1477) Number Your Days

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Monk Contemplating a Skull  (1875), Thomas Couture (1815-1879)

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To be happier, start thinking more about your death!

This essay by Arthur C. Brooks first appeared in the New York Times on January 9, 2016; thus, all the references to the new year and New Year’s resolutions.  It is by no means Christian meditation, but it contains the truth of Psalm 90:12: “Teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.”  I have made a few slight alterations in the text.

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     Want a better 2016?  Try thinking more about your impending demise.

     Years ago on a visit to Thailand, I was surprised to learn that Buddhist monks often contemplate the photos of corpses in various stages of decay.  The Buddha himself recommended corpse meditation.  “This body, too, will decay” students were taught to say about their own bodies, “such is its nature, such is its future, such its unavoidable fate.”  Paradoxically, such meditation on death is intended as a key to better living.  It makes disciples aware of the transitory nature of their own physical lives and stimulates a realignment between momentary desires and life’s larger issues.  In other words, it makes one ask, “Am I making the right use of my scarce and precious life?”

     In fact, most people suffer grave misalignment.  In a 2004 article in the journal Science a team of scholars, including the Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, surveyed a group of women to compare how much satisfaction they derived from their daily activities.  Among voluntary activities, we might expect that choices would roughly align with satisfaction.  Not so.  The women reported deriving more satisfaction from prayer, worship, and meditation than from watching television.  Yet the average respondent spent more than five times as long watching TV as engaging in spiritual activities.

     If anything, this study understates the misalignment problem.  The ‘American Time Use Survey’ from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that, in 2014, the average American adult spent four times longer watching television than “socializing and communicating,” and 20 times longer on TV than on “religious and spiritual activities.”  The survey did not ask about hours surfing the web, but we can imagine a similar disparity.

     This misalignment leads to despair and regret.  I’m reminded of a friend who was hopelessly addicted to British crossword puzzles.  A harmless pastime, right?  My friend didn’t think so — he was so racked with guilt after wasting hours that he consulted a psychotherapist about how to quit.  (The advice: Schedule a reasonable amount of time for crosswords and stop feeling guilty.)

      While few people share my friend’s interest, many share his anxiety.  Millions have resolved to waste less time in 2016 and have already failed…  Some might say that this reveals our true preferences for TV and websurfing over loved ones and God.  But I believe it is an error in decision making.  Our days tend to be an exercise in distraction.  We think about the past and future more than the present; we are mentally in one place and physically in another.  Without consciousness, we mindlessly blow the present moment on low-value activities.

     The secret is not simply a resolution to stop wasting time, however.  It is to find a systematic way to raise the scarcity of time to our consciousness.

     If contemplating a corpse is a bit too much, you can still practice some of the Buddha’s wisdom by resolving to live as if this were your last year.  Then remorselessly root out activities, small and large, that don’t pass the “last-year test.”

     There are many creative ways to practice this test.  For example, if you plan a summer vacation, consider what you would do for a week or two if this were your last opportunity.  With whom would you reconnect and spend some time?  Would you settle your soul on a silent retreat, or instead spend the time drunk in Cancún, Mexico?

     If this year were your last, would you spend the next hour mindlessly checking your social media, or would you read something that uplifts you instead?  Would you compose a snarky comment on this article, or use the time to call a friend to see how she is doing?

     Some might think that the last-year test is impractical.  As an acquaintance of mine joked, “If I had one year to live, I’d run up my credit cards.”  In truth, he probably wouldn’t.  In a new paper in the science journal PLOS One, two psychologists looked at the present value of money when people contemplated death.  One might assume that when reminded of death, people would greatly value current spending over future spending.  But that’s not how it turned out.  Considering death actually made respondents less likely to want to blow money now than other scenarios did.

     There’s still time to rethink your resolutions.  Forget losing weight and saving money.  Those are New Year’s resolutions for amateurs.  This year, improve your alignment.  Be fully alive now by meditating on your demise.

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Psalm 90:10…12  —  Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures; yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, and they quickly pass, and we fly away…  So teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.

Psalm 39:4-5  —  Show me, Lord, my life’s end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is.  You have made my days a mere handbreadth; the span of my years is as nothing before you.  Everyone is but a breath, even those who seem secure.

II Corinthians 4:18  —  So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

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Teach me to number my days aright, O Lord, and so apply my heart unto wisdom.  Amen.

1426) The Narrow Way

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     To many people, life after death remains an unsolvable mystery.  It is far too awesome for them to comprehend.  I like to think, however, that it is best understood as something very simple.

     Some years ago I conducted funeral services for Neil Collum, a good friend and a good man.  I looked at Neil’s casket and I told the people gathered there that Neil Collum was not in that casket; that it was only the body that Neil had used on earth, and that he himself was not there.  And then I shared with them these thoughts that have always been meaningful to me, thoughts about God’s love for us.

     Before Neil was born, when he was in the prenatal state tucked up under his mother’s heart, he was already sensitive to love, as even unborn babies are.  This baby was happy there.  But suppose somebody had been able to tell this child, “Look, you can’t stay here. You’re going to be born.”  That to him would have been death, because it would have meant a change from a security to an insecurity.  We can imagine the baby thinking, “I don’t want to be born!  I want to stay here.  I like it here.  I’m comfortable.  I’m fed. I am loved.”

     But there came a day when that baby was, as we call it, born.  He left where he was and came into a new world.  And here in this new world he felt loving arms around him, and the first thing he saw was a beautiful face looking down at him.  Everybody ran at his slightest wish to do just what he wanted.

     Then he began to grow up and he had some troubles, and some hard knocks.  But he loved life and he loved the world.  Time passed and he became a middle-aged man, and then an old man.  And the thought came to him, “I’m going to die.”  He said to himself, “I don’t want to die.  I like it here.  I love the stars at night.  I love to feel the sun on my face.  I love the tangy  smells of autumn and to sit in front of fire on winter evenings.  I love my family and my friends.  I don’t want to die.”

     But then he did die.  Now, do you think that God, who provided all that protection and love for his coming into this world and getting started in it, was going to abandon him to gloom and terror when he left it?

     “When Nell Collum comes to himself after death,” I told Neil’s mourners, “what will he see?  I believe he will see the kindest face he can imagine looking at him and feel loving arms around him.”

     Why do I believe in this picture of a life beyond?  Because I believe in Jesus Christ.  Why was Jesus raised from the dead?  To show that nothing can overcome the power of God; not even death.       

–By Norman Vincent Peale  (1898-1993)

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From A Sermon on Preparing to Die, by Martin Luther (1483-1546), Luther’s Works, volume 42, pages 99-100:

     Since everyone must depart from this earth, we must turn our eyes to God, to whom the path of death leads and directs us.  Here we find the beginning of the narrow gate and of the straight path to life (Matthew 7:14).  All must venture forth on this path, for though the gate is quite narrow, the path is not long.  Just as an infant is born with peril and pain from the small abode of its mother’s womb into this immense heaven and earth, that is, into this world, so man departs this life through the narrow gate of death.  And although the heavens and the earth in which we dwell at present seem large and wide to us, they are nevertheless much narrower and smaller than the mother’s womb in comparison with the future heaven.  Therefore, the death of those who believe in Jesus is called a new birth, and their death day is known in Latin as natale, that is, the day of their birth.  However, the narrow passage of death makes us think of this life as expansive and the life beyond as confined.  Therefore, we must believe this and learn a lesson from the physical birth of a child, as Christ declares, “When a women is in travail she has sorrow; but when the child is delivered, she no longer remembers the anguish, since a child is born by her into the world” (John 16:21).  So it is that in dying we must bear this anguish and know that a large mansion and much joy will follow (John 14:2).

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Isaiah 26:19  —  Your dead will live, Lordtheir bodies will rise— let those who dwell in the dust wake up and shout for joy— your dew is like the dew of the morning; the earth will give birth to her dead.

Matthew 7:13-14  —  (Jesus said), “Enter through the narrow gate.  For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.  But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

John 16:21  —  (Jesus said), “Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices.  You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy.  A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world.  So with you:  Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.”

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Lord Jesus, by your death you took away the sting of death.  Grant to us, your servants, so to follow in faith where you have led the way, that we may at length fall asleep peacefully in you and wake in your likeness; to you the author and giver of life, be all honor and glory, now and forever.  Amen.

–Book of Common Prayer

1424) Going Home

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   “I received good news from my hospice nurse today,” said the elderly lady I was visiting.  Helen was had been battling cancer for a year, but was now about to lose that battle. 

     “What did she tell you,” I asked, wondering if perhaps there had been a change in her diagnosis.

     Helen replied, “She said I have, at the most, only a week to live.”  

     Helen died six days later, ready for God’s call, and happy to go home.

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William Augustus Muhlenberg (1796-1877) was the great-grandson of Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, the “patriarch of the Lutheran church in America.”  William, like his famous great-grandfather, was also a pastor.  Near the end of his life he was hospitalized, and was visited by the hospital chaplain who began praying for his recovery.  Old Pastor Muhlenberg interrupted the prayer.  “Let us have an understanding about this,” said the dying man.  “You are asking God to restore me and I am asking God to take me home.  There must not be a contradiction in our prayers, for it is evident that God cannot answer them both.”   —The Story of Christian Hymnody, by E. E. Ryden, 1959, page 485.

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From The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume III;  in a letter to Mary Willis Shelburne, June 7, 1959:

 …I am sorry to hear that so many troubles crowd upon you but glad to hear that, by God’s grace, you are so untroubled.  So often, whether for good or ill, one’s inner state seems to have so little connection with the circumstances.  I can now hardly bear to look back on the summer before last when Joy was apparently dying and I was often screaming with the pain of osteoporosis: yet at the time we were in reality far from unhappy.  May the peace of God continue to enfold you…

     What a state we have got into when we can’t say  “I’ll be happy when God calls me home” without being afraid one will be thought ‘morbid’.  After all, St. Paul said just the same in Philippians 1:21.  If we really believe what we say we believe—if we really think that home is elsewhere and that this life is a ‘wandering to find home’, why should we not look forward to the arrival?  There are only three things we can do about death:  to desire it, to fear it, or to ignore it.  The third alternative, which is the one the modern world calls ‘healthy,’ is surely the most uneasy and precarious of all.  

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     I am reminded of a little cartoon I saw one time in a magazine.  The cartoon shows two men, in the clouds of heaven, with their angel wings attached.  They are sitting in lounge chairs, obviously taking it easy and enjoying themselves immensely.  And one says to the other, “Just think, Ralph, if it wasn’t for all that darn health food, we could have been up here years ago.”

     We fear the change that will come when we die, but we must keep in mind Romans 8:18 where Paul, who suffered a great deal for the Gospel, says, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”  It will be an incredible and wonderful change.

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Philippians 1:21-24  —  For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.  If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know!  I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.

Hebrews 11:13-16  —  All these people were still living by faith when they died.  They did not receive the things promised;they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.  People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own.  If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return.  Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one.  Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.

Psalm 23:6  —  Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Revelation 22:20  —  He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.”  Amen.  Come, Lord Jesus.

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O my most blessed and glorious Creator, who has fed me all my life, and redeemed me from all evil; seeing it is your merciful pleasure to take me out of this frail body, and to wipe away all tears from my eyes, and all sorrows from my heart, I do with all humility and willingness consent and submit myself to your sacred will.  Into your saving and everlasting arms I commend my spirit.  I am ready, my dear Lord, and earnestly expect and long for your good pleasure.  Come quickly, and receive the soul of your servant who trusts in you.  Amen.  

–Dying prayer of Henry Vaughan

1317) Ars Moriendi

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FROM A FUNERAL SERMON:

     When Ralph told me about his mother’s last few months, during which she knew she was dying, I thought of the Latin phrase “ars moriendi.”  The phrase means ‘the art of dying,’ and it comes from some books by that name written in the 1400’s.  These books offered Biblical advice on procedures for a ‘good death’ explaining how a Christian can die well, taking comfort in their faith in Jesus Christ and the hope of the life to come.  It is explained how believers can avoid despair and be at peace by being assured of the promise that Jesus has gone on ahead to prepare a place for them, and that upon one’s death, Jesus will return and receive the believer and bring them to their new home in heaven.  

     Hilda, after a lifetime of faith, knew those promises and did indeed find her comfort in them.  I am sure she did not read any of those books about the art of dying, but she did, just like the books describe, have a good death, and did indeed die well.  That is a comfort for us here today, and it bears witness to the power of the Christian faith when someone can face death with such hope and confidence.

    Last summer, many of us who are here today, gathered in our fellowship hall to say good-bye to Hilda, before she moved to be near her family in Montana.  She was still feeling pretty good, but just two weeks before that she received the diagnosis of the terminal cancer in her brain and that she would have only a few months to live.  Yet it was clear even in the brief conversation I had with her that she was at peace with that, and that inner peace came from her faith.  She was grateful for the good life God had given her, and she was now determined to be thankful for each and every remaining day that she would have.  And when those days would run out, she was ready to die and go on to the next place that Jesus had prepared for her.  

     That is a pretty good way to approach life no matter what age you are, and whether or not you have a brain tumor.  One might expect complaining and despair from someone in Hilda’s position, facing what she was to endure.  But instead of complaining and despair, she displayed courage and gratitude and faith.  And Hilda continued in that faith and with that peace until the end.  

     That is what you call in Latin, ‘ars moriendi,’ or in English, ‘the art of dying well.’

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     Back in Kansas, with her experience in the land of Oz behind her, Dorothy said, “There’s no place like home.”  How true!  But how easily we forget where our home really is. At death, the Christian doesn’t leave home. We go home: “We prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (II Corinthians 5:8).  Consider the paradox—our true home is a place we’ve never been!  (Had we been there we could hardly bear to live here.)

     Home is where our Father is (John 14:2).  Our true home is far superior, the spiritual family there is vast and rich.  The Great Reunion awaits us.  We long for it.

     When we understand what home really is, money and things lose their glitter.  We finally see them as they have been all along: cheap imitations of the true and vast wealth that is ours as children of God. 

     C. S. Lewis puts it well: “Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.”

–Randy Alcorn, at:  www.epm.org

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I found these words on a sympathy card; the writer’s name was not listed:

Death is God carrying us in one arm while His other arm flings aside heaven’s door;

To welcome us back to the blazing hearth of our eternal home;

While those inside, having arrived before us, rush to the door;

Like glad children, shouting “They’re here!  They’re here!”

Death has a bad name on earth;

But in heaven, it’s a homecoming party everytime the door opens.

And God does not forget those earthbound children, sad and left behind. 

God leaves the party early to enter into their despair,

And to get them ready for their own parties someday.

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II Corinthians 5:1  —  For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.

II Corinthians 5:6-8  —  Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord.  For we live by faith, not by sight.  We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.

John 14:1-3  —  (Jesus said), “Do not let your hearts be troubled.  You believe in Godbelieve also in me.  My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.

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O Lord, support us all the day long of this troubled life, until the shadows lengthen, and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed; and the fever of life is over, and our work is done.  Then, Lord, in thy mercy, grant us a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Book of Common Prayer

1290) Last Letter Home

Wilder Dwight Carte de visite

2nd Massachusetts Lieutenant Colonel Wilder Dwight  (1833-1862)

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     On September 17, 1862, Lieutenant Colonel Wilder Dwight was on his horse waiting for the order to go into battle at Antietam.  He took out a paper and pen and began to write his mother a letter.  He wrote:

Near Sharpsburg.  Sept. 17th 1862.  On the field

Dear Mother, 

     It is a misty moisty morning. We are engaging the enemy and are drawn up in support of Hooker who is now banging away most briskly. I write in the saddle to send you my love and to say that I am very well so far —

     The lieutenant was interrupted by the call to battle.  As he commanded his regiment amidst heavy fighting, a bullet tore through his left wrist and into his hip, shattering it.  He went crashing to the ground in agony.  His men offered to move him, but the pain was so intense he refused.  The battle moved on away from him, and he was left there alone for a while.  Knowing he was badly wounded and probably would not live, he took out the letter he had begun earlier that morning and continued.  The pages are stained with Dwight’s blood, and the words are difficult (but not impossible) to decipher:

Dearest mother, I am wounded so as to be helpless.  Good bye if so it must be …

I think I die in victory.  God defend our country.  I trust in God & love you all to the last  Dearest love to father & all my dear brothers.  Our troops have left the part of the field where I lay — Mother, yours Wilder

      Later, Dwight was carried into a nearby farmhouse where he died two days later.  Sometime during those two days he finished his letter with these few words:

All is well with those that have faith

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I am very well, so far,” Dwight said before the battle, not yet wounded and still full of life.  Later on that same morning he was mortally wounded, and life was ebbing out of him. Yet, he could still write, “All is well with those that have faith.”  Living or dying, he is well.  I am reminded of the words of one of my favorite hymns:

When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say
It is well, it is well, with my soul

Refrain:  It is well
With my soul
It is well, it is well with my soul.

Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ has regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.  Refrain

But, Lord, ‘tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait,
The sky, not the grave, is our goal;
Oh trump of the angel! Oh voice of the Lord!
Blessed hope, blessed rest of my soul!  Refrain

–Horatio Spafford, 1873

See also:

https://emailmeditations.wordpress.com/2014/11/08/576-it-is-well-with-my-soul/

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Romans 14:8-9  —  If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord.  So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.  For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.

Revelation 14:13  —  Then I heard a voice from heaven say, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.”  “Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.”

Luke 10:20b  —  (Jesus said), “Rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

Psalm 23:4a  —   Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.

Psalm 116:15  —  Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.

II Timothy 4:7  —  I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.

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Today’s prayer is from the last words of another Union Soldier who was mortally wounded that same day at Antietam.  Basil DeShetler was a 32 year-old Methodist minister.  He had a wife and eight children.  He kept a diary of his military service.  His last entry was made at 7:00 in the morning on September 17, 1862 (the actual date does not match the date on the page image below).  He wrote:

“7 AM at which I am wounded.  This is written on the spot wherein I lay.

May God bless me and forgive all my sins, through Jesus Christ.”

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Private Basil DeShetler, 7th Michigan, (1830-1862)

1281) The Purpose of a Funeral Sermon

          Many people expect a funeral sermon to be personal.  They like it when the preacher can speak about the deceased as if they were well acquainted, even if they did not know each other at all.  

     I explained my approach to funeral sermons in this introduction to a sermon I gave at a funeral a few years ago:

     Funeral sermons can be difficult for a preacher.  Everyone one of you here today probably knew Emma better than I did, but I am the one who is now going to do all the talking.  So what should I say?

      A fellow pastor tells the story of how he was struggling with this problem as a young minister about to do his first funeral.  He had just started in the church, and had not even met the man whose funeral he was about to do.  So he asked a few of the men at the church if they could tell him about Ralph so he would have something to say in his sermon.  One of the men responded right away, and said, “You know, pastor, we knew Ralph pretty well, so don’t feel like you have to tell us all about him.  Why don’t you use the sermon to just preach God’s Word?  That’s the purpose of a funeral sermon, anyway.  Didn’t anyone ever tell you that at the seminary?” 

     Somebody did tell me that at the seminary, and I always thought that was good advice.  If I do know the person, I might say some things about him or her, but only to illustrate, or lead into, what I want to proclaim that day from God’s Word.  There are many opportunities for family and friends to share thoughts and memories of their departed loved one.  The funeral sermon is the time to hear a Word from God about what just happened.  

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I Thessalonians 13-14…18  —   Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.  For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him…  Therefore encourage one another with these words.

John 14:1-6  —  (Jesus said), “Do not let your hearts be troubled.  You believe in God; believe also in me.  My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.  You know the way to the place where I am going.”  Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”  Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”

John 11:25  —  (Jesus said), “I am the resurrection and the life.  The one who believes in me will live, even though they die.”

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 Lord Jesus Christ, you have overcome death and brought life and immortality to light.  Give us grace so to believe in you, the Resurrection and the life, that we may not fear death nor dread the grave.  Help us joyfully to await the time when, by your almighty power, our frail bodies will be fashioned like your glorified body…  With reverence and affection we remember before you, O everlasting God, all our departed friends and relatives.  Keep us in union with them here through faith and love toward you, that hereafter we may enter into your presence and be numbered with those who serve you and look upon your face in glory everlasting, through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Lutheran Book of Worship, Occasional Services,  (#474 and #235), 1978, Augsburg Publishing House

1252) A Skull on the Altar

Image result for st. francis with skull images

     A few weeks ago my wife and I went to a Saturday evening worship service at a Roman Catholic church near where we live.  The church building was well over a hundred years old and was built in the traditional, ornate style.  It was a beautiful sanctuary with an elaborate, huge altar in the center, a smaller altar on each side, and statues of Jesus, Peter, Paul, and several other apostles and saints positioned in various places on those altars.  On one of the smaller statues was what appeared to be a monk, and in his hand he held a human skull.  After the service, my wife asked me about that.  “Did you see the statue of the man holding a skull?  What was that all about?,” she asked.

     I told her I did not know who the monk was, but I thought that the skull might be a ‘memento mori.’  Memento mori is a Latin phrase which means “remember your mortality,” or, “remember you must die.”  The term came to refer to a type of artwork that served to remind people of their mortality.  It might be a painting of the Grim Reaper at the bed of one dying, it might be a carving of a skull kept on one’s desk, or it might be a skull shaped ring, pendant, or clock.  This style of art goes back to antiquity, and it reached its greatest popularity in the Middle Ages, present at that time in many churches and even homes.  The intent of the memento mori was very different from the cartoon-type skeletons we see all over the place at Halloween.  The old memento mori served as an ever present reminder of approaching death and judgment. 

     So that skull high upon that altar in the front of that church has a message for all who see it.  “This skull,” it means to say, “was once a living, breathing, speaking human being, but now that person is dead and all that is left of him is this skull.  Pay attention, therefore, to what you hear in this sanctuary, because someday soon that is what you will be, and when that time comes, your only hope will be in Jesus Christ who is worshiped here.  So listen close, and do not disregard or disrespect what is spoken in this place.”

     The Church Year itself has another sort of memento mori, another ‘reminder of death.’  At Ash Wednesday services in many churches, ashes are put on everyone’s forehead as they hear the words, “Remember that you are dust, and unto the dust you shall return.”  This is a most unpleasant thought to be sure, but it is a most necessary reminder.  The biggest mistake in life would be to forget that fact, and in forgetting, not make the necessary preparation for that inevitable end.  But when you come to church, you hear a more hopeful message, and if you keep coming, you will give that hope the opportunity to sink in and take hold in your heart and mind, giving you courage and confidence even in the face of death.

     Lent then moves toward Easter Sunday, and on that day we hear the words of the angels in the tomb to those looking for Jesus.  “He is not here,” they said, “HE IS RISEN!”  And so not only during Lent, but all year, do keep in mind that you will die (‘memento mori’), but then also remember the words of Jesus in John 14:19 to all believers:  “Because I live, you also will live.”

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Psalm 90:12  —  Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.

Genesis 3:19  —  By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.

John 11:25  —  Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life.  The one who believes in me will live, even though they die”

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Abide with us, O Lord, for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent.  Abide with us, for the days are hastening on, and we hasten with them, and our life is short and transient as a dream. Abide with us, for we are weak and helpless, and if thou abide not with us, we perish by the way.  Abide with us until the Daystar ariseth, and the morning light appeareth, when we shall abide forever with thee.  Amen.

–James Burns

1222) Which Way?

   

Many people have chosen the following poem (or a variation of it) for the epitaph on their gravestone.  

This one was found in a cemetery in Waynesville, North Carolina:

Effie Jean Robinson  1897-1922

Behold and see, as you pass by ,

And on these lines do cast an eye.

As you are now, so once was I;

As I am now, so must you be;

Prepare for death and follow me.

Underneath, someone added:

To follow you;

I am not content,

Unless I know

Which way you went.

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James 4:13-15  —  Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.”  Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow.  What is your life?  You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.  Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”

Joshua 24:14-15  —  (Joshua said to the people), “Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness.  Throw away the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord.  But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living.  But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

Philippians 3:10-14  —  I want to know Christ– yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.  Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.  Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it.  But one thing I do:  Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

 Hebrews 9:27-28  —  Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.

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O Lord, support us all the day long of this troubled life, until the shadows lengthen, and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed; and the fever of life is over, and our work is done.  Then, Lord, in thy mercy, grant us a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.  –Book of Common Prayer

1157) Interruptions

     It is interesting see what Jesus does when he is around death.  We will consider three accounts from the Gospels.  To more fully comprehend the message of these old familiar stories, we’ll try to imagine what it would be like to have Jesus here with us, in similar situations.

     The first story is the story of the death of Jairus’ daughter.  Jairus was a ruler in the synagogue– a preacher we might say, or perhaps a church bureaucrat– and he had a very ill daughter.  He had heard that Jesus– this unorthodox, unofficial country preacher– had healing powers.  Jairus was from the official, organized, institutionalized, established church.  Jesus was an unordained, uncalled, uncredentialed, wandering preacher.  I, like Jairus, am a called, ordained, credentialed pastor in the organized institutional church, and I’m more than a little suspicious of the free-floating, unattached, unordained type.  Some of them get TV shows now, and they have people jumping up out of their wheelchairs by the dozen; but I have my doubts about the whole business.  And that is probably what Jesus looked like to Jairus.  So I doubt if Jairus would have called Jesus for any other reason, except now his daughter was really sick and near death.  He did not want to lose her, and he had tried everything else; so finally Jairus called for Jesus.

     Jesus did agree to come, but it was too late.  The little girl had just died.  The body was still in the house and the family was grief-stricken.  I have been in many of those situations.  I am called to go into a home or a hospital room, and the body is still there on a bed or in a chair or on the floor, and lifelong relationships have just ended, and lives are shattered, and it is the worst feeling in the world.  It is a time to be sad and somber and quiet.  A few words of Scripture and a prayer can be said, but it is not the time for too many words.  I know very well the mood in the house of Jairus that day.

     With that in mind, I can understand how shocking the words of Jesus must have been.  He wasn’t quiet, he didn’t shake anyone’s hand, and he didn’t express his heartfelt sympathy to anyone.  Rather, he came in, interrupted the gloom, and took charge.  First, Jesus said to the father, “Don’t be afraid, just believe.”  Then he said to everyone else, “Stop all your wailing and crying.  She’s not dead; she is only sleeping.”  He said that before he even went to her room, so the people laughed at him.  They were probably also angry.  How rude of this man to give false hope to this poor family!  He just arrived there and did not know anything about the girl’s condition.  Jesus told them all to get out of the house.  It was and outrageous way to act in such a situation.  But then Jesus went up to the little girl’s room, took her by the hand and said, “My child, get up,” and she did.  Her spirit returned to her, she got up, and she was alive and well.  Jesus turned that place of mournful death into a scene of joyous life.

     The second story is the story of the widow’s son in the village of Nain.  Again, imagine the scene.  Jesus and his followers, a large group, are coming into town.  A funeral procession, another large group, is coming out of town.  But Jesus and his disciples do not politely step aside.  Jesus, a stranger to these people from Nain, barges into the middle of the group and goes up to the casket.

     I have been in many funeral processions, and I have never been interrupted like that.  People make way for funeral processions.  Policeman stop cars at intersections so the procession can go through uninterrupted.  The hearse leads the way, all headlights are on, and everyone is driving slow.  Others on the road are respectful and stay clear.

     When we get to the cemetery, the pall bearers lift the casket out of the hearse and carry it to the grave-site.  Imagine at that point seeing a large group of bearded men coming across the lawn.  The leader of this group of strangers steps in ahead of the pall bearers and tells them to stop and set the casket down, and then this stranger tells the funeral director to open the cover.  That would be an outrageous interruption, but that is what Jesus did in this story.  With the casket cover open, the people then see Jesus looking in and talking to the dead man.  Jesus said, “Young man, get up!”  Immediately the young man got up and began to talk.  Again, Jesus faced death with confidence and authority, and backed up his bold words with decisive action, turning the hopelessness of death into life.

The Resurrection of the Widow’s Son at Nain, James Tissot (1836-1902)

     In the first story, the girl had just died.  In the second story, the dead man was being carried to the cemetery.  In the third story Lazarus had been dead and buried for four days.  Again, picture yourself in the story.  Your loved one has died.  A close friend of the family was out of town and unable to make it to the funeral.  Now, four days later, the friend comes to express his sympathy.  He asks to be taken to the cemetery, perhaps to put some flowers on the grave.  But he isn’t carrying any flowers, and when he gets to the grave-site, he says, “Dig up the body.”  What?  In Jesus’ day, dead bodies were put into caves with large stones in front, and so in that context Jesus said, “Take away the stone;” but the command was no less shocking.  “Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “we can’t do that.  By this time there will be a bad odor for he has been in there for four days.”  Jesus told Martha to just believe in Him.  Then Jesus gave another command, this time to the dead man.  “Lazarus, come out,” he said, and again, a dead body came back to life.

     Jesus was here to interrupt death’s rude interruption.

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The raising of the daughter of Jairus:  Mark 5:21-24, 35-42 and Luke 8:41-42, 49-56.

The raising of the widow’s son in Nain:  Luke 7:11-15.

The raising of Lazarus:  John 11:1-44.

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Lord Jesus, you have overcome death and brought life and immortality to light.  Give us grace so to believe in you, that we may not fear death nor dread the grave.  Help us joyfully await the time when, by your almighty power, our frail bodies will be fashioned like your glorified body.  Amen.

Lutheran Book of Worship: Occasional Services, Augsburg, 1978, (#474)

1114) Ignorality

Michael Perry

Don’t bother looking for ‘ignorality’ in the dictionary.  It’s not in there yet, and probably won’t ever be.  It is a word Michael Perry made up to use in his book Population: 485:  Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time (2002).  It appears to be a combination of two words, ‘ignorance’ and ‘mortality;’ as in “ignorance of our mortality” (see below).

Michael Perry grew up in New Auburn, Wisconsin (population 485), and then moved away to go to school and attempt a writing career in the big city.  Ten years later he moved back to his little home town, joined the local volunteer fire department and ambulance service, and continued to write.  This book is one of the results of that journey.  You can read more about Perry and his work at his website http://www.sneezingcow.com (as in Don’t Stand Behind a Sneezing Cow, another one of his books).

In Population: 485 Perry writes a little bit about going back to his small home town, and quite a bit about what it means to be on the fire department and ambulance crew.  He describes in the book his experiences, and, his ponderings on those experiences, as in these paragraphs taken from his chapter on “The Call.”  What he says here makes me grateful to God for the gift of each day, reminds me to be prepared for the end of my days, and it gives me an appreciation for the people who respond to the call when you dial 911.

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     The calls blindside you, always.  You will prepare and prepare, and you will never be prepared.  We are never ready, and our patients are never ready.  Over the years, I have developed a visceral reaction to families and victims expressing surprise at tragedy.  Why are we surprised?  Why do we forget we are mortal?  Bad, bad things happen everywhere, every day.  Humans, for better or worse, harbor this feeling that we— individually— are special.  A patch of ice or a pea-sized blood clot makes a mockery of that illusion in a heartbeat.  We are not special at all…

     My brother John made a call, he came busting in the kitchen, and the first thing that hit him was a palpable wave of cigarette smoke and bacon grease.  A man was spilled backward on the floor, his chair upended.  His plate was mounded with half-finished eggs and sausage links.  His cigarettes had slipped from his shirt pocket.  His white belly protruded like risen dough.  And his wife looked at my brother, and she said,”I don’t understand… he’s never been sick a day in his life.”

     And John says he remembers his first thought was, Well, he’s sick now.  (pages 150-1)

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     What a profound thing it is to call for help.  How astounding, the number of people fate allows to float through this life never once confronting their own mortality.  One of the benefits of the fire and rescue business is a near-constant sense of vulnerability.  A recognition that at the cellular level, or the speeding freight train level, we are but a particle removed from chaos.  I have carried my kit in to find tattooed tavern-clearing monsters weeping in bed, hairless from radiation, leaking soupy feces from a colostomy, skin like mottled pate, and on the walls beer mirrors and bellicose biker trinkets, and I think, how do we ever forget this sort of possibility?  How do we lapse into what you might call ‘ignorality?’  In part, I guess, because you simply can’t function if you are always feeling the scythe pressed to your neck.  I have knelt beside a wrecked car, seen a burly forty-year-old shaking with pain and fear, and realized the last time I saw him he was steaming under the bright lights of the hometown football field, running his body like a weapon.  I super-impose the image in my head over the image before me, and try to keep the new one from displacing the old one, so that later I can ponder the contrast and see what it might teach me.  The lesson never concludes, but I’m getting parts of it.  I understand that what you’re doing when you dial 911 is announcing to strangers that you are losing the battle.  I no longer have the strength, I no longer have the answer, the trouble is winning, and won’t you please come help?   (pages 153-4)

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     The pager is on my hip right now, even as I type.  It will go off, perhaps in the next five minutes, perhaps next Tuesday when I am in the bathroom.  My heart will jump.  If I’m getting something from under the sink, I may crack my head on the grease trap.  I’ll listen for the details, find out where, begin forming a half-baked picture in my head.  I’ll run across the backyard, headed for the hall.  Whoever’s out there needing help, they’re getting me, for better or worse.  Me, and a handful of my neighbors.  We’ll do what we can.

     There was this old man, we used to get called to his apartment almost on a weekly basis.  He had a heartbeat like a broke-down roller coaster, and every once in a while he’d just check out, and his wife would dial 911.  He was usually mildly dazed but smiling and conscious by the time we got there.  We answered call after call until finally his old heart cashed in.  But I remember walking in his bedroom at two a.m. toward the end there, and seeing this little man looking up at us with such trust, and I thought one day I will be the little old man on the bed.  And I hope my neighbors come when I call.   (page 160)

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     Back home, when I step through the door and toss my keys on the chair beside the door, I notice the house has an echo and a chill to it.  The call came in at 2:45 a.m., and now it is after five a.m., and I have friends coming to visit at nine a.m.  I want to get what sleep I can.   All the way up the stairs and into my bedroom, even as I shuck my clothes and roll into the sheets, I keep seeing the figure in the granary (of a man who committed suicide).  It’s a healthy and natural part of the accommodation process, I imagine, this constant reviewing of the image.  But it just kept presenting itself, and I found myself reacting the way I always have after one of these calls:  pondering the irrevocable nature of death, and fighting the desire to call loved ones, wake them up and ask them, Do you realize how thin the thread is?  That maybe tomorrow we don’t wake up?…  I wasn’t terror-stricken or freaked out, just unsettled.   (page 180)

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Job 21:13  —  They spend their days in wealth, and in a moment go down to the grave.

James 4:14  — You do not even know what will happen tomorrow.  What is your life?  You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.

Isaiah 55:6  —  Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near.

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Teach us to number our days, O Lord, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.

–Psalm 90:12