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You Can Get Bitter or Better!
By JAMES W. MOORE
Dimensions for LivingCopyright © 2006 Dimensions for Living
All rights reserved.
When Someone You Love Dies
John 14:1-7 "Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way where I am going." Thomas said to him, "Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?" Jesus said to him," I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also; henceforth you know him and have seen him."
The great Christians were not afraid of death; they faced it squarely, confidently, courageously." If life is Christ," they reasoned, "then death will be more of Christ. It will not be death at all but the entrance into a larger dimension of life with God." All the great Christians have been very sure of this. History records it again and again.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed on Sunday, April 9, 1945. Later his fellow prisoners in the Nazi concentration camp said that he had been leading a worship service. Just as he finished the last prayer, the door flew open, and two men stepped inside. One shouted, "Prisoner Bonhoeffer! Come with us!" They all knew what it meant: Bonhoeffer was to be executed! As Bonhoeffer walked out, it is said that he told his fellow prisoners, "This is the end. But for me, the beginning of life."
Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch in the early Christian church, wrote to the church at Rome shortly before he was executed: "Grant me no more than to be a sacrifice for God while there is an altar at hand.... I would rather die and get to Jesus Christ, then reign over the ends of the earth."
Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, about the middle of the second century, was tied to the stake to be burned because he would not curse Christ and bow down to Caesar. Polycarp said, "Eighty-six years I have served him, and he never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King? I am a Christian." Then he said a prayer of thanksgiving to God for the privilege of dying for the faith.
Susanna Wesley was the mother of several children, including John and Charles Wesley. On her deathbed she called her children and their families to her side and told them, "As soon as I am released, sing a psalm of praise to God."
John Wesley's last words were words of great faith: "The best of all is God is with us."
The Apostle Paul, as he faced death, spoke to his Philippian friends with a heart overflowing with joy: "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.... For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain" (Phil. 4:4, 1:21)
Then, of course, remember Jesus' confident words from the cross: "Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit" (Luke 23:46 NEB).
Now these are just a few examples of the men and women who faced death confidently and with deep faith and trust. Yet, despite these courageous witnesses (and thousands more like them recorded in history), we must be honest and admit that, more often than not, we prefer not to think or talk about death.
We are something like the man who is attacked by wild beasts and takes refuge in a waterless well. But after he gets into the well, he sees at the bottom a fierce dragon ready to devour him. The wild beasts are above and the dragon is below and he is caught in between. So he catches a branch of a bush growing out of a crevice in the wall. Then to his horror, he sees two mice nibbling at the root of the bush. He knows the branch will soon break off and he will fall into the jaws of the dragon. Then looking around, he sees some drops of honey on the leaves of the bush. So he stretches out his tongue and licks the honey—and for the moment, he completely forgets his very precarious situation.
This old Oriental tale suggests that we too are perched precariously over death—our own death and the death of our loved ones—and, like the man in the story, we choose to ignore it. We refuse to face the hard fact of death; we go through life sipping honey—until suddenly someone we love dies. What do we do then? Most people don't know what to do. Most people don't really know how to handle the death of a loved one.
You know, it is terrible not to know! It is an awful thing to be caught in a crisis and not know what to do. I learned this the hard way when I was a junior high student in Memphis. One year we had a big snow and the schools were closed. One of my best friends was a boy named Bobby and Bobby and I decided to take advantage of the deep snowfall and go sledding on a levee near my house.
We had been there about an hour, having a great time, when suddenly we heard a woman scream and call for help. The scream was coming from behind a house just across the street. Bobby and I dropped our sleds immediately and ran to see if we could help.
As we came around the house, we were stopped in our tracks by an unbelievable sight. An older woman was running across the snow-covered backyard away from a blazing trash can. Her clothes and her hair were on fire. I recognized her. Everyone in the community knew that eighty-year-old woman. We called her Aunt Bessie. She traded at our family's grocery store; I had delivered her groceries many times.
She ran into the house and Bobby and I ran after her. When we found her, she was sitting at the kitchen table, crying. Her clothes had burned away; smoke and flames were coming out of her back.
We stopped and stood there in shocked silence for what couldn't have been more than five or six seconds, but it seemed an eternity. I can remember as if it were yesterday that awful feeling in the pit of my stomach because I didn't know what to do. Finally, in desperation, we grabbed a blanket off a nearby bed and wrapped it around her, smothering the flames.
Moments later the ambulance arrived, but Aunt Bessie died on the way to the hospital.
Bobby and I were unable to eat or sleep for a few days after that. Of course, we got over it in time, but I never have gotten over that terrible feeling of not knowing what to do, that awful emptiness that comes when you are in a crisis and know that you must rise to the occasion and you don't know how; you don't know how to handle it. It is terrible not "to know."
Yet, it is a fact that many people do not know what to do when someone they love dies. It may well be that we in the church have been neglectful at this point. We have been concerned with helping people sip the honey, celebrate life, find the abundant life Jesus came to bring, and live joyously. And that is as it should be. But we also need to know how to face the crisis of death.
An insurance commercial which ran on television a few years ago showed a youth who had dropped out of college. He told what his father had said to him: "Now, son, you do the studying and I will provide the funds."
The boy said, "It all looked so neat!" Then he added, "But I didn't know Dad was going to die."
We don't like to think of death, but we need to know how to handle it when someone we love dies. With all this in mind, I would like to make some practical suggestions about what we as Christians can do when death comes to a loved one.
Expect sorrow, but watch out for those guilt feelings.
Expect to feel hurt. Expect heartache and loneliness and confusion. Expect to wonder why. We cannot take death as apathetically as a pillow takes a punch.
We know that people die; we know death comes to all. We know that. But it's not quite the same when someone we love dies. When death touches them, it touches us, too. And there doesn't seem to be anything "natural" or "right" about it. They are gone, taken from us. And in their place, there is emptiness. We feel about them the way Wordsworth felt when he wrote about his friend "Lucy: She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways":
But she is in her grave, and oh,
The difference to me!
So when someone you love dies, expect sorrow, but don't blame yourself. In fact, you don't need to blame anybody. Sometimes we think that the way to handle a hard situation is to find a scapegoat, someone to blame it on. Guilt feelings make us look for scapegoats. When someone we love dies, we may look for someone to blame. Some may blame it on God, or on someone else, or we may blame ourselves.
On a Sunday afternoon in 1951, my father suddenly became quite ill with a ruptured appendix and was rushed to the hospital. I was thirteen at the time. My brother and sister and I stayed home with our grandmother and waited anxiously for some word.
About an hour or so after they left, the chaplain from Methodist Hospital, who formerly had been our pastor, came to the door and told us there had been an accident—a car wreck—and both our parents were injured and had been admitted to the hospital.
We went to the hospital, but we couldn't find out much— just that our mother was in the emergency room and our father was in surgery. At about ten o'clock that night, the chaplain took us home. He suggested we get a good night's rest, and we went on to bed.
The next morning I woke up early and went out to get the morning paper. And I read in the paper the news that my father had died during the night!
Now, as I think back and relive the experience of sitting there in our living room with the Commercial Appeal spread across my lap, I can remember the mixture of feelings that flooded in upon me. I had lost someone I loved. I felt hurt, numb, scared, confused—and I felt guilty!
Strangely, one of the first things I remembered was that only a few months earlier, I had thrown a baseball wildly at a family picnic; it hit my father's hand and broke his thumb. I felt ashamed.
Later, a wise and perceptive pastor helped me to work through those guilt feelings, to realize that the last thing my father, or God, would want me to do was to worry about that. He also helped me to see that you don't need a scapegoat; you don't need to blame somebody when someone you love dies.
Jesus spoke to this once. When the tower of Siloam fell, killing eighteen people, Jesus was asked (Luke 13:4-5) whose fault it was. Who was to blame? And Jesus said that it was nobody's fault. Those people just happened to be standing in the wrong place when the tower fell.
So when someone you love dies, expect sorrow, expect hurt and heartache—but beware of those guilt feelings!
Pass on your loved one's best qualities.
It is so important to remember that sorrow and love go hand in hand, that mourning is the by-product of loving. If we love, we will surely know grief.
Look at the Lazarus story. Here is an instance when Jesus was in mourning. He wept when he heard of the death of Lazarus. When the people saw him crying, they said: "see how he loved him." Jesus' mourning was the by-product of love. Jesus was the man of sorrows because he loved deeply.
Then think of someone who will never mourn—a man who lives all alone. He doesn't know where his parents are, and he doesn't care. He has never married. He has no friends and wants none. He visits no one and no one visits him. He cares for no one and wants no one to care for him. Such a man may know self-pity and loneliness, but he never will know real Christian grief, for Christian mourning is the by-product of loving. And it is still true that it is better to have loved and lost then never to have loved at all.
When you lose someone you love, the best way to express your love for that person is to pass on his or her influence. Take up your loved one's best qualities and live them, keep them alive. When my father died, many people spoke of his kindness. Young and old, rich and poor, black and white— all said, in their own way, "You father was kind to me." The best expression of love I could make to my father's memory is to pass that on, keep that spirit of kindness alive. When someone you love dies, remember that mourning is the byproduct of love, and pass on your loved one's best qualities.
Use your sorrow—grow on it, witness through it.
Harry Emerson Fosdick expressed this well in Dear Mr. Brown:
What a strange paradox our life is! We dread tragedy ... and yet there is nothing on earth which we admire more than a character that handles it triumphantly.... Trouble and grief can add a new dimension to life. No hardship, no hardihood; no fight, no fortitude; no suffering, no sympathy; no pain, no patience....
Don't waste sorrow, it is too precious.... Don't misunderstand me. I'm not singing a hymn of praise to trouble. We all alike dread it, but it is inevitably here to be dealt with one way or another.... Some people end in defeat and collapse.... Others—thank God!—can say with Paul, "We triumph even in our troubles." (Harper & Brothers, 1961 [pp. 181-83])
A young missionary couple went to a remote mission station to teach a primitive people about the good news of our faith, but after they had been there some months, the husband was stricken with a terminal illness.
His young wife was heartbroken, but he said to her, "We came out here to show these people our faith, and now we have a chance, a unique opportunity, to really show them how Christians face things and use them for the cause of Christ."
So when someone you love dies, remember the meaning of life. Remember that life is too short for bitterness and wrong priorities; use your sorrow, grow better with it, and witness for the faith through it.
Remember that God is on both sides of the grave.
We belong to God, and nothing can separate us from him—not even death. For you see, death is not really death at all; it is the entrance into a new and larger dimension of life with God. Now, I could quote Jesus or Paul here, but I would rather let a great scientist, Wernher von Braun, tell you why he believes in immortality:
In our modern world many people seem to feel that science has somehow made such "religious ideas" untimely or old fashioned.
But I think science has a real surprise for the skeptics. Science, for instance, tells us that nothing in nature, not even the tiniest particle, can disappear without a trace.
Think about that for a moment. Once you do, your thoughts about life will never be the same.
Science has found that nothing can disappear without a trace. Nature does not know extinction. All it knows is transformation!
Now, if God applies this fundamental principle to the most minute and insignificant parts of His universe, doesn't it make sense to assume that he applies it also to the masterpiece of His creation—the human soul? I think it does. And everything science has taught me—and continues to teach me—strengthens my belief in the continuity of our spiritual existence after death. Nothing disappears without a trace.
When someone you love dies, remember that. Remember that God is on both sides of the grave, and nothing can separate us from him. God is there, and that's really all we need to know. When someone asks me, "What is heaven like?" I feel like that kindergartner who answered that question with "I don't know. I ain't dead yet." Now that answer is not nearly as childish as it seems. It's a sort of futile exercise in supposition to try to imagine the exact nature of the hereafter. All we need to know is God is there!
John Baillie tells of an old country doctor who made his rounds in a horse-drawn carriage accompanied by his dog. One day, the doctor went to visit one of his patients who was critically ill.
"How am I, doctor?" the man asked.
The doctor replied, "It doesn't look good." Both men were quiet for a while.
Then the man said, "What's it like to die, doctor?"
As the old doctor sat there trying to think of some words of comfort to offer, he heard his dog coming up the stairs. Because the door was shut, the dog began to whimper and scratch at the door.
Excerpted from You Can Get Bitter or Better! by JAMES W. MOORE. Copyright © 2006 Dimensions for Living. Excerpted by permission of Dimensions for Living.
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