Tag Archives: death

“Any man’s death diminishes me…”

BOMB

The violence in Manchester on Monday evening fills us with anguish, anger and sympathy. Interviews with grieving parents and surviving friends on the evening news are just too painful to watch.  And once again we are left to struggle with big questions about the presence – or absence – of God, His purposes and actions in history, the abnormality of the world, and something, anything that might help us understand how this keeps happening, something, anything that could help explain the inhumanity of human beings to other human beings.

To be able to perpetrate an act of violence like this one that exploded in an arena concourse in Northern England, and in our hearts, on Monday evening, the targeted people have to get reduced to objects – they have to become depersonalized, dehumanized, and debased. How else could anyone do such a thing to another human being?  They have to be stripped of their humanity becoming people without faces, or names, or families, or dreams, or stories.  How could “they” do this to “us”?

And then it dawned on me – painfully – that “we” do this to “them” too.

I’ve read innumerable statements of solidarity with and sorrow for the Manchester victims and their families online this week, and rightly so.   But I have not read similar statements of solidarity with and sorrow for the Wadi al Shatii District attack victms and their families (141 people killed, 100 people wonded), the Baghdad suicide bombing victims and their families (39 people killed, 45 wounded), or the Zabul, Afghanistan, assault victims and their families (20 people killed, 15 people wounded) that all happened in the 48 hours right before Manchester.

Go to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_terrorist_incidents_in_May_2017.   This is a day-by-day, month-after-month accounting of the victims of global terrorism.  It is a disturbing and sobering read.  Just looking at the numbers of people who have been wounded and killed by terrorists this month – May 2017 – was eye-opening and heart-wrenching for me.  Stories of the Manchester victims fill the front-page of the paper and open the evening news broadcasts.  We easily identify with them and openly weep for them.  But who weeps for the May 2nd  Hasakah, Syria, victims (37 Killed, 100 wounded), or the May 12th Mastung, Pakistan,victims (29 killed, 37 wounded), or the May 18th Hama Governorate, Syria, victims (67 killed, 100 wounded)? Who even knows about them? John Donne (1573 – 1631), the English poet/priest, wrote –

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

This was an affirmation that came from deep within his faith as Christian. David Langness, a Baha’i believer, wrote a commentary on this text that I found to be richly insightful and deeply moving (http://bahaiteachings.org/the-spiritual-quote-that-started-it-all-no-man-is-an-islan)

“Because I am involved in mankind…” the poet says, telling us that he has discovered his relationship with all people. In the 17th century, this was a radical and even revolutionary belief. Donne said it during a time of rampant slavery, enormous class distinctions and the complete subjugation of certain kinds of people based on gender, race and circumstances of birth. In the line “never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee” the poet’s collective “thee” refers to the entire unified race of humanity…

…Many of the people who hear Donne’s most famous line at a wedding or a funeral may think it just means that we need each other as human beings. This simplistic interpretation – that human beings do not thrive when isolated from others – takes the most literal path, which probably would have insulted the poet. Donne meant more than that – he meant, in the broadest sense, that the personal and the political are one; that the boundary between you and I does not ultimately exist.”

Now, if a Baha’i believer (some of the loveliest people of faith that I know) reading a “Christian” text can see this so clearly and say this so powerfully, what could possibly explain our confusion and hesitation as Christians?

20 years ago Peter Kuzmic, the Distinguished Professor of Missions and European Studies at Gordon Conwell Seminary in his inaugural lecture said something that I have never forgotten. He said that when we are asked as Christians to say why we should care about a famine in Africa, or a violent coup by an oppressive dictator in Latin America, or the outbreak of a deadly virus in Asia, or the continuing violence of racial hatred in the United States, our answer should be clear and conscientious – “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Begotten Son!”

This week that world that God loves in Jesus Christ encompasses Manchester, England, the Minya Province of Egypt, the Wadi al Shatii District of Libya, Baghdad, Iraq, and Zabul, Afghanistan.

“…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind…”

                                                                                                              DBS +

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“You are Dust and to Dust you shall Return.”

ashI was in Modesto, California, on Ash Wednesday.   My wife’s mother died on Monday afternoon, and we spent the week taking care of all the things that must be attended to when a loved one dies.  And so on Wednesday I found a Catholic Church nearby that had an early morning Imposition of Ashes service and slipped in quietly to receive the mark that signals the beginning of Lent.

I’ve noticed a curious trend in recent years — the Ash Wednesday selfie. Smiling faces and smudged foreheads; ministers mugging and parishioners posing for the camera. Jesus specifically warned us about this sort of thing, about doing something overtly religious “to be seen of men” (Matthew 6:1-18).  To wear ashes as a spiritual badge of honor misses the whole point.  The inward and invisible of Ash Wednesday, of which the ashes are an outward and visible sign, is the death of self. “When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer).

When a minister makes the sign of the cross on a forehead on Ash Wednesday, the traditional liturgy specifies that what gets said is – Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” The full force of this hit me the first time I marked my wife and kids with ashes and told them that they were going to die. The people I love most in this world do not get a pass.  Even they are going to die, and Ash Wednesday comes around each year as a reminder of their, and my own mortality. The point of this is not to kill the buzz of life, but rather to remember that there is in fact a reason for life.  We are here for the shaping of our souls. And because we are not going to be here forever, it is important for us to get on with the task.

It’s just so easy for us to get distracted, to fill our lives with little luxuries and pleasures that keep us from seeing the true shape of things. In his Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation written in 1534 from his cell in the Tower of London, St. Thomas More observed –

St.ThomasI have seen some in their last illness sit up – propped up by pillows – on their deathbed, gather their playfellows around them, and comfort themselves with card games. And this, they said, did very much help them to put troubling images out of their heads. And what troubling images, do you suppose? …Images of heaven and hell, images that irked them to think about.  So they cast them out with card-playing as long as they possibly could, until the pure pangs of death pulled their heart from their play and put them in such a state that they could not think about their game.  Then their playfellows left them, slyly slinking away, and it was not long before they gave up the ghost..  And what game they then came into, that I don’t know; only God knows, I hope to God it was a good one, but I very much doubt it. (70)

A couple of summers ago I spent a week with Fr. Thomas Keating at St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado, at the Snowmass Interreligious Conference. Each spiritual tradition represented at the Conference (Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Native American) was asked to model a spiritual practice for the others to experience.  The Zen Buddhists led us in a time of silent sitting meditation, and then concluded the session by chanting their Night Prayer.  It says –

Life and death are of supreme importance.
Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost.
Each of us should strive to awaken. Awaken!
Take heed – do not squander your life.

It was a stunning moment. And that’s what Ash Wednesday is supposed to be for us in the Christian tradition.  It’s our annual spiritual wake-up call, our reminder that life is fleeting, that the stakes are high, and that we should not squander our opportunities.

Brigid E. Herman wrote an underappreciated devotional book – Creative Prayer – that told the story of “The Nun of Lyons,” a story that perfectly captures, at least in my mind, the true spirit of Ash Wednesday and Lent –

She was dancing at a fashionable ball. None was gayer or lovelier: her marriage to the most eligible man of her set was due within the week. Suddenly, in the midst of a minuet, she saw a vision of the world dying – for lack of prayer. She could almost hear the world’s gasping, as a drowning man gasps for air. The dance now seemed macabre, a dance of death. In the corner a priest, smiling and satisfied, discussed the eligibles with a matchmaking mother: even the Church did not know that the world was dying – for want of prayer. As instant as a leaping altar flame, she vowed her life to ceaseless intercession, and none could dissuade her. She founded a contemplative order of prayer – lest the world should die. Was she quite wrong? Was she wrong at all? Or is our world saved by those who keep the windows open on another world? [“The Nun of Lyons” – Creative Prayer -E. Hermann (1921)]

The smudge of ashes on the forehead each year while a minister looks you straight in the eye and tells you that you are going to die is meant to be an honest piece of truth-telling that drives us to the only Savior who has conquered death. Lent is the season of spiritual preparation for Holy Week, for our annual recital of the Gospel facts of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection.  It’s our annual call to die with Him so that we might be raised with Him to walk in newness of life and in the assurance of life everlasting (Romans 6:1-11).

alanAlan Jones, the Dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, California, describes it as a “stopping the world” experience in his book Soul Making (Harper 1985). He defines the experience as “receiving the salutary shock of a revelation,” a “way of breaking open a person’s consciousness” that results in them “seeing the world in a new way” (69). Biblically, this is what happened to Moses and the People of Israel when they were trapped at the shore of the Red Sea with Pharaoh’s army bearing down on them, and the waters parting made a way for them where just moments before there had been no way (Exodus 14). It’s what happened to Paul on the road to Damascus when he got knocked off his donkey and wound up at the feet, and in the embrace of the Risen Christ (Acts 9). These experiences are terribly disorienting at first, but with time, they become profoundly renewing. They open us up to new possibilities with greater freedom and responsibility. As Alan Jones puts it: “’Stopping the world’ is an exhilarating experience. Just for a moment we have no choice but to see all of our dogmatic and philosophical baggage thrown overboard as we stand shipwrecked on an unknown island. There we are, naked, stripped of the fig leaves of our prejudices and presuppositions. …(All of) the really creative and free souls that I have encountered have been shipwrecked at one time or another. They have had their world taken from them and lived to tell the tale” (71).

Observing Ash Wednesday the week that a loved one dies, and in the middle of planning a funeral, managing complicated relationships and difficult emotions while boxing up the remnants and the fragments of a life, has been for me one of these “stopping the world” experiences.  As I begin my journey to Good Friday and Easter this year, it is with a clarity and an intensity that has not always been present in my previous Lents.  Dealing with a death on Ash Wednesday brings into focus what it is that I need the most, and who it is that has it. DBS +

 

 

 

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O Key of David…

O Key of David, and Ruler of the House of Israel, you open and none can shut;
you shut and no one can open:

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Come and lead out of the prison house the captives who sit in
darkness and in the shadow of death
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easterThe traditional Easter icon of Eastern Orthodox Christianity shows the Risen Christ breaking down the gates of Hades and pulling people out of the bondage of death. The detail in this icon that I simply love are all the locks, and chains and keys that have been opened to set people free that are falling away beneath Christ’s feet.  As the Risen Christ tells the church in Philadelphia in Revelation 3:8 – I have opened a door for you that no one can close.” In the book of Hebrews this is the idea that’s at work in the wonderful invitation of chapter 10 –

Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. (10:19-22)

And, of course, this invitation is premised on the theologically rich image of the curtain in the Jerusalem Temple being torn open wide from top to bottom at the very moment when Christ died (Matthew 27:51). That curtain was the barrier that symbolically separated people from the Holy of Holies where God was said to dwell on earth. This was part of the dividing wall of hostility that Christ broke down on the cross giving us our access to God (Ephesians 2:14-18).

And so it is that in our run-up to Christmas the church prays the fourth “O” Antiphon –

O Key of David, and Ruler of the House of Israel, you open and none can shut;
you shut and no one can open: Come and lead out of the prison house
the captives who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.

At Christmastime I begin by praying this “O” Antiphon as an intercession for myself. The door that Christ has opened by His saving presence and work is the door through which I must daily pass (John 10:1-3).  I understand that my access to God and His provision for all my needs depends upon this door being open.  And then I pray this “O” Antiphon as a petition for you.  I know that what Christ has provided for me through that open door, He intends to provide for you, and for all, as well.  And so I pray this fourth “O” Antiphon as a reminder of the mission that is mine as someone who has passed though that open door that is Christ.  It is not enough just for me to get “in.” Because that door to God has been opened by Christ for all, my experience of it is diminished so long as any remain outside of it.  This was Paul’s lament in Romans 9 where he wrote of his “great sorrow and unceasing grief” in his heart for those from his own spiritual family who remained outside the access and provision that Christ had made.  “I wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ,” Paul wrote, if that would mean their inclusion (9:3).

A more positive statement of this same desire was Sam Shoemaker’s (1893 – 1963) personal mission statement –

cross
I Stand at the Door

I stand by the door.
I neither go too far in, nor stay too far out.
The door is the most important door in the world –
It is the door through which people walk when they find God.
There is no use my going way inside and staying there,
When so many are still outside and they, as much as I,
Crave to know where the door is.
And all that so many ever find
is only the wall where the door ought to be.
They creep along the wall like blind people,
With outstretched, groping hands,
Feeling for a door, knowing there must be a door,
Yet they never find it.
So I stand by the door.

The most tremendous thing in the world
is for people to find that door – the door to God.
The most important thing that any person can do
is to take hold of one of those blind, groping hands
and put it on the latch – the latch that only clicks
and opens to that person’s own touch.

People die outside the door, as starving beggars die
on cold nights in cruel cities in the dead of winter.
Die for want of what is within their grasp.
They live on the other side of it – live because they have not found it.

Nothing else matters compared to helping them find it,
And open it, and walk in, and find Him.
So I stand by the door.

Go in great saints; go all the way in –
Go way down into the cavernous cellars,
And way up into the spacious attics.
It is a vast, roomy house, this house where God is.
Go into the deepest of hidden casements,
Of withdrawal, of silence, of sainthood.
Some must inhabit those inner rooms
And know the depths and heights of God,
And call outside to the rest of us how wonderful it is.
Sometimes I take a deeper look in.
Sometimes venture in a little farther,
But my place seems closer to the opening.
So I stand by the door.

There is another reason why I stand there.
Some people get part way in and become afraid
lest God and the zeal of His house devour them;
For God is so very great and asks all of us.
And these people feel a cosmic claustrophobia
and want to get out. ‘Let me out!’ they cry.
And the people way inside only terrify them more.
Somebody must be by the door to tell them that they are spoiled.
For the old life, they have seen too much:
One taste of God and nothing but God will do any more.
Somebody must be watching for the frightened
Who seek to sneak out just where they came in,
To tell them how much better it is inside.
The people too far in do not see how near these are
to leaving – preoccupied with the wonder of it all.
Somebody must watch for those who have entered the door
but would like to run away. So for them too,
I stand by the door.

I admire the people who go way in.
But I wish they would not forget how it was
before they got in. Then they would be able to help
the people who have not yet even found the door.
Or the people who want to run away again from God.
You can go in too deeply and stay in too long
and forget the people outside the door.
As for me, I shall take my old accustomed place,
Near enough to God to hear Him and know He is there,
But not so far from people as not to hear them,
And remember they are there too.

Where? Outside the door –
Thousands of them. Millions of them.
But – more important for me – One of them, two of them, ten of them.
Whose hands I am intended to put on the latch.
So I shall stand by the door and wait
for those who seek it.

‘I had rather be a door-keeper…
so I stand by the door.

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Christ is the door that opens onto God, and through which we are invited to pass into His presence, and Christmastime each year is our opportunity to both remember what it is that we have been given in the coming of Christ, and to renew our commitment to the mission that He has placed in our hands just as soon as we have stepped through the door.

The most tremendous thing in the world
is for people to find that door – the door to God.
The most important thing that any person can do
is to take hold of one of those blind, groping hands
and put it on the latch – the latch that only clicks
and opens to that person’s own touch.

– DBS +

 

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“What Christ Promised”

An All Souls’ Day Reflection

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John 11:25-26

25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die,
yet shall he live, 26 and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”

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rockThe founders of the spiritual tradition of which the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is a part – the Stone/Campbell Movement – believed that there were three and not just two sacraments, or as they preferred to call them “ordinances” — “Gospel ordinances.”   Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are the two that everybody knows.  The Lord’s Day — Sunday morning worship — that’s the one that very few of us can name.  But our founders were insistent.  It’s only all together like the pieces of a puzzle that combine to make a beautiful picture that Baptism, the Lord’s Supper and the Lord’s Day combine to bear witness to the Gospel of God’s love established by the three facts of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection.

The Lord’s Supper with its broken bread and poured out cup bears witness to Christ’s saving death on the cross.  The watery grave of baptism by immersion from which we are raised bears witness to both Christ’s resurrection and ours, and so does Sunday morning worship each week.  You see, Sunday is the Lord’s Day because Sunday was the day when Jesus Christ rose.  As our founders liked to say, “Every Sunday morning is a little Easter,” and that’s what makes the Lord’s Day a Gospel Ordinance.

Every time we make the effort to get ourselves up and to get ourselves to church on a Sunday morning, we are consciously reorienting our lives to and conscientiously reordering our priorities by the event that we say as Christians is the most important thing that has ever happened in human history.  Jesus Christ was raised from the dead on the third day, and by faith, we believe that we now get a share in that victory.  Because He is the resurrection and the life, Jesus said that “though we die, yet shall we live,” and that “whoever lives and believes in Him shall never die” (John 11:25-26).   If you are a Christian, what this means is that you are never going to die.  That’s what Christ promised.

Actually there are two promises made in John 11:25-26, and I think they correspond to the two things that Christ said He was.  “I am the Resurrection and the Life” Jesus told us.  And then Jesus promised, “Though you die, yet shall you live,” and “whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.”  At first glance, these two promises can seem rather contradictory.  I mean, which is it?   Am I going to die and then live again, or is it that I am never going to die?  There’s a pretty big difference between these two things if you ask me.  And I think that the answer lies in the way that the Bible talks about death.   You see, Biblically, we are told that our bodies die, but so can our souls.  The Scriptures talk about both physical death and spiritual death, and so did Jesus Christ.

When Jesus told us that He is the Resurrection I think that what He was talking about was physical death.  When He said “I am the Resurrection,” I’m pretty sure that He was telling us that He is our victory over the death of our bodies.  What He was promising us was that after our bodies die that they will be raised again when the Kingdom finally and fully comes at the close of the age.  And then when Jesus told us that He is the Life, I think that what He was talking about was spiritual death.  When He said “I am the Life,” I’m pretty sure that what He was telling us was that He is our victory over the death of our souls.  What He was promising was that because of what He has done for us spiritually by His life, His death, and His Resurrection, that we need never die.  We “pass from death to life” when we believe in Him (John 5:24; I John 3:14), and spiritually, what this means is that we will never see death (John 8:51).

hadenThis is why Ben Haden, for so many years the minister of Chattanooga’s Historic First Presbyterian Church, always used to say that rather than being a spiritually draining experiences, that he always found the funeral service of a Christian to be a spiritually strengthening experience instead.  “The world has a gurgle in its throat when it comes to death,” he liked to say, “but the Christian can speak with total confidence.”  And the reason why he believed this was because of what Jesus promised in John 11:25-26.  As he put it –

I think the most overlooked portion of Scripture is that phrase right after Jesus said, “Whoever believes in me shall live even if he dies” in John 11.  It continues, “Whoever believes in me shall never die.”   We forget that Christians are incapable of being dead for even one moment.   When we pass from this life, we’re alive!

Right after Jesus told us said that He was the Resurrection who solves the problem that we have as human beings with physical death, and that He was the Life who solves the problem that we have as human beings with spiritual death, Jesus posed the question: “Do you believe this?

When I hear this question I think about an editorial that I read years ago in Christianity Today about an ordination interview in which the candidate had been theologically nuanced in all of his responses to all of the committee’s questions.  For hours he had danced around their questions about the virgin birth, the miracles of Jesus and His Second Coming with intellectual flights of fancy and sleights of hand.  Finally one exasperated building contractor on the committee blurted out: “Did Jesus walk on water or did he not? No trick answers!”

James Morgan was a very popular professor of theology at Fuller Seminary back in the late 1960’s.  He died of stomach cancer when he was just 36 years old.  At his funeral, one of his faculty colleagues, Dr. Lewis Smedes, was preaching from John 11, and when he got to the part where Jesus said “whoever lives and believes in me will never die,” he just stopped, looked up at this young man’s family and friends all sitting there, at his heartbroken wife and their four little children, and with a startled look on his face, Dr. Smedes cried out as if the truth of these words had just hit him full force for the first time: “James Morgan is not dead!” “James Morgan is NOT dead!”

Jesus

In John 11 Jesus Christ told us that He was going to defeat death, both physically and spiritually, because He is the Resurrection and the Life.  “Though you die, yet shall you live,” and “whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” That’s what He promised, and I believe it.

No trick answers.  DBS+

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Goodbye Old Friend

old

I knew him first as an opponent on the football field.  My little college in Oregon didn’t play intercollegiate football, and so the intramural competition between houses on campus had an importance all out of proportion to its quality or any kind of common sense.  After my house team trounced his house team on the way to the school championship one year, Steve stopped by my room for a visit.  It was a recruitment trip.  He ventured down the street and into the enemy’s camp because, as he later told me, he was tired of looking up at me after I had knocked him down on the football field.  Steve was a quarterback and I was a defensive lineman.  And so he made all kinds of promises about how great my life could be on campus if only I would agree to move into his house before the next football season.  Why, we could even be roommates Steve told me!  It was laughable, quintessential Steve.  But out of that sheer nonsense a genuine friendship was born.

Steve was the very first person to greet me when I got to Ft. Worth.  Literally, on the day when Mary Lynn and I pulled into the Brite parking lot at TCU, Steve was there to welcome us to our new “home” and take us out to dinner that night – pizza at Crystals.  At TCU we finally got to play ball together on the same team – the Brite “Bombers.”  A year ahead of me, Steve and I were in graduate school together for only two years.  But our friendship deepened greatly during that time.  His signature is on my ordination certificate, and mine is on his.

We were always something of an odd couple.   I’ve always been big and slow, Steve was trim and athletic.   I’m something of a bookworm, Steve was anything but.  I reveled in the intellectual stretching that seminary afforded me, taking every course on Bible, theology and church history that I could.  Steve viewed seminary as something that he just had to get through so that he could be ordained and then work in a church.  He took every practical ministry class that he could.  But somehow the friendship worked, and endured.

Steve’s journey through life didn’t unfold in a straight line.  There were some failed marriages and some failed ministries.  We saw each other pretty regularly through the years.   He would suddenly call out of nowhere and say that he was going to stop by.  I remember waiting at a little airport in far West Houston for hours one evening because Steve had called and told me that he had hitched a ride and was coming in for a visit.  He wanted me to meet his new wife.  He didn’t show.  That marriage didn’t last, but our friendship still did.

We lost touch for a while.  Steve just disappeared.   And then one day he was back, in Maine of all places. And our pattern of occasional phone calls and e-mails picked up again right where it left off.  He was forever making a wisecrack about something I wrote.  But the fact is that Steve still read everything I wrote and watched everything I we posted on the church’s Facebook page.  I knew that he was out there paying attention to what I was doing because he would respond to the pictures, web devotionals and blogs. Steve was my friend, a good friend.

Well, I got the word last Saturday that my friend Steve died.  I didn’t even know that he was sick.  I sure wish that I could have visited with him before he left.  Steve was not the easiest friend that I’ve had, but he was one of truest, and I just wish that I had had the chance to tell him that.  I would have liked the chance to tell Steve that I loved him, I really did.  But then again, I’m pretty sure that Steve knew.

topless

After a good friend of his unexpectedly died, Philip Yancey wrote that the only thing that could really have helped him in that moment of his loss would have been to somehow get his friend Bob back again.  And that prompted this profoundly meaningful meditation on the Gospel –

On the day Bob made his last dive, I was sitting, oblivious, in a cafe at the University of Chicago, reading My Quest for Beauty by Rollo May. In that book, Rollo recalls a visit to Mt. Athos, a peninsula of monasteries attached to Greece. There, he happened to stumble upon an all-night celebration of Greek Orthodox Easter. Incense hung in the air. The only light came from candles. At the climax of that service, the priest gave everyone three Easter eggs, splendidly decorated and wrapped in a veil. “Christos Anesti!” he said — “Christ is Risen!” Each person present, including Rollo May, replied according to the custom, “He Is Risen Indeed!” Rollo May writes, “I was seized then by a moment of spiritual reality: What would it mean for our world if he had truly risen?” Rollo May’s question kept floating around in my mind, hauntingly, after I heard the terrible news of Bob’s death. What did it mean for our world that Christ had risen?”

…When I spoke at Bob’s funeral, I rephrased Rollo May’s question in the terms of our particular grief.  What would it mean for us if Bob rose again?   We were sitting in a chapel, numbed by three days of sorrow, death bearing down on us like a crushing weight.  How would it be to walk outside to the parking lot and there, to our utter astonishment, find Bob. Bob! With his bounding walk, his crooked grin, his clear gray eyes.  It could be no one else but Bob, alive again!

That image gave me a hint of what Jesus’ disciples felt on the first Easter.  They too had grieved for three days.  On Sunday they heard a new, euphonious sound, clear as a bell struck in mountain air.  Easter hits a new note of hope and faith that what God did once in a graveyard in Jerusalem, he can and will repeat on a grand scale.  For Bob.  For us.  For the world.  Against all odds, the irreversible will be reversed.

Because of Easter, Philip Yancey talked about the day when he was going to get his friend back.  And today as I write, thinking about my old friend Steve, all I can say is… me too.  DBS+

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“Born that Man no more May Die”

bbbToby Sumpter took his young daughters with him to make pastoral calls at the nursing home one Christmas.  And as they sang the familiar words of a Christmas Carol – “No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground.  He comes to make His  blessings flow, far as the curse is found” –  Toby says that he “choked” on the words because he believes them, and because the dying faces in front of him at the nursing home “ache for it to be true.”

I cannot think of a better catechism, a catechism of bodies and emotions and song, a weekly liturgy wherein I look death in the eyes, and I sing to death. I sing songs about a little Child to death. A little Child in whom was life, and how this life was the light of men and how He rules the world with His truth and grace and makes the nations prove the glories of His righteousness and wonders of His love. And the question comes, why are we doing this again? Why do we sing to the dying? I have no words for these people. No words will possibly do. And these people don’t really have many words left either. How can we have words when life and death meet?  There are no words. We can only sing this part… Sing about the Child. Sing to earth. Talk to her, and tell her that the Savior reigns, and to stop growing thorns in His garden. Sing death to death. Sing with aching hearts. Sing while we watch the world die. Sing and stare at the Child. Decorate your trees, fill up the stockings of the dying, and sing until one by one we all nod off in our wheelchairs. And then we will awake, startled by the final ‘Amen’ and we’ll look up and see the Child. And He will stare at each of us, and we will stare at Him. Death meet Life. Beginning meet End. And as we stare, He will touch us and we will be healed, and this ancient will put on infant, and this aged will put on Child. http://www.credenda.org

This past week there were three deaths in our community of faith.  I always think of Toby’s essay – “Christmas for the Dying” – when this happens, and it happens every year.  Culture scripts Christmas with the accent on happiness and good cheer.  The church knows that Christmas has a different edge, and conducting funerals in brightly decorated sanctuaries sharpens it.

Here is the message I preached at one of our “Christmas funerals” this week.  I offer it to you

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                           “If Christ Has Not Been Born” – Luke 2:1-7                            

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled.  This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was the governor of Syria.  So all went to be enrolled, each to his own town.  And Joseph too went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.   While they were there, the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. [Luke 2:1-7]

Perhaps you found those familiar words from the Gospel of Luke, his version of the Christmas story, an odd text to read here in this service this morning.  But then again, it’s certainly no stranger than this setting, a sanctuary brightly decorated for Christmas.  Death and Christmas just don’t go together in our heads or in our hearts.  In this season when we are occupied with singing angels and lowing cattle, pretty paper and twinkling lights, musical nut-crackers and dancing sugar plum fairies, we don’t want to be bothered by thoughts of death.  In this season of light and life, talk of death is obscene.

But death is an intruder, an uninvited guest who crashes the party.  We don’t get to choose the times when or the places where he shows up.  And sometimes, no matter how much we would prefer for it to be otherwise, a death coincides with Christmas.  In the season when our focus is on Christ’s birth, we find ourselves having to deal with the death of someone we love, and the whole experience can leave us feeling just a little bit rattled, uneasy, emotionally torn in two.  A death a Christmastime forces us to grapple with feelings that are not normally related – joy and sorrow, peace and pain, loss and happiness.  In fact, you might be feeling just a little bit cheated sitting here this morning because in this season of celebration when others are gathering as families, you are having to deal with the absence of someone from yours.

All I want to suggest here this morning is that spiritually, it’s the exact opposite that’s true.  Through my years of being a minister, and having sustained some of my own life’s greatest personal losses in the weeks before Christmas, I have slowly come to the conclusion that there might not be a better time to deal with death than right now, during Christmas.

Years ago, Madeleine L’Engle, the novelist, sustained a great family loss in the days before Christmas, and in all of their preparations for the funeral service, Christmas got pushed aside.  It was after the services were over and the family had collapsed in physical and emotional exhaustion, that somebody pointed out that it was Christmas Eve.  “Should we even bother trying celebrate it?” they asked.  Wouldn’t it just be so much easier to forget it and go to bed?   And as the voices in favor of cancelling Christmas were gaining momentum, Madeleine finally spoke up.

She told them that she really thought that they ought to keep Christmas that year just as they had planned to before the death of their loved one broke into their schedule as an uninvited intruder. In fact, Madeleine argued that it was probably more important for them to keep Christmas that year than any in other.  As Madeleine explained –

If the love I define in my heart as Christian love means anything at all, then we must celebrate Christmas.  If the birth of Jesus as the Christ means anything at all, then we must celebrate Christmas.

What did she mean?

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A number of years ago a remarkable Christmas card was published by the title, “If Christ Had Not Come.” …The card pictured a minister falling asleep in his study on Christmas morning and dreaming of a world into which Jesus had never come.

In his dream, he saw himself walking through his house, but as he looked, he saw no Christmas decorations, no Christmas tree, no wreaths, no lights, no crèche, no Christmas cards, and no Christ to comfort and gladden hearts or to save us. He then walked onto the street outside, but there was no church with its spire pointing toward heaven. And when he came back and sat down in his library, he realized that every book about our Savior had disappeared. There were no carols or Christian music on the radio and no choirs or Christmas concerts on television.

The minister dreamed that the doorbell rang and that a messenger asked him to visit a friend’s dying mother. He reached her home, and as his friend sat and wept, he said, “I have something here that will comfort you.”  He opened his Bible to look for a familiar promise, but it ended with Malachi. There was no Christmas story, no angelic chorus, no shepherds or Wise Men, no Sermon on the Mount, no parables, no miracles, no “Come to me all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” There was no gospel, no light of the world, no “God so loved the world”, no Lord’s Prayer, and no promise of hope and salvation, and all he could do was bow his head and weep with his friend and his mother in bitter despair.

Two days later he stood beside her coffin and conducted her funeral service, but there was no message of comfort, no words of a glorious resurrection, and no thought of a mansion awaiting her in heaven. There was only “dust to dust, and ashes to ashes,” and one long, eternal farewell. Finally he realized that Christ had not come, and he burst into tears, weeping bitterly in his sorrowful dream. There would be no Easter, and no hope of the kingdom of heaven and an age to come.

Then suddenly he awoke with a start, and a great shout of joy and praise burst from his lips as he heard a choir singing in a nearby church:

O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant,
O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem.
Come and behold him, born the King of angels,
O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord.

Ted Schroder – Christmas 2011
http://www.virtueonline.org

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We must not let the beauty and warmth of this holiday season fool us into forgetting what Christmas is really all about.  As we gaze lovingly upon that precious infant “wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger,” we must not lose sight of the fact that He grew up to be our Savior.  It’s why He came.  As Dag Hammarskjold put it in his book Markings – “The manger is situated in Calvary; the cross has already been raised in Bethlehem.”   This is why the angel told Joseph to name Mary’s baby “Jesus” – “because he was going to save His people.”  And while we need saving from lots of things – from sin and sickness, from danger and trouble, from tragedy and evil, from each other and ourselves – perhaps the biggest thing that we all need saving from is death.   And the good news of Christmas is that in Jesus Christ we have just such a Savior.

My favorite Christmas Prayer was written by the author Robert Louis Stevenson.  It goes like this –

Loving Father, Help us remember the birth of Jesus, that we may share in the song of angels, the gladness of the shepherds, and the worship of the wise men…

May the Christmas morning make us happy to be Thy children, and the Christmas evening bring us to our beds with grateful thoughts, forgiving and forgiven, for Jesus’ sake, Amen.

Because of Christmas, we can live our lives “happy to be one of God’s children,” and we can approach their close “with grateful thoughts, forgiven and forgiving, for Jesus’ sake.”  Because of Christmas, a funeral is not an end that we have gather to mark, but a beginning that we come together to celebrate.  Does death destroy Christmas? No, Christmas destroys death.  And if the birth of Jesus as the Christ means anything at all, then we must celebrate Christmas – especially here and now. DBS+

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“As a Dying Man to Dying Men”

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I regularly tell my ministerial partners at Northway that no Sunday morning can afford to be wasted, no worship service can be approached as if it were unimportant or inconsequential, and no sermon is ever just an empty exercise that can be approached without passion, conviction and even urgency.  If it is the Lord’s Day, then we have just got to be “on our game.” Walter Wangerin Jr. understands.  He says that he paces before he preaches.

On the night before I preach, I pace—back and forth in my room, mumbling sermonic thoughts, testing them, scorning a hundred thoughts, exulting in one or two that shine like coin, investing those.  I grow breathless when I pace. I make strange noises. But the house must be as silent as death. And the mighty God must stand by to save me, because there surely will come great waves of doubt to drown me, and then I will splutter, “Help me, Lord!” and gasp, “What do you want me to say?”

… It is Christ who saves. But in human community, it is this particular vessel whose voice, whose person, and whose preaching proclaim that Christ… and so on Saturday night, I worry: Will they hear it? Will they let the hard word hurt them, the good word heal them, the strong word lead and redeem them? …So I pace. [http://www.sermoncentral.com/pastors-preaching-articles/walter-wangerin-jr-why-i-pace-before-i-preach-1070.asp]

baxterRichard Baxter (1615 – 1691), the English Puritan preacher, once said: “I preached as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men.”   He understood all too well how the eternal could very well hang in the balance in the life of someone who was sitting in a pew whenever he preached, and so he never took the assignment lightly.  He knew that his words about who God is, and what God has done for us in Christ Jesus, and what God expects of us, could be the very last that a person ever heard before they actually faced God, and that gave him great pause.

It was the goal of every sermon that Richard Baxter preached to point people unswervingly to Jesus Christ so that they might know the way of salvation and “flee” to Him.  To this end Richard Baxter practiced what the Puritans called “plain preaching.”  Joel Beeke, the President of the Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary up in Michigan, explains that the “plain preaching” of the Puritans had three primary characteristics: first, it “addressed the mind with clarity,” second, it “confronted the conscience pointedly,” and third, it “wooed the heart passionately.”  That’s a pretty high standard for the sermon every Sunday morning, but how could it be lower when you think about what at stake?

This came home to me this last Sunday with some real force.  When I got back to the office after lunch, there was a phone call informing me that a man who had been in worship with us just hours before was now in the ER at the hospital on life support and was not expected to survive for long once he was unplugged.   He had gone from worship to a restaurant down the street from the church for a lunch with his family, suffered a massive stroke and would be gone without regaining consciousness before the afternoon was over.  And it made me think about the worship service that had filled the last hour of his life – the hymns that were sung, the Scriptures that were read, the prayers that were offered, the Lord’s Supper that was celebrated, the message that was preached.  Had somebody pulled me aside and told me that someone who was going to be with us in church that morning would be dying that afternoon right after the service was over, would I have changed anything? Should I have said or done something differently?

I’ve always liked the old story that’s told about the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther.  Working in the garden one afternoon, a wild-eyed man rushed up to him to breathlessly announce that he had it on very good authority that Jesus Christ was going to be coming back within the hour!  “What are you going to do” the man demanded to know of Luther?  And turning back to his work in the garden, Luther answered, “Well, I think that I’ll do my very best to finish hoeing this row.”

I take this to mean that if we are already doing what we know that are called to do, then it doesn’t require drastic adjustments at the last minute to right the ship or correct the course.  The whole message that I preached “unaware” last Sunday as “a dying man to a dying man” can be found on the church webpage (www.northwaychristian.org – follow “worship” to “sermons”).  But this is what I said in its conclusion –

What God want of us as human beings is pretty basic.  God want us to “know” Him (I Corinthians 1:21; Galatians 4:9; I John 2:13).  “This is our goal in life, that we might be God-centered in our thoughts and …God-honoring in all that we do” (Wells 15-16).  And nothing gauges the depth with which this is actually happening in us better than does gratitude.  Giving thanks in everything is God’s will for us in Jesus Christ because there is simply no better test of our spiritual condition than this; no better way to take stock of how God-centered and God-honoring our lives are becoming.

Thomas Erskine, the 18th century Scottish theologian, said that “in the New Testament religion is grace and ethics is gratitude” (Hunter 121).  And there you have Biblical Christianity in a nutshell; grace – what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, and gratitude – the response we make to God from the heart.   And to be able to give thanks to God in all things is evidence that we “get” this; that we know God is really there, and is hard at work in even the most tangled circumstances of our lives and in the most difficult situations of our world to bring about His good and loving purposes.  Our capacity to give thanks is directly proportionate to the degree to which we are actually trusting God with our lives and our world no matter what’s going on around us and in us. 

I wouldn’t have changed a word.  And in my meditation for my friend who died on Sunday afternoon, I talked about a hymn that we had sung together in our Thanksgiving worship service on Sunday morning.

After singing about his harvest home on Sunday morning, when he would be safely gathered in, free from sorrow, free from sin, in God’s presence to abide, quite unexpectedly on Sunday afternoon Brady actually passed into it, his “glorious harvest home,” and that’s where Brady is this afternoon.  The Lord took Brady as part of His harvest home, and that’s where Brady will be, with the Lord, until that day when we as part of His harvest too will step into the Lord’s presence to abide in our final harvest home.   As the angels told the women at the tomb on Easter Sunday morning, “Why are you looking for someone who is alive among the dead?  He is not here” (Luke 24:5-6).  And because he belonged to the Risen Christ by faith, neither is Brady.

When everything that’s said and done on Sunday morning in worship points unswervingly to Jesus Christ who is the Savior, then you’ve broken and shared the Bread of Life that the church has been given, and there are no regrets.  DBS+

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