“But we do not want you to be uninformed brothers and sisters about those who have died; so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” (1 Thess.)
The phone rang at the church late on a Friday afternoon. As a seminary student; I, alone, among the staff was there to answer. “My dad is dying,” said a young woman from the congregation. “I need someone to come.”
I was 22 years old and terrified; having never made a pastoral call like this one. And honestly, I did not handle it well.
The old man lay under a thin sheet on a bed in the ICU; surrounded by machines and tubes. The smell of death and strong medicine filled the room. “I’m dying,” he said. “And I want to talk about it.” A well-raised Southern girl, I had been taught to avoid particularly awkward conversations. And so I said, “No need to talk about that now. Let’s just visit.”
Thirty-seven years later, it still embarrasses me to remember that day. The family called for a minister of the Holy Gospel. And I had absolutely no idea how to talk about death.
In the years since that first “death call,” I have visited many a hospital room; answered many a hospice call; sat and waited with family and friends, for what everyone knows is coming and yet no one wants to talk about. These gatherings often follow a similar pattern.
An 85-year-old woman is dying. At the house, I speak with the family in the living room. “Momma is dying, but don’t say anything. We don’t want her to know.” Going down the hall to the back bedroom; newly equipped with a hospital bed where the old four-poster used to stand, I speak to Momma. “I’m dying,” she says. “Please don’t tell the children. I don’t want to upset them.”
Maturing as a pastor, I have learned to answer with more truth and courage than I had in my seminary days. “You know I love you kids. You know I love you, Momma. And because I love you, I cannot promise that I will keep quiet. It’s death. And we need to talk about it; need to talk about it as Christian people.”
Yes, we grieve and we mourn. And yet not as those who have no hope! We will grieve and we will mourn as “aching visionaries”; (Howell) as those who have caught a glimpse of the coming of a day of peace; a day of resurrection and of joy; a day in paradisum with our blessed Lord Jesus.
Not many people look forward to staring down into an open grave. (Taylor) Standing there, we remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. Faced with the prospects of our own mortality, we want to run away.
We do not have to run. Over the years, I have met many a saint who did not turn away as their loved one went down to the dust. Dick Looney comes to mind: a bishop in the church of God, born in rural Virginia; plain spoken in the way of country folk. A towering 6’ 8”; voice deep and gravely, Dick speaks of the death of his beloved Carolyn after 51 years of marriage.
“As we grew older,” Dick says “we realized that one of us would die first. That’s really not so hard to figure out. So Carolyn and I decided to talk about death. At first, it was awkward. And yet, as we talked we realized we would want the one who remained to grieve. And as we talked more, we realized we also wanted the one who remained to spend just as much time remembering all the good we had shared over all our years and to be grateful.”
“It’s been five years since I lost my sweetheart,” he says. “And it’s been hard. It’s been sad. If we love deeply, we lose deeply. And yet so much that I do we did together. Remembering that brings me joy. And that joy reminds me to give thanks.”
“Right after Carolyn died,” Dick continues, “I had a huge stack of cards; about 400 cards. And I hate to write notes. You know, those little cards you get from the funeral home to thank people for their care and concern. I decided to invite my friends into a conversation about death. Talking about death is not fatal.”
“I called up 400 people and mentioned Carolyn by name and I used the word death. And do you know what happened? Those conversations became a rich mix of laughter and tears, joy and sorrow, grief and gratitude. And they made me feel so hopeful.”
We love deeply. We lose deeply. And yet God promises a day is coming when death’s shroud will be destroyed; when God wipes every tear from our eyes, when we will be glad and rejoice.
At the heart of our faith lies a strong story; simple, profound, mysterious. We struggle to take it in. We put our trust in one who died; believing in the power of God to look right into the heart of death without flinching; to stare death down. (Godsall)
By his own three days in the tomb, Jesus hallowed the graves of all who dare to believe in him and in his promise. (LTP)
“I am the Resurrection and I am Life.” These words draw us to him; not because we can prove them as fact; rather because somehow, in our deepest hearts, we know them as true; we know them as hope.
Getting older, God invites us to maturing of life and thought. God has matured me in my acquaintance and understanding of the mystery of death. Having seen death up close and often, I recognize death is painful, messy, it smells bad.
And yet, I find myself continually falling in love with the dying. (Barnes) Something about their honesty, their focus, their created vulnerability; keeps God so close to them we can almost touch the love that never dies; the peace beyond all understanding.
Journeying with the dying has caused me to consider how I want to spend and be spent in the years of life and ministry left to me. Clarity about one thing has come. I want to give myself to a faith so strong, so substantial, so deep, that it will carry me through this life, through the grave and to the life beyond our knowing, and all the way home.
I see my grandmother Edna, standing in the front of her small, white frame country church; Bible open in her hand. Teaching Sunday school for more than 50 years without a single note.
And I see us seated in a small circle in the middle room of her home at the close of the day; same Bible open on her lap, Upper Room devotional book. Leading the family devotions; she read Scripture, the devotion for the day. Sometimes we sang a hymn. Always we prayed.
As her coma deepened into death, my dad would sit at her bedside every evening; Bible open, Upper Room, prayers. And until the day she died, she responded to the sound of his voice and her lifelong pattern of Scripture, prayer and praise.
It seems worth mentioning that the dying don’t remember sermons or missions statements or even the myriad of ways we busy ourselves as church. They remember and respond to things with gravitas; born out of generations of conversation between God and humankind.
My friends, we do not grieve as those who have no hope. We grieve as those who have caught a glimpse of God’s new day. We grieve as those with whom God has engaged in a conversation about death in Jesus. We grieve as those grateful for the gift of all the good God gives to those who dare to love, and to love deeply.
In the Requiem, in the Eucharist; we touch and taste, hear and see, the church’s prophetic best. Here we proclaim the dead are not lost to us. God’s love never ends. God’s power to bring life from death lives victoriously in Jesus. And by God’s Spirit, we know peace, everlasting and true.
And that, my dear friends, has power enough to carry us through death, through the grave, to the life beyond our knowing, and all the way home. Amen.
These are sermon notes and are not intended for the purposes of publication. —Gina Gilland Campbell
M. Craig Barnes, “Gravesite Blessings,” Christian Century, 7-26-11 and “Closing Hymns,” Christian Century, 11-16-00.
Ralph Godsall, Sermon Lent 3, Washington National Cathedral, 3-11-12.
Barbara Brown Taylor, “Slowing Down for Death,” Christian Century, 11-16-10.
“Order of Christian Funerals,” selected, International Committee on English in the Liturgy, Inc. from Liturgy Training Publications.
Richard Looney, Bible Study on John 12, St. Simon’s Island, Georgia, October 15, 2014, my notes.
James Howell, “Hopeful Grieving,” Christian Century, 11-1-05.