death is a part of life

teardropApologies for the relative silence last week – it’s been a very busy period and while I have still tried to be reflective I haven’t had much chance to put fingers to keyboard and share those reflections with you.

I also ought to warn you that this bloggage is about death, so if you are feeling like you can’t cope with that at the moment you might like to look at another of my earlier bloggages… I understand.

January 2016 seems to have been a month in which more high profile people have died than is usual. Each announcement has been met with sadness, grief, gratitude for the impact the person made on the national consciousness, and expressions of condolence towards the immediate family and friends who mourn their death. I wonder whether the amount of time and space that is given to commemoration of those who have died is partly due to a failure to appreciate people sufficiently in life. It is right that we do this. It is good that we remember and recognise that death is part of life.

It is much less healthy for us individually and as a society if death is the morbid elephant in the room of life. We know it is there but we don’t want to mention it or talk about it. Perhaps there is even a degree of superstition that if we talk about it then we will awaken death and it will rear its ugly head again so if we keep quiet, all will be well. We know that this is not true, but we seem to act as if it is. I wonder whether if we do not talk about death bereavement hits us harder because we are unprepared for it.

Death is terribly sad for those who mourn the death of someone they love. It releases many emotions such as loss, regret, grief, pain, emptiness and sometimes is so overwhelming that our emotions shut down and we feel numbness and shock. It is horrible. It is awful. In the gospel records of Jesus’ life we read how he loathed death and resented moments when it encroached into his experience of life. He grieved the death of friends, he himself did not want to die. We know how he felt.

But (and I do not diminish the impact, significance and emotional pain of death when it takes someone we love away from us) if death is not seen and talked about as a part of life we perpetuate the fantasy that it will not happen to someone we know and love… until that fantasy is torn apart by death itself. We can almost pretend it doesn’t happen.

We don’t help ourselves by euphemising death, either. We talk of someone ‘passing away’, ‘going home’, ‘leaving us’, ‘going to sleep’, ‘going to the next room’ and many more. But, and I am sorry if this is blunt, the reality is that the person has died. Some euphemisms suggest that they could come back, that they are nearby, that it’s not final. But (forgive me for being blunt again) death is final. It is the one certainty in life* – we will all die.

I am not suggesting that we cultivate a morbid fascination with death. I am not saying that we should talk about it all the time. But I am suggesting that it would be healthier for us as individuals and as a society if we talked about it from time to time. Talk with your relatives about your will. Talk with those who may have to make arrangements for your funeral service about what you would like (they will be grateful when it comes to it). Talk about how you feel when someone has died. Share memories of that person – not to pretend that they are still with us – so that the impact they made on us is not lost and the significance of their life is underlined by their death.

And if you know someone who has experienced bereavement don’t tiptoe around them, don’t wrap them in cotton wool, don’t patronise them. I think that often we say nothing and avoid people who are bereft because we don’t want to say the wrong thing and don’t know what to say. But that can add to the sense of isolation and loss. I think it is unlikely that any of you would say anything insensitive or cruel to someone who is mourning the death of a loved one, so talk with them, listen to them, ask them about the person who has died, if you don’t know what to say sit in silence with them, even pray with them (and for them).

And, as a follower of Jesus, I also want to say that although physical death is the end of our experience of this life, he promises that the life in all its fullness which begins here and now, through faith, will stretch into an experience beyond time: eternity in God’s presence. Death hurts, it stings, but it is not the last word.

Be blessed, be a blessing

*It used to be death and taxes but as some large corporations have found ways of avoiding tax we can’t rely on the latter.

mortal

death valleyEven though it is the holiday season at present, death has not taken a vacation. Over the past few days there have been many reminders of this as well known people have died, and there have also been some tragic accidents that have resulted in death. We must never forget that behind the headlines are people in pain, walking through the valley of the shadow of death. For the friends and relatives of those who have died this is personal pain and benumbing bereavement.

Somewhat dissonantly Jesus said that those who are grieving and mourning are blessed because they will be comforted. He was not being insensitive, even though at face value what he said doesn’t seem to make sense in the face of bereavement and death. But the blessing comes not because of the grieving but because of the comfort. God is always present and he is especially present to those who are bereft when we allow his Spirit to prompt us to be his hands, his voice, his presence, his comfort. It is an amazing privilege to do that. People of faith (and others) will (rightly) surround those who are experiencing the devastation and desolation with prayer, love and support.

Death is something of a taboo subject. That’s why we have so many synonyms and euphemisms for it. We don’t like to think about it or talk about it until we are forced to confront our mortality by what has happened to others. Death is something that our medical profession is constantly fighting: we heard of new developments in vaccination against Ebola last week and I think one of the reasons why it was celebrated was that it looks like it’s humans 1 death 0. But every day in hospitals, doctor’s surgeries, hospices and homes those in the caring professions (and I use the phrase deliberately) do battle with death. And while they may score some victories they are the victories of people fighting a valiant, noble, under-appreciated rearguard action against an invincible enemy.

In the end death wins. In the end we end.

If you read John’s gospel narrative of Jesus’ life you see Jesus’ compassion when he encounters bereavement. The shortest verse in the Bible is an understatement of biblical proportions when Jesus was confronted with the death of a friend and his friend’s grieving family: “Jesus wept.” (John 11:35).

Two verses earlier we read, “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” This is rather a sanitised translation. You could equally translate the last section as “he was inwardly angry and became enraged.” It’s a natural reaction: sometimes we respond to death’s intrusion into our lives with anger (especially if it is unexpected or ‘too soon’).

But it seems that Jesus’ anger was not just at the fact that his friend, Lazarus, had died. It was also that death itself had encroached onto the scene. Perhaps for him it was a reminder that he was to do battle with death himself in the not-to-distant future. He himself wept and sweated blood as he wrestled with his impending execution. And when he was crucified and died, it seemed that death had kept its morbid 100% record.

It was a Friday.

But Sunday was coming.

The reason that the cross (a hideous symbol of cruelty, bullying, humiliation, torture and death) is the emblem for Christians is that we know that it represents the moment when everything changed. The Good News of Jesus is that he really did defeat death. He smashed the Ultimate Statistic (1 out of 1 people die). His resurrection is a beacon of hope in the dark shadow of death. It is a defiant shout that this need not be the end.

This ‘song’ was sung in early churches:

 ‘Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?’

And Paul, quoting it when he wrote to his first letter to the church in Corinth (Chapter 15) expands on that theme:

56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Death still hurts. Bereavement is still painful. We should still fight the rearguard action with all that is in us. But death is defeated. Because Jesus is alive there is hope. Many times when I visited believers who knew they were in their last days on earth they spoke (with shining eyes) of their faith that although death was to be feared it was not the end. They looked forward to what lay beyond – an eternity in God’s presence. Many said to me, “I’m ready.”

Be blessed, be a blessing.

at five ment*

June 6th 1944. D Day. The decisive moment in the Second World War. Nazi Germany had overrun mainland Europe but (despite continued bombing raids) had not been able to invade Britain as planned in 1940. Since then WW2 continued on many fronts, but the decisive moment in the war would be whether or not a foothold could be established in Western Europe.

Intense secrecy surrounded the allied invasion plans. Countless subterfuges led the Nazi Commanders to believe that it would take place in the Pas de Calais region, whereas in reality it was planned for Normandy. Those subterfuges (including on the night of June 5th a fleet of bombers flying precision formations across the channel dropping aluminium foil to look (on radar) like an invasion fleet) meant that opposition to the landings was not as heavy as it could have been and by the end of the day a toehold had been established which meant that the liberation of Europe from the West could begin. Many died that day in the name of freedom.

American Cemetery Normandy 6The War continued for another year, and there would be a lot of fighting until the final surrender, but D-Day was the decisive battle. The outcome of the war swung on that decisive victory. If you know The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe you will remember how CS Lewis portrayed Aslan’s death and resurrection and how that spelt the beginning of the end for the White Witch. It’s the same metaphor.

You could say that Jesus’ death on the cross was D-Day in the battle against evil. His death appeared to be a defeat for God but instead it proved, because of the resurrection, to be the decisive victory over evil and death. We have not yet reached the end. Evil still has the capacity to strike, to wound, to hurt, to be destructive, but the outcome is now certain. God wins.

Writing to an early church (1 Corinthians 15) Paul put it like this:

54 When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’[h]

55 ‘Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?’[i]

56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

58 Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain.

It’s important not to miss the ‘therefore’ at the end. Knowing that death and evil have lost the decisive battle makes a difference to us and how we react and respond (even to evil). God wins and that gives us confidence.

Be blessed, be a blessing

*This contains a very simplistic historical analysis of WW2. I recognise that it’s a lot more complex than I have described!