A church member died today; more accurately, a dear friend died today. Just because a minister has a professional relationship with his or her parishioners, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t personal attachments as well, especially when you’ve been privileged to be somebody’s minister for a stretch of time as long as I have been with her. I buried her husband, and I have buried lots and lots of her friends, my friends — our friends. She attended most of the funerals that I have conducted over the past 16 years, and she always would always give me a great big hug when they were done and tell me it was “perfect,” my best one yet, and that she was so glad that one day I would be conducting her service. Well, that day has now come.
As these past few days unfolded, and it became increasingly clear that my friend was losing her battle with cancer, in addition to being prayerfully present and pastorally attentive, I have been thinking about the journey that she has been on. Sedated and put on life support in order to give her body a chance to rally, I watched all of those wonderful doctors and nurses at the hospital interact with my friend and her family. They were so competent, so confident, so scientific. They explained with an impressive precision just exactly what was happening in my friend’s body, and what they were doing in response. They spoke with authority, and it was comforting. You felt like they knew what they were doing, that they had things under control, at least as far as things could be controlled, and that everything that could possibly be done was being done. They inspired such confidence, and listening to them and watching them, I remembered something that the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote in the journal that he kept during his days as minister at a church in Detroit.
I visited Miss Z. at the hospital. I like to go now since she told me that it helps her to have me pray with her… Sometimes when I compare myself with these efficient doctors and nurses hustling about I feel like an ancient medicine man dumped into the twentieth century. I think they have the same feeling toward me that I have about myself. (Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic – 42)
I know all about this inferiority complex. Sitting in a conference room with my friend’s family earlier this week, I listened to her Doctor clinically assess the situation. He gave them the hard data of tests and the readings from monitors, numbers they could see and count, important information that they could then use to make their looming decision. When he finished, I spoke up, and told the family of my friend that from my field of expertise that there were some things that needed to be factored in to their decision as well. I reminded them of what God has promised to us in His word and what the church teaches and believes. Simplistically it might be said that the doctor dealt with “facts” while I was only dealing with “faith.” That he “knew” while I only “believed.” That his truth was the fruit of reason: careful observation, controlled experimentation and disciplined reflection; while mine was only the fruit of revelation: Divine self-disclosure, inner impressions and a leap of faith. But I would disagree. I would argue that what I offered the family of my friend was no less rooted in truth than what the Doctor offered. We have different epistemologies – different ways of knowing; and we have different sources of information, different fields of exploration; but there is one God with just one truth however we arrive at it. And so I can speak with confidence too.
At the bed of my friend this afternoon, soon after she had taken her leave of us, I gathered her family around and talked with them about what had just happened. I shared the beautiful image of the author Henry Van Dyke, a Presbyterian minister –
I am standing upon the seashore. A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze and starts for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength, and I stand and watch until at last she hangs like a speck of white cloud just where the sea and sky come down to mingle with each other. Then someone at my side says, “There she goes!” “Gone where?” Gone from my sight … that is all. She is just as large in mast and hull and spar as she was when she left my side and just as able to bear her load of living freight to the place of destination. Her diminished size is in me, not in her. And just at the moment when someone at my side says, “There she goes!” there are other eyes watching her coming and their voices ready to take up the glad shouts “Here she comes!” This is how I see and understand death. (Henry van Dyke ~1852 – 1933)
I anchored this comforting image in Scripture for my friend’s family this afternoon. I talked with them about how death is described as being “gathered to your people” in the Hebrew Scriptures (Genesis 25:8, 49:33); and how the Christian Scriptures assure us of a continuing conscious existence after we die because of our faith in Christ (“…even though we die, yet shall we live…” – John 11:25; “I go to prepare a place for you… and I will come again and take you to myself so that where I am there you may be also…” – John 14:2-3). And so I assured them that their mother, my friend, passed from this world surrounded by loving family into the next world where loving family gathered to welcome her home. “Today you will be with me in Paradise” Jesus promised the good thief as they both hung dying on crosses (Luke 23:43), and so just as I had been assuring them that He had companioned her through the valley of the shadow of death, so now I told them that I believed that she was home in the house of the Lord forever (Psalm 23:4; 6). And my confidence in making such assertions is my certainty that God has spoken and acted to make Himself known to us, and that we have a reliable record of that Divine speaking and acting in Scripture, and the indwelling presence of God to lead us into all truth (John 16:13-15; I Corinthians 2:10-16). And so, I am not left to hunches and guesses when I am turned to for a word of wisdom and comfort from God. It is not wishful thinking that I deal in as a minister. That Doctor this week has his bases for the things that he said to guide the family of my friend in their decisions, and I have mine. He wasn’t just making things up, and neither do I.
Ben Haden, the longtime pastor of Chattanooga’s historic First Presbyterian Church, said: “The world has a gurgle in its throat when talking about death, but the Christian can speak with total confidence.” And the basis for that confidence with which we can speak as Christians is God’s own self-disclosure. Hebrews 1:1-3 is foundational to how I operate as a minister: “Long ago God spoke to the fathers by the prophets at different times and in different ways. But in these last days, God has spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed the heir of all things, and through whom He made the universe. He is the radiance of His glory, the exact expression of His nature….” In Jesus Christ I have a sure reference point about who God is and what God does, and it is from that sure reference point, that “hard data,” that I operate confidently as a minister. Just as Paul comforted the Thessalonians in their grief by anchoring their experience of personal loss in the things that had been clearly revealed in Jesus Christ (I Thessalonians 4:13-18), so it is my job to lead people to the things that the Bible teaches, especially in times of suffering and sorrow, so that they will not be left to grieve as those who have no hope. “Hopeful grieving,” that’s what anchoring our lives and losses in God’s promises that are found in Scripture can do for us. In the pain and confusion of our circumstances, we find the still point in the storm where we can find shelter and strength.
At the very beginning of his letter to the Romans (the book the Bible Study my friend attended is in the middle of right now), Paul declared that he was not ashamed of the Gospel because it is the power of God for salvation (Romans 1:16). As Christians we have a truth about which we can be confident. My friend was, and that’s how I account for her extraordinary endurance, character and hope (Romans 5:3-4). And now that her faith has become sight, she knows what we must still trust, that “This hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who is given to us” (Romans 5:5). DBS+