Sunday, January 27, 2019

Comfort for the Dying and for Those Who Love Them

My mother is 94 years old, and is very slowly succumbing to Alzheimer's disease. Her long journey has given me time to confront my fears about the separation her death will bring. And because a parent's demise forces us to face our own mortality, an added benefit of this time has been the exchange of fear for peace regarding my own eventual departure from this earth.

Well into adulthood, I coped with immature fears regarding death. I avoided funerals when I could, and separated myself emotionally from the inevitability of death at some point for myself and for my loved ones. I don’t think these are unusual strategies, but they are unnecessary when we remember that Jesus came to free those who all their lives have been imprisoned by fear of death (Hebrews 2:14-15). The truth of what Christ has done for us liberates us from the horrifying aspects of death and brings peace (1 Corinthians 15:55-56). As Jesus told the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in Paradise (Luke 23:43).” Death is not our destination; it is only a passageway, and because of Christ, death is not a place we can become entrapped.

There is nothing of paralysis, constriction, or altered consciousness about death; the opposite is true; in God’s hands and in His perfect timing, death is a freeing process that delivers us to new life. To onlookers, death may resemble falling asleep, but it is the physical body that falls asleep in death, not the spirit. For the Christian, death does not entrap, it releases. The distorted awareness and paralysis of anesthesia, which also looks like sleep, is responsible for fears some of us have harbored, but we can release any misconception that death is like anesthesia; it is nothing like being asleep and unable to awaken. In Christ, when our physical bodies fall asleep in death, our spirits awaken to new life.

The Valley of the Shadow is a passageway to be traversed, not a place to set up camp. God's children do not linger in the valley. In the same way that a baby being born is pushed down the birth canal and then delivered, death is only the passage between this world and the next; and the Lord is with us. Dying is sometimes as simple as stepping across a threshold, and there is no need for fear.  Those who live in Christ only pass through the cold vale of death, and enter immediately into the warmth of His eternal, perfectly protective, presence (Revelation 14:13).  

Confusion may arise because the discerning may sense something akin to an unconscious presence when in proximity to the physical body of a loved one who has departed, and in a cemetery there is a peaceful somnolence that makes us feel that something, if not someone, is still present. This sense of a presence we don’t understand can be disturbing, but in light of Scriptural truths regarding the resurrection of the physical body at Christ’s return, it makes sense that the seed of the body that is sown perishable but raised imperishable might have a presence—the “something but not someone” we feel in the restfulness of a graveyard—that can be sensed (1 Corinthians 15:42-44). St. Paul clarifies the truth that we can’t be two places at once (Philippians 1:23); we are either at home with Christ, or we remain in the body. Yes, the body “sleeps” in the grave, but the spirit goes directly to Jesus just as we’ve always been taught.

And so our physical bodies have no consciousness, and return to dust. Remember we are created in God’s image, three in one. The spirit, mind/consciousness, and physical body are the three.  Our spirits, including our consciousness or what we think of as “independent thought”—that sentience that makes us human—go to Heaven at death. If we think it odd that we will continue to be able to experience consciousness apart from a physical brain, let us be reminded that the Almighty God Himself is spirit and not flesh.  Spirit and flesh are an odd coupling that God has engineered to work together.  Sin corrupted the workings. Jesus died to reset the clock, so to speak, to a time when flesh and spirit were at peace with one another, undamaged by sin’s influence. Sin took body and spirit out of harmony. Jesus made a way for for harmony to be restored. 

The inaccurate conviction that thought or consciousness is impossible in the absence of a physical brain has to do with one of Satan’s great victories, which is to make us believe that we are animals. This faulty belief leads to faulty conclusions. We inhabit physical bodies, but we are created in God’s image. We live in these temporary bodies, but these bodies made of flesh are not who we are.  We are able to be separated from our bodies with our beings intact. Yes, this is a mystery to us, but it is not a mystery to God, who created us.   

Those who love us and have gone before are members of that great cloud of witnesses described in Romans 12:1. They have departed and are at home with the Lord (Philippians 1:23), and so they see Christ with unprecedented clarity. The Holy Spirit is the One who is constantly present with us (John 14:16) and God is the One who constantly watches us, (Proverbs 5:21) but our loved ones who have died are surely informed about us as they see us through the Lord’s eyes. Love is the strongest bond of all, and those who love us do not lose interest in us when they enter Heaven. C.S. Lewis thought our loved ones may have some special influence on behalf of those they love, especially when they first depart, and so while we know that the Lord is our source of perfect love and help, there is comfort in the truth that our loved ones love us still. Death is not stronger than love. (Song of Solomon 8:6).  Love remains (1 Corinthians 13:13).  Find the C.S. Lewis reading at Biblegateway, here: ). 

One of the unfortunate ways we deal with death is to trivialize it. It is impossible to watch an evening of television without running across a murder mystery or seeing someone portrayed as dying; but real death in real life is a holy and solemn passage. The emotion death elicits is something close to awe; similar to the feeling one might experience when walking into a huge cathedral with an immensely arched celling overhead. The terror is gone because of Christ but from our perspective, something of the chill of the Valley of the Shadow remains for us as onlookers.  Our Lord is sovereign over death, but he does not dismiss our passage through death as being a trivial thing. The passage from this life to the next is precious to the Lord ( Psalm 116:15).  

Of one thing we may be certain, those who have died in Christ are not dead, but very much alive, awaiting with joyous anticipation the final resurrection at the end of all things, thrilled to participate in praise in the presence of God, joyous because suffering has, for them, been put into its proper perspective. If they see us at all, they see us in the light of God’s eternal perspective, and are full of the knowledge that our light and momentary troubles are gaining for us a greater weight of glory (2 Corinthians 4:17). Indeed, they nearly rejoice in our sufferings, because they know great reward awaits, and although they may feel compassion (God’s compassion) they do not grieve for us. They can see more clearly than we how sweet the reunion we will experience with them will be, but even more, knowing firsthand the all-encompassing pleasure of seeing God’s face, they thrill for us because they know that we who die in Christ will also have this pleasure.

Some of us have worried whether cremation is acceptable, or whether our physical bodies need to remain more or less intact. These are needless concerns. At the resurrection, our physical bodies do not remain in their present form, but will be raised, transformed. When we leave our bodies, they are empty husks until the resurrection awakens them and we are transformed into the likeness of Christ, clothed with our new, resurrected bodies, not of perishable flesh, but imperishable.  The Lord does not lose any entrusted to Him (John 6:39). That which is imperishable cannot be destroyed by fire or by any earthly element.  This is a mystery we cannot comprehend, but trust in God and in the reassurances He’s given us in Scripture tells us that the manner in which the physical body is destroyed is of no consequence.  The Holy Spirit is the power that preserves the imperishable seed that will spring forth with new life at the resurrection, and the Holy Spirit cannot be compromised or influenced by anything temporal; He cannot be broached.

I will close with a mind picture I had of a death experience, and whether it is accurate or not, I was gifted with peace that replaced my old fears of what dying might be like.  From my journal:  
I had a mind picture the other day of, well, dying.  Passing through that tunnel…the Valley of the Shadow…was not frightening because I was moving at great velocity toward the light at the end, toward a goal; not under my own power, I was being propelled, or drawn... I didn’t have time or the inclination to feel claustrophobic.  Two things struck me:  one, this isn’t frightening, just sort of interesting.  And, two, it is a great distance…great in distance, but not in time.  It doesn’t take very long to traverse the Valley of the Shadow.  “I will fear no evil, for thou art with me…” (Psalm 23). It is a safe journey.  
And one last word of comfort: the melody of one of my favorite songs, Cello Song by the Piano guys, builds and builds and then pauses…and then the melody begins again.  While listening to this beautiful piece one day, the thought came that the song of my mother's life, of His life in her, of her life through eternity with the Lord, and of our relationship with one another, will continue.  The pause in the music represents for me her passage through death, but the melody resumes!  Just as I can hear that song in my head right now although the music is not playing, I will still be able to hear the song of my mother’s love for me and mine for her even when her heart is no longer beating.

See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!  And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.  Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.  
1 John 3:2-3 NIV

A C.S. Lewis reading on Heaven for comfort and insight: 

Scripture for the Dying and for Those Who Love Them:

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. According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep.  For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.  After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.  Therefore encourage one another with these words (1 Thessalonians 5 NIV).

I am the resurrection and the source of all life; those who believe in Me will live even in death.  Everyone who lives and believes in Me will never truly die. Do you believe this?  (John 11:25 The Voice).

We are awaiting a new body...
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. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the spirit asa deposit, guaranteeing what is to come (2 Corinthians 5:1-5 NIV). 

So we have no reason to despair. Despite the fact that our outer humanity is falling apart and decaying, our inner humanity is breathing in new life every day. You see, the short-lived pains of this life are creating for us an eternal glory that does not compare to anything we know here. So we do not set our sights on the things we can see with our eyes. All of that is fleeting; it will eventually fade away. Instead, we focus on the things we cannot see, which live on and on. (2 Corinthians 5:6-9 The Voice). 

  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” (Revelation 14:13). 

 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time (1 Peter 1:5 NIV).

  For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God (1 Peter 1:23 NIV).

  So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power;  it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body (1 Corinthians 15:42-44 NIV). 

 When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
 “Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?”

 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:54-57 NIV).


Monday, January 14, 2019

He Intercedes for Us

Oh weary caregivers, beloved of the Lord, isn't it encouraging to know that our Lord Himself intercedes for us?

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Birdsong in Winter

This little Carolina wren brightened my day today.  
Those who have experienced loss know that the date of a loved one's passing resounds in the heart each anniversary thereafter. We don't get used to missing a loved one.  We adapt, and are able to enjoy life again, but the sorrow becomes a part of us--and that's ok.

Today is the 22nd anniversary of my father's death.  I am able to smile now when I feel the sorrow of remembrance, because it is an affirmation of how deep our love for one another was, and is. Because Dad knew Jesus as his Lord and Savior, I know we will meet again, but I will continue to miss him until then.

This afternoon the little bird in the photo above landed on the rail just outside the window adjacent to the table I use as my desk.  I am rarely able to get clear images of the birds who land at our feeders because I use my phone for photos, and I need to be quite close to my subject if I want to bring it into proper focus.  But this little guy stayed within camera range long enough for me to snap 14 clear photos.

He then flew to the dormant lilac bush next to the feeder and began to sing.  He continued singing until it was nearly dark and all the other birds had gone to roost for the night.  It was unusual; a sound of spring in mid-winter.

Please don't worry.  I do not think the bird was my dad in disguise or any such nonsense as this.  I don't even think my dad sent the bird; I don't believe he has authority to do that!  But I know someOne who does.

How sweet to serve a God who feels our sorrows, has compassion for us, and is able to provide encouragement  when our hearts have wavered under the burdens of the long cold of winter.  We are 15 years into the winter of my mother's Alzheimer's disease, and I am her only relative.  I'm weary of the burdens of caregiving, responsibilities that do not stop just because she has entered nursing home care; in some ways the obligations have increased. The Lord knows this, and the little bird today reminded me that grief is temporary, sorrows will end, and spring will indeed arrive.

Meantime it is precious to receive the encouragement of hope from the hand of the Lord who loves us.  He hasn't left us to bear our burdens alone; he bears them with us and for us.  He knows how to strengthen and encourage a weary heart, and I am grateful for His encouragement today.

Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
Psalm 73:25-26