Dr. Steve Lindsley
(Genesis 2: 4b-9, Romans 14:7-9)
Two summers ago, our family went on an amazing trip out west. It was the first time we’d ever been on a vacation of this length and magnitude. Our journey took us from California to the Grand Canyon to Utah to Montana and most everywhere in between.
Now a lot went into preparing this trip, as you can imagine; and I’ll tell you exactly where the preparation started: it started with me sitting in front of my computer and googling “family trip out west.” Not surprisingly, I found a vast wealth of information; but if I’m honest the real helpful sites were not ones like “top ten things to do at Glacier National Park,” those prepared by tourist organizations and the like. No, the ones I found most helpful were the blogs written by people whose families had gone on a trip out west and were now capturing their experience to share tips, best practices, tricks of the trade. Everything from where they went to what they did, to which place had the best food to where you could wash your laundry It was invaluable to have others who’d already been there telling me about it before we went.
And the thing is, most of the journeys in our life work this way – checking in with someone who has already done what we are planning on doing. We reach out to someone who got their masters degree to learn what it entails before applying ourselves. We seek wisdom from a first-time father on how to balance work and home life once our baby comes. There is always someone out there who’s been on the journey before us and can fill us in on what it’s like before we embark on it ourselves.
Except for one journey – and that is the journey of death. Death is the only journey that no one can tell you about after the fact. They can tell you about the journey leading up to death, but not death itself. And that is probably the reason that death, in large part, is something we fear, something we avoid, something we put off as long as humanly possible. Because other than knowing that we will be with God, there is no way for us to know the itinerary of what happens after we die. Which is why poet John Donne is correct when he writes, “Death comes equally to us all, and makes us equal when it comes.”
As you know, we are into the second Sunday of our Lenten sermon series on “Practicing Our Faith,” as we acknowledge that faith is not just something we believe in our heads but it is also something we live out in our lives – and like anything worth living, it takes practice. Last week our Gilchrist Speaker Aisha Brooks-Johnson preached on the practice of healing. In future weeks we’ll take a look at the practices of hospitality, of testimony, of shaping communities, and – one I’m really looking forward to – the practice of saying yes and saying no.
Today, we take a look at the practice of dying well. And despite the initial hesitancy that Rebecca, Sara, and I had with including this particular practice in our sermon series, in the end we felt it was important to lift up, precisely because we know so little about death, other than it’s something all of us will encounter at some point.
Our passage in Romans that I read a minute ago is one of many instances where the apostle Paul speaks about death – here, with familiar words; words we hear regularly at a funeral or memorial service and words we see etched in stone on our columbarium wall: In life and in death, we belong to God.
Now it is true, of course, that we are God’s whether living or dead, and there is comfort in that. But as we cast our view wider around this passage, we come to see that Paul is just as interested in the community’s presence in life and death as much as God’s. We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves, Paul writes. Life can be lonely sometimes. Death, even more so; the Great Separator that death is. But what our Christian faith unapologetically proclaims, and what Paul gives voice to here, is that in life and death we belong to God but not only God. We also belong to each other – in life and in death.
Understanding this, I think, is part of what it means to talk about dying well – and not just our own death, mind you; but how we deal with the death of those close to us. When we accept the fact that we belong to both God and the community whether living or dead, we also come to see that dying well involves embracing two seemingly opposite things at the same time: lament and hope.
We need the lament, on one hand, because the loss is real and it hurts; and to not acknowledge it is to imprison ourselves to it. We need the lament. But we also need the hope, because we were not created to live in lament forever. We come from dust, as we learned in the Genesis passage Rebecca read. Dust. Dust is fleeting, blowing in the wind, here one moment and gone the next. Lament. But, for God to take something like dust and breathe life into it and create us – from dust! – I mean, is that not the greatest of hopes?
Dying well means embracing both lament and hope.
Sounds great, but let’s be honest – it’s not in our nature to hold these two together. Instead, our culture clamors to separate them, compartmentalize them – to the point where we wind up denying that death is even there. In his book Accompany Them With Singing, author Thomas Long references a well-known poem that is often read at funerals. It goes like this:
Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there, I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there – I did not die.
It is, admittedly, lovely poetry; but it is some flawed theology. And why? Because it is hope without the lament. In fact, it is the outright denial of death altogether. “I did not die” is a far, far cry from Paul’s “In life and in death we belong to God.”
Long presses his case further when he recounts the story of a pastor who said the reason they preferred to do a private graveside service before a memorial service without the deceased was because, in their words, “the burial is like Good Friday and the memorial service like the joy of Easter.” Long pushes back on this when he asks, “Do we really want to leave our dead behind at the cross and not welcome them to resurrection?”
Lament and hope.
I think of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead in the gospel of John. What could be more hopeful than that, right? But do we remember what Jesus did first before raising him? Do you remember? Jesus followed his friends to the grave and he wept. He wept first; and we are left wondering if the new life he brought Lazarus would’ve even been possible without first grieving.
Lament and hope.
I think of what Aisha shared in our Gilchrist Conversation last Saturday night about her late husband Carl, who she watched die a slow and agonizing death over five long years. She witnessed his steady decline, day after day; this man who had once been so full of life, now fading away. She grieved the inevitable loss of her husband, while also preparing for a life after him for her and their son. Holding those two things in tension, messy as it may be.
Lament and hope.
Friends, this is our defiance of death as followers of Jesus – not our denial of death as the poem would suggest, but our defiance of it. And funerals and memorial services are the greatest act of that defiance – coming together in community, because we belong to each other and to God in life and in death; coming together to read scripture, to sing songs, to pray, grieve, even to laugh.
And most of all, coming together to share two stories at the same time – one, the story of a loved one who has died; a story we cannot hide from or should even try to. A story of severed cords of love, shattered community, and a life gone. That’s one story.
But there is another story we tell: a story made possible by the resurrection, a story that reveals all of death’s lies. A hope-filled story of a saint of God, precious in God’s sight, being carried by the faithful not to the abode of the dead but into the arms of God. Tom Long writes: “We tenderly carry the body of the one we have loved to the place of farewell, weeping perhaps, but also singing psalms and Easter songs as we travel.”
Holding lament and hope together is how we practice the faith of dying well. But we always can learn more. And so I want to invite a friend of our church to join me up front. Ken Poe runs Poe Funeral Service here in town, and as such is in the habit of walking alongside people day in and day out who are dealing with death.
KEN POE questions
From your vantage point, what would you consider to be hallmarks of a healthy understanding of death and dying?
How have you seen these have a positive impact on the families that you serve?
Can you share with us an experience that touched you – something someone said, a story told – that has for you impacted how you understand death and dying in the Christian faith?
And for that, in the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 Thomas G. Long, Accompany Them With Singing, pg. 32.
 Ibid, pg. 46