Tag Archives: loss

“I’ve Sent my Heart on Ahead”

Intro

A Reflection on Loss and Love, Hope and Reunion
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Loretta Lynn’s son, Jack, drowned while fording a river on his horse back in the late 1980’s. As you would expect, this was a devastating loss for her, and she wrote about the experience of her deep grief in an article for the Guideposts magazine published in August of 1990.  Now, I’m not really a Guideposts sort of Christian, and I certainly don’t look to country music artists for very much of my theology.   And yet, I have never forgotten this article that Loretta Lynn wrote for Guideposts back in 1990.   After telling her story, Loretta Lynn finished that article with these words –

lorettalynnIt’s been around five years now since Jack died. And I’ll tell you something: The bond I have with him is still as strong as the bond I have with my living children. Anyone who knows me will tell you that Jack’s death has changed my life, and the biggest way is this: My dreams are not here on earth anymore. Why spend precious time running around chasing after money or fame when we’re not going to be here that long? A blink of an eye and we’re gone. There are wonderful things here, all right. There’s… our family, and there’s music and flowers, lots of things that I love… But my biggest dream is living with God and what happens when we get there. The time we’re gonna have! …Momma and Daddy and Patsy Cline and Jack…the parts of me that have been missing won’t be missing anymore… The Bible tells us to store up our treasure in heaven, “for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” When the time comes for me to cross that ol’ river myself, don’t fret too much for me. It’ll be an easy trip—’cause you see, I’ve sent my heart on ahead.

In her own “down-home” folksy way, what Loretta Lynn said here is something that the church has long taught and believed.  Our identities survive death and our relationships find their final fulfillment in heaven.  This is how the Venerable Bede, an English monk from the eighth century, someone the church has officially named as an indispensable teacher of the Christian faith, wrote about it –

 A great multitude of our dear ones are there expecting us; a vast and mighty crowd of parents, brothers, and children, secure now in their own safety, anxious yet for our salvation, and longing for the day when we will come to them and embrace them. What joy there will be on that day when we are together again. (Paraphrased)

LL

Separated by more than a thousand years, one from the “hollers” of Appalachia and the other from the moors of Northumbria, one a Doctor of the Church and the other one a Country Music Superstar, two people possessing vastly different capacities for theological refection and expression, and yet, Loretta Lynn and the Venerable Bede, are two people who have shared a common faith, and who have looked to the future with a common hope. As Christians, they both believed that they would be with their loved ones again after death.  So, where did they get such an idea?  And the quick answer is Scripture.

bookNow, there is no single verse from the Bible that I know about that explicitly says the people we have known and loved here in this life will continue to be known and loved in the life to come. This cherished belief and consistent teaching of Christianity that our identities and relationships continue after we die is more a matter of the “preponderance of the evidence” than the citation of any single specific “chapter and verse.”

 To make the case for this idea that sustained both Loretta Lynn and the Venerable Bede in their seasons of sadness and loss, I would first point to the way that in the Bible’s earliest books and first stories the way that death routinely gets described is as a matter of being “gathered to one’s people” (Abraham – Genesis 15:15; 25:8; Isaac – Genesis 35:29; Jacob – Genesis 49:29; 33). Some say that this is just a reference to them being buried in a “family plot,” but others view it as a reference to the continuity of one’s community. The people with whom we are most intimately connected here are the same people with whom we will be most intimately connected there.

Second, to make the case for the church’s teaching that Christians will be with their loved ones after death, I would point to the way that Old Testament figures like Jacob, David and Job all talked about their own personal expectations that after they died that they would be reunited with somebody they loved and had lost in this life. For Jacob (Genesis 37:35) and David (2 Samuel 12:23) it was the death of a child that prompted them to both say, “I will go to him one day,” clearly voicing their belief that their most meaningful relationships in this world were going to continue in the next one. And in what is widely regarded as one of the most important affirmations of faith in life after death in the entire Old Testament, Job spoke of his own rock-bottom conviction that he himself would survive death as himself –

 I know that my Redeemer lives, and that he will stand upon the earth at last. And after my body has decayed, yet in my body I will see God!  I will see him for myself.  Yes, I will see him with my own eyes.  I am overwhelmed at the thought! (19:25-27)

Redeemer

Third, to make the case for the cherished Christian belief that our relationships find their final fulfillment in eternity, I would point to the way that Old Testament characters like Moses and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration showed up as themselves again in the New Testament long after their deaths, and that they were recognized as being the same people then as they had been before. In fact, all of the stories of Jesus’ own resurrection include this same element. Despite some significant changes – resurrection is not resuscitation, it involves more than just the reanimation of an old form but an actual transformation into a new one – Jesus was always eventually recognized by His friends to be the same person after His death that He had been before His death, and His relationships with those people He had known and loved and who had known and loved Him before He died continued after He had been raised from the dead.

orbAll of these strands of the Biblical witness combine to convince me that both we and our relationships as Christians will transcend death. We will be with our loved ones, our faithful departed, again. And for me, the exclamation point for this conclusion of faith is that story about the good thief in Luke’s account of Christ’s crucifixion that read as we began. “Remember me,” he begged Jesus in their dying throes, “when you come into your kingdom.”  And Jesus answered, “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” “You” and “me” – this tells me that our individuality will continue. “You with me” – this tells me that our relationships will be preserved.

I’m old enough now to have crossed that mysterious line when I have just as many family members and dear friends on the other side of death as I have here on this side. Some of my most important people are over there now. I love them deeply. I miss them terribly. And from the depths of those feelings I suppose that it would be easy for me to project a belief in the continuity of personality and relationship after death because I so want it to be true. But, without denying these feelings and desires, I can honestly say that my confident hope in a heavenly reunion is at least as much a matter of what I find in the Bible as it is a matter of what I find in my heart.

Philipp Nicolai was a German Lutheran pastor in the 16th century who had to bury 1300 members of his congregation – men, women, and children – who died in the days of the plague. This pastoral circumstance forced Pastor Nicolai to think deep, and long, and hard about what becomes of us and our relationships when we die. And what he finally concluded, based on his own thoughtful and prayerful search of the Scriptures, was that what awaits us as Christians is in fact a heavenly reunion. He wrote –

…Parents and children, husbands and wives, bridegrooms and bides, brothers and sisters, neighbors, relatives and friends… will be reunited in heaven and they will love each other with an ardent cordial love that is a thousand times stronger, and with an embrace that is far more friendly than any that might be imagined here in this world… (paraphrased)

Is this right? My heart tells me “yes,” and I believe, so does my Bible. 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.

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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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