You don’t live too long until someone you love, someone you love dearly, dies. For me it was my Father He was 53. I was 31. I had no inkling that it was coming. It was a cold January evening in 1975. I was serving a small church in Philadelphia. At the dinner table the phone rang. I answered. It was my father s pastor who passed on the unbelievable news that my father had a heart attack while driving home from work, and didn’t make it.
Some of you have had shattering moments like that. Or you have loved ones whose life came to an end by some wasting disease, or by the ravages of old age.
I immediately called my best friend in the church, John Marian, whose own father had died the year before. Did you ever notice that when you are going through hard times you don’t want to talk to somebody who has had an uneventful life? No you want to seek out someone who has been beaten down by life and somehow–maybe the grace of God–has been able to stand on their feet again. You want to talk to someone who embodies Ernest Hemingway’s line in A Farewell to Arms: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”
So on that sad night I asked John if he had the same reaction I was having: Numb, like being shot through and through with NOVOCAIN? Anger at the unfairness of it all? Not anger at God, I never thought God had caused my father’s death. His heart attack was due to bad genes, and a bad diet, a lack of exercise, smoking since he was a teenager. But a raging unfocused anger.
I can’t remember my conversation with John but at the time I really needed someone who understood what it was like. In a small way my conversation with John began to help thin out the sorrow.
Someone you love has died. Today I want to talk about that, and say a few words about what we go through in that crucible.
The first thing I want to say is– at the outset– not much helps, especially words. We know that and that’s why we canvass our minds to select the right words to offer a grieving friend
Well meaning people say to us: “He s in a better place. Or he’s joined your mother in heaven.” You want to punch them in the face, don’t you?
Or the old standard: “I’m sorry for your loss.” That’s so lame and so trite? That’s why we bring food to the house, or send flowers or and sympathy cards.
But occasionally someone says something to us in our grief that lifts our spirits. In the receiving line at the funeral home hundreds of people came to offer their respects to my mother, my sister, and myself. I don’t remember what any of them said, but one. One old lady told me, “Your father was the kindest business man I ever met.” Those words have lodged in my heart for 44 years.
My mother outlived my father for 40 years. She took over his insurance business, and did well. She began going out with a friend from our church, whose own wife had died. They became an “item” and spent over 20 years together.
We moved her out here to the Woodmark in Sun City in late 2014. She lived here for 9 months until she died in August, 2015. We celebrated her life at Pinnacle Presbyterian Church in Scottsdale where I was serving on the pastoral staff and then another service at her home church in Winston-Salem.
Last week when my daughter was here we went through all the sympathy cards sent to me upon my mother’s death. There were well over 100. I am always impressed with a sympathy card or birthday card that comes in the mail. That means that someone had to drive to the store, peruse all the cards to find just the right one, go to the post office, buy a stamp, sit down, write a note on the card, and mail it. An email is quick and doesn’t require much effort, but a sympathy card is impressive.
I want to read you a couple of sympathy cards, which have now taken on new meaning that they didn’t have three years ago.
A note from Pat Thompson: “Tears are the prayers for that which is not easily spoken.”
Sharon Dolan Although she enjoyed a very long life, she was still your mother.”
Mary Meese We’ve been gone for a month in Italy. So sorry to hear of Mildred’s passing. Our prayers of peace and comfort are sent to you.”
If your grief is fresh, what I am going to say in the next five minutes or so may seem overly philosophical or theological. But it’s important and you may find it helpful to go back and read it online in the coming days.
We usually think of death as something to be avoided, an enemy, if you will. But death is part of God’s plan, God’s wise plan for human life.
I have a private nightmare. We’ll live for hundreds of years, sitting in our recliners, hooked up to a room full of artificial hearts and livers and lungs. No it is part of the good news that life is short. Death brings us to face up to life. So let us address death as would St Francis: “Brother death, Sister Death.”
Suppose we could live forever. I could imagine taking decades deciding whether I should come to this church or consider other options. I can imagine every Session meeting lasting a month. (Now there’s a vision of hell–endless committee meetings!!!) It would take me eons to write a sermon. I procrastinate enough as it is. When you think about it, without death, life would be interminable. This is what the Psalmist means when he says, “Lord, teach us to know how few days we have, and so gain wisdom of heart.” (Psalm 90)
Nicholas Berdayev, a religious philosopher, has written, “It is death which gives depth and seriousness to life. If life were endless everyone could put off doing duty indefinitely because there would be no pressure of time.”
Doesn’t Berdayev’s observations strike responsive chords in all of us? Because it gives us a sense of urgency. It’s what William James meant when he expressed the fear that he would not have the time to say all that he had to say. I think of the ephemeral nature of life and recall that John Keats was haunted by the fact that his life might cease before his pen had gleaned all the thoughts of his mind. And Keats was in a hurry. He died of consumption at age 25.
Mozart died at 35. Gerard Manly Hopkins, the finest religious poet in the English language, died at 45. Shelly died at 30. Lord Byron at 36. Franz Schubert died at 31, leaving an “Unfinished symphony.” Schubert’s life is a parable of all of our lives. Even if you live past 31, even if you live to 91, life is an unfinished symphony. There are more books to read, more music to listen to, more mountains to climb.
Someone asked Pablo Cabals, why at the age of 89–and already the greatest cellist in the world–he still practiced four hours a day. “Because,” “he said, in a huff, “I think I may be getting better.” Casal’s s statement reflects what we all feel deeply. Just as we are learning how to play the notes correctly, just as we are learning how to life rightly, we die.
There was a sign on a church that said, “Remember Detroit is not the only place where the Maker can recall His product.”
I have tried to make the point that death makes life more urgent and more important. Let me finally say a word about how death affects our life with God. It’s a strange thing that those closest to God, those who most intensely feel God’s presence in every place and moment are the people who feel the best is still ahead. So Bach writes one of his most beautiful arias, “Come, sweet death.” And a black slave writes, “I looked over Jordan, and what did I see? A Band of angels coming after me, coming for to carry me home.”
Maybe the best thing about death is that, according to the promise of the Christian faith, it will give us the life we have always wanted, but which has always been beyond our reach. The life which has always been beyond our reach because our own sin and limitation has prevented us from grasping it. The life we have always wanted, but never been able to achieve because we were born with mental limitation, or contracted some wasting disease. The life we have always wanted but which was beyond our reach because other people, in their sin and evil, kept us from it. Some day, at the time of our death, the life everlasting, the abundant life, will be given us.
And one final sympathy card. Called “I believe.” I believe that hope survives, love prevails, tears cleanse, memories comfort, faith soothes, good thoughts reassure and you open it up to read: And that our belief in a better place calms the heart.”