had been named.  The second I stumbled upon, but was glad I did, was for Clarence Cobb , “The barber of Smithfield for 65 years” as the marker read.

“Barber” Cobb cut my hair for all of my teenage years. I would ride my bicycle to Smithfield, walk in his little barbershop, get my burr haircut (we call it a buzz now, I think), get my neck shaved with the strap razor, and talk local baseball.  Good memories of small, insignificant moments—maybe that is what Memorial Day is about.

Memorial Day is not really a religious holiday, like Christmas or Easter–it’s more like Veterans Day—but maybe it should be!  How should Christians feel about those they have buried?  I’ve long felt like our tradition does not have a very highly developed theology of death.

At most we do some lip service to deceased Christians resting in Abraham’s bosom, drawing on Jesus’ teaching on the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19ff).  We certainly believe in the resurrection of the dead, but are uncertain about how physical that resurrection is.  We believe and preach eternal reward and eternal damnation, but we can’t really imagine either and both bring with them divisive questions.

I experienced one of the more shocking expressions of Christian theology in Germany during the 70s when the son of our landlord was killed in a car accident.  Shortly, thereafter, his father died of lung cancer inside the ambulance outside of our office.  We attended both funerals at the local protestant church (Evangelische Kirche), and in neither funeral was there mention of resurrection or heaven; the deceased live only in the hearts of their loved ones.

Is Memorial Day only about our memories of the dead?  Are our loved ones and those we honor still dead in those coffins under the ground upon which we stand?

I’ve come to believe very strongly and very literally in the words Jesus spoke to Martha, “The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die“(John 11).

What a difference it makes if we believe the deceased are alive! 

If the dead are alive, then

  • Perhaps we should view death as a transition from life to life– not such a big transition–one completed with no significant loss.
  • Perhaps we should view dying as more of a “laying off” or a “putting down” rather than “being robbed.”
  • Perhaps we should not mourn as those who have no hope.  We do not mourn that a planted seed will be transformed into a beautiful flower. We do not mourn the loss of a precious seed because we know that it was intended for planting (1 Corinthians 15:35-44).
  • Perhaps we should be more aware that the Body of Christ lives, including those members who no longer live with us!  The saints and witnesses of Revelation are all quite active in the plan and will of God, working on behalf of the saints and witnesses who breathe.
  • Perhaps we would be less afraid, knowing that Death has lost its sting.

Because “the last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26), Memorial Day is safe and secure, as are the funeral homes and cemetery owners.  Our appointment with dying is unavoidable.

But  what would be different for you if on this Memorial Day, you remembered that those by whose graves you stand are alive—very much alive?


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Her name was Joyce Blackman Johnson, but everyone except her one still-living brother called her Joy—and rightfully so.  Sherrylee and I named our third child Emily Joy after her!  Emily and Tim named their oldest daughter Anna Joy.  Our family benefits from a lot of Joy, and most of the story began with Joyce Blackman Johnson—Granny Joy.

Joy Johnson and her family (1996)

Blessed are the dead . . . . (Revelation 14:13).   We non-Catholics usually want to finish the preceding verse in order to encourage living well until the very end of our lives.  The catholic and orthodox churches have a much more highly developed awareness of the dead saints, soliciting from them whatever form of intercession is still available to them on our behalf. If we ask living saints to pray for us, and if we believe in life after death, then it really doesn’t seem so far-fetched as I may have believed to ask for the prayers of saints on the other side as well.

Fifteen years ago yesterday, we buried Joy Johnson.  After a long and lingering time of dying, she passed peacefully in her sleep on the night that our Emily Joy graduated from high school.  The family gathered quickly in Columbus, Mississippi, where she and Max had served the church for many years. We buried her under an old tree in a new part of the old cemetery in Columbus, the one known for its Civil War graves.  We buried her on her 70th birthday.  The dogwoods were in full bloom; the day was beautiful.

And Joy was perfected—by the grace and mercy of her Father.

Joy had known she would die soon for quite some time. Her cancer had made it impossible for her to eat and properly digest food. The doctors operated once hopefully, but when the cancer recurred, they said that further intervention would not be effective. So Joy said she wanted to go home.

She lived the last two months of her life with unforgettable faith and confidence that nothing bad was getting ready to happen, rather that for which she had lived her life.  None of us will ever forget the day we all went to the funeral home to make final arrangements.  Yes, of course, Joy was with us. She would never have let us go without her!

We first picked out the casket, not the most expensive, but the one with the right color lining that would not clash with the blouse that she had already chosen to wear!  Chuck, a lay Baptist pastor who also worked at the funeral home, unfortunately tried to change her mind on the blouse color—bless his heart—but immediately bumped into the determined strength that characterizes all the Joys that I know! He will be forever know in our family lore as Chuck, the Baptist, bless his heart!

After settling everything at the funeral home, Joy and her daughters went to a little boutique in Columbus to shop for a scarf for her to be buried in.  “Good morning, Miss Joy” the nice lady at the store said. “How can we help you today?”

“Well, I’m looking for a scarf that will go with an accrue blouse as well as the coffin lining that I’m going to be buried in. Can you help me?”  The poor lady did her best not to gasp, but she was obviously a lot less at ease than Joy was with her imminent death.

As she grew smaller and weaker, so many people came to visit her. The hospice nurses would sometimes stay much longer than required, just to visit with Joy.  The Pentecostal neighbors came to try to heal her—and Joy, completely confident that God had another kind of healing in mind, nevertheless allowed their expressions of love and faith—although she did kind of roll her eyes when they weren’t looking.

Max and her children surrounded her in her last days as delirium began to take over—but even then she gave us some terribly funny moments.  Once Max and Phil were trying to change her sheets and accidentally rolled her out of the bed! After they got her back in, she said, “Max, am I in hell?”

Her most common delirious thought was that she had already died and was at her own funeral. Sherrylee played some beautiful Taize music on the CD player, thinking this would soothe Joy’s spirit, but after a while, Joy, only half-conscious, calls out, “Max, Max, I didn’t really want Catholic music in my funeral!”

She also thought that every time the doorbell rang, that someone was bringing a casserole to the funeral!  She was quite concerned that we had way too many casseroles.

On her final day, she woke up at some point feeling great! She sat up in bed and said, “Max, let’s call the doctor and tell him that I’m well!”  Then she said she wanted to sing, so she launched into all the verses and chorus of “I’m Pressing On the Upward Way” – which some of you will remember. She sang it all, ending with “Lord, plant my feet on higher ground!” and then she lay down, closed her eyes, and did not wake up again until she was with God.

Fifteen years ago, her Father planted her feet on higher ground. We miss Joy, but she is still very much with us.  The dogwoods are blooming in Mississippi again, but she is not there! She’s laughing and singing, saved by His grace, but bringing Him glory.

Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord  . . . .


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With the bloody images of civil war in Syria in our living rooms each day, it is easy to rage against innocent, but violent death.  Even just the Facebook messages from casual friends who tell of the final struggles with cancer or with Alzheimer’s cause a kind of outrage against unwanted, undeserved pain and suffering of every kind.

On the other hand, my mother is within a month of her 89th birthday. She is frail, but in relatively good health. She does not rage against the dying light, nor do we her children. My prayer for her has been—as my prayer for many loved ones who have already passed—that the Father would take them gently, quietly.

John Donne, the metaphysical poet, wrote, “As virtuous men pass mildly away,/And whisper to their souls to go,/Whilst some of their sad friends do say,/”Now his breath goes,” and some say, “No,”/So let us melt and make no noise . . . .” (A Valediction Forbidding Mourning).

Much better known, however, are the strong words of Dylan Thomas, the Welsh poet, who wrote, “Do not go gentle into that good night, /Old age should burn and rage at close of day; /Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

What would Jesus do?

Jesus knew violent death! Jesus knew what it was to be young and condemned. Jesus knew what it was to see his closest relatives killed—beheaded—unjustly. And, perhaps most importantly, Jesus knew that death in its every form results as the inevitable consequence of rebellion against His Father.  Death had been avoidable, but we chose it over the tree of life!  The stupidity of a choice that leads to every death must make heaven rage!

Yet, Jesus created an alternate ending to the story of death and dying in our world. He offers an alternate place to stand other than  between raging or whimpering.

Lazarus, Jesus’ friend, died unexpectedly—at least his sisters felt he should not have died. Jesus intentionally lets him die (John 11:14). Only then does Jesus go to the sisters.  He goes to the tomb that held the decaying body of one he loved, he goes with his eyes full of tears—but no whimper—nor rage!

Jesus goes to the tomb with an alternative—life!

“I am going there to wake him up,” Jesus says to his disciples. Upon arriving in Bethany, Martha, Lazarus’s sister, in her deep sorrow whimpers a complaint that if only Jesus had been there . . . .

Mary, her faithful sister, says the same, “If only you had been here . . . .”  Where were you when you were most needed? We thought you loved Lazarus? You could have done something, and you didn’t!

Our words coming pouring out of these bereaved sisters, our words of disappointment, words that lead to rage!

At this point, Jesus offers the sisters spiritual hope, “Your brother will rise again!”  And they believed this to be true!  But it did not comfort them.  Their loss was in this world, not the next! Their pain was physical, not spiritual.

Unexpectedly, Jesus opened the door to an alternate reality, a reality meant for this world:

 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

No one believed in never dying! No one had experienced never dying! 

Jesus had to call Lazarus out of the tomb in his stinking body in order to prove that He was the Author and Giver of Life.

The context of the whole story of Lazarus is Jesus’ own journey to his momentary death on Golgotha. Yes, because of our sins even Life had to die in the flesh, but Life never died—and even his body didn’t stay dead.

And that is the promise of Life to those who believe in Him.

WWJD?  Jesus’ rages against sin and the pain and suffering it causes.  He weeps at the momentary victory of evil, but, I believe, there is no darkness, no mystery, no emptiness, no false hope in His presence.

Jesus walked in the Light of Life that never ends.  And He calls us to walk in His Light and share His Life—no need to rage, no cause to whimper!

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