Preparing for the Death of Those Dearest to You

Three weeks ago my 84-year-old father passed away. He prepared me well in advance for his death. In November 1963, in the aftermath of President Kennedy’s assassination, I asked my father, “Daddy, are you going to die someday?” He said, as he he tenderly tucked me into bed, “Yes, we are all going to die some day, but that’s going to be a long time from now. In the meantime, you have nothing to worry about.”

As a U.S. Army officer serving in Vietnam and Laos, he had several brushes with death. As a family we knew the possibility existed of dad becoming a wartime casualty. Years later in 2012 as his health deteriorated more significantly, the grief process of losing my dad began.  All of this, of course, has caused me to reflect on my own mortality. The classic refrain of the psalmist thus echoes through my mind:

“Our days on earth are like grass; like wildflowers, we bloom and die. The wind blows, and we are gone— as though we had never been here” (Ps. 103-15-16) (NLT).

A helpful resource in this bittersweet season has been Rob Moll’s The Art of Dying (IVP 2010). Moll’s book is a candid, much needed read for those living near the approaching death of loved ones.  Particularly helpful are Moll’s reflections on the best way to arrange funerals for family and loved ones. Needless to say, I would include my own funeral here.

The paragraphs below have ministered to me.

“A Christian funeral is more than a memorial. The service, of course, does indeed remember the person who died. This is an important piece of a funeral. It honors the loved one and allows the bereaved to publicly address that person’s significance in their lives and the life of the community. We make a big deal of something that is a big deal. Remembering someone . . . through a funeral service is a way of saying, ‘He was important. His life was meaningful, and he will be dearly missed.’ Saying so also implies that all of our lives have meaning and significance, a fact easily forgotten amid the grief following a loss.”

“But a Christian funeral does more than that. One funeral director I worked with said he served families best, allowing them to mourn and grieve in the most healthy way, when he was able to bring together all the traditional elements of a visitation and funeral. This allows grieving people to accomplish two things: (1) worship God who–contrary to our immediate experience of mourning a dead loved one–has defeated death, and (2) reknit a community that has been fractured.”

“In some ways a funeral is simply an excuse to publicly get together. Gathering around food, at a funeral home or cemetery, or at-home visitations is an end in itself. A healthy community and the recovering bereaved simply need to be together. Funerals can be done both well and inexpensively, the purpose is not to get it done cheaply. Singing hymns, reading Scripture and hearing God’s Word preached–all with an ear toward the purpose of a funeral–is how the church displays its hope. By doing so the congregation not only gives witness to the rest of the world, but it also serves to reaffirm our resurrection hope” (125-126).

Is it ever too early to think about death, funerals, and how the church should weep with those who weep? Probably not, but it’s never easy to think about. Approaching and embracing deep pain of that sort requires reflection that does not come naturally.

It seems that we live most authentically when we live in light of death. Ps. 90:12 and Ephesians 5:15-16 remind us to  “number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom”  and to “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.”

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Do You Have a “Sweet Tooth”– for God?

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Our longing for God . . . can never be assuaged or satisified, for it is a longing for the Infinite, a longing which the Infinite satisfies by making the longing itself extend unto eternity. God satisfies our desires for Himself, not by satiating us with His presence, but by intensifying our desire for His presence with every new manifestation of it. And those who have felt that desire long only to feel it ever more keenly.

Richard B. Steele, “Transfiguration Light: The Moral Beauty of the Christian Life according to Gregory Palamas and Jonathan Edwards.” St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 52:3-4 (2008): 438.

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Self-Loathing: Rooted in Pride

“The Lord shall fight for you” (Exod. 14:14)

Be careful .  .  . not to allow your mind to dwell much on your weaknesses and unworthiness. These excessive feelings spring from a root of pride and a love for our own excellence. To become discouraged weakens your prayer life, and this is worse than your imperfections themselves. The more miserable you see yourself, the more it should cause you to abandon yourself to God. Press in to have a more intimate relationship with Him.

Madame Jeanne Guyon, Experiencing God Through Prayer, 56.

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The Effects of Moral Corruption

rotten appleOriginal sin . . . causes a pervasive feeling of alienation from God, from other people and from the true Self [i.e., the new man ]. The cultural consequences of these alienations are instilled in us from earliest childhood and passed on from one generation to the next. The urgent need to escape from the profound insecurity of this situation gives rise, when unchecked, to insatiable desires for pleasure, possession, and power. On the social level, it gives rise to violence, war, and institutional injustice. . . . The particular consequences of original sin include all the self serving habits that have been woven into our personality from the time we were conceived; all the emotional damage that has come from our early environment and upbringing; all the harm that other people have done to us knowingly or unknowingly at an age when we could not defend ourselves; and the methods we acquired–many of them now unconscious–to ward off the pain of unbearable situations.

Thomas Keating, Open Mind, Open Heart, 158-59.

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A. W. Tozer’s Reflections on Spiritual Dryness

kalahari dead tree 1Periods of staleness in the life are not inevitable but they are common. He is a rare Christian who has not experienced times of spiritual dullness when the relish has gone out of his heart and the enjoyment of living has diminished greatly or departed altogether. Since there is no single cause of this condition there is no one simple remedy for it.

Sometimes we are to blame, as for instance when we do a wrong act without immediately seeking forgiveness and cleansing; or when we permit worldly interests to grow up and choke the tender plants of the inner life. When the cause is known, and particularly when it is as uncomplex as this, the remedy is the old-fashioned one of repentance. But if after careful and candid examination of the life by prayer and the Word no real evil is discovered, we gain nothing by putting the worst construction on things and lying face down in the dust. To say that we have not sinned when we have is to be false to the fact; to insist that we have sinned when we have not is to be false to ourselves. There comes a time when the most spiritual thing we can do is to accept cleansing from all sin as an accomplished fact and stop calling that unclean which God has called clean.

Sometimes our trouble is not moral but physical. As long as we are in these mortal bodies our spiritual lives will be to some degree affected by our bodies. Here we should notice that there is a difference between our mortal bodies and the ‘flesh’ of Pauline theology. When Paul speaks of the flesh he refers to our fallen human nature, not to our physical bodies, which are temples of the Holy Spirit. Through the power of the Spirit there is deliverance from the propensities of the flesh, but while we live there is no relief from the weaknesses and imperfections of the body.

One often-unsuspected cause of staleness is fatigue. Shakespeare said something to the effect that no man could be a philosopher when he had a toothache, and while it is possible to be a weary saint, it is scarcely possible to be weary and feel saintly; and it is our want of feeling that we are considering here. The Christian who gets tired in the work of the Lord and stays tired without relief beyond a reasonable time will go stale. The fact that he grew weary by toiling in the Lord’s vineyard will not make his weariness any less real. Our Lord knew this and occasionally took His disciples aside for a rest.

Another reason some of us become jaded is monotony. To do one thing continuously will result in boredom even if what we do is pleasant: and to think about the same things without cessation will also lead to boredom even if we are thinking about the things of the kingdom. Milton suggests that God made night to alternate with day for the purpose of providing us with ‘grateful vicissitude,’ a welcome change for which we should be thankful.

Some of the purest souls have written of the dangers of continuous spiritual exercises uninterrupted by lowlier considerations. Von Hugel speaks of the ‘neural cost’ of prayer and advises that we should sometimes break off thoughts of heavenly things and go for a walk or dig in the garden. We have all known the disappointment felt when returning to a passage of Scripture that had been so fresh and fragrant the day before only to find the sweetness gone out of it. It is the Spirit’s way of urging us on to new vistas. In the wilderness God kept Israel moving. One may wonder what would have happened if they had camped in one place for forty years. The lives of the great Christians show that they differed not only from each other but from themselves at different periods of their lives. Spiritual exercises that helped them at one stage of their development later became useless and had to be changed for others.

To stay free from religious ennui we should be careful not to get into a rut, not even into a good rut. Our Lord warned against vain repetition. There is repetition that is not vain, but oft-repeated prayers become vain when they have lost their urgency. We should examine our prayers every now and again to discover how much sincerity and spontaneity they possess. We should insist on keeping them simple, candid, fresh and original. And above all we should never seek to induce holy emotions. When we feel dry it is wise either to ignore it or to tell God about it without any sense of guilt. If we are dry because of some wrong on our part the Spirit through the Word will show us the fault.

In short, we can keep from going stale by getting proper rest, by practising complete candour in prayer, by introducing variety into our lives, by heeding God’s call to move onward and by exercising quiet faith always.

A. W. Tozer, “How to Keep from Going Stale,” Alliance Witness, (May 17, 1961), 96:10, 2.

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Are You a Submissive Listener?

Submission involves surrendering people to God. Instead of trying to control them, we leave them with all their freedom intact. Instead of wishing that people did what we wanted them to do, we ask God, How can I be part of what you are doing in this person? How might I be restorative instead of accusative?

Perhaps the greatest form of submission is listening deeply to them. Being totally present to others and quieting our minds is hard work. It involves not interrupting, not finishing sentences, not inserting little jokes when people talk, and not thinking about other things while they talk. Listening is minute-by-minute submission. Dietrich Bonhoeffer described the “half-listening” phenomenon:

There is a kind of listening with half an ear that presumes already to know what the other person has to say. It is an impatient, inattentive listening, that despises the brother and is only waiting for a chance to speak and thus get rid of the other person [Life Together, 98].

Perhaps it seems to harsh to say that to listen inattentively is to despise a person. But despising someone is the opposite of respecting them, and respect is a core expression of love. To listen to one another is one of the greatest services we can give another person.

Jan Johnson, “Contagious: The Surprising Things that Make Community Transformational,” Conversations, 13:1, 24-25.

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What is Required to Become Wise?

If you believe in Jesus and you rest in him, then suffering will relate to your character like fire relates to gold. . . .  Do you know who you are, your strengths and weaknesses? Do you want to be a compassionate person who skillfully helps people who are hurting? Do you want to have such a profound trust in God that you are fortified against the disappointments of life? Do you want simply to be wise about how life goes? Those are four crucial things to have–but none of them are readily achievable without suffering. There is no way to know who you really are until you are tested. There is no way to really empathize and sympathize with other suffering people unless you have suffered yourself. There is no way to really learn how to trust in God until you are drowning.

Tim Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, 234.

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“Intimacy”: A Short and Sweet Definition

Intimacy can be defined as a deep and profound friendship; a close familiarity that affects one’s innermost being, rooted in a sense of belonging which results in confidence.

Michael D. Fiorello, “Aspects of Intimacy with God in the Book of Job,” Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care, 4:2 (2011), 157.

Artwork Courtesy of Joel Klepac

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