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Posts Tagged ‘death’

Our family would like to thank so many people for kind words and kind gestures. We especially want to thank you for loving Mom and Dad.

Every once in a while we hear of or experience a life changing event. At the risk of understatement, the death of my Dad is one of those. Who knows what to say at times like these? I surely do not. If I were asked about the chance of this happening at this time I would have guessed somewhere around zero percent.  In my eyes, Dad was one of the strongest people I could even imagine. I am pretty sure my siblings thought the same thing. For much of my life I thought he could do nearly anything. It is not that we thought Dad was a super hero. Though he did successfully convince one of our cousins that he was superman. Maybe he could not leap tall buildings in a single bound but he did have skills. There is a story about a boy who could walk on his hands and used those skills to attract the attention of a girl in sixth grade. That boy was Dad and that girl is my Mom.

The stories will live on. The fact is we love telling stories about Dad but they will never be the same without him sitting there adding to them or trying to deny them. To be honest, I have no idea what life will be like without him being a part of it. Have I mentioned that this was a life changing event?

Dad taught us things like bike riding and fishing and fielding a fly ball. Dad taught us how to sharpen a knife and appreciate the outdoors and to drive a car. My sister Jennifer wanted to make sure that I highlighted the role he had in teaching us how to love.

That love was evident in his role as Grandpa.  With some irony, on the day of Dad’s funeral, I became a Grandpa. If I am able to even utilize some of his Grandpa skills, I will be successful.

Later in life Dad became a gardener and a bird watcher and a photographer and a traveler to Florida. He loved living near the black bears that played in his yard in PA and the alligators that lived near the house in FLA. And there are plenty of photos to prove his love of both. Dad became an inventor of sorts as evidenced by a contraption we used to pick tangerines from high in the trees last spring and another that he used to hang bird feeders in unlikely places.

We love telling stories about Dad, whether true or not. We can tell stories about him shooting at squirrels in the bird feeders and at mice in our living room. We can tell stories about Dad with gun and holster practicing his quick draw.

His death may be a life changing event. But only because his life had such a significant influence on us. It is largely because of Dad’s influence that we know that God is interested in these stories and memories and the way they make us feel now. There is a room at the house where Dad sat and scribbled notes as he read and watched out the window. His most recent notes include references to the scene in the Gospel of John chapter eleven. For anyone not familiar with what is said there, John chapter eleven includes a scene where Jesus shows up at a funeral. A reminder that God does not shy away from times of darkness or even death. There is some comfort in that, knowing that God is interested in those of us who mourn. Yet this scene is not about comfort. In this scene, God looks death in the eye and begins to talk about resurrection and life. That is exactly what Dad would want us to do today.

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There is a temptation to avoid certain topics, including certain sections of scripture that tend to make us uncomfortable.  Yet, we are unable to walk through life avoiding every uncomfortable situation.  In order to properly listen to others there is no choice but to listen to struggles as well as joys.  And in order to understand scripture we must read the difficult texts alongside our favorites.

The holiday season, with all of the wonderful traditions that come to mind, is a favorite time of year for many.  It is not difficult to listen as people discuss family gatherings, Christmas dramas, flickering lights, self giving, choral singing, and greeting cards.  These all help to make the season bright.  But not for all.

This came into the open one December as I prepared to address a Bereavement Support Group.  For some time I had conveniently halted my Christmas reading from Matthew at 2.12.  This is not unlike the way I may try to turn an uncomfortable conversation into something more positive.  But, Matthew’s story does not end at 2.12.  Matthew is more honest than I am.  He admits that life includes narrow escapes, suffering, and even death.

Suffering and Christmas meet at Matthew chapter two.  It is not a happy meeting.  But here we also rediscover the hope that the Lord continues to speak even at the most uncomfortable times.  When most of us think of this chapter, we think first of the Magi bringing gifts from afar.  Rightly so, it is a fascinating story.  We sing about it.  We print it on our Christmas cards.  We place the Magi carefully within our manger scene where everyone can see them.

But the Gospel goes on.  King Herod was out to save his throne.  Matthew says that he was “disturbed.”  For Herod, this was not just a mild case of the jitters.  He had already murdered his two sons and his wife (he could not stand the thought of dying first and her living without him).  Now we find him plotting to kill the child Jesus.  If this child is born to be king, then it is clear that he must go.  (Obviously, Herod was not caught up in Christmas fever).  In his rage to kill the rival king, “he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under.”

But the Lord spoke to Joseph in a dream to go to Egypt.  There the young family would escape Herod’s wrath.  “And he arose and took the child and his mother by night, and departed for Egypt.”

We may find this shocking and wonder why Matthew would include such an episode in the Christmas narrative.  Why wouldn’t Matthew have stopped the story at a peaceful nativity scene, a meek and mild Jesus, and a silent night?  Why does he have to include a mad king and the death of infants?  Doesn’t Matthew know that the picture of soldiers slashing infants and toddlers does not encourage the warm feelings we look for at Christmas?  Doesn’t he know that this is no way to spread tidings of comfort and joy?

This is not a text that we often hear at this time of year (or any time of year for that matter).  We tend to be more selective.  Highlight the passages that relay a positive attitude.  Censor those that do not.  After all, we want to make a good impression on outsiders.  If they know the whole story the Gospel may not appeal to them.  So we spend our time trying to figure out ways to avoid suffering.  Pretend that it doesn’t exist.  Keep the baby in the manger where he is free from narrow escapes.

But, anyone who has read the Gospel knows that the ministry of Jesus was neither silent nor peaceful.  Matthew reflects that truth.  This is not a note to be avoided.  It is still the truth that God is aware of loss, suffering, and death.  He is aware that, even in the joy that comes with Christmas, there are other realities like loneliness and fear.  These hang over Christmas like a dark and lonely night.  In fact, these may feel even more painful when placed alongside a context of celebration.

One who suffers longs for someone to identify with them.  However, it must at times appear as if no one else is able to understand their suffering.  Christmas reveals that this is a false assumption.  The one who was sent by God narrowly escaped death as an infant.  As we already know, later he does not escape.  He was pierced, crushed, punished, and wounded.  He was judged and he was killed.  How important for those who suffer to hear this message.  During this season when we acknowledge the birth of one like this, it is comforting to know that he was born to identify with our sorrow.

While the rest of the world is busy singing a joyful song, some experience pain and loss.  Matthew’s episode reminds us that pain and suffering are a part of Christmas.  In fact, I would suggest that we could not really understand Christmas without suffering.  The reality of Christmas is that God became one of us and suffering was not exempted from his agenda while on earth.

Meanwhile, back in Matthew two, Joseph is dreaming again.  In each of his dreams he receives instruction and he responds by doing as he is told.  Both prior to and after the onslaught of innocent children, the Lord speaks to Joseph.

A precedent was set in that early scene.  The Christmas story includes suffering and grief.  But, God speaks even in times of suffering.  This is a Christmas truth to remember.  The Lord continues to speak throughout episodes of suffering.  It is true that suffering continues to be a part of life.  More importantly, the Lord continues to speak even during the darkest of times.

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God Knows

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, And before you were born I consecrated you” (Jeremiah 1.5).  I stand on green carpet as I read, facing two grieving parents who are seated on the other side of the box which contains the remains of their son.  Carter Riley was supposed to be born in February, still several months away.  Carter’s parents rub the box, speak toward the box, and shed tears.  With the exception of the funeral home director, we are the only ones present at the cemetery.

“God knows him.”  “He knew Jeremiah, he knows Carter Riley.”  People in our community are fond of Carter’s parents.  Among other things, they are known as teachers and coaches in the local school district.  More importantly, God knows them.  He knows their pain.  He knows the natural feelings which are evident at this time.  He knows their denial, guilt, anger, depression, and grief.

This graveside service takes place just eight days after the national tragedy in which thousands of fellow citizens were killed.  In response to those deaths, countless voices have expressed grief.  God hears these voices.  Yet, the volume of the masses is not so loud as to drown out the grief expressed by the parents of Carter Riley.  God knows their grief.

I read Psalm 23.  This is reality.  We find ourselves in the shadow of death yet with the hope of dwelling in the house of the Lord forever.  This is what Christian preachers bring to these occasions – hope.  I often wonder if my words are heard at a graveside service, yet I have no choice but to speak words of hope.

Before leaving for the cemetery a neighbor calls out “I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes.”  I respond, “pray for me.”  Actually I don’t mind these shoes.  Funerals grant permission to pastors.  Permission to stop by.  Permission to discuss the important stuff.  That is why it is important to be familiar with the Gospel.  To know the role that death plays in the big picture.  To recognize that there is value in suffering.  That is why it is important to love people enough to bring God into the conversation.

All funerals have a context.  A funeral is not separate from the rest of life.  This context can not be determined by reading an obituary.  It begins to become clear only by listening to family members and friends.  Listening to stories about the deceased.  Listening for interests and priorities, habits and sense of humor. Listening to others share thoughts and feelings.  Only by entering into this context will we know what to say and how to say it. I enter knowing that God is already there.  That he is fully aware of the situation.  That he is already working on their behalf.  I enter knowing that death is only part of the story.  The life and death of this individual must be seen in this greater context.  A funeral is not an exclamation point, a question mark, or a period as much as it is a comma.

Many of the questions that determine this context may not be relevant in all situations.  Such is the case with Carter Riley.  Perhaps his context contains fewer details.  Perhaps there are fewer memories.  But, that does not mean that God knows him less.  Even more, that does not mean that God loves him less.

A day later there is an envelope at the door.  Inside there is a note that says, “God does know all of us and that’s a comforting thought.”  The note was signed by Carter Riley’s parents.  I add “Amen.”

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