Conquering Death: Faith not Fences

fence

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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Your Jesus still in the manger?

It’s Advent, a time of Christian preparation for the coming of Christ. We’re fixated on the crèche: baby Jesus in swaddling clothes, haloed and lying in a manger, surrounded by animals, shepherds.

Babies are cute, cuddly, harmless, helpless, adorable. But babies grow up.

Despite Hollywood and Christmas card depictions, the wise men most likely missed the manger; Bible scholars say they arrived about two years later, where Scripture teaches they came into a house to greet Jesus as a young child.

Full story: Jesus kept right on growing into the God-man who died on a Roman cross to save sinners; He became a Man of Sorrows, acquainted with grief, a Suffering Servant. He got up from the grave with all power in heaven and in earth in His hands. This same Jesus will one day come again — not as a baby, but as a conquering King.

Are you living like Jesus is still in the manger?

I get it. A grown up Jesus can be scary, awakening the kind of uneasiness sometimes associated with developmentally disabled children as they mature. Full grown, they aren’t so non-threatening; their non-conformity draws attention that can make us uncomfortable.

A baby can be soothed, silenced, ignored. A mature Jesus is not so easily managed.

Don’t be afraid. I bring you good tidings of great joy: Jesus has left the manger.

It’s time we who say we believe allowed Him to grow up or, to put it another way, to be “formed in” us. Strong’s describes the Greek word used for “form” to mean: a life and mind formed in us that is in complete harmony with the mind and life of Christ. Gal 4:19 

This, beloved, is what Christmas is about.

Jesus at the manger points us beyond Christmas to Easter and on to Pentecost, to the God who supplies supernatural power to His people to deal with daily life in real time, where we’re confronted with spiritual wickedness in high places.

This is not Jesus lying in manager, not Jesus suffering on the Cross or wrapped in grave clothes in the Tomb. This is Jesus moving by His Spirit in the Book of Acts.

Risen from the dead and preparing to get back to heaven, Jesus told His core followers to wait at Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit, His Spirit, who would guide them in truth, empower them to live as Christians and to do the work of ministry.

Folks, the manger was only Act One. History, some say His Story, has kept moving.

Baby Jesus was on a mission: born to die to save us and to rise from the dead, His Spirit enabling us to be His witnesses and become mature men and women of God who reflect His image in the Earth.

Still looking for the perfect gift? Could be we all simply need to fully unwrap the priceless gift we already have: “Christ in you, the hope of glory!”

~ Merry Christmas.

 

Have Anything That’s Fireproof?

We spend years and sometimes a great deal of money accumulating stuff: cars, homes, furniture, clothing, gadgets. And we can make a great fuss about what we “own.”

But what do we really have that can’t be taken away?

Some of us go for antiques, spend our Saturdays wandering small towns and flea markets looking for the odd piece to fill just the right nook. I have a neighbor who is into roosters. House is filled with them, every size and description.

Some of us are blessed with heirlooms: I inherited a carefully folded flag that was presented to my grandmother at the military funeral of her husband, a World War I veteran, in 1963. He died before I reached the age of two so this possession holds great meaning for me. I have a friend whose grandmother’s hand-made Christmas ornaments are a treasure her family enjoys each year. The grandmother wanted her to have them while she could see her enjoy them.

Maybe you inherited an original painting that has hung in your family’s homes for generations. I have two small pictures of flowers in vases that hung in the modest home my grandfather built for my grandmother with its tin roof and pinewood paneling. They are inexpensive prints but priceless to me because they connect me with my family’s past.

We all have irreplaceable family photos. I inherited my mother’s photo albums and those of my childless Aunt Margie, who knitted her way through her daily commute between Bronx and Long Island. These photos were collected over the decades before digital imagery, when picture-taking was rare and people dressed for the occasion and sometimes posed in a studio. There are even a few photos taken by my great Aunt Mary, for whom my mother was named, with the brownie camera that hung ‘round her neck on the Greyhound bus rides South from Pittsburgh.

These thick photo albums are filled with the faces of family, shielded by plastic sheets, living in the far-away lands of Chicago, Detroit, New York. Familiar people and nameless babies, old men, young women and longtime family friends are captured on glossy, square black- and-white photo paper with decorative edges and simple date stamps in black, some dating back to the 1940s.

And, of course, there are my own wedding photos, nearly 26 years old now, and pictures and negatives of my own children as they have grown through grade school, athletic competitions, state fairs, vacations, proms and graduations. Their baby books – they each have one – are filled with a lock of their baby hair, their first ultrasound views, their early footprints and congratulatory cards at their birth.

Then there are the childhood keepsakes: kindergarten drawings, that first wrestling trophy, the high school wood shop piece, the change maker from the first paper route, the winning pinewood derby car, first pair of ballet slippers, the signed high school annuals and trunks full of our own college books and journals that marked our passage to adulthood.

Now imagine all that stuff, those memories, those milestones… going up in flames.

All of it.

Ashes.

Not one solitary piece remaining except in memory.

Gone.

That imaginary moment may be your worst nightmare. But it’s no dream.

This actually happened to my neighbor’s daughter. A fire in the middle of a February night burned their Georgia log cabin home to the ground, even melted the siding on their car.

Everyone – both parents, two kids and a dog, plus some house guests – got out alive.

They have their lives, their love and each other. With that they can rebuild.

Relationships are fireproof because love never ends.

We need stuff: food, shelter, clothes. Extra stuff is useful; it makes life comfortable. It provides continuity and a sense of connection across the generations. But stuff is temporary. It comes and goes.

Better to treasure the people in our lives, and keep stuff in perspective.

“For we brought nothing into [this] world, [and it is] certain we can carry nothing out.” 1 Tim 6:7