1 Thessalonians 4:14-15
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. 15 For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord
My wife texted me the other day while she was at school. One of her friends wanted to borrow anything we might have about pirates. Hats, necklaces, toy swords, and such. I figured someone was having a party, but no, they were planning a funeral. They wanted everyone to come dressed like pirates.
In the past several years I have seen a growing discomfort with death.
It has always been with us, of course. Woody Allen once said that he wasn’t afraid of death, he just didn’t want to be there when it happened to him.
We hesitate to say that someone has “died.” So instead we began saying things like “passed away.” Lately we don’t even say that, we say, “he passed.”
Several times people have told me that someone has passed and my first thought, literally and honestly, is to think “Good, what kind of test did he pass? The Bar Examination? The Drivers License test?”
Even the way we speak of funerals has been softened. We used to gather together when people passed – or died, and have what was called a funeral. Funerals are often called “celebrations of life.”
Now on one hand it is good to have to encourage the sharing of good memories and I’m all for laughter at any occasion. But we are more and more going to the extreme of disguising the purpose of these post-death gatherings. But more and more this term “celebration of life” has become synonymous with a party, not a worship service.
I walked into one such Celebration of Life recently and there was a sign at the entrance, “No grieving allowed.” Below that it said, “This is not a funeral but a celebration and laughter is encouraged. Anyone shedding tears will be asked to leave.”
But here’s the thing.
You cannot live your life without death or grief or pain or hardship.
One of the most beautiful arias in opera comes from Pagliacci. A clown has learned tragic news that hurts him to the core, but he is a clown and cannot allow himself to grieve. So he sings this song, “Turn your distress and tears into jest, your pain and sobbing into a funny face, Ha! Laugh clown at your broken love! Laugh at the grief that poisons your heart!
Each one of us is going to die. Each one of us will have many, many beloved friends and family members die.
The secret that most people don’t know about living life, is that death will happen and it is OK to grieve.
Ernest Becker wrote a book back in 1973, The Denial of Death. It was a profound book that claimed that people are too terrified of death to face it.
American writer William Saroyan said shortly before his own death in 1981, “Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case.”
In the place of an awareness of death, we nurture what one person has called, “a flippant air of invincibility that only gives a second thought to our mortality for the briefest of seasons when tragedy strikes.” (“Overcoming the Denial of Death” Matt Reagan, July 7, 2012 article in Desiring God).
In the book, Becker asserts, "To live fully is to live with an awareness of the rumble of terror that underlies everything."
Are we really so naive that we will, like a child playing hide-and-seek, place our hands over our eyes and convince ourselves that death is no longer there? If we want to live, we need to face the reality that everyone of us will die.
Death is both inevitable and terrifying, and denying it will accomplish nothing but emotional shallowness.
On the other hand, knowing that you will die liberates you. Accepting that you will die, enhances your life.
Early in my ministry, in fact it was while I was still in seminary, a professor sent me to the nursing home to visit some shut-ins there. It was part of a class I was taking on ministry to the elderly. I got to know one of the shut-ins pretty well. Mentally, he was pretty alert, and we had a number of conversations. Finally one day, I asked him, as one 23 year old to someone who was, in my mind, incredibly ancient, “What is it like to be old?”
It’s the kind of question only a very young person would ask.
He thought for a minute and said, “I now view everything in life from the point of view of my death.”
Without thinking, I pitied him and said, “How sad.”
“Not at all,” said the old man. “We are all dieing, but for most people, death is a secret. People hide if from themselves. But I know the secret. I know I’m going to die. And that helps me to treasure life, and to enjoy it. Even here in a nursing home.”
I have remembered that man’s words for a long time now. And I think he’s onto something. There is something very liberating about knowing that we are all dieing.
Garrison Keeler is a radio personality who is heard each week on Public Radio’s Prairie Home Companion. He’s a story teller and in one recent show he told this story.
A man was tilling manure into a field in the Spring, using a tractor and a disc plow.
It was a long field. The tractor was moving at five miles an hour, and the man was bored. It was a warm day and the man wished he could be anything other than a farmer. He was tired of working for his father. Out of sheer boredom, he dozed off and started to fall backwards off the tractor seat.
He woke up falling and, because the tractor was an old model with the throttle lever that was notched into place, the tractor just kept moving. The man fell in between the tractor and the discs and, as he hit the ground, he grabbed on to the tow bar. He hauled himself up as far as he could, but he couldn’t pull himself all the way up. He just hung onto the tow bar with both hands as the steel discs were moving behind him.
His body was literally being dragged through the dirt and the manure. He held on as tightly as he could because, if he lost his grip, he would have been cut in two by the moving discs.
He was just about to lose his grip. He didn’t even have enough strength to cry out or to weep – he just kept hanging on.
The tractor kept moving, ever so slowly, until it came to the end of the field. It began moving up the incline of a hill, and then into the woods.
Finally it hit a tree and stopped, although the wheels kept spinning.
It took him about ten minutes before he could stand on his two feet, climb up into the seat, and turn off the engine.
That man lost his life and got it back again.
As Garrison Keeler told this story, he made the observation that he would think that after an experience like that you would have the feeling of absolute freedom and liberty. All the weight would be gone. You would feel the sort of liberty that you read about in the Epistles when a person has died and has been reborn.
The sunsets are lovelier.
The friendships are richer.
Life is savored more deeply.
The gift of Ash Wednesday is that we come forward and have ashes placed on our head, and as each person stands before the pastor he or she hears the words, “You are dust, and to dust you will return.”
All of us are on a journey toward death.
Death is hard, it is not easy. Denying its reality does not make it easier. Grief his difficult, and you cannot rush it.
I mentioned a few moments ago that I once went to one of those funerals that was billed as “A Celebration of Life.” At the entrance was a sign that read, “No grieving allowed.”
But it is fine to grieve. Jesus, himself, attended the funeral of his friend Lazarus, and even though he knew that he was about to bring Lazarus from the dead, he cried. It is the shortest verse of the Bible: “Jesus wept.”
But allowing grief and acknowledging sadness and pain is not the same as giving up hope.
St. Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.”
Later, when death was no longer an abstract of some distant future, but close at hand, Paul wrote the Philippians while in prison, saying, “I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.”
Having hope is not the same as being in denial. Having hope is what Christians do in the face of reality.
It is fine for us to fear death – that is a human thing for us to do.
It is fine for us to grieve – to lose someone dear to us is not something that should be painless.
But in the midst of our fear and in the struggle with our tears, “What shall we say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?” That question was asked by Paul in the New Testament book of Romans, and in that question he continued to ask questions, “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?”
“… No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. ”