A seminary student, who is a friend of mine, came to visit me today. He asked me how my new ministry in Sandwich, New Hampshire, was going after being on the job for six months. Specifically he asked what type of pastoral care issues I was dealing with in my church.
Only a colleague – especially one who had just finished a seminary course in pastoral psychology - would ask such a question. I pondered the question for a moment and then replied, “Grief.” There have been a lot of deaths in this small church in this small New Hampshire town.
We have also had personal grief. My mother-in-law passed away a couple of weeks ago. My wife and I spent an emotional weekend in Orlando for her service last weekend. In order to attend, I had to delegate a graveside service scheduled for that same day to another minister so I could officiate at my mother-in-law’s funeral.
Furthermore when we returned to New Hampshire Sunday night, we had not been home for more than a half-hour when I got a phone call from an old family friend. He had been trying to reach me all weekend to ask me to do his mother’s funeral the next day. Of course I said I would.
Today a hospice chaplain asked me to cover for him, if needed, while he was on vacation. Again I said yes. For these reasons death has been on my mind a lot more than in my previous church, which was a younger congregation.
I have noticed that people use the word “pass” a lot nowadays to describe death. I guess it is a shortened form of the traditional phrase “pass away,” but it sounds strange to my ears. Passing is something I do on the highway while driving or playing cards or when someone at the dining table asks for the salt. I don’t think of death as passing. It sounds euphemistic.
I call death “death.” I intentionally use that dirty word “death” when talking to people who are dying and those who are grieving the loss of a loved one. Naming the enemy helps to defang him. In the Harry Potter books and films, the evil archenemy Voldemort is always referred to as “He Who Must Not Be Named.” People will not say his name because they are afraid. The same is true of death.
Another person remarked to me recently that death is “so final.” Once again, I don’t think of it that way. I just finished reading the best-selling nonfiction book, “Heaven Is For Real,” the account of a little boy’s visit to heaven during a Near Death Experience. Anyone who thinks that death is final needs to pick up that book.
Death does not seem strange, unusual, or scary for me. I know the Bible calls it “the last enemy,” but it also says that it will be destroyed. I feel that the victory is already won. Death is defanged. It has no bite.
Seventeenth century Puritan John Owen wrote a theological classic entitled, “The Death of Death in the Death of Christ.” (J. I. Packer's introduction to the book is almost as good.) Owen’s title sums up my attitude toward death. Christ’s death was a death-destroying act. Our faith in his death is a death-defying act. Death is dead. Long live life!
This past Lent I led a Bible Study about the death of Jesus. During the discussion, I made the uncensored comment that I knew what death felt like. My actual words were something like, “I know what it feels like to be dead.” The table full of people stared at me as if I had just said, “I see dead people.” (For the record, I don’t.)
What I mean is that I know what it will feel like to be dead because I know what it feels like to be eternally alive. I experience eternal life now, and I will continue to experience eternal life after the troublesome hiatus called death. I don’t hope for life after death; I live it.
Art is “Eternal Life Energy 1” by Kim Stapleton