Death stings

I probably shouldn’t be asking this.

If death has lost its sting (1 Corinthians 15), then why does it … sting?

Stings hurt. They bite. They cause pain. Death does that. So why does the word say that it doesn’t?

Another translation has it as about last words and so on, which makes more sense. But we still have to wait a long time for the last, the final word. It’s an age away, literally, when you’ve lost someone who’s not here any more.

Nicholas Wolterstorff wrote a great little book called Lament For A Son, a snapshot of his journey through grief after his death in a climbing accident. Wolterstorff is a Christian philosopher, one of those people who is supposed to have answers; or at least help us find the right questions. The most moving section of his book, for me, is where he talks about how doctrines that he thought would comfort him didn’t. What use is the resurrection (true as he holds it to be) if you can’t have a hug from your son?

That’s a hell of a sting to not have.

My murdered friend is gone now; I believe, utterly, that I’ll see him in the new creation. I really do. But it doesn’t help now. I need him now; not then.

Some will see this is a crisis of faith. I once heard someone explain his nervous breakdown as doubting the doctrine that some are elected, chosen to go to heaven and some aren’t. Once he’d accepted it was true he said he’d got over his breakdown. Well I’ve never believed that doctrine; I don’t see it in Scripture. Questions are not symptomatic of losing faith.

I need to ask, though. Death seems to me have a hell of a sting. The last but one word echoes for a long, long, long time before the last one is finally spoken.

It’s easy for God, risen and ascended as His Son is, surveying it all from the vantage point of eternity where it all fits together, what with being the one who from His perspective has uttered, will utter and is uttering the last word.

We’re time-bound, here and now, and we can’t see or hear the final reality of those last, final words. I have to accept that. I have to accept that I can’t know, can’t see my friend, can’t have a hug or an argument or sort something out with him.

Hard, though. It stings.

Is the Bible wrong? Or did I miss the point?

If you can’t cope with silence, don’t ask an unanswerable question.

Where is death’s sting?

It’s right here, right now, where I am and you are.

The sting will be drawn. In time.

For now we live with the sting.




the dead body of god: a meditation at jesus’ tomb

there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid. Because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and since the tomb was nearby, they laid jesus there.” (The Bible)

What to do with this? With the dead body of god?

We know it is finished. We know redemption has been bought, ransom paid, evil vanquished.

But here we have the dead body of god, carried by a man who until today had kept his following of jesus a secret out of fear, wrapped in spices and linen, and laid in a tomb.

What was he doing between now and Resurrection Day? Did his soul descend into hell and wrestle captive souls free? Did he rest? Did he … ?

We don’t know. he was dead. It’s a question I’ve been asked before, and each time I’ve replied as honestly as I can. I don’t know. We can’t. We’re not told. Maybe in eternity we’ll know; or maybe not, maybe god will choose to hold some parts of the story back from us just to keep us humble. We. Don’t. Know.

We want him to be doing something. Hence the tradition of jesus’ soul departing his body and freeing souls from hell. But there’s nothing to suggest that is so. This desire for jesus to be doing something even as he lies dead speaks to something deep and profound. It speaks to our desire to break awkward silences; to do something, anything in a moment of crisis; to make a joke to leaven the tension. It speaks to our desire that god always be in control – and for us, to be in control means doing something. No, this control exhibited from a lifeless body comes from the same sort of place which enabled him just yesterday to wrap a towel around himself and wash messy feet in the menial work of a servant.

In fact, the dead body of god here is in perfect keeping with the miracle of incarnation. From virgin tomb to virgin womb. The same jesus who takes a boy’s few loaves and fishes, blesses and breaks them and uses them to feed 5,000; the same jesus who sent his disciples out to herald the kingdom in need of food and a place to stay. In death he is carried, bound, silent and borrowing a virgin tomb.

We expend energy and money on grave-stones and memorials. What will it look like? What will it say? That speaks of our pretension, our desire to outlast. jesus has no control over any of that, speaking of both the temporary nature of this grave and the fact that for now he has nothing to contribute.

This silence, this coldness, offends us. We want to fill it, put a grid on it, explain it, tell a story in it. We can’t. he is dead. Totally, utterly, completely dead.

This day is a gift to us, stripping us of agendas and narratives and ideas and lists of things to do, confronting us with coldness and silence and death, daily realities for us all if we’re honest.

There’s been shouts of praise and crucify; of derision and agony; and there’s shouts of awe and resurrection to come. Shout we must. Shouting, though, needs silence. A constant register in the key of shout ends up as clanging gong, irritating and discordant. Sit in the silence awhile waiting, wondering, it instead becaomes a gift in itself; allowing us to hear the whisper of our name in the garden’s morning mist.

This post is an adaptation of the final meditation I gave from a Three Hours At The Cross service at St Peter’s Mowbray, Cape Town on Good Friday 2013.

On near death

I gave a friend a hug today. Nothing that unusual there because I like to hug and (mostly) like being hugged; but it was a more heartfelt hug than normal. He’s a few years older than me, and will soon be leaving this country to go elsewhere. It was the first time I’d seen him for a while. He took a journey recently; a holiday. During that holiday he took a walk – which was also nothing unusual. He was in excellent physical shape; but on the walk he had a cardiac arrest which nearly killed him.

He spent 3 days in an induced coma, and was lucky to escape with his life. Today he told a few of us the story in detail, touching on feelings and implications and changes which will have to be made as a result. He pointed out that he saw no tunnels of light, no departed relatives beckoning to him from the other side. He woke up, asked what day it was and took it from there.

These things change you. We all know these things happen but to hear an ‘I’ you know well say it as he sits next to you is hard. It’s much harder to live through, of course. He’d hadn’t changed, but he had changed. There was nothing visibly wrong with him. He was the same man as I saw him last time, if a little slimmer. He looked well. He spoke, though, with even more authority than before; had a bearing and sense of the urgency of God’s call on his life which shone.

It’s made my friend thankful too, as one may expect. It made me thankful also. Thankful that he’s been restored to us.Thankful, too, that I have an awareness of my mortality. I’m 40 later this year, but for years I’ve lived with pain  – at times debilitating, so bad I go into shock. My rheumatologist once told me that on a very bad day I experience a level of pain somewhere in excess of a normal experience of childbirth; telling me that was her way of getting me take my pain seriously and acknowledge it for what it was (at this point I always feel compelled to point out that this rheumatologist was a woman and a mother). Living with an incurable, chronic, painful disease at a relatively young age (it doesn’t affect my life-span and is now well managed with a cocktail of medication) leads me to many challenges but also gives many gifts. It makes me aware of my dependency  – on others, on God. My inability, my limitations, my frailty. Not so much that I’ll run and not grow tired, soar on wings like eagles and so on, as not have to run at all if I can’t. There’s been a significant grace in learning about and accepting what I can’t do, and in not needing to tire myself out trying to do. That I am, somehow, fearfully and wonderfully made not despite my illness, but because of it.

Do I still want to be healed? Yes. If people offer to pray, if words are given in church that seem to hit home, I let people pray for healing. God can heal me. He may yet do so. I see no contradiction in accepting the limits of my condition as well as believing in and allowing other people to seek the possibility of God healing me. I tend to let others do the praying for healing because I’ve run out of energy for it myself – it’s been a long time, and others are better at it than me. I do ask, but I let faithful friends and co-journeyers do it for me more often. That’s one of the blessings, actually – the love people shower on you sometimes. I know my friend has experienced that too.

Some people have called this sort of thing God’s ‘severe mercy’. It’s a clever attempt to express something almost inexpressible to a culture bent on distraction and misdirection from ultimate realties. That in even the darkest, most difficult places, grace does something bizarrely inappropriate which also makes perfect sense. I don’t believe God causes these things; but the God who specialises in raising the dead can make beauty out of ashes. Being near death, conscious of it, peering over its precipice at your own vulnerability can make you almost perversely alive, on an almost annual journey from Maundy Thursday to Easter Day.

It’s a journey worth taking; so find your limits.

My friend gave my full permission to write about his experience.



Preparation Time

Beware of what you promise. That’s a maxim which could easily apply to any area of life, but over recent weeks a variety of different promises I made as I stood in an ancient English cathedral less than 3 months before 9/11 have been re-echoing in my mind.

These are the promises made by those about to be ordained – set apart by the church for service in and to the church and the world. The one echoing loudest at the moment is a few simple words: ‘to prepare the dying for their death’.

A cursory reading of that, together with popular assumptions about the role of the vicar/priest/rector, may lead you to assume that the promise is about visiting, spending time with and praying with or for those who are facing death in an immediate sense. Of course that’s part of it – one of the indisputable privileges of my job is to be there in the big moments of life and death.

But there’s much more. One retired priest told me, just before I was ordained, that part of the role and calling of the priest is to ‘think the unthinkable and say the unsayable’. I don’t know if he was quoting someone else or if it was one of his own truisms, but it’s stayed with me. It’s become increasingly true for me in the 11 yeas since – there are times when we’re called to say things that people just don’t want to hear, compelled to speak when everyone else is wearing earphones. The unsayable I’m thinking of here is that ‘the dying’ of that ordination day promise is all of us, all of the time. We’re all dying. Scientists call it entropy – that all things tend towards decay and disorder; part of the calling of someone called by the church to the church and the world is to hold before a community and a people the fact that we’re all dying and the sooner we reconcile ourselves to that fact and live in the light of it, the better.

Of course, like everything, there all sorts of places we could make a serious mis-step here. We could become sour faced misery-peddlars who sneer at anything remotely fun with a ‘not of this world’ air; we could repeatedly scare people into salvation (finding out much later people saved thus often either fall back into old ways or become disturbingly hard-hearted); we could become so concerned with the after-life that we forget to do any good in this life.

All of those and more are dangers we need to constantly check ourselves against. An awareness of death, though, while being a consequence of our insistence on going our own way, can also be something of a gift to the perpetually busy and stressed. As the writer of Ecclesiastes said, “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting” (Ecclesiastes 7:2, ESV). To live and love at least with that awareness, that life is a process of preparing to live eternally with the one in whose image we’re made and in whose creation we dwell, should for the Christian be an immensely joyful and liberating process. It should hone our sense of call – what is MY role in preparing all around me for death? How am I pointing people to a bigger, deeper reality? How do I live well in such a way that I will die well?

This doesn’t mean that we don’t cry at funerals or feel absence and loss keenly and deeply. Of course we do. We all do. Death is an enemy. It is horrible. It’s in the nature of God, though, to take that which may seem intended for evil and transfigured it into something deeper and better altogether. Death is horrible. Death is defeated. Death, then, because it is defeated, can help us live well. Now, and forever.