death

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Our Noise

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2008

CoffinAs I write these words, the news of the death of another great gospel preacher has just arrived in my inbox.  Don McWhorter, who preached for many years in Fayette, Alabama, and has spoken on the television program, “Bible Talk,” died just a little over two hours ago in a hospital in Tuscaloosa.  I’m told that the visitation will be Thursday evening at Nelson Funeral Home in Fayette and the funeral will be held on Friday at the Fayette Church of Christ. (I don’t know the times.)

I’ve been preaching a lot of funerals lately, a morbid task, some might think, but if it is a bit morbid, funerals are a rewarding experience all the same.  People are shocked when I tell them I would rather preach a funeral than a wedding, but it’s true.  In weddings, preachers are just part of the decorations.  We are there as a part of the bride’s overall vision.  Our role is to do what we’re told.  Once a bride-to-be gave very specific instructions regarding the content of my message: “Don’t say the ring is a circle symbolizing undying love or any of the other traditional things preachers usually say.”  Needless to say, that wedding was not high on my list of life-affirming experiences.

At funerals, we speak the language that matters.  We rarely do this on other occasions.  Most of life is a distraction from the inevitable, but at funerals we are forced to deal with the sobering reality of human mortality.  It may be grim, but it’s instructive.

In “The Seekonk Woods,” Galway Kinnell writes, “So what if we groan. / That’s our noise. Laughter is our stuttering /in a language we can’t speak yet.”  Laughter is fine for distraction, and God means for us to enjoy life, but groaning is needful.  That’s our noise.  And if we don’t learn to speak our essential language, we will never come to terms with the truth about the human condition.

Solomon puzzles his readers in Ecclesiastes with the following words.

A good name is better than precious ointment, and the day of death than the day of birth.  It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart.  Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad.  The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth (Ecc. 7:1-4).

In this passage we find three comparisons that challenge our normal response to death:

1.  Death-days are better than Birthdays. Birthdays start a process of aging and decay.  From the day of our birth, we begin to perish.  Every Birthday is a reminder that it is appointed for man to die (Heb. 9:27).  However, for the Christian, the day of one’s death is the point at which he is set free from this decay and made new.  In Christ, death is “gain” (Phil. 1:21-23).

2.  Funeral homes are better than banquet halls. When we get to verse 2 in Ecclesiastes 7, we would have an easier time interpreting Solomon’s words if we remind ourselves of his overall objective of wisdom.  Solomon’s not against having a little fun from time to time.  Earlier he said there is a time to weep and a time to laugh (3:4).  But jokes are superficial.  When we are confronted with death, we are taught more wisdom than we could get in a hundred jokes.

3.  Sorrow is better than laughter.  Again, this needs to be put in perspective–Solomon is talking about a particular kind of wisdom here.  Without sorrow there can be no real joy.  Take salvation, for instance.  Forgiveness is impossible without tears of repentance.  That is why James recommended sorrow to his readers: “Be wretched and mourn and weep.  Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom” (Jas. 4:9).

All of this is not to say life should be bleak and morose.  The point is, without those sobering moments in life, true joy is impossible.  Those who are spiritual see funerals as needed reminders that we are on a journey, and earth is not the final destination point.  Through tears and repentance we prepare to receive rich blessings and unimaginable joy.

Jesus told his disciples, “You will be sorrowful, but you sorrow will turn into joy” (Jn. 16:20).  So let us groan.  That is our noise.

On Death and Departures

Wednesday, January 3rd, 2007

Listen to the way the world speaks of death.

Yesterday I was watching some of the news coverage of President Ford’s funeral. A reporter’s statement caught my attention: “Gerald Ford has been moved back to his home in Grand Rapids, Michigan.” What a bleak picture! Gerald Ford, in a casket, buried in the ground near his presidential library in Grand Rapids.

The Christian view of death is much better. According to Christ, death is a departure rather than a final end. This idea is subtly brought out by Luke in his account of the Transfiguration of Christ. Describing the scene in which Moses and Elijah appear, the physician notes that the three prophets spoke of Jesus’ “departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (Lk. 9:31). Of course, they were talking about the crucifixion, which to the world appeared to be the end of the carpenter from Nazareth. However, Christ evidently saw his death differently. The word translated “departure” in this passage is exodus, the same word responsible for the title of the second book in the Bible–a book detailing the Israelites’ departure from Egyptian bondage. Moses and Elijah, having the benefit of experience behind them, knew something the world did not. They knew that Jesus was about to go on a journey.

Paul followed this lead when he wrote his letter to the Philippian church. “I am hard pressed between the two,” he said, speaking of whether he would live or die, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Phil. 1:23).

Death, by all appearances, looks awful because we only see the physical side of things. Were we able fully to see the whole picture, we would realize that it is not the end, but rather a separation of body and soul.

The truth is, we can see the whole picture through eyes of faith: “…the body apart from the spirit is dead…” (Jas. 2:26).

“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thes. 4:13).