By Linda Rex
Wednesday night I stood in front of the church building near the road with Maria, and later with Betty, so I could hand out candy and invite people in for cocoa and cookies. It was fun to see the kids in their costumes, and to appreciate the efforts of their parents to see that the kids were kept safe while they trick-or-treated.
I was reminded of how when I was a kid, my parents did not observe Halloween. We watched the kids go by, having left the lights off in the front of the house so they wouldn’t ring the doorbell. When we could sneak out, brothers and I liked to hide in the camelia bushes and ferns in front of the house so we could startle those who walked by. I don’t think we were ever very successful in our efforts, though.
My parents were diligent in their efforts to please God, and since they believed Halloween was a pagan holiday which celebrated darkness and evil, they didn’t want anything to do with it. I can appreciate their heart with regards to wanting to do what was right in God’s sight, but I have since learned that the Halloween we celebrate today is different than what was originally on the Christian calendar. Halloween was converted to Christian use in conjunction with All Saints’ Day.
All Hallow’s Eve (Halloween) occurs the night before All Saints’ Day, which occurs every year on November 1. All Saints’ Day is celebrated by many traditions as a day to honor faithful believers who have died. For example, the Episcopal Church in America says this feast commemorates all saints, known and unknown. They consider All Saints’ Day to be one of the seven principal feasts of the church year, and one of the four days recommended for the administration of baptism. Many churches celebrate All Saints’ Day the Sunday following November 1 rather than on that date which often falls in the middle of the week. All Saints’ Day is meant to be a time when believers celebrate the miracle of the resurrection, in that those who have already died are safely at home with Jesus because of what he did in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension.
The All Hallows’ Eve celebration which occurs the night before All Saints’ Day was originally intended to make a mockery of the powers of darkness and evil. Death has no real power any more because Jesus entered death and penetrated it down to its very core and exited the other side in glory, taking our human nature with him. The apostle Paul celebrated what Christ accomplished for us in 1 Cor. 15:20-22: “But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.” We often read this section of Scripture at funerals because we need to be reminded of our hope.
We are freed from death’s power once and for all in and by Jesus Christ! As Paul wrote: “Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality. But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, “DEATH IS SWALLOWED UP in victory. O DEATH, WHERE IS YOUR VICTORY? O DEATH, WHERE IS YOUR STING?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:51-57 NASB).
There is a victory over sin and death which is ours in Jesus Christ. It is only right to celebrate the miracle of what Jesus has done for us. Death and sin have, in reality, reached their end—their time of influence and power are over, even though we still experience their effects in this life. The hurt that comes when we lose a loved one is real—we were not created for separation but for union and communion. But we must always remember, this life is not the end. It was never meant to be. In Christ and because of Christ, there is life beyond the grave.
The early Christians faced death often—they were persecuted, tortured, and martyred for their belief in Jesus. Yet even the weakest of them, and the women and children, bravely faced such horrific experiences because of their strong belief that in Christ, death wasn’t the end. Death, and the suffering which went with it, was only a door they would go through so they could once again be with Jesus. Even though death and suffering to us are horrific and awful, to those who trust in Christ they are merely passing birth pangs in preparation to our birth into our glorified humanity.
When I worked at the nursing home, death was part of the normal course of events. We cared for people, and when it was their time (and sometimes when it seemed it wasn’t), they moved on. Death for anyone left behind is not easy. We know death is a time to celebrate their new birth, not just to grieve our own loss. But it is still hard, and it is still painful.
Lately I have found myself unaccountably brought to tears or deep sadness. The truth is, I am grieving, and have been grieving for some time—grieving the loss of several very dear people and important relationships. Over the years I have lost my parents, grandparents, and my father-in-law, and some close friends. I have lost companions in the faith, and dearly loved members of my congregations. Each of these people held a special place in my heart and I miss them. My life has not been the same since they left. I have moved on, but I still feel their loss.
Sometimes we are angry with those who have left because they didn’t take better care of themselves, or because they left everything in a horrible mess, or because they were such an integral part of our lives, we don’t know how to go on without them. We feel guilty about being angry, but anger is what we must feel and deal with before we can move on. Death is a violation and an invasion of our peace and our safety, and such violations naturally create anger. We use that anger to deal with what is—the reality of our loss—and we, step by agonizing step—move on into a new place. We create a new existence which doesn’t involve those who are gone in the same way.
Halloween can remind us that evil, sin, and death are destined to come to a complete end because of Jesus. All Saints’ Day can remind us that moving on with our lives doesn’t necessarily mean we move on without those we love. The truth is we are all connected to one another in Jesus Christ. And that connection doesn’t end when someone dies. In reality, death cannot in any way separate us from one another, for we are all one in Christ and by the Holy Spirit. When Jesus took on our humanity, he did not only take on the humanity of good people. He did not just die bearing the humanity of good people. He took on every person’s humanity, becoming sin for us, in our place, on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him. Jesus in our place and on our behalf, stands in glory today, bearing our humanity—which has been cleansed and glorified. This is our hope, and our expectation, and our joy. This is what we celebrate!
Dear Abba, thank you that in the face of evil and death we have hope. Thank you that we can trust in the finished work of Jesus Christ to bring us beyond death into our new life in him. Thank you that you are with us in the midst of grief and sorrow and will carry us through our pain and loss into a new existence. We trust in your faithfulness and love, in Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“The LORD of hosts will prepare a lavish banquet for all peoples on this mountain;/A banquet of aged wine, choice pieces with marrow,/And refined, aged wine./And on this mountain He will swallow up the covering which is over all peoples,/Even the veil which is stretched over all nations./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./And it will be said in that day,/‘Behold, this is our God for whom we have waited that He might save us./This is the LORD for whom we have waited;/Let us rejoice and be glad in His salvation.’” Isaiah 25:6–9 NASB
By Linda Rex
Life never ceases to amaze me with it’s twists and turns, and unexpected movements. It is rare that my life has been on an even keel–there’s always something at work in it bringing disruption, or concern, or just adjustment.
Sometimes the difficulty is a long-term illness which ends in death. Its timing may or may not be predictable, but death is the only possible outcome in this life. During a long-term terminal illness the grieving process very often occurs before the death, along with some grieving after. Very often death is seen as a release from suffering, and a blessing to both the loved one and the caring family.
Death was never meant to be a part of the human condition. We were created for life, the life Jesus described by Jesus as knowing the Father and him whom he sent, his Son Jesus Christ. This is life in loving relationship, an interpenetrating oneness of equal yet distinct persons.
Separation, division, or loss of relationship was never intended to be a part our relationship with God or each other. But it is, because of our choice to turn away from the intimate relationship with God we were created for. At Adam and Eve’s decision to eat of the tree if the knowledge of good and evil, sin and death entered our human existence. We stubbornly embraced a twisted view of God and who we are, as excluded from relationship with him and in broken relationship with one another. Since then, our human existence has never been the same.
However we may feel about what is written in the Bible in regards to death, we are–no matter what we believe about the afterlife–faced with its reality at some point. Death, and the separation from one another which comes with it, brings heartache and grief. This is because something has occurred which we were not meant to have to experience.
But this need not be a bad thing. Experiences such as these have been redeemed by God in and through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ. God can take these experiences and use them to create stronger bonds between us and him, and between us and others.
In Christ not only are we bound to God forever in Christ’s perfected humanity (hypostatic union), but by the Spirit, as we trust in Christ, we participate in his perfect union with our Abba by the Spirit. It is in Christ that we are bound together with one another in spiritual community. It is also true that the Spirit is always at work creating community, often in forms we don’t recognize because they may not have any religious trappings.
Family is meant to be a spiritual community which reflects the nature of God as revealed in Christ. When the Spirit is at work in a family, the relationships reflect the inner relations of the Triune God, where there is harmony, humility, mutual submission, and outgoing love. There is a pouring out from and receiving from one another–an endless movement of gracious love which defines God’s very nature as love.
God has always lived in this way, and this is the way of being we were created for, which we lost, but which Christ restored to us in his saving work. This means when we lose someone dear to us through the momentary separation which is death, the best thing to offer the grieving one is loving, gracious relationship. An unconditional relationship–listening, affirming, accepting, and just being present–are critical and essential gifts to offer someone who has lost a dear one.
This means we don’t have to come up with the right thing to say or do, but rather, in the Spirit, we can just be present in Christ with them in the moment. We can remind them they are not alone in their pain, for whatever Satan or our human brokenness has done to attempt to separate us from God or one another has ultimately failed. In Christ we are forever held in the center of God’s love and life. God knows, understands, and participates with us in our loss, suffering and pain. We are not alone.
We have the assurance that there is one relationship which, having been established in Christ, and being brought into reality in individual lives by the Spirit, we will never he separated from. Nothing can separate us from the love of God which is ours through Christ. We are loved simply because we are, and we are his.
And as we face having to redraw the plans of our lives due to a loved ones death, we can be assured that we need not do this alone. Our life is not over–God’s mercies are new every morning and he has new plans for our life which will bring us joy and fulfillment as we participate with Christ in what he has for us.
Finding a new normal is a process which may take years–but there is no set agenda to it. Part of the process may include anger, depression, and denial. The grief may ebb and flow like the ocean’s tide, taking us sometimes by storm or sneaking up on us when we least expect it.
But in the midst of it all, we can be assured we are never alone. We as friends and family of those who have lost a loved one can offer our faithful presence and understanding, with a listening ear and comforting shoulder to cry on. And we can point them to their loving and faithful God who has promised to never leave or forsake them.
Indeed, in Christ, death has been defeated. It has lost its power. And we share in this victory over sin and death as we offer one another comfort, unconditional love, and assurance of faithful relationship in the midst of death and other losses. Just as God in Christ by the Spirit ministers his love and grace to those who grieve, we also share in that ministry to those near and dear to us who grieve.
Abba, thank you for your faithful love and grace. Thank you that we can count on you to be with us and to carry us through our losses and suffering. Enable us to bear one another’s burdens when they become too great to be borne alone. Empower us to offer hope, comfort, and faithful relationship to those who have lost loved ones. We trust this is all possible through Jesus our Lord by your Spirit. Amen.
“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:38-39 NASB
By Linda Rex
Lately I’ve been going out the door in the morning saying to myself, “We need to take the tree down—it’s been up long enough.” I don’t know what it is about putting away the Christmas decorations, but I just don’t like doing it. Not because of the work involved, but because of the temporary loss of the reminder of the goodness, joy, and peace God brought in his Son Jesus.
I love the colors and the nativity scenes. I enjoy the way all the decorations remind me of why Jesus came. I have observed the Old Testament holy days, and I have observed the Christian holy days. This particular one, Advent and Christmas, has an amazing ability to capture the heart and mind of young and old. We find ourselves singing of peace, hope, love, and joy. And we feel our hearts warm up towards others in new ways when they wouldn’t otherwise.
This season also has the capacity to bring great sorrow and grief. When the Christmas season is a source of sadness and regret, it can leave such pain in our hearts. The pain, I believe, is so deep and real because it is an expression of great loss—a loss Abba never meant to have happen.
Indeed, it was not God’s purpose we live with sorrow, grief, suffering, and loss. It’s not what we were created for. No, he meant for us to share in his eternal life of intertwined oneness with God and one another. We have all been bound together in Christ, and we all gain our life and being from the God who made us.
Our lives and experiences are all interwoven together, and we are meant to be living in the same uniqueness of personhood with equality and oneness of being God lives in as Father, Son, and Spirit. We were not meant to have to suffer sin’s consequences or death. No, we were meant to share life together as beloved children of God in the hope, peace, joy, and love we celebrate during Advent.
The good news about taking down the Christmas tree is we get to put it back up again next winter. The seasons come again and again, and we are reminded anew of the miracle of the Christ child, of when God came in human flesh.
This year taking down the tree reminds me of how Mary and the disciples took Jesus’ lifeless body down off the cross. No doubt they dreaded the process—and it was very painful for them. Even though Mary knew this probably would happen to Jesus, I’m sure it did not make it any easier for her to accept when it did.
Even though we celebrate the birth of Messiah at Christmas, we are reminded anew of the end which loomed over him his entire life. Abba knew the hearts of humankind—that we would not protect and care for his Son, but would reject and murder him instead. Abba’s love for us, though, was greater than any concern he may have had for Jesus in his humanity. Both Abba and Jesus knew at some point the celebration would be over, and the Christ would take the path to the cross. But they also knew that would not be the end.
When we take the ornaments and other doodads off the Christmas tree, we wrap or box them up, and we lay them in tubs, and put them away in a dark closet for a year. In this same way, the human body of Jesus was taken down off the cross, wrapped in linen, and then laid in a tomb. The door to the tomb was shut and then sealed. As far as the disciples knew, this was the end of the story for Jesus. He was shut away in the grave, gone from their lives.
But it was only a passing moment of time. Jesus told the disciples he would lay in the grave for three days, and then rise. The grave would not conquer Jesus—it had no control over him. For Jesus was God in human flesh—and his Abba was not going to leave him there, but would by the Spirit raise him from the dead.
The story of the infant in the manger does not end with Christmas, but follows throughout the year the story of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension. Jesus’ story doesn’t end in the grave, but actually gains momentum—the movement from the grave to his presence with Abba also involves the sending of the Spirit to indwell human hearts. When we look at Jesus Christ today, we find he is busy and active in this world, fulfilling the mission Abba gave him long before any of us existed.
Though the ornaments and decorations for Christmas may lay in the closet again for a while, I know eventually we will pull them out again. We will put up our worn-out tree with its twinkly lights, and be reminded of the ever-living Lord our Light, who was pleased to dwell with men. We will hang our homemade ornaments and colorful ribbons, and remember God so loved us, he gave us his Son Jesus Christ. As we set out one more time the little nativity set, we will be encouraged that God’s love never fails, but is new every morning.
In spite of evil, in spite of death, and in spite of the brokenness of our humanity, we have hope, peace, joy, and love in Abba’s perfect gift. The Spirit reminds me again today not to sorrow, but to be thankful. Whatever prayers I may offer for the suffering and grieving, God has already answered in the gift of his Son Jesus, and he will answer in the presence and power of his Holy Spirit. Whatever comfort I may offer someone in the midst of their sadness and loss is only an echo of the divine Comforter sent by Abba through his Son Jesus.
Whatever these decorations mean to me, they are merely pointers to a greater reality, to a real hope which we have in the love and faithfulness of God as expressed in the gift of His Son Jesus Christ. As they come down and are packed away, I am reminded every death now has a resurrection, because of what Jesus has done. Jesus cannot be stuffed in a box or a tomb and put away. No, he inevitably will rise in greater glory and majesty, for that is just Who he is—our glorified Lord and Savior. And one day we will rise with him. What a joyful day that will be!
Thank you, Abba, for the gift of your Son and your Spirit. Thank you for joining us in our humanity, and sharing every part of our lives. Thank you, Jesus, for taking us with you through death and resurrection so we may share life with you, Abba, and the Spirit forever. Please be near with your comfort and peace all those who are facing grief and loss. Your heart and mine go out to them, and I know you will send your Comforter to heal, comfort, and renew. Thank you again for your faithful love and grace through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“For those who live in Jerusalem, and their rulers, recognizing neither Him nor the utterances of the prophets which are dread every Sabbath, fulfilled these by condemning Him. And though they found no ground for putting Him to death, they asked Pilate that He be executed. When they had carried out all that was written concerning Him, they took Him down from the cross and laid Him in a tomb. But God raised Him from the dead; and for many days He appeared to those who came up with Him from Galilee to Jerusalem, the very ones who are now His witnesses to the people.” Acts 13:27-31 NASB
By Linda Rex
This morning my pastor friend Carrie and I were driving up I-65 as the sun was coming up. As the sky turned glorious colors of gold, orange and blue streaked with purple and gray clouds, I felt God’s presence and peace in the wonder of a new day dawning.
I thought about the conversations I had had recently with Mom when we talked about what it would be like to live in the new world God has for us beyond death. We talked about how Mom would be able to garden to her heart’s content and not have to worry about the weather and the weeds.
For me, saying goodbye to her these past few days was so much like saying, “See you in the morning!” There is the momentary sense of the loss of immediate companionship. But then there is this delightful sense of expectancy, as the mind and heart begin to look forward to a renewal of the relationship and the opportunity to spend more time together doing things we love.
There is an assurance of a future time when we will share sweet companionship together again. This is what the apostle Paul meant when he said that we do not grieve as those who have no hope. Indeed, we have a great hope through Jesus Christ. He has purchased eternity for us, establishing a new humanity through his life, death, resurrection and ascension.
But what about the loss? Doesn’t it hurt?
Yes, actually it does. And how much it hurts and how we deal with that hurt is unique to each of us. For we each grieve our losses and experience our relationships in our own particular ways. Grief is not a one-size-fits-all process.
And how our losses occur and what those losses actually are in our lives is specific to each person in each situation. That means that for some people grieving a significant loss may be a simple and easy process, where others may grieve in a very complex and difficult way because of grief over unresolved losses in the past, or because of complications in the relationship in the past. To compare oneself to another person in how we are affected by our losses is not a wise thing to do.
Sometimes complications in our lives hinder the grieving process. There may be difficult circumstances surrounding our loss of a dear one that may prevent us from being able to deal with our feelings about the loss right away. It may be much later—days or weeks or even years—before we are able to come to the place where we can face the truth of the pain and begin to allow ourselves to feel it, grieve our loss and begin to heal.
As friends and families of those who have experienced a great loss, it is important for us not to be afraid to engage the suffering one in a healthy relationship of comfort, compassion and companionship. What a person who is grieving needs is not instruction, criticism or indifference. The one who has suffered a loss needs to know that they are loved, and that others are sharing in their grief and loss with them. It is important to come alongside them and to offer them our love and support, even if it means just sitting silently with them in the midst of their pain.
I have been very blessed to have family and friends join me and my children in the midst of our loss. I am grateful God brought my mother and me back together after life had taken us away from each other. He redeemed the difficult situations in our home and now I have happy memories to carry with me until I see Mom again. There is much reason for gratitude in the midst of this loss.
So rather than having a great sorrow about losing Mom, right now I am feeling comfort and peace. Perhaps that will change later when life slows down and I can truly grieve the loss of the mother who invested so much in my life. Meanwhile I am looking forward to that new morning when the sky will be even more glorious than anything I saw today. May it come soon!
Heavenly Dad, I am grateful that we are not alone in the midst of our losses, but we have you and each other to carry us through. Thank you that in the Spirit, you and Jesus join with us in our suffering, offering us comfort, peace and hope. Lord, lift us up. Enable us to find and live out the new life you have in mind for us as we let go of the past and our loved ones, and move on into the future. Through Jesus and by your Spirit we pray. Amen.
“For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.” 1 Corinthians 15:22 NASB