This past Saturday, a partner in the gospel, co-worker, friend, and beloved member of my church passed away suddenly. I was away on a reunion trip with some long-time college buddies, and the news hit me like the Florida heat I was in. Waves of grief rolled in like the tide in the most unexpected places and times – it was surreal being physically in such serene environs while being emotionally upheaved.
So many questions came to mind – What happened? How will his widow survive? What about the kids? How will we cope as a church community? What does this mean for my life? my work? my own family? At times, I found myself just wanting to burst out in tears, and at others, resolving not to waste my life because it is too short and not guaranteed.
I dreaded coming into the office this morning knowing that I would have to face my grief in the countenances of my beloved co-workers. We would have to face this together, and look for grace in each other’s words, tears, prayers, and memories. One of the hardest parts of being a pastor is taking up the role of hope-giver to meet the needs of the hurting all the while trying to manage and deal with one’s own hurt. Hope is easily dispensed, but often not internalized. The gospel is preached, but sometimes not believed by the one preaching.
So in the interests of my own grieving process, let me spout off a few thoughts about how to grieve with hope, and how to help others grieve with hope. My thoughts here are shaped by the conviction Stanley Hauerwas so eloquently wrote in his book, Resident Aliens.
“The faithful pastor keeps calling us back to God. In so doing, the pastor opens our imagination as a church, exposes us to a wider array of possibilities than we could have thought possible on our own…the congregation [can then be] free to explore alternatives to the status quo, possibly to investigate new forms of community whereby its members might become the sort of people who are willing to live on the basis of God’s plans for the world rather than their own.”
So in my grief (and possibly yours), let me pastor you. Let me open your imagination to the possibilities of hope in grieving. Here are some raw thoughts about death and grief…all with the aim of experiencing grace.
1. Encourage one another with these words.
In 1 Thessalonians 4, Paul explains to a discouraged and nervous church that those who have died before the Lord’s return will not be forgotten. In fact, they will rise first! So both the living and the dead in Christ will always be with the Lord. This is our message of comfort. Not “you’ll get through this,” or “God’s gonna work something great out of this.” We will always be with the Lord. Not even death separates us from him.
Too often, well-meaning, good-intentioned people offer claims of hope and endurance that serve only to assuage the awkwardness of thinking about death and tragedy. They offer platitudes and cliches, in hopes of lifting the spirits for just a short while. The Bible offers no such remedy because even well-meaning falsehoods are falsehoods nonetheless. We have no idea how the tragedy at hand will turn out for those involved. We hope for the best…in this life anyway. But we do know how the Story ends, and if our lives are intertwined with the Story of stories, we can say with full confidence, “we will always be with the Lord.”
2. To live is Christ and to die is gain (Phil 1:21).
This life is meant to be a living sermon for the Story that shapes all stories. Our priorities, our values, our interests, are all to be shaped by the glorious Jesus who lived and died and lived again to make us alive even though we were dead. For the believer to die is to obtain the reward that he should have been longing for all along. Death is gain because we get Jesus, the aim of our life.
Grief puts my belief in this verse to the test existentially. Do I really believe it to be better to die and be with Christ then to live for Christ and be with my family? The context of Phil 1 is clear. Paul is talking about wanting to depart and be with Christ versus staying on the earth and continuing ministry with and to the Philippians. Death gives him what he’s wanted all along – Jesus. If you think this is selfish, you may need to think about why we exist on this earth in the first place.
3. If you’re going to ask “why”, be ready to ask “what now”.
In one of Jesus’ most puzzling teachings, he mentions two current-event tragedies that took place in Jerusalem (Luke 13:1-5). Jesus goes on to pose the question, “do you think these tragedies happened to those people because they were worse sinners than others?” In other words, Jesus was asking the question “why” – why do you think those people died?
His question is a rhetorical one. The expected answer is “No, of course not.” What follows is most intriguing. It’s the same answer twice: “unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” Was Jesus trying to threaten his listeners into religion?
No way. In fact, Jesus makes sure we understand that the random tragedies of his day were not some sort of divine retribution for sinners who happened to be hanging out at a tower or Gentiles who were at the wrong sacrifice. Rather, Jesus points out what we all know in our hearts, but often choose to ignore – life is unpredictable. You just don’t know when a tower will fall, a heart will stop, or a car will run a light. The odds may be improbable, but not impossible.
So when you hear of, see, or feel something random and tragic, take the time to get your life in order. Use it as a check-up to see where you are with God, not out of paranoid threat, but as a way of wisely heeding a reminder that life is not guaranteed. Get right with God through repentance and belief because although we might not choose how we will die, we will die one day, and God has given us the means to take all the unpredictability of what will happen when we do.
4. Believe in the resurrection so much that you work because of it.
Finally, I’ll leave you with Paul’s final thoughts in one of the most detailed and beautiful teachings on resurrection (1 Cor 15). In light of the reality of resurrection and all that will accompany it (changing of bodies, immortality, imperishable, bearing the image of the man of heaven, death losing its sting, etc.), “be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”
The resurrection motivates our work here and now because we know that death is not the end of the story. Those who believe in Christ will have a resurrection as physical and as alive as the world we live in now. Actually, that resurrected life will be even more real and more alive than the world we live in now. So grief can’t swallow us because death didn’t swallow up the one who departed. We know that because death couldn’t defeat the One we believe in. So contrary to what you’ve heard, your loved one isn’t deceased. No, the Bible says that if they are in Christ, they are asleep. Asleep as in rest, as in REM, as in calm and peace.
And one day, when the alarm clock of alarm clocks goes off, they will wake up as physically alive as the day they arrived. All the ailments and sufferings will be gone, and oddly enough, there won’t even be hope there because hope looks to the future, and everything they wanted will be right there before them in the One they’ve wanted all along. No more grief. No more hope. Just joy. I can’t wait for that day.
In the meanwhile, as you grieve today, be a little more intentional with the loved ones you have. Hug them a little longer. Serve them a little more devotedly. Speak kind words of appreciation. But don’t do it as means to ignore death. Do it because you realize life is too short. And don’t just stop there.
Turn to Jesus and worship him. Cast your cares and your tears on the man of sorrows. Remember his resurrection as the guarantee of yours and theirs. Treasure him a little more today than you did yesterday, and grieve with hope remembering, WE WILL ALWAYS BE WITH THE LORD.