die

Gifts for the Dead and Dying

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Ice on holly leaves and berries
Ice on holly leaves and berries

By Linda Rex

Recently I had the privilege of participating in the funeral of one of the members of our Nashville congregation. What made it a beautiful event was the family members standing up and telling everyone of the impact their loved one had on their lives. The legacy he left in the lives of his friends and family was the most important thing he left behind.

It reminded me that one of the best gifts we can give to others while we are alive is a life lived well and for the sake of God and others. Walking my mother through her end of life and handling her affairs after her death is necessarily causing me to reflect on issues regarding death and dying. And I can’t help but ask myself, “What I am going to leave behind?” and “What impact am I really having on the people around me right now?”

On the Christian calendar, we celebrate the coming of the wise men from the East on Epiphany, which took place this year on Wednesday, January 6th. Epiphany reminds us that Jesus did not come just as the Messiah for the Jewish people, but for the deliverance of all people from sin and death. The gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh that were given to Jesus and his parents pointed to Jesus’ role as the prophet, priest and king who would die on humanity’s behalf.

Jesus didn’t come to earth just to live. He also came to die. Here, shortly after his birth, his family was faced with the reality that there was going to be a whole lot more to Jesus’ life than that of the typical Jewish child of his day. And it might not even end well. Did not Simeon say that Jesus would be a light to the Gentiles, but “a sword will pierce even your own soul”? (Luke 2:35) Death and dying, apparently, were to be an important part of Jesus’ future.

Whether we like it or not, death and dying are an important part of our future too. We don’t like to talk about death or dying, much less think about it. It can be a struggle to get ourselves to do simple things like writing out a will or planning our estate, because somehow it seems to create a sense of finality about our lives—there is an end and it’s coming soon, and we’d rather not think about it right now.

Have you ever thought about the reality that God wrote a will out for you and me and planned an estate for us already? That he has some very special gifts for you and me—all of us who are at this moment dead and dying? (Col 2:13) Like the “three kings of Orient” brought gifts that spoke to the reality of the Christ child and his future, the Father, Son and Spirit have brought us gifts as well that speak to the reality of our future.

Like the gift of gold which was presented to Jesus the King, God gives to each of us the wealth of his kingdom life and love through the gift of his Son. God has given each of us the gift of a High Priest who intercedes for us on our behalf, offering perfected prayers as the frankincense which was offered to the Christ child would bring a sweet aroma when presented by the priest. And the myrrh, used to anoint a dead body, reminds us that Jesus anointed each of our dead bodies with his eternal life and the gift of his Spirit. What better gifts could we receive than these?

Yes, the decisions we make now affect our prospects for the future, but not as much as the decisions we make now about our relationships with God and each other. Yet none of these decisions are as earth-shatteringly important as the one God made before time began, that each of us would be his adopted child, and that his Son would live and die to make that possible. His Son’s legacy would be millions and billions of glorified human beings, bound together through Jesus and in the Spirit in a relationship of love and grace with one another and with God forever.

We get all bent out of shape about death and dying, but for God, it is merely a step into eternity. His Son Jesus not only left behind for us a legacy, but also prepared for us a future. We need to adjust to an eternal perspective about life and living, death and dying.

We may live in the not yet of God’s kingdom life now, but we are also just passing through, headed on our way to the fullness of the kingdom life to come. And it is only a short breath away from being our own turn to face it. May we do so with courage and confidence, knowing God’s gift comes to us through faith, hope and love in the gift of his Son and his Spirit, and we have nothing to fear.

Thank you, Heavenly Father, Jesus, and Holy Spirit, for all the spiritual blessings you have poured out on us now and also in anticipation of eternity with you. Grant us the grace to receive all your gifts with gratitude and joy, and to live in the light of eternal values and goals in the today of our lives. May each moment shine with your eternal light so that others can see there is so much more to life than just death and dying, but there is also faith, hope, and love, and eternity with you. Through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.

“After hearing the king, they went their way; and the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” Matthew 2:9-11 NASB

Hanging on to Stuff

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Fall in Arkansas
Fall in Arkansas

by Linda Rex

One of the most difficult tasks that come with a loved one dying can be going through their belongings and dealing with the things they leave behind. This can be extremely difficult, especially when so many memories arise with each item we handle.

It’s amazing how much a person or a family can collect over the years! Sometimes it’s just the things of daily living, or the important papers or documents. But then again, it may be stuff—things that were useful at one time, but no longer have any use or value.

The memories and feelings that are attached with such items can have more pull on us than we realize. We may hang on to these things because of the fear if we let go of them we will lose everything we associate with those items. Sometimes the loss of something dear when we were young causes us to hang on to similar things when we are older, even though we really don’t have any use for these items.

I remember one time many years ago when I was still married, my husband was doing tree cutting as a way to help with our income since he was out of work. We were called by a man who lived in a quiet cul-de-sac in our small town, so we went to cut his tree. While my husband was up in the tree and I was spotting and praying he wouldn’t fall, the man whose tree he was cutting and his neighbor struck up a conversation. Since they were standing right next to me, I really couldn’t ignore what they were saying.

They got to talking about what they owned and what each other had. Early on it became a contest as to who had the most and best of whatever it was they had. The irony was that nearly everything they named, my husband and I couldn’t afford to own. I guess I could have been insulted, but instead I felt sorry for them. They felt having the best and most of these things was what was necessary to their self-worth and self-esteem, and what was necessary for their happiness.

This came to mind the other night when at our small group we were talking about a famous man who hid all his money in the mantel in his house. By the time it was found after his death, it was moth-eaten and useless. To me that is a good example of the transience of human wealth and property. In our affluent society, so often we don’t know the difference between what we want and what we need.

And sadly, as I have learned over the years, all such things are useless in the face of death and dying. When a person dies, they leave all these things behind. And then who gets them? The answer to that question has divided and destroyed many a family and relationship.

And I think that is what is crucial in this whole discussion. When it comes to the things we own, or the things we hang on to, how do they impact our relationships and the people we love? How do they impact our community and our neighbor?

Many wealthy people are wise enough not to give their children everything they want or to give them large sums of money when they are young. They realize how destructive affluence can be to a person’s character and well-being. When a person understands that money is a tool that can be used for good and that with wealth and abundance comes responsibility and duty to one’s fellow man, then wealth is not such a dangerous thing to have.

But that is a different discussion. Here we are considering the reality that someday the person who is wealthy will have to pass that wealth on to someone else. Everything we own in this life cannot be carried with us into the next. We cannot fill a pyramid with food, luxuries and people to bring with us into the life to come. It doesn’t work that way.

Through all this sorting, I’m being reminded again to narrow down my belongings and my activities to what is really essential and useful for this moment. This is the spiritual discipline of simplicity. Some things are just not important in the grand scheme of things, while others are worthy of our focused attention and devotion. May God grant us the grace to discern the difference and to choose only what is most important. And may he enable us to let go of all the rest.

Lord, we thank you for the abundance with which we live day by day. Thank you for providing us with so many wonderful things, but most especially for the people you bring into our lives—our neighbors, our friends, and our families. You shower your love on us daily. Grant us the grace to see it and always be grateful and generous with what you give us. Through Jesus and by your Spirit, we pray. Amen.

“There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven—A time to give birth and a time to die; …” Ecclesiastes 3:1–2 NASB

“And He told them a parable, saying, ‘The land of a rich man was very productive. And he began reasoning to himself, saying, “What shall I do, since I have no place to store my crops?” Then he said, “This is what I will do: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years to come; take your ease, eat, drink and be merry.’ “ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?’ So is the man who stores up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.” Luke 12:16–21 NASB

And There Will Be Tears

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Gathering of pumpkins
Gathering of pumpkins

by Linda Rex

Yesterday I received one of those annoying but helpful emails about an appointment my mother had with her cardiologist. I made the obligatory phone call, letting the receptionist know that my mother would not be able to keep her appointment, since she had passed away last month.

The lady who answered was very nice, telling me she was sorry for my loss. What went through my head at that moment wasn’t very nice—it was something like, “Oh, you’re just saying that because you have to.” I was surprised by the irritation I felt at such a simple expression of compassion being used in our conversation.

Then as I hung up the phone I was surprised by my grief, with deep, wrenching sobs wracking my body. The tears didn’t last very long, and I dried them and prepared to move on to something else. My daughter came in to see if I was all right. In an affectionate hug, we both spent a moment in shared sorrow and comfort.

I know that my mother would not want me to wallow in grief. And I really have no reason to, because I do not sorrow without hope. I have the assurance that in due time, we will be together again in glory.

But there is a gap in my life now that creates pain. And the reason it creates pain is that we were created for relationship and that joining of human lives through relationship is a reflection of the divine life and love. We were never meant for death or the separation that comes through the loss of a loved one.

Even the loss of a beloved pet or the loss of an unborn child creates this pain. We grow attached to people and animals, and when we don’t have them in our lives any more, we find there is a gaping hole that we cannot fill. And that hurts—it hurts a lot. And it should, because it is not what we were created for.

We were created for lasting relationships of love. God never meant for us to have to experience death or the loss of a loved one. We, as humans, brought and bring death into our existence. This is why God came in Jesus and died our death for us and rose from the grave. He conquered death so that death is no longer the end to our relationships. Now death is merely a stepping stone or door to an eternal life of knowing, loving, and being truly known and loved.

Even so, death happens and we have to deal with its reality. One of the things I learned in my Christian counseling training and in my short stint as a hospice chaplain is that grief and how it is experienced is unique to each individual. And it can take different shapes and forms as a person goes through the healing process—moving from loss to creating a new life without the loved one.

There can be a sense of denial—acting as though the loss hasn’t really happened. The one who grieves may experience depression. And they may find that they are angry—maybe filled with a deep anger that is much more severe than my mild irritation at the receptionist. And a person may, for a variety of reasons, get stuck in their grief—unable to move on because they have not resolved past hurts and losses.

Grief at the loss of a loved one, furry or not, is real, and needs to be treated with honor and dignity. If someone near you has experienced such a loss, please be understanding and compassionate. Try not to use platitudes or to explain why the loss happened. Only God knows the reason why our loved ones suffer and die. Explaining why or trying to fix the situation is not helpful. Offering companionship, understanding and genuine compassion is.

The grief a person feels about the loss of someone dear to them may lessen with time. But that hole in their lives will always be there. And there will be moments when a life event or a circumstance, a smell, sound or taste may bring back a flood of memories. And then there will be tears, because he or she will experience that loss all over again.

But crying can be good therapy when we remember that death is not the end. In fact, death has no power over us anymore. Death is just a temporary blip in the scheme of eternity—there may be tears in this night but we will have joy in that new morning.

And that brings back a memory—of kissing Mom good night, knowing she might not live through the night. I would tell her, “I’ll see you in the morning,” realizing it could be my last goodbye. It was a good one, because I know I will see her in that new morning when all is renewed and we can be together forever.

So there will be tears. But God has promised to keep track of each tear, and one day to dry every tear from my eyes. I have hope and that will carry me through my grief as I learn to build a life without Mom in it. It’s going to take a while, but I will, in time, move on. I am grateful that I never have to do this alone—I have God in me, with me, and for me—and I have family and friends as well. Thanks to each of you who have expressed your comfort and encouragement to me and my family in our time of loss. We deeply appreciate it.

Holy God, you are always faithful to carry us through each circumstance we face in our lives. Thank you that in Christ you share our griefs and our sorrows. Thank you that by your Spirit you are near and faithful to comfort us and give us peace in the midst of our losses. And thank you that we have hope through Christ of living forever with you and our loved ones. Grant us the grace to rest in you in the midst of our grief. In your name we pray, amen.

“Surely our griefs He Himself bore, and our sorrows He carried;…” Isaiah 53:4 NASB

“You have taken account of my wanderings; Put my tears in Your bottle. Are they not in Your book?” Psalm 56:8 NASB

“He will swallow up death for all time, and the Lord God will wipe tears away from all faces, and He will remove the reproach of His people from all the earth; for the LORD has spoken.” Isaiah 25:8 NASB

“Cease striving [let go, relax] and know that I am God;” Ps 46:10 NASB

Over My Dead Body

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Honeysuckle on the fence
Honeysuckle on the fence

By Linda Rex
I was reflecting the other day on some of my experiences out on the farm. When you live with and interact daily with animals of any kind, you experience the realities of life and death. Death of humans and animals is inevitable and can happen at the most inopportune times, creating the unpleasant task of finding a place for burial.

And death normally isn’t a very pleasant experience. After a day or two, the dead body will begin to bloat and stink, and the scavengers will begin to make a meal off of it. The stench of a rotting corpse, to me, is quite nauseating and disgusting, even though it is the normal process of decomposition. I prefer to get as far as I can from any dead body.

It’s interesting that the apostle Paul uses this stench of death as a way of describing how those who reject Christ see the lives of those who are living in communion with God. In one way we are seen as a fragrance—a lovely scent—of Christ rising to God. In the other, we are seen as a “dreadful smell of death and doom”. How can we be both at the same time?

Really it comes down to perception. What is real about each of us is not readily apparent to everyone all at once. Our new life in Christ—which is true for each and every person—is hidden with God in Christ. This means that it is a spiritual reality, an objective truth that may or may not be subjectively evident in each of our lives. In Jesus Christ each and every person lived, died and rose and again. God sent the Spirit to all. But what God has done for us in Jesus Christ and by sending the Spirit is not necessarily immediately obvious because not everyone believes or receives the gift of God in Christ and lives it out.

When a person meets and comes to know well someone who is actively participating in a new life in Christ, they are faced with the truth of the resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus, in which we are all included, means that Jesus, and all of us in him, died. There was a time when Jesus’ body was a corpse—he died—and so we each died. And we all rose from the grave in him.

The thing is—if we died in Christ—what we used to be is now, dead. That scripture that says “the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked” (Jer 17:9) no longer applies. Sure, it can certainly look as though this old way of living and being is still alive. We can live and act and talk in a way that implies this is still the case. But God has declared in Jesus Christ a definite “No” to this being our nature any longer. He has given us the new heart he promised his people.

But what if we don’t want a new heart? What if we think the heart we have is just fine? What if we don’t see any problem with the way we are living now? What if we don’t believe that God has done any of this for us?

If this is the case, we will perceive this way of being—of living a new life in Christ—as something it is not. We will see it as being a lie, or as being something offensive that we want no part of, and so we will resist and reject the Spirit and his work of renewal. To us it will be a stinking, rotting mess. Because the evidence of this new life in Jesus tells us that without Jesus, a smelly, rotten corpse is just what we are.

We don’t like to be told the truth about ourselves. If we concede that in Jesus Christ we are made new, that means we have to die to our old ways of being and doing. If we agree that Jesus Christ defines our new humanity, that means we have to give up being lord of our lives and submit to his ways of being and doing. And that just stinks!

Jesus pounded out the importance of death and resurrection over and over in his ministry. We die with Christ and we rise with Christ—he is our life. Apart from him we have no hope. We are just old rotting corpses that God never meant for us to be.

God created beautiful things when he created human beings and he didn’t create humans to be the mess we are today. This is not who we are. In God’s purpose we are made to reflect and bear his image. When others look at us, God intends for them to see a reflection of his perichoretic nature of unity, diversity and equality. God’s purpose is for us to be creatures in whom and with whom he will dwell, who will participate with him in a relationship full of love and grace.

But because evil and sin and death has entered our cosmos, God sent his Son to take it all on himself and in the process create a new humanity with God’s nature hidden within. Then he sent his Spirit to awaken each of us to faith in Christ, so that we can participate in this new humanity. God has replaced all the dead corpses with vibrantly alive beloved children—but not everyone is willing to make the exchange. Some still want to hang on to their old dead bodies.

Personally, I’m more than happy to participate with God in the process of replacing the old with the new. The old me, which is dead, was not a very pleasant person to be around. She was pretty stinky and disgusting. As far as I’m concerned, this new life he has given me is what I want to be a part of and share with others, even if to them I am a reminder of the death of their old selves in Christ.

To a culture enamored with old ways of living and being I may be offensive and disturbing, like an old rotting corpse that stinks. But in the end, this old rotting corpse will dissolve into the ground from which it was made, and I will shine, like so many others who share Christ’s new life, as the stars in the heaven. To me, that seems to be the better, more satisfying choice.

Thank you, Father, for the gift you have given us of new life in your Son and by your Spirit. Awaken each of us to the new life that is ours. Grant us the grace to participate with you in your divine life and love as your beloved children, and to leave all that died with Christ buried with him in the tomb. Through Jesus, our Lord, and by your Spirit. Amen.

“But thank God! He has made us his captives and continues to lead us along in Christ’s triumphal procession. Now he uses us to spread the knowledge of Christ everywhere, like a sweet perfume. Our lives are a Christ-like fragrance rising up to God. But this fragrance is perceived differently by those who are being saved and by those who are perishing. To those who are perishing, we are a dreadful smell of death and doom. But to those who are being saved, we are a life-giving perfume. And who is adequate for such a task as this?” 2 Co 2:14–16 NLT

Deciding Who’s In and Who’s Out

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Amazed by His Grace by Linda Rex May 17, 2002--resized

By Linda Rex

In the day to day issues of relationships, it would be helpful if there was a referee in our personal lives whose only responsibility was to tell us who’s in and who’s out. When we just can’t get along with someone because they are a stinking awful jerk (in our mind and maybe our experience too), we’d love to have someone come along and say to them “You’re out!” and blip! they’d just disappear.

This would be really helpful in those relationships where we’re not sure if the person is really what or who they say they are. We wouldn’t have to risk the danger of being wounded, hurt or rejected by them because the referee would just call them in or out, and everything would be wonderful.

When we’re having a fight with our mate, we’d be able to know for sure that indeed we are right and our mate is wrong (which is generally the case, right?). We wouldn’t have to wrestle with the discomfort of repentance, confession, and admission of guilt, not to mention the hassle of understanding, forgiveness and mercy.

I think this whole paradigm of some being in and some being out comes from the dualistic framework in which western culture and religion are framed. This impacts our relationships with one another and with God, and causes us to live out our existence with the idea that good and evil are real opposites with equal power. This way of thinking and believing has its roots in Greek philosophy. I appreciate Dr. Bruce Wauchope wrestling with this in his series on “God, the Who and the Why” (see the link on the blog site, bottom right).

We make a lot of assumptions that in reality are not based on the teachings of Christ and the early church. For example, we assume that either a person is in God’s kingdom or out of God’s kingdom. Often in our view, there’s no other alternative.

But the scripture teaches us that God through Christ and in the Spirit created all things, and all things are upheld by his powerful Word. (1 Cor. 8:6; Col 1:16; Heb 1:2; John 1:1-5) Nothing exists apart from God or outside of God. When Christ came to earth, taking on our human flesh, Jesus declared that the kingdom of God had come to earth in a real way in his very person and presence. God was present, and so his kingdom was being established in and through Jesus Christ.

And yet we talk about sin and evil and the evil one as though they exist in some place or existence apart from God. Dr. Wauchope points out that anything that exists in some place or existence apart from God is therefore self-existent, and therefore also a god. In other words, when we say that an evil person dies and goes to hell, separated from God forever, we are saying that person is capable of self-existent life apart from God and will sustain him or herself forever in an existence that is not dependent upon God in any way. But this is not the truth.

Nothing exists apart from God. All life is contingent upon God sustaining it and holding it. In order for anyone or anything to exist, God has to give it life. Even evil and the evil one, though not caused by God, are held within God’s very life and existence. They are permitted by God, but always servants of God. They must always bow the knee to God and God ever works to redeem and destroy the harm they do. They do not exist separately from or independently from God.

This is where alarm bells go off and people get offended. We believe that God cannot be in the presence of evil or sin, quoting Habakkuk 1:13. In reality the prophet was declaring that God cannot look on evil without doing something about it. And the way God did something about evil and sin was that he became sin for us. (2 Cor. 5:21) God came into our brokenness and healed it.

So we have to wrestle with this whole idea of who Jesus Christ is and what he did when he as God came into our human existence and reconciled all humanity, indeed even the creation, to God. If indeed in the very beginning God through the Word and by the Spirit breathed life into us to give us our very existence, and if indeed, God himself as the Word through the Spirit came into our very human existence and lived, died, and rose again, ascending while bearing our humanity with him, all of us as human beings exist within the kingdom God has established through Jesus Christ and in the Spirit.

Now, existing in the kingdom of God and participating in the kingdom of God are, I believe, two very different things. Just because we exist in the presence of God (which we all do) doesn’t mean that we even acknowledge that God exists. We can live our entire lives believing there is no such thing as a God. The gracious Creator of all allows us the freedom to do that. But the consequences of believing and living according to that lie are disastrous.

Suppose a person lived their entire life opposed to the idea that God exists at all, and they certainly did not believe that there was any such thing as heaven or hell. What if they were so adamant that when we die that we just cease to exist and that there is no existence beyond this human life—and then they died?

If it is true that God holds all things in his hand and nothing exists apart from him, it would be quite distressing for such a person to suddenly find themselves in the presence of a loving, gracious God. If this person had spent their whole life running from God and resisting every effort God made to draw them to himself, they would be caught in a serious dilemma.

They would find they had spent their entire life acting as if they were a law unto themselves, that they were a self-sustaining, self-existent one, who could make up their own rules and run every relationship however they chose. But now they are face to face with the reality that God in Christ defines and sustains their very existence. And they’re part of an enormous extended family. It’s like they’ve lived in a darkened room with the shutters drawn, and God has just walked in and turned on the floodlights, showing the room is filled with millions of people.

They’re in, but they’re wishing desperately to be out. God’s adopted them and given them life in the Spirit, but they’re wishing there’s some other family out there who’d take them in. So they run off screaming, hoping to find the door and leave, but they can’t leave. They’re on the inside—there is no outside.

Hmmm. That doesn’t sound like a very nice way to spend eternity, does it?

Especially since we really can’t take anything with us but the relationships we have built during our lives and the character God has formed within us through Christ and in the Spirit. This poor person has no relationship with God (at least from their point of view) and many, if not all, of their relationships with others were based on selfish, self-centered motives which no longer apply in this new existence. And the One they thought was the referee (since apparently he does exist after all) has called them in, not out! What do they do now? Good question!

Holy Father, thank you for including each one of us in your life and love through your Son and in the Holy Spirit. Remove the blinders from our eyes so we can see the truth about who you are and who we are in you. Grant us the grace to fully embrace and participate in the adoption you have given us, allowing your Spirit to lead us and to transform us into Christlikeness. Through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.

“For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, …” Romans 8:15–16 NASB