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Death: An Old-new Terror

Gregory E. Reynolds

2009 was a year in which death insinuated itself into our congregation. Beginning in January we lost the first of four of our oldest members, each of whom was no longer able to attend worship services, and went to be with the Lord within a ten-month period. We had two near-deaths, one man with a heart attack, and the other with a severe pulmonary infection. Finally, this year was punctuated with the sudden death of the father of one of our members, and someone dear to us all. This has served as an important reminder to me that pastors and elders are to be like their master, men of sorrow and acquainted with grief.

But how well prepared are we pastors, elders, and our congregations to minister to those facing death or dealing with the deep grief which death causes among family and friends? While most of us have the theology of death right (and that is crucial), I think we are often ill equipped to deal personally with death when it comes close to us. Our natural instinct is to avoid dealing with death. This instinct is not in itself entirely sinful. Why? Because we were not created to die. Even the most benighted sinner knows this in his heart of hearts, but without a doctrine of the Fall he is often tempted to construe death as a purely natural phenomenon—a subtle evasion of guilt before God.

This attitude is exemplified in a well-known poem, Thanatopsis, written by the nineteenth-century American poet William Cullen Bryant. Thanatopsis simply means "a musing upon death," or a meditation upon the meaning of death. Such meditation has been a favorite enterprise of poets throughout the ages. Bryant's musing concludes:

By an unfaltering trust approach thy grave
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him and lies down to pleasant dreams.

In the true Romantic spirit Bryant trusted in the goodness of nature, including human nature. His dangerously erroneous conclusions about death were based on this assumption. The inadequacy of this account of death is clear to the Christian, but also to the grieving unbeliever, even though he is not able to identify the nature of the problem. The Christian, on the other hand, knowing that death is an enemy, can account for our natural human revulsion. "The last enemy to be destroyed is death" (1 Cor. 15:26).

But there is also a sinful Christian response to death—one that seeks to avoid dealing with it either for ourselves or others. Our culture has been described by Malcolm Muggeridge as a "culture of death," but perhaps the reason we are increasingly able to kill so easily is because we have covered death up with euphemisms. So abortion becomes a "surgical procedure," and embalmed corpses are said by mourners to "look so peaceful." Graveyards in Florida, the home of one of the great illusion creators, Disney, are purposely hidden from public view. So, as a culture, we are ill equipped to face our own deaths or the deaths of others. We do not know how to grieve, or help others grieve, very well.

Thinking about death is never pleasant; facing it in the lives of those around us or ourselves is most disturbing of all. But the church of the one who has conquered death should be different. Every enemy in our spiritual warfare should be faced with the courage and wisdom of our risen Lord.

One summer evening as I strolled through the graveyard next to the church in which I was raised, South Main Street Congregational Church in Manchester, New Hampshire, I read the inscriptions on the stones. I noticed that the older slate stones had musings more consistent with the biblical understanding of death, musings for posterity to ponder. One read:

Though I am taken young
You elder ones must die;
Go from this place prepared
To meet your Judge on high.

Recently I visited the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, Egypt. While observing the vast array of hieroglyphic inscriptions about death in one of the sixty-two pharaonic tombs, my guide observed that the Pharaohs spent their entire lives preparing for death. This is one reason that Christians have historically availed themselves of the lapidary art and left inscriptions to remind others of the need to prepare for death. It is also why graveyards have surrounded churches. It is, of course, essential for every Christian to be prepared to die, and also to know how to grieve and help others grieve. And church officers should be on the forefront of the preparation.

The subject of death and grieving should be a regular part of the preaching and teaching of the congregation. Specific instruction on how to deal with death and grief should be given so that congregations know how to relate to and encourage those who have experienced the loss of a loved one. The two biblical dimensions of responding to the death of a believer are genuine sorrow and authentic hope. This combination is clear in Paul's admonition to the Thessalonians:

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words. (1 Thess. 4:13-18)

On the hope side of the equation I recall a monument in a family cemetery on Horse Corner Road in Chichester, New Hampshire that reads:

Hope looks beyond the bounds of time
When what we now deplore
Will rise in full immortal prime
And bloom to fade no more.

Several years ago I discovered the grave of a great, great grandfather who fought in the American War of Independence as a teenager. The inscription on his grave beautifully captures the biblical hope:

Friends nor physicians cannot save
This mortal body from the grave.
When Christ the Physician doth appear
They cannot keep this body here.

On the sorrow side we should remember Paul's exhortation to "weep with those who weep" (Rom. 12:15). Men should especially be reminded that in the Bible real men weep, especially over death. Witness David in the Psalms and Jesus and Paul in the New Testament.

Some of the fear and sorrow of the unbeliever, of course, is rooted in the deep knowledge of God's judgment on the sin of all of Adam's children. He is enslaved by this fear, as Hebrews 2:15 tells us, "who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery." The Christian knows that only the righteousness of our great High Priest can free us of this fear. They have heeded the gravestone's warning, "Go from this place prepared, To meet your Judge on high." But, what the families and friends of those who hold this confidence by faith are often not prepared for is the awful absence of the one they loved and whose presence was such a vital part of their lives.

Death, an old-new terror, hangs over the earth like a great cloud, penetrated only by "the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" (2 Cor. 4:6). As Fred Holywell, Scrooge's nephew, expounds on the goodness of Christmas to his bah humbugging uncle in Dickens's Christmas Carol, he sums up one dimension of a profound perspective on life,

But I'm sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that—as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. (emphasis added)

We need to grow in our knowledge of how to face death, especially with and for others, who are "fellow-passengers to the grave," and thankfully beyond to our heavenly home.

Only in our Conqueror can we face death with courage and wisdom in this death- enshrouded world. The presence of ministers, elders, deacons, and family in the face of death is truly the presence of the Christ who understands death perfectly and profoundly, because he experienced it for us. The nineteenth-century southern Presbyterian pastor John Girardeau beautifully describes this.

The Sufferer, who, for us, expired on the cross of Calvary, endured a species of death which was as singular as it was comprehensive and exhaustive. In body, he suffered the keen and protracted tortures of crucifixion; and in spirit, reviled by foes, deserted by friends and abandoned of God, he descended alone into the valley of the death-shade, which was not only veiled in impenetrable gloom, but swept by the tempests of avenging wrath. Furnished with such an experience, the Good Shepherd ministers with exquisite sympathy at the couch of the dying believer. He knows his doubts, his apprehensions, his fears; and, moved by a compassion which naught but a common suffering could produce, he makes all the bed under the expiring saint, smooths his last pillow, and "wipes his latest tear away."[1]

Endnote

[1] John L. Girardeau, "Christ's Pastoral Presence with His Dying People," in The Southern Presbyterian Pulpit (Richmond, VA: The Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1896), 82.

Ordained Servant January 2010.

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