Conquering Death: Faith not Fences

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Most of us are too busy living to spend time contemplating death and dying, but avoidance is not a long-term strategy for dealing with death.

Death has a way of intruding without warning, commanding immediate attention. We drop everything, travel, make phone calls, send flowers and cards to acknowledge that someone loved has gone. Though life goes on, death has left its calling card.

Death is constant; we notice only when it touches us. As I write, the World Death Clock ticks steadily at the rate of 1.8 deaths every second, an estimated 32 million deaths this year so far.

Three weeks ago, I got an early morning call that a family member had died suddenly. Not yet 40, he left behind a wife and two young children. Days later I sat in a church two states away reviewing the life of a dear man I knew only by proxy.

The grief was palpable. Death was front and center, open casket on the big screen. Fast forward: cemetery, repast, flights home, resume life. No disrespect. It’s what we do. Keep it moving lest death get in our heads, touch our hearts.

Fencing out Death

A church on my daily commute recently decided that death should take a holiday, at least visually.

This one-church-in-several locations congregation, the kind that sends out colorful postcards with hip slogans, merged with a declining mainline church. The merger of people, buildings and grounds included a neat, century old traditional cemetery with flower-topped, granite grave markers in various sizes and shapes.

Apparently, a cemetery with looming gravestones didn’t fit a “life is good” image. Church leaders summarily hid the grim reminders of mortality behind a substantial wooden privacy fence – with gated access for those wishing to pay their respects, of course.

Trying to hide a cemetery only draws attention to it.

The subsequent unflattering publicity revealed that people whose family members are buried in that cemetery didn’t want their graves behind a fence. Driving home this week, I noticed the privacy railings have been removed. The reality of death has come back into public view between open horizontal slats.

It’s a good thing. Death is as much a part of life as sunrises and sunsets. The writer of Hebrews said, “it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment.” (Hebrews 9:27)

Fear Not

A cemetery is a reminder that, despite all distractions and protestations to the contrary, “A man’s days are numbered.” (Job 14:5) Nobody lives longer than the time God has set.

Understandably, death gives people the creeps. Nobody wants to die. The church’s mission is to help people face this uncomfortable reality with biblical faith.

Like Jesus Christ standing at Lazarus’ tomb, the church must confront death by teaching people that God has given us eternal life and this life is in His son. (1 John 5:11)  Jesus conquered death, dying in our place and rising from the dead. Likewise, the dead in Christ will be raised. This is the hope of the gospel.

Since the children have flesh and blood, He too shared in their humanity so that by His death He might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. (Hebrews 2:14-15 NIV)

Resist fear in all its guises and embrace faith instead. Trusting Jesus Christ is the only hedge against death and opens the door to a whole new life!

“Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die.’ Do you believe this?” John 11:25-26

 

 

 

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Christians: Find your voice!

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Days apart in different parts of the country, two black men were shot dead this week in encounters with the police: Philando Castille in suburban Twin Cities, Minnesota during a routine traffic stop, Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge convenience store parking area.

The incidents were captured in videos that have gone viral. Both men died of multiple gunshot wounds. Social media is awash in outrage. My socially conscious Facebook friends, black and otherwise, are posting non-stop about the perceived injustice and outright danger of being a black man in America.

Then there are those who are strangely silent. Usually vocal supporters of law and order and generous with postings on politics, gun rights, pro-life support and Christianity, they say nothing of these horrendous deaths at the hands of law enforcement. It’s as though they live in an alternate universe in which this is not happening.

I’d like to say that the Christian God is as much a God of the here and now as He is of the ever after. He is God with us. He sees and cares that people are dying. He is just. He is righteous. He is impartial, loving us all equally. What would Jesus do? He would not be silent.

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I am the mother of sons. Young men raised to be honest, respectful, self-supporting, God-fearing. One defends his country in the Armed Forces. The other is headed to college. They are all American guys, athletes, YMCA members, volunteers, workers. Smart, handsome, decent, and honorable.

My sons are black men.

Their blackness is all some people – hateful people – may see when they look at them. Such people view blackness as a dangerous evil that is to be punished, a threat to be extinguished. The reality is that some police officers are among these hateful people. When these officers see blackness, it is all they see to the exclusion of one’s humanity.

It’s telling that black men often die in the presence of police officers while white mass killers live to have their day in court: James Holmes, who killed 12 people in the 2012 Aurora, Colo., movie theater and injured 70 more, was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. Dylann Roof, a white guy accused of killing 9 black churchgoers inside their Charleston, SC, church in June 2015 was arrested alive and is trying to avoid the death penalty.

The silence of some Christian people as black men repeatedly die is deafening. It’s time we found our voice. We are the salt of the earth. It is our Christian duty to be our brothers’ “keeper.” (Genesis 4:9) The Hebrew word is shamar, a verb which means to guard, protect, save life. We are connected by our humanity, each of us vulnerable to injustice in a fallen world.

Consider the words of Martin Niemoller:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me

 

Escape Sin’s Paradox

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I am ever learning but never coming to know the truth.

I am sampling all the world has to offer but am empty still.

I am ever seeking new experiences but never finding joy.

I am free to do what I please and enslaved by my own choices.

I am the constant critic who is blind to my own shortcomings.

I am the instigator of wrongdoing and the accuser once the deed is done.

What am I?

I am “the paradox of sin.”

I am pleasure and punishment rolled into one.

Sin is pleasurable for a season. When the season passes, sin’s beauty is ravaged; and we are left with its ugly reality.

We’ve all had our conversations with sin, heeded its voice and inevitably encountered its diabolical duality.

Sin promises freedom but everyone who sins is a slave to sin.

Sin twists our desires, compels us to seek fulfillment in self-destructive ways. Sin drives us to run after a nameless something that is always beyond our grasp.

When I survey the landscape of my own soul, I see sin’s stillbirths: dead hopes, dead dreams and dead relationships. Eventually sin turns on us, confronts us with our guilt, reminds us of how we’ve failed, whispers that we deserve to die.

In truth, we’re all sinners. The wages of sin is death. There is none righteous, not even one.

Yet, death was never God’s plan.

Man was created in God’s image, an eternal soul with free will, freedom to choose. God planted a garden and put Adam, this man He created, in it. The garden was filled with pleasant trees, two of which are identified by name: the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. God gave but one restriction:

Don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil for in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die. (Gen 2:17)

We know the story: the serpent persuaded Eve to eat of that tree, insisting there was no death in it, that it was the source of godlike wisdom. She gave it to Adam and he ate. Why weren’t they drawn instead to the tree of life?

We human beings are forever tempted to taste a freedom that results in our own bondage. Given a choice, we gravitate toward death not life. Look at your own choices and say it isn’t so.

Fortunately, God has provided a way of escape.

The last Adam, Jesus Christ, has released us from the paradox of sin. His death and resurrection has broken sin’s power over our lives. We don’t have to obey the siren call of our own sin nature. We are free. Sin reigned in death. Grace reigns through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 5:19-21)

 “For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.

Open Heart, Closed Casket!

Listening to the radio on the drive home one afternoon, I caught a snippet of a woman speaking to a group about a topic I couldn’t make out. What got my attention was a three-word phrase she used: “cold, hard, empty.”

Those words immediately took me back to a conversation I’d had with my daughter on a drive. Somehow we got talking about the dead which led to laughing about theatrical displays at open coffins.

(We laugh about almost anything!) If I go before her, she promised an award-winning performance to get me laughing from heaven.

If open casket drama is unfamiliar, you probably did not grow up in the South in a black church, as I did.

Funerals in Alabama are a scripted production that begins with the body being properly dressed and laid out in a funeral home parlor, the odor of perfumed formaldehyde hanging heavy in the air and permeating everything, including the roomful of cut-flower arrangements.

Done right, this display provokes the obligatory response: “Doesn’t he or she look ‘natural’?” or “Didn’t they put him or her away ‘nice’?”

This is where the radio remark comes in: Dead people do not look “natural.” They do not look “nice.” They look, well, dead: Cold, Hard, Empty. Those words precisely describe what many of us actually are while living – though we may appear otherwise simply because we are still breathing.

Apart from Christ, we are dead in trespasses and sins (Eph 2:1), spiritually dead and unresponsive to God. When people actually die, we come face-to-face with the physical reality of what it means to be dead. A dead body is cold, hard as leather and empty. The unique spirit that animated the personality is gone.

You can stand at a casket for hours, fiddling with buttons, adjusting ties, talking, shouting, weeping. (I’ve seen people actually kiss the dead.) You will get no response.

If the deceased was a believer in Jesus Christ, Christians believe that their spirit is “Absent from the body, present with the Lord.” (2 Corinthians 5:8) If they did not trust Christ, their spirit, being eternal, still lives on in some place of torment. (Consider the rich man and Lazarus) 

I’m not a fan of viewing dead bodies. When I was a child, the departed were sometimes stretched out in their living rooms, where we’d join friends and family while dropping off a sweet potato pie or a bowl of home-made potato salad. Always seemed a little odd to me, eating and conversation with a dead body in the room.

Home viewings may have ended, even in Alabama where the old ways die hard. But the classic last look lives on. Sometime after the readings, tributes, songs and eulogy, family members typically file past the casket before it is finally shut and summarily rolled down the center aisle with prerequisite Scripture sentences: “I am the resurrection and the life…; I know that my redeemer lives…” .

Sadly, that last viewing is often where things turn dramatic. Sometimes the people who showed the least love during the deceased’s life weep inconsolably, require smelling salts to remain upright or have to be restrained from leaping into the casket.

Personally, I favor a closed casket funeral with lots of photos from various points in my life so those who knew me when, can recognize me then. As my mother used to say, “Remember me as I was.” Not cold, hard and empty, but full of life, laughter.

Of course, traditions die hard. When Mom passed away more than five years ago, family insisted on an open-casket send-off. And no, she did not look natural. She was wearing gloves, for heaven’s sake, which she never wore in life unless she was putting on a pair of Hanes!

Are You Dead or Alive?

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Sin doesn’t make me bad.

It doesn’t make me unacceptable.

It doesn’t even make me unfit or unworthy.

Sin makes me dead.

I don’t know one person who is able to make themselves un-dead; which is what makes Jesus and His Resurrection relevant.

Every other person who ever has lived and died is still in a cemetery, crypt or some other final resting place. They cannot help themselves. And they cannot help me. They are dead.

Then there’s Jesus, whose bodily resurrection we’re soon to celebrate as the highest holy day in the Christian calendar: Easter. Jesus died to save sinners, got up from the grave on the third day and ever lives to intercede for us.

“Dead” was the human condition when Jesus came riding into Jerusalem on a donkey to accompanying shouts of “Hosanna!” These people were breathing, talking and walking around, but they were spiritually disconnected from God, dead in trespasses and sins. Know anybody like that?

Jesus provided the cure for this zombie-like existence through His subsequent crucifixion, burial and resurrection.

Christianity teaches that every human being past, present and future is DOA, dead on arrival, because of sin. Think Book of Genesis: Adam and Eve disobey God and everyone thereafter has sin stamped into our DNA. (Romans 5:12) Sin isn’t just about what we do, it’s about who we are: born sinners.

Nobody needs to be told they sin. We know it intuitively even though we may argue the point. Even if we won’t admit our sin, we know when we’ve been sinned against. The Bible clearly says “all have sinned” (Romans 3:23). Sin pays, but nothing we want to collect. The wages of sin is death, but God’s gift is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Jesus, Son of God and Son of Man, came as a sinless sacrifice to endure the death penalty imposed on sinners. With sin’s price paid, we are offered a free pardon and the opportunity to enjoy life to the full.

Who doesn’t want to cheat death? Jesus offers life to the dead. This Easter, instead of just gathering with other dead men to go through another religious ceremony, why not accept the offer?

Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live:   (John 11:25)

Love: Show More Than Tell

There’s nothing like death to give you a fresh perspective on life. And I’m recently returned from a funeral.

Everyone there seemed to know the departed in slightly different ways and even by slightly different names. Some called him by his last name, Bellamy. Others used a nickname, Billy. To me, he was Uncle Monroe, his given name and the one my mother always used.

To some, he was a co-worker. To others, a friend, a fellow church member or a relative. Some knew him on the nightshift in work clothes. Others recognized him in dapper duds at formal dinners. He’d lived for decades in an urban metropolis but his roots were rural and he never forgot.

He was a fixture in my life. My mother’s last sibling and slightly younger brother born on Christmas Eve, he was tall and well-dressed whether in plain clothes or Sunday go-to-meeting suits. Mustachioed and smelling of Aramis cologne, he’d suddenly appear in our driveway for a visit, fresh off the road from his home in Atlanta slightly more than 100 miles away.

He always drove a truck, stick shift until the knee began to bother him, with a camper top and cooler in the back full of drinks. The truck changed by the years, but the greeting was always the same, “Hey, baby!”

My uncle never talked much about himself to me. I knew his son graciously shared him with the nieces. I vaguely knew that he’d served in the Armed Forces, worked at the post office. He was a Baptist when everyone else in the family went to African Methodist Episcopal Church. He didn’t push church. When I worked in Atlanta, he invited me just once that I remember: to hear a singer with a voice fit for the Met who had grown up in the congregation.

At the funeral, I got the full resume. He’d served in the Navy. He was married to the same woman for 68 years. He worked for the post office, 36 years. He was an honorable “Deacon Emeritus” who had mentored several deacons who would mature to become chairmen of the board. He himself had devoted many years to bereavement ministry.

The details of my uncle’s life were long a mystery but his consistent, unmistakable love for me was very clear. I sat at his funeral remembering how he drove his truck from Atlanta to Raleigh nearly 30 years ago to give me away at my wedding. It would have been much easier to buy a plane ticket. The drive was a gesture of love, again. Mom needed a ride, and they enjoyed each other’s company.

I know that I’m partial, but my Uncle really was something special. Most of us Christians are the Titus 1:16 variety: we claim to know God but our actions deny him. We talk too much and live too little. We don’t cultivate real relationships. We’re plastic, chameleons who are so busy doing “church” that we’ve forgotten we are Christ’s ambassadors.

My friend, God is love. God so loved the world that He gave us His Son at great sacrifice for our good.

I know my uncle loved God, because he loved me all my life.

By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13:35

God Wants You to Live

  • A pregnant mother is brutally murdered in her suburban home, teeth fragments scattered around her room, blood puddling so that her toddler, left unharmed by the assailant, tracks crimson footprints through the house. The convicted killer: her husband.
  • A woman is shot dead in her employer’s parking lot by the father of her children in the midst of a protracted custody battle that ends as a murder-suicide. Their children: orphaned. 
  • A young man is stabbed to death in his own apartment. Police arrest his live-in partner amid rumors of domestic abuse.

These are not random plot lines from an episode of CSI or, my personal favorite, The Closer.

These are real life tragedies involving flesh-and-blood people whose names and faces I knew. Not characters in a Hollywood drama. These were neighbors, fellow church members, co-workers.

No one ever expects to actually know somebody whose life ends in homicide. But what used to be the stuff of screenplays or page-turning novels has become the scenario of everyday life.

Relationships matter.

The people with whom we choose to enter into intimate relationship can alter the course of our lives for good or ill. The right relationships with the right people can be a blessing, life-giving. The wrong relationships with the wrong people in the wrong circumstances can be deadly.

How do we know which people can be trusted? We don’t. Ultimately, those who have a relationship with God, must choose to trust God. Through Jeremiah, the prophet, God said this:

“The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, who can know it?” He added: “I, the Lord, search the heart…” 

Whatever else may be a mystery to you about God, know this:

Now, be honest. Do you see yourself or someone you know living a plot line with the potential to end badly – in bruises, body bags, morgues?

Resolve to do something: To get help, To get out.

No one has to die. You can walk away. You can start over. God makes all things new.

* Are you in Wake County, NC and need safety, support, aware in a domestic violence situation?  Interact offers a 24-hour crisis line: 866-291-0855 Toll-Free or visit http://www.interactofwake.org/