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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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How Can You Think That?

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In my last post late last week – “Death with Dignity; Life with Faith” – I wrote about the recent death of Brittany Maynard by assisted suicide and the response that Kara Tippett, another young woman with the very same terminal illness, made to it.  I wrote to urge a little bit more “humility” and “modesty” in the way that we think and talk about public policy issues like euthanasia.  I was reacting to the way that I perceived some of my ministerial peers – both progressives and traditionalists – in their blogs and Facebook postings were using the story of this intensely personal tragedy to score ideological points in support of their predetermined political and social positions.  You don’t have to read very many of my blogs before you discover that this is one of my pet peeves.

I get terribly uneasy when one of my ministerial colleagues will fire off his or her “hot sports opinion” on a pressing social and/or political issue.  When my theologically and socially conservative friends do this, they make Christianity sound like a caucus of the Republican Party. And when my theologically and socially progressive friends do this, they make Christianity sound like a wing of the Democrat Party.  And I worry about how this creates premature barriers, keeping people from hearing the Gospel of Jesus Christ, unless, of course, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is identical to the platform of the Democrats or the Republicans, in which case, please say so — add it to the Good Confession: “I believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, my Lord and Savior, and that to be a Christian is to be a Republican, or a Democrat, as the case may be.

If am a politically conservative and my minister and church preaches the “Democrat Gospel,” then I am marginalized and I am left feeling and thinking that Christianity and my convictions are incompatible.  There’s no room for me at their Table.  And if I am politically progressive and my minister and church preaches the “Republican Gospel,” then I am equally marginalized and left feeling and thinking that Christianity and my convictions are just as incompatible. I am excluded from that Table as well.  We are fracturing the Body of Christ over “inferences” and the conscientious application of Biblical principles and not the gospel itself, which I thought was what the Stone/Campbell Movement came into existence to reject and avoid.   Unless voting for Greg Abbott, or Wendy Davis in the last gubernatorial election here in Texas, as your conscience and conclusion dictated, was one of the so-called “essentials” of Christianity about which we must be unified as Christians, then let it be a “non-essential” about which we are accorded freedom.

Because in our communities of faith we are going to have people of varied convictions and conclusions about the non-essentials, and I am called to be the pastor/teacher of them all, I have consciously and conscientiously taken the position of political neutrality as a pastor.  Oh, I vote, and I will encourage you to do the same.  But I will not tell you how I voted, or how to vote.  This is a matter to be decided in the sacred arena of “private interpretation” for us as Protestant Christians.  This is a Holy of Holies that we dare not barge into uninvited.  You have got to do your own believing, and your own deciding.  And I have to do mine.  My job as a pastor is not to “pass judgment on your opinions” (Romans 14:1), but rather to provide you with the tools to help you “think Christianly” on the great spiritual, moral and social issues of the day.

I get spiritually uneasy when my ministerial friends get political.  But if you insist on doing this, if you are going to tell us what to think about this candidate and that proposition on the ballot, then at least do us the courtesy of explaining why you think as you do.  Don’t just give us the “right” algebraic answer to the problem “de jour,” lay out the geometric theorems and proofs that got you to that answer!  Frankly, “how” you think about an issue is so much more useful than just a concise statement of “what” you think.  Nevertheless,  most of the socio-political conclusions I hear from my ministerial friends get stated with a “twitter-like” brevity devoid of any explanation.  They read like the “therefore let it be resolved” statement in the final paragraph of a General Assembly Resolution without the benefit of any “whereas” clauses that make the case for the recommended action

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Harry Blamires, a student of C.S. Lewis, in his book The Christian Mind (Seabury 1963) proposed this experiment –

Take some topic of current political importance.  Try to establish in your own mind what is the right policy to recommend in relation to it; and do so in detachment from any political alignment or prejudice; form your conclusions by “thinking Christianly.” Then discuss the matter with fellow-members of your congregation. The full loneliness of the “thinking Christian” will descend upon you.  It is not that people disagree with you. Some do and some don’t.  In a sense that doesn’t matter.  [What does matter is that] they will not “think Christianly.”   They will think pragmatically, politically, but not Christianly. In almost all cases you will find that views are almost wholly determined by political allegiance.  Though he does not face it, the loyalty of the average churchman to the Conservative Party or to the Labour Party is in practical political matters prior to his loyalty to the church [and her teachings]. (13)

Of course, all of this presumes that “thinking Christianly” is a category that we actually understand and accept.  The heart of Blamires’ book was an exploration of the “marks” of a mind that in fact “thinks Christianly,” and the presupposition of the whole argument was that God is there and is not silent.  In other words, we have access to what it is that God wants for us, for both our lives and our world.  “Thinking Christianly” means thinking God’s own thoughts after Him; having what the Apostle Paul called “the mind of Christ” (I Corinthians 2:16).

The foundation to any theology – a faithful word (“logos”) about God (“Theos”) – is the source of our “knowing.”  Whenever anybody says anything about who God is, or about what it is that God is doing, or about what it is that God wants from us, or of us, the right thing for us to ask is, “So, how do you know that about God?”  The “Quadrilateral,” a model for thinking usually associated with the name of John Wesley, the Founder of the Methodists, is a really helpful way to get at your answer to the question – “How do you know what you say you know about God?”

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According to the “Quadrilateral,” the four sources of our knowledge of God are: Scripture – the record of God’s own self-disclosure in history;   Experience – the stirrings of God in us and around us; Tradition – the stirrings of God in and around other people before us; and Reason – a critical reflection on the claims of both revelation and experience.  Most Christians have very little difficulty in acknowledging how Scripture, experience, tradition and reason have each made a very real contribution to their knowledge of God. The fuss comes when these four souces compete.  When a fight between the Quadrilateral’s four components breaks out, and they do all the time, which one functions as the referee? When reason and experience come to blows, or when tradition and Scripture start throwing punches, which one of the four is supposed to step up and settle the dispute?

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In this second diagram of the “Quadrilateral,”  Scripture is the bigger foundation on which the other three rest, and this has been the traditional perspective of Protestant Christianity.  Sometimes it’s referred to as “Sola Scriptura” – “Scripture Alone” – although more accurately it is more a matter of  “Prima Scriptura” – “Scripture First” or “Scripture Primary.”  In matters of faith and practice, we start with Scripture.  “What does the Bible say?”  is our first concern.  Clearly reason, tradition and experience all have their part to play in the process of understanding what the Bible says and means, but it all starts with Scripture.

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Francis Schaeffer called this the “watershed” – the “great divide” – in the church today.  Belief in an inspired and authoritative Bible sends theological and moral reflection in one direction just as the rejection of an inspired and authortative Bible sends theological and moral reflection off in another direction altogether.  So, coming back around to the tragic life and death of Brittany Maynard and the question of euthanasia (“the act or practice of killing someone who is very sick or injured in order to prevent any more suffering”), how does one “think Christianly” about it?

As a proponent of “Prima Scriptura,” “thinking Christianly” sends me to “Scripture First.”  “What does the Bible say?” is where I begin, and this is where it gets complicated.  When you turn to the Bible among the things that you discover pretty quickly is that there are any number of things in it that were at the center of the author’s concerns in the days when it was written that are no longer of much concern to us today, eating meat sacrificed to idols for instance.  Furthermore, there are things that are of great concern to us today that for whatever reason never get mentioned by the Biblical authors, euthanasia for example. The early church after the New Testament was written took a pretty public, consistent and aggressive stance on infanticide, and they were at the forefront of taking care of people who had been abandoned to death by their families in times of plague.  They did these things not because the Bible specifically told them to, but rather because doing such things were consistent with what the Bible did tell them about the sanctity of life.

The sanctity of life was well-established in their minds by what the Bible told them about all people being made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26), about guarding the image of God in human beings (Genesis 9:1-7), about not committing murder (Exodus 20:13) and about our bodies being temples of the Holy Spirit (I Corinthians 3:16).  If ever there was a case to be made for euthanasia in the Bible, a “mercy killing,” Job in his anguish and distress would seem to be it.  But when it was just hinted at by Job’s wife, it was immediately rejected out of hand as being an act entirely inconsistent with faithfulness to God’s dealings with us (Job 2:9-10).  This same perspective weaves in and out of the book of Ecclesiastes (3:1-2; 7:17; 8:8).

But by far, the most compelling reflection about euthanasia from the Biblical perspective that I’ve ever come across was Oscar Cullmann’s Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead: the Witness of the New Testament (Epworth Press – 1958).

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Socrates (470/469 BC – 399 BC); Jesus of Nazareth (7–2 BC to 30–33 AD)

A contrast between the death of Socrates as reported by Plato in “Phaedo,” and the death of Jesus, especially His travail in the Garden of Gethsemane as reported by the Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke, becomes the frame in which Cullmann brought into focus the Biblical face of death as “the final enemy” (I Corinthians 15:26; Hebrews 2:14-15), and the culturally popular face of death as the liberator from the weakness and limitations of the body.  Euthanasia is a logical choice from the experience and perspective of Socrates, but not so much from the experience and perspective of Jesus Christ. The way Jesus went to the cross kicking and screaming is a powerful witness to the abnormality of death (Genesis 2:15-17) and a foundational argument in the church’s historic resistance to the culture of death in which she lives, and moves and has her being. The Bible may not ever actually use the word “euthanasia,” but the church’s message of life, eternal and abundant, has some important implications for the conversation about euthanasia, especially for people of faith who have named Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.  It is neither incidental nor inconsequential that those Christian leaders who have a high sense of the speaking of God in Scripture and Tradition agree in their opposition to euthanasia. But as persuasive as the weight and logic of their arguments born of their reading of Scripture are to me, even more persuasive is the witness of a simple Christian like Kara Tippett, a woman who is dying and who chooses to embrace each moment she has left with spiritual courage and what she calls “mundane faithfulness.”  More compelling to me than an encyclical from the Pope or a position paper written by a first-rate Evangelical Scholar well-grounded in Scripture against euthanasia, is the letter that Kara wrote to Brittany before she took her life. You can find it at http://www.aholyexperience.com/2014/10/dear-brittany-why-we-dont-have-to-be-so-afraid-of-dying-suffering-that-we-choose-suicide/.

This is a wonderful example of what “thinking Christianly” sounds like, and a clear picture of what “acting Christianly” looks like. There is much that I could learn from Kara.   DBS+

 

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Death with Dignity; Life with Faith

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29 year-old Brittany Maynard died on Saturday, November 1 by swallowing lethal drugs made available to her under an Oregon law that allows terminally ill people to choose when to die.  Diagnosed with incurable Brain Cancer at the beginning of this year, Brittany was given six months to live.  As her disease progressed she “suffered increasingly frequent and longer seizures, severe head and neck pain, and stroke-like symptoms. As symptoms grew more severe, she chose to abbreviate the dying process by taking the aid-in-dying medication she had received months ago” (http://www.startribune.com/lifestyle/health/281248621.html).

This is a story of human tragedy that deserves our compassion.  Apart from any conversation about the moral and spiritual legitimacy of euthanasia, the terrible circumstances that Brittany Maynard and her loved ones found themselves in and the difficult choices that they faced should leave us “humble” and “modest” – what theologian Gabriel Fackre once described as the two “least appreciated” theological virtues that we have at our disposal as people of faith.  “Humility” acknowledges that we don’t know everything, and “modesty” is how that “humility” behaves.  It doesn’t say too much, too quickly or too loudly.

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We are told that Jesus wept when He finally got to the tomb of His good friend Lazarus (John 11:35).  There is a theology in the tears of Jesus Christ that deserves much more attention than they have traditionally gotten.  Reduced to a riddle – “What is the shortest verse in the Bible?” – we have been distracted from the powerful point that the weeping of Jesus Christ makes about where God is and what God is doing about human suffering (see Hebrews 2:10-18; 4:14-16).   Where Christ’s title “Emmanuel” – “God with Us” (Matthew 1:23) gets most powerfully incarnated for me is at the tomb of Lazarus when He broke down and wept before the exercise of His sovereign power in bringing Lazarus back to life.  When Paul told the Thessalonians that Christians “grieve, but not as those who have no hope” (I Thessalonians 4:13), I think that he was holding together both Jesus’ tears and His display of power at the grave of His friend. It’s in-between these “furious opposites” that my faith lives.

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After the catastrophes that befell Job, what Marilyn McCord Adams calls “the horrors,” we are told –

Now when Job’s three friends heard of all these troubles that had come upon him, each of them set out from his home—Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They met together to go and console and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads. They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.  (2:11-13)

If this is where they had stopped, Job’s three friends would have been hailed as spiritual giants, pastoral role models for us all.  But they didn’t.  They opened their mouths and spoke.  They said too much, too quickly and too loudly, with the result that they muddied the waters of understanding and obstructed the channels of compassion.  I have observed a fair amount of this in the blogs and Facebook pronouncements of my ministerial peers in the weeks since Brittany Maynard took her leave of this world.

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Many of my more progressive colleagues have used the death of Brittany Maynard to make their freedom of choice argument while many of my traditionally-minded colleagues have used the tragedy of her death to defend their prolife convictions.   Predictably, they have lined up on opposite sides of the field of this familiar battle to launch their volleys, and in some ways, this is exactly what Brittany Maynard wanted.   She made the conscious decision to go public with her private tragedy in order to advance the conversation about death with dignity in our society.  She chose to make her private drama a media event.  She wanted it to be the story that led the national news, and it did.  This gave her suffering a greater purpose, and I respect the courage it took for her to do this even as I admire the clarity with which she did it.  The tragic circumstances of her life provided her with a “bully pulpit” that she used quite effectively.  She strode into the public square with a statement to make.  But the nature of the public square is dialogical; other voices are going to answer back, and they have, as the blogs and Facebook postings I’ve read in recent weeks prove.  My problem with so many of those other voices has been their smug tone and their shrill arguments.  They have been so eager to score points in support of their predetermined positions that I fear that they’ve lost sight of the fact that this is about real people suffering in real ways from real threats to their existence.

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Of all the responses that have been made to Brittany Maynard’s circumstances and choices, the most compelling one that I have personally come across was made by another terminally ill young woman, Kara Tippett.  On both her web page – http://mundanefaithfulnrss.com – and in her recently published book The Hardest Place: Expecting Grace in the Midst of Life’s Hard (David C. Cook – October 2014) – Kara Tippett has staked out the exact opposite position that Brittany Maynard took while suffering the same exact set of circumstances, what Kara has described as “a road that feels simply impossible to walk.”  Kara Tippett wrote an open letter to Brittany Maynard.  You can read it at http://www.aholyexperience.com/2014/10/dear-brittany-why-we-dont-have-to-be-so-afraid-of-dying-suffering-that-we-choose-suicide/  Rather than the rhetorical broadsides, “in principle” arguments and political salvos that I have read elsewhere, this “one beggar telling another beggar where he found bread” approach has such power for me.  How I wish that Brittany and Kara could have sat together, talked together and cried together.  And how I wish we could have all been there to eavesdrop on that imagined moment.   I suspect that in the solidarity of their suffering, there would have been much for us to learn about how to face our own dying, and the dying of those we love the most, with dignity and in faith.  As Dr. Candi K. Cann, a Professor of Comparative Religion down at Baylor University, has written –

This is a complex issue that requires an equally complex response. I would agree that there is beauty to be found in both suffering and in death: a kind of beauty and embracing of life that one only finds when faced with the last breaths and days of someone we love who does not want to die. I believe that we learn lessons in sickness, in suffering, in dying, and in walking that journey with someone who is dying, but I also believe that it is easy for one person to judge another’s capacity for suffering based on their own experiences and prejudices. …Both Brittany and Kara write beautiful justifications for their positions on life (and death), and I admire both women — Brittany for taking ownership of her life and the way she wants it to end, and Kara for fighting to be present with her family and to find ultimate meaning in her suffering. The world is indeed a brighter place with both of these brave women shining light on these important issues and our need to bring death into the conversation of our daily lives. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-candi-k-cann/two-perspectives-assisted_b_5960716.html

 

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Robin Williams, Depression and the Church

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My last two postings have been on the Dark Night of the Soul. This week, after the second posting, the news of Robin Williams’ suicide broke, and since then there has been a wide-ranging and nonstop conversation throughout our culture about depression, and while I deeply grieve the trigger, I gladly welcome the result. It’s long overdue. Depression is not well understood either by those who suffer from it, or by those who know and love people who do. And as the tragedy that is Robin William’s death so painfully shows, this kind of ignorance has devastating consequences.

Because everyone has periodic episodes of reactive or situational depression, stretches of feeling “blue” when things have not gone your way that becomes the interpretive grid that most people use to understand what depression is all about. It’s part of the inner response to an outer experience of loss, disappointment, failure, betrayal, sickness, discouragement or struggle. Something negative happens to us and depression is one of the things that we feel as we process the experience. It’s one of the phases or stages of adjustment; think of the way that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross mapped the grief experience in her seminal work On Death and Dying – Shock, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. Depression is just part of the journey, one of the steps along the way to healing. It’s real and it hurts, but it’s temporary, it passes. The circumstances change and we start to feel better. In fact, people in situational depression are often encouraged by their family members and friends to “get out,” to “do things” and “go places” in order to start to feel better.   Because it was a situation or a circumstance in your life that made you feel bad, just engineer a change in your situation or circumstances and you will start to feel good again, or so the conventional wisdom goes.

 

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We used to have a Mary Englebreit illustration printed on a piece of fabric and hanging on a wall at the house. It showed a rather stern looking little girl with her feet firmly planted, her hands on her hips and a set to her jaw with the words in the text box over her head reading “Snap out of it!” And that’s what depressed people are expected to do. Because experiences of reactive depression pass with time, when it is perceived that someone is staying too long at the fair – that one is wallowing in their misery – this impatient little girl shows up with her scowl and her screech. And while this kind of “shock” therapy, this swift sharp whack up the side of the emotional head might work for someone who is situationally depressed, it can’t touch the other kind of depression that there is, “clinical” or “endogenous” depression.

If reactive depression starts outside of us with a difficult circumstance or a bad situation, constitutional depression starts inside of us. While reactive depression is triggered by something that happens to us externally, clinical depression is just part of the way that some of us are wired internally; it’s part of our state of being. The way that I have sometimes described my own experience of being clinically depressed is to say that while we all fall into deep, dark holes from time to time that we then have to climb out of, that there are some of us who find ourselves in holes so deep and dark that they can’t be climbed out of. They are not a temporary state, a passing emotion that we can “snap out of,” they are where we live.

Since his suicide, I’ve heard people in the media wonder about what could have been so terrible in Robin Williams’ life to have prompted him to do this. I’ve heard the speculations that he was having money problems, or relationship problems, or career problems – a cancelled television series, or a health problem – more heart disease, or a substance abuse problem, and that it was this problem, whatever it was, that prompted him to take his life. But that’s reactive depression thinking in a clinical depression life. Something didn’t happen to Robin Williams this week that resulted in one desperately bad and irreversible decision. No, Robin Williams was sick; had been for a long time, and it was that disease – clinical depression – that killed him. Like any disease, you can live with clinical depression, function at a very productive and creative level, even while you are desperately ill. Think Abraham Lincoln. Think Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Think Vincent Van Gogh. Think Ernest Hemingway. This is what has confused so many people about Robin Williams. We saw his genius. His gifts were obvious to us. His accomplishments were great. But all of this happened against the backdrop of his very real suffering from a very real disease.

A few years ago we admired the strength of Patrick Swayze as he continued to act while battling terminal cancer. And when his disease finally claimed him, in the sadness of his death there was a widespread recognition of the courage that he had displayed in the way that he had continued to ply his craft when it would have been so easy for him to just have rolled over and quit. He “played hurt,” and we greatly respected it, even saw it as “heroic.” Well, so did Robin Williams, only it appears that he “played hurt” for his entire career. But because his terminal disease was mental rather than physical, it’s unlikely that his passing will be viewed by society at large in the same way. But I do. For all of the sadness of this week, I want to go on record here with my admiration, respect and honor for the courage and strength of Robin Williams.

Some of the most courageous people I know are those who battle mental illness. There are men and women all around you every day in the cubicle next to yours at work and on the pew next to you in worship who have to muster every last ounce of strength they have just to get out of bed in the morning to step into another day. They carry burdens and fight battles that we can’t even begin to imagine. And because we just don’t “get it,” because we don’t understand mental illness as a disease that is just as real and devastating as cancer, diabetes or emphysema, we think that these people could “snap out of it” if they really wanted to. Tell that to the next person you see having a heart attack!

It was in a class on ministry that I took in seminary taught by Dr. Charles Kemp that I first heard the quote: “Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” He said that this was one of the most basic principles of pastoral care. And if Robin William’s tragic death this week is to have any enduring impact on us, I urge it to be this.

In Matthew 12:20, it was said of Jesus Christ that “a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.” In the history of interpretation these descriptions have been applied to the discouraged and the disheartened, to those who have been overwhelmed by their lives and are just barely hanging on. And it seems to me that the stance that Jesus took toward such people should be the stance that we as part of His church ought to be taking as well, and this begins with simple kindness, and a recognition of the depth and the darkness of the fight that so many find themselves in every single day.  DBS+

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I highly recommend –

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http://calvarychapel.com/resources/article/view/robin-williams-and-secret-suffering/

 

 

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“Befriending Death”

Heaven

Peter Kreeft, the very fine Christian Philosopher who teaches at Boston College, says that death wears five faces – that of an enemy, a stranger, a friend, a mother, and finally, a lover (Love is Stronger than Death – Ignatius Press – 1992).  This continuum moves from negative and alienating perceptions of death – “enemy” and “stranger” – to more positive and intimate perceptions – “friend,” “mother” and “lover.”  This book with its development of these fives “faces” of death is more than worth the effort it takes to read, but the big idea that I’m interested in with this blog is the journey by which this change occurs, how death ceases being the enemy that we avoid at all costs to the friend that we welcome and perhaps even embrace.  It’s what the spiritual author Henri Nouwen described as the process of “befriending death.”  In his 1994 book Our Greatest Gift: A Meditation on Dying and Caring (Harper Collins), Henri Nouwen asked –

Is death something so terrible and absurd that we are better off not thinking or talking about it?  Is death such an undesirable part of our existence that we are better off acting as if it were not real?  Is death such an absolute end of all our thoughts and actions that we simply cannot face it?  Or is it possible to befriend our dying gradually and live open to it, trusting that we have nothing to fear?  Is it possible to prepare for our death with the same attentiveness that our parents had preparing for our birth?  Can we wait for our death as for a friend who wants to welcome us home? (xii-xiii)

I thought about these things as I watched the movie “Heaven is for Real” last week.  I had not planned on seeing it, but a review in the paper that said that it set a new high water mark for faith-based movies, and an interview with Greg Kinnear, the engaging “star” of the movie, on one of the Sunday Morning Talk Shows peeked my interest.  And so I invested the $6 for an early bird matinee on my day off and the two hours it took to watch the film.  When it was over I had the feeling of having just seen a Hallmark Special – a really well acted and well produced television movie, but a made for television quality movie nonetheless.  It was not terrible, but it was pretty schmaltzy and it played for the easy emotional response at every turn.  The crisis of faith that it narrates could have been more profoundly explored in the dynamic between a character in the story whose son was killed in military action and her relationship with the father of the little boy who survived his medical crisis and in the process had his experience of heaven.  That’s a story that I would have liked to have seen.  But instead what we got was the standard sentimental/inspirational story where everybody hugs in the closing frame while somebody affectively sings a beloved hymn.  It was probably the best Hallmark Special I’ve ever seen, but at the end of the day, it was still just a Hallmark Special category and quality film.  Two unrelated notes: (1) If there’s an Academy award for cute, then the little boy in this movie has already got it locked down; and (2) the audience – and there was a pretty good crowd of us in theater – were all people in the last decades of life, 60, 70 and 80-somethings.  For us the question about the reality of heaven is apparently not just some abstract debate, instead it’s pretty urgent and immediate!

Heaven is for Real” is based on the 2010 book of the same title.  It’s the story of four-year-old Colton Burpo’s Near Death Experience during an emergency appendectomy and how it changed the life and faith of both his family and their church (Colton’s father is a pastor in the Wesleyan Church).  Many of you read this book when it first came out, and some of you enthusiastically shared it with me in those days.  At roughly the same time another book with a very different tone about the Near Death Experience, Don Piper’s 90 minutes in Heaven (Revell – 2004), was making the rounds and getting some attention as well.  And then there was Dr. Mary Neal’s extraordinary book To Heaven and Back (WaterBrook Press – 2012).  A good summary of her experience and its consequences on her life can be found at http://www.deseretnews.com/article/765576971/Life-after-life-This-Wyoming-surgeon-says-she-believes.html?pg=all.  But it has been the enduring work of Raymond A. Moody, a physician and psychologist, with people, and especially children, who have reported Near Death Experiences that has been particularly influential on my thinking (Life after Life – Bantam – 1976).

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When I was in Houston in the 1980’s I was a volunteer chaplain with the Houston Hospice and served as their first Director of Spiritual Care.  In that capacity I arranged for a series of Continuing Education Events for our volunteers on spiritual issues, and one of the most popular of the series was the one I put together on the subject of Near Death Experiences. I had a couple of people who had Near Death Experiences come and tell their stories, and then I has a panel of religious leaders talk about how they made sense of such experiences from their particular faith perspectives.

In the course of putting this program together, I had to come to terms with my own thoughts and feelings about Near Death Experiences.  Specifically, I wrestled with how they “fit” into “my” theology.  Theology is just a matter of thinking and talking about God.  If you have ever thought or talked about God, then you are a theologian.  You may be a good theologian, or you may be a bad theologian, but if you think and talk about God, then you are a theologian.   Now, what determines whether you are a good or bad theologian has an awful lot to do with your sources and how you use them.   When you say something about God, what makes you say what you do?  What are the sources of your thinking?

A standard tool for theological reflection and conversation is called the “Quadrilateral.”  It is often associated with the name of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, although its origins go back much further than him (some say back to St. Augustine).  Wesley was the Quadrilateral’s great popularizer. The quadrilateral looks like this –

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What the Quadrilateral says is that there are four sources for our knowledge of God – Scripture, Reason, Experience and Tradition – and therefore, there are four ways to assess what people are saying and thinking about God – Scripture, Reason, Experience and Tradition.  The critical question in this system is which of the four has primacy?  When a fight between the Quadrilateral’s four components breaks out (and they do all the time), which one functions as the referee?  When reason and experience come to blows, or when tradition and Scripture start throwing punches, which one of the four steps up settles the dispute? Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians say tradition.  Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians say experience. Mainline Protestant Christians say reason.  Evangelical and Confessional Protestant Christians say Scripture.  Because I am a Christian of this fourth variety, Scripture has always had the primacy in my thinking and talking about God.  I am not dismissive of reason, experience or tradition.  They are invited to the party too.  They all have seats at the table of my soul.  They are welcomed and valued participants in the conversation of faith, it’s just that when push comes to shove in my head and heart, the voice of Scripture, properly understood and rightly interpreted, is privileged.  Scripture has primacy in what I think and say about God, and this has a direct bearing on a story like that told by the book and film Heaven is for Real.  The way I look at things, in the final measure, our experiences must be evaluated by what the Bible says and means.  So, what does the Bible say about Near Death Experiences?

Apart from the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and its implications for our own destinies (I Corinthians 15:20-24; 35-50; I John 3:2), Luke 16:19-31, the story of “The Rich Man (‘Dives’) and Lazarus” is our best source of information Biblically about what happens to us when we die.

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From this Biblical narrative, I draw some conclusions –

1.  Life continues after we die.
2.  There is a double destiny, a realm of intimacy and blessing, and a realm of separation and sorrow.
3.  These two realms are separated and our place in them gets settled by the time we die.
4.  Our identity remains intact after death, our personality is preserved.
5.  Our choices, experiences and relationships from this life get carried over with us into the next life.
6.  Our relationship with God and each other find their completion in the next life.  What starts here will get finished there.

How do these conclusions line up with accounts of the Near Death Experience in general, and the story that gets told in Heaven is for Real specifically?   Well, I think that they are pretty compatible, but that conclusion is not nearly as important as the process by which I get to that conclusion.  It’s how I work with Scripture, and from Scripture, to test what reason, experience and tradition assert, that really matters.  I believe that “Heaven is for Real,” but not because of a little boy’s Near Death Experience, dramatic as it may be, but rather because I find that it is something that is clearly and consistently taught by Scripture.

Years ago in an interview with the writer Annie Dillard in Christianity Today, she was asked how what she experienced of God in nature fit with what she knew of God from Scripture. She answered that what the Scriptures teach are like the black lines of a cartoon in a coloring book for her.  They are what establish the boundaries and determine the shape of the picture.  What nature supplies are the colors that fill in the blanks.  It provides the shading that brings depth and the hue that brings texture to the picture that unfolds between the lines.  And it seems to me that this is exactly how a story like Heaven is for Real functions within the framework of the Quadrilateral.  Scripture sets the boundaries within which reason, experience and tradition then bring their distinctive colors.  The colors bring warmth and have a real capacity to generate deep feelings, but their place is always inside the lines.  It’s “Prima Scriptura” – Scripture first.   DBS+

 

 

 

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“Christmas is for the Dying”

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Recently I was reading a blog about which Christmas Carol has the best theology (http://blog.livingstonesreno.com).  The author had previously named the three most “theologically misleading” Christmas Carols, in his opinion, to be (1) “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” – what he described as “the Diet Coke of Christmas carols – bad taste, zero substance,” (2) “We Three Kings”  –  asking, “Why do you say “Guide us to thy [your] perfect light,” as if the star possesses the perfect light, instead of “Guide us to the perfect light?” which would be Jesus?” and (3) “Do You Hear What I Hear?” – explaining, “I’m not urging you to read like a legal treatise, I’m just asking that you stay within the boundaries of truth… Jesus does bring us goodness and light, but most people denied this during his life on earth…He was executed for claiming to be the light of the world… (and) Jesus’ disciples will be persecuted by the world until the day he returns.  Then there will be peace, and every king will bow to him, and there will be nothing but goodness and light,” but not until then.  “Away in a Manger” got “honorable mention” in this category – as the blogger explained, “we can’t downplay Christ’s humanity, even with something as harmless as making it seem like he didn’t cry as a baby.”

The author then came up with 16 contenders for the title of what he called “the most theologically rich” Christmas Carol of them all:

Joy to the World
Come Thou Long Expected Jesus
Silent Night
Hark! the Herald Angels Sing
O Come, O Come Emmanuel
While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks
O Come All Ye Faithful
Go Tell It On the Mountain
God Rest Ye  Merry Gentleman
Angels We Have Heard on High
What Child is This?
Mary Did You Know?
O Holy Night                                                                                                                                       
 
Angels from the Realms of Glory
O Little Town of Bethlehem
The First Noel

When he was done examining the theology of each of these Christmas Carols, the author of this blog moved four into the “Finals”

O Holy Night –

It’s uncontested redemption line Long lay the world in sin and error pining, ‘til he appeared and the soul felt its worth” is chillingly profound.”                                                                                                                                          

Mary Did You Know?  –

This upstart Christmas carol written in 1984 demonstrates theological solidity with its theme of rhetorically asking Mary if she was aware of the magnitude of Jesus’ birth, with the intensity of the song’s Christology building and building throughout.”                                                                                                                        

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing  

A Christmas Carol of “Solid Christology, featuring the highlight “Hail the incarnate deity.”

O Come, O Come Emmanuel –

An onslaught of Christological foreshadowings from the Old Testament.”

And then he narrowed it to just two – “O Holy Night” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” – for a theological showdown before naming “O Holy Night” as his grand champion.  Personally, I would have gone with “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”  I am struck by the theological depth of this Christmas Carol every time we sing it.

Hark the herald angels sing “Glory to the newborn King!
Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled”
Joyful, all ye nations rise, join the triumph of the skies
With the angelic host proclaim: “Christ is born in Bethlehem”
Hark! The herald angels sing “Glory to the newborn King!”

Christ by highest heav’n adored. Christ the everlasting Lord!
Late in time behold Him come, offspring of a Virgin’s womb
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell Jesus, our Emmanuel
Hark! The herald angels sing “Glory to the newborn King!”

As someone was overheard to remark after singing this carol, “There’s a lot of important stuff in there!”  But the theological “thickness” of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” was powerfully brought to my attention recently as I prepared for our December “Faiths in Conversation” program with our Jewish and Muslim friends.  The topic was “Death and Dying,” not so much about what we believe happens to us when we die, our specific convictions about the afterlife, but rather about what are the traditions and practices of our particular communities of faith when someone dies?  Of course, that’s a rather artificial distinction since our funeral traditions and burial practices are rooted in our convictions and beliefs, and so in order to talk about our funerals Christians I had to begin by talking about what we believe as Christians that Jesus Christ has done about death, and that brought “Hark! The Herald Angels” immediately to my mind and heart –

Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace! Hail the Son of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings, Ris’n with healing in His wings
Mild He lays His glory by Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth
Hark! The herald angels sing “Glory to the newborn King!”

Several years ago there was a death in author Madeleine L’Engle’s family at Christmastime.   She wrote about in in her book The Irrational Season (Crossroad 1979).  The funeral for Madeleine’s loved one was on the morning of Christmas Eve, and when the service was over the family gathered in the front room of Madeleine’s home emotionally and physically spent, and the question that was hanging in the air finally got posed out loud: “What about Christmas?”  They were torn. “Is it proper (even possible) to grieve and rejoice simultaneously?”  they wondered.  And finally Madeleine spoke up – “If the love I define in my own heart as Christian love means anything at all, yes. If the birth of Christ as Jesus of Nazareth means anything at all; yes!”  (24)

I hope that you will take a look at what I said last Monday night at the Interfaith Conversation about what we who are Christians do when someone we love dies.  I’ve posted it in the “Sermons” section of the church webpage in the “Worship” area (“Faiths in Conversation”).  It was a conscious attempt to explain what Madeleine meant when she said that Christmas must be celebrated in the shadow of the family funeral “If the love I define in my own heart as Christian love means anything at all… If the birth of Christ as Jesus of Nazareth means anything at all!”

Born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth
Hark! The herald angels sing “Glory to the newborn King!”

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