dying

To Hire a Sheriff

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cross

By Linda Rex

Good Friday: There was a time in my life where one of my favorite authors was Zane Grey. One reason I enjoyed his westerns was because he illustrated well both the beauty and depravity of the human heart and spirit. Granted, by modern standards, his writing may have been laborious and tedious at times. And I understand history was much more complex than what was described in the pages of his books. But the whole idea of humans taking on the adventure of settling in a new land and being transformed as they faced the dangers and challenges inherent with such a change has been inspiring and instructive to me.

One of the concerns wrestled with by inhabitants of the newly settled West was that of law and order. Former citizens of the Eastern seaboard took it for granted the average person was bound by an inherent need to do what was best for the community and to live by standards of honesty and decency. Having officers of the law available to enforce these expectations was assumed. But such individuals did not exist in the West in the early years. What did exist was the inner law, however misguided, of the hearts and minds of those venturing out into areas which were unsettled by those not native to America.

As small towns grew up, one of the settlers’ first items of business might have been to begin to enforce law and order. The citizens of these small towns would come together and agree to hire or elect a sheriff. These sheriffs usually weren’t picked because they were nice, friendly folks. Rather, they were almost always men who could draw a gun at lightning speed and track down and bring to justice evil men who preyed upon others. These sheriffs often were just as hard, cold and calculating as those men the townspeople were hoping to get rid of, but that was the price the townspeople were willing to pay in order to have law and order in their community.

If you were to drop down into the midst of one of these stories, you might find yourself standing in front of the general store, facing a ragged-looking pony. Looking up the street you’d see a tall, lean man standing quietly on the dusty road, his body tense, his guns low, and his hands hovering close by his holsters. He’d be intently staring up the road at something.

You’d lean a little to the left to look past the pony, and you’d see a couple of nasty looking fellows, both of whom are sporting wicked leers and heavy artillery on their belts. At this point, you’d decide you’d be much safer inside the general store, especially since all the other residents would have vacated the street several minutes ago.

Imagine at this point if instead of electing a tall, dark gunslinger for sheriff, the townspeople had hired Jesus Christ. Yes, I realize that even trying to imagine this possibility might cause excruciating mental torment, but please bear with me.

These two, twisted, violent men are well known in their community for the horrible things they have done to men, women and children, and for the wretchedness of their character and behavior. They are cold, calculating, and evil to the core. And they are facing a man who looks at them with eyes of compassion and understanding, but who is not wearing any form of law enforcement equipment. What would happen next?

I can’t imagine any author of Western novels creating such a storyline. The West wasn’t “won” by mild-mannered men in robes and sandals. Law and order wasn’t established by someone offering multitudes bread and fish, or by someone telling parables and healing the sick. This isn’t what we associate with the civilizing of early Western America. To even imagine this possibility creates a huge level of disbelief in our hearts and minds.

In the same way, the historical event of Good Friday stands out in my mind as an enormously unbelievable and countercultural event. It seems we as human beings refuse to accept the reality we are more inclined to resolve our issues through the application of force, violence and control than to resolve them by offering ourselves up in humility, service and sacrifice. To handle the depravity and brokenness of human nature by giving oneself over to be beaten, ridiculed and crucified just doesn’t make sense to us. Yet, this is what Jesus did.

God came to earth and we crucified him. It’s as simple as that. When Jesus Christ could have drawn upon all the power inherent within himself to execute deserved retribution on all who hated him, abused and crucified him, he instead offered himself up as a sacrifice. Even though God could have created law and order by forcing people to do everything the way he wanted it done, God gave us instead the freedom to choose and to make mistakes. And the Father even offered us his beloved Son, and we treated his Son shamefully, rejecting his most precious gift by destroying the One who came to save us.

But it was in that very effort of ours to destroy the One who was given to us God did his most amazing work. It was in our rejection of and crucifixion of Jesus Christ that God bound us to himself with inseparable cords of love. Through the resurrection, what was meant for death and destruction has become our salvation and redemption. This is God’s most amazing creation of all—a new humanity built in the midst of and out of the depths of our depravity, evil and brokenness. God said we were worth every bit of suffering and loss the Father, Son and Spirit had to experience in order to bring about his perfect end.

Unlike the perfect Zane Grey ending where the cowboy gets the girl and puts the criminals behind bars or under the gravestones in the local cemetery, God gives us a more perfect ending. He works it out so he has us, with him, for all eternity. He gets transformed, healed, renewed children to share his life and love forever. And in my humble opinion, that is the best possible ending to the story which includes the events of Good Friday. What more could we ask for?

Lord Jesus, I don’t understand how you could just stand there and let us do to you what we did. But you allowed us to do to you whatever we wanted—and it turns out we treated you shamefully, rejecting you and your love, and we tried to destroy the most precious gift your Father could have offered us. It is amazing how your Father took this very act and used it to bind us all to you in an unbreakable bond of love. Now we are yours, God, forever, in the grace offered us in you, Jesus. Thank you for your unfailing love and forgiveness, through Jesus Christ and by your Spirit we pray. Amen.

“So Jesus said to Peter, ‘Put the sword into the sheath; the cup which the Father has given Me, shall I not drink it?’” John 18:11 NASB

Not Just a Taste

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by Linda Rex

Lent: One of the things my kids have always hated is the taste of coconut. I myself, having grown up in southern California and been exposed to a variety of tastes as a child, am quite fond of the taste of coconut. I enjoy the taste of pineapple and coconut on top of cottage cheese, and in piña colada yogurt. I like cake with coconut icing. But since my kids don’t care for coconut, I don’t usually use it in my cooking.

There was one time, though, when I had a very large bag of coconut which my mother had left in her fridge when she moved to Texas. I took it home and thought, however feebly, that perhaps I could make something with it so it wouldn’t go to waste. My initial attempt involved hiding it in no-bake chocolate cookies. At first my kids surprised me by eating them. But then they realized they had coconut inside. And from then on I had to eat the rest of the batch myself. Not that I minded. They were chocolate, after all.

The other day my daughter opened a box of chocolates someone gave her, picked a nougat out and bit into it. Her face screwed up and I just had to laugh. “Coconut?” I asked. She nodded and handed the piece to me. She still can’t stand the taste of coconut in any form.

Truthfully I believe we all have the same response when faced with death. None of us likes to taste death in any form, whether it is our own death, the death of someone close to us, the death of a relationship, the death of a community or business, or the death of a career. For us, as humans, death seems so final and devastating. It is an end, and such ends are unbearable.

We tend to approach death a lot like the way my kids approach coconut—with tight lips and a clenched jaw, and a refusal to even give it a taste. Death to us is anathema in any form, even when it’s hidden in something we like. Death is not something we embrace but something we reject, flee from, or despair in the midst of.

I believe this is one reason why Jesus by God’s grace came to “taste death for everyone.” Jesus experienced death in a wide variety of ways—not only the death of his body at his crucifixion, but also, for example, in the death of his close relationships and ministry when his disciples abandoned him at the end, and the death of the public acclaim for him that he experienced entering Jerusalem, which turned into the shout, “Crucify him!” His death on the cross was a collection of many little deaths that culminated in the end of his life as Son of God and Son of man.

Jesus tasted the fullness of death. His body was placed in a tomb and he laid there just as every human being lies in death when the life God gives by the Spirit leaves his or her body. His disciples believed it was all over. His family grieved his loss deeply. Death was effectively and completely a part of Jesus’ story from that day on.

There is nothing about death that Jesus is not familiar with. No matter how bad the taste, Jesus drank death to the last drop, all for our sake. He tasted death for everyone.

The thing is, Jesus’ purpose in tasting death for all of us was so we would have our taste buds changed. In other words, death would no longer have a hold on us or be for us such an offensive, devastating thing. Because of Christ, the apostle Paul said, death has lost its sting.

How can this be? The reason is because death is now so intimately connected with the resurrection. For you and me, death is not an end in and of itself. Death is merely the flipside to a new beginning. Instead of dreading death or running from death, because of Christ we can embrace death as God’s means of bringing about new life.

This doesn’t mean that death isn’t painful and doesn’t involve suffering. Death is still a difficult and heart-rending experience for us as human beings.

The reason death hurts so much is because we were not created for death. We were created for life. God meant for us to eat only of the tree of life, not to experience the consequences of eating of the wrong tree. Death is the result of our choices. Our brokenness and the brokenness of creation mean that death is a part of the human story now.

But Jesus embraced our death in himself. He included himself in our story and he turned death on its head. Death and resurrection are now inseparable twins—in Christ God has made all things new. This means in our loss and grief, we have someone who shares it with us. And we have hope for life beyond death. There is so much more to our human existence than just this!

So really, when facing death, all God is asking of us is merely to taste it—for in tasting death, we find that God in Christ has given us victory over it. If we are facing the death of a relationship, we turn to Christ. In the midst of this death, as we turn to Christ, we will find our new life—whether healing of the relationship or the possibility of new, healthier relationships. The same holds true for all the other little and big deaths we face during our lives.

At some point we have to accept that the human experience is going to include the experience of death of some kind. How we experience death is going to depend upon our willingness to align ourselves with the truth of what Jesus has done in tasting death for everyone. We can see death as an end in itself or as it really is, merely the flipside to a new beginning.

The truth is, we died with Christ and we rose with Christ. And when he comes, we will share in his glory. This is our hope and our assurance—thank you, Jesus.

Holy Father, thank you for your amazing love. You did not leave us in our brokenness and lostness, bound by chains of death. You gave us your Son, who by your Spirit tasted death for all of us, so we could be free to truly live in you. What a blessing and gift! We have new life in Jesus! Thank you. In your Name we pray, amen.

“But we do see Him who was made for a little while lower than the angels, namely, Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone.” Hebrews 2:9 NASB

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