Thursday, February 10, 2011

Thoughts on Dying

As many of you already know, my grandmother passed away Monday. We buried her yesterday. She was a great, Christian lady, a wonderful grandmother, one of my biggest cheerleaders, with a spitfire of a personality to go along with a heart and a smile as big as anyone I’ve ever known.

We watched her die. She had been sick for some time, but seemed to recovering, until early Monday morning, when she fell, and developed a large bleed on her brain. It was just a matter of time at that point. She died about nine hours after she fell. Most her family, daughters, sons-in-law, and grandchildren, and grand in-laws were there to wish her farewell. It was difficult, but not without it’s joys, as we all shared stories about her life, and her last days. I’ve spent the last couple of days thinking a lot about her, and also a lot about the subject of death itself. I guess times like this do that to a person.

It’s hard to know exactly how to feel at a time like this; you just lost someone you love, so you feel sad. But when it’s someone who has lived a long, full life, and has been sick for so long, there is also some relief, because you know they are no longer in any pain. I think both emotions are appropriate, especially in light of what the Bible says about death itself.

Let’s make this clear; despite our sometimes romantic ideas about death and dying well, it is our enemy. Death is a result of sin. If there were no sin, there would be no death. Paul described death as “the last enemy.” (1 Corinthians 15:26) So it is an enemy. It is not, as Forrest Gump’s mom said, “just another part of life.” It is terrible, and no amount of comforting words will change the fact. Neither should we want that fact to be changed. Death is bad and death is the enemy. End of story.

But that’s not really the end of the story, is it? Because the same Paul who described death as the enemy also said, “To live is Christ, to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:21) He said that he was torn between wanting to go and be with Jesus, and to stick around and live for him. I think that is probably as appropriate a feeling about death as I can come up with.

The Bible really gives us a mixed view of death. Sometimes it may be hard to figure out how to think correctly of it, because we’re told both that for the Christian, death is an enemy and death is gain. I guess the only thing that is proper to do here is to embrace that tension. Death is terrible. It hurts. It should not be. But it is also the beginning of something much better.

The resolution to this tension is found, I think, as so many things are, at the Cross. Here is where the badness of death meets the goodness of eternity. Jesus’ death on the Cross was one of the worst, most tragic things, that ever happened. The perfect God-man, completely innocent, murdered for crimes he did not commit. It was the most tragic death in the history of the world. Yet, out of his death, great good comes, and through his resurrection, death is dealt a decisive blow. Though death is still around, it is badly wounded, and it’s defeat is assured.

That’s why I’ve imagined my grandmother this week, standing triumphantly at the gates of Heaven, echoing the words of Hosea and Paul: “O death where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:54,55) As terrible as death is, it’s sting and it’s victory are gone, because those who believe are forever triumphant over death, as they reign in Heaven with Jesus. And this is another important point. We spent the last few days making little jokes about what my grandmother was going to say to my also-departed grandfather when she arrived. And we often think that Heaven is this great place, because our loved ones are there, and because there is no more sickness and pain and sin. And that is true, as far as it goes. But that kind of Heaven will never be ultimately satisfying unless Jesus is there. The reason death’s sting doesn’t affect us is because of what Jesus did, and because we get to be with Him when death comes. All other pleasures are secondary. My grandmother is getting the greatest pleasure that a person can possibly know right now; real, lasting, eternal fellowship with the God of the universe, who redeemed her, bought her with a price, and has promised her great reward forever.

And so we mourn our loss, but “not as those without hope,” because we have hope, not only that we will see her again, but that will see Jesus with her. And that will make it all worthwhile.

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