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Through the Valley of the Shadow

Web posted on July 30, 2017

Hey Jude!

For me, the past month has been a month of funerals. Five of them in five weeks. One per week. Three of them ex-military and Legion comrades, the fourth, a distant family member. Death from cancer and death from old age.

"Thou know'st 'tis common. All that lives must die,
Passing through nature to eternity." (Hamlet iii.2)

But the fifth was entirely unexpected, and barely old enough even be collecting his Canada Pension.

"Tis a vile thing to die, my gracious lord,
When men are unprepared and look not for it." ( Richard III iii.2)

Death is hard enough at any time, but a "vile thing" indeed when it catches us by surprise. It's an intruder that leaves hopes unfulfilled, achievements aborted, "sorries" unsaid, books unread or unwritten, and friends and loved ones cut adrift.

So we hold funerals and wakes and celebrations of life, not because they do the dead any good, but to get our heads around the fact that for us the future may be painfully different from what we expected. And we cope with our grief by whatever spiritual resources we have to draw on.

When Shakespeare's Brutus learns of his wife's death, he draws on his Stoic philosophy:

"With meditating that she must die once,
I have the patience to endure it now." ( Julius Caesar iv.3)

Brutus copes with grief in the same way that many of us do in these secular times: with a quiet, dignified, acceptance of the inevitable. But sadly, it's an acceptance without hope.

By contast, in a letter to the Christians at Thessalonika (Saloniki, Greece), St Paul writes: "We would not have you uninformed, brethren, concerning those who are asleep, so that you may not grieve in the way that others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. Therefore, comfort one another with these words" (1 Thessalonians 4:13ff).

Grief can be a healthy thing, and Paul does not denigrate it. Our grief shows that we're caring people; our grief is a tribute to the worth of those whom we've lost. But Paul says he does not want us to grieve in the same way that people do who have no hope. He does not want us to have a grief that is inconsolable. There's a world of difference between grieving in hope and grieving as those who have no hope. So when Paul describes the dead as having "fallen asleep", he means their death is not their end. That's why we're able to grieve in hope.

I expect you've already heard the story (perhaps too many times) about the gourmet cook who left instructions that she be displayed in her coffin with a Bible in one hand and a dessert fork in the other. Those who attended the visitation said to her husband, "I get the Bible, but what's with the fork?" He explained, "It's Mabel's way of saying, `There's still more to come.'"

Still more to come. That's what Jesus meant when he said: "In my Father's house there are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you back with me, so that where I am, you may be also" (John 14:2f). That's the kind of hope that makes grief endurable.

Of course, any comfort you may find in that will depend on whether you think Jesus really rose from the dead. Certainly the first generation of Christians saw enough evidence to convince them. And Paul had an experience on the Damascus Highway that convinced him (Acts 9; 22; 26).

In that letter to Saloniki, Paul pictures Jesus coming again at the end of time, with an angelic herald blowing a trumpet and shouting a command, and all the believers getting caught up to meet him in the clouds. And Paul says, "Therefore comfort one another with these words." Except for the clouds, it's a picture of a Roman Imperial visit, with all the citizens rushing out to welcome the Emperor to town. It's a glorious picture, but a picture is what it is. Just as falling asleep is a picture, as are also the Father's house with many rooms, and even the lady with the fork waiting for her heavenly dessert. We have to use pictures like that when we're talking about things that lie outside our experience.

But if those pictures are to be at all helpful, they need some basis in solid fact. That first generation of Christians knew two solid facts that occurred within their own experience: they had seen Jesus die, and they had seen him alive again. On those two facts they were willing to gamble both this life and eternity.

That's a gamble some folks are reluctant to make. Certainly, there are compelling arguments that can be made for the historicity of Jesus' resurrection. But as Jesus said, "If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if one should rise from the dead" (Luke 16:31).

Jesus knew that evidence is only as convincing as our predisposition to believe it. And the predisposition in this case, as found in Moses and the prophets, is the conviction that one day God's justice must triumph. That's the premise behind the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It's also the hope that predisposes one to believe in the life after death that Jesus promises.

It's actually a universal hope, and one finds that hope in unexpected places. Sophocles, a Greek dramatist of the Fifth Century BC, still writing at age 90 and undoubtedly anticipating his own death, shows such an intuition in his last play, "Oedipus at Colonus". At the death of Oedipus, Sophocles makes the Chorus say, "Out of the night of his long hopeless torment, surely a just god's hand will raise him up again" (Watling's translation).

Even acknowledging the likelihood of Christian influence on Professor Watling's translation, the universal hope of justice and life after death is clearly evident in Sophocles' original. Most of us, after all, have felt from time to time that the human potential and decency all around us (tainted though they are) are too wonderful to be snuffed out by death. Why, then, should we be incredulous at the thought that what we wish, might, in fact, also be what God intends? Or even that our wishing it is no mere accident?

How we cope with death depends on the assumptions that we start with. If the assumptions of Jesus, and Paul, and Moses and the prophets, and even Sophocles, don't work for you, then you're stuck with the assumptions of that other chap, who concluded that life is "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." (Macbeth v.5)

That's the cynicism of the nihilist, the despair of the bitter and disillusioned, and the wishful thinking of the evil. Macbeth died bitter, disillusioned, and evil. But to see life with ultimate meaning and purpose, and to grieve in hope, one day even to die in hope, I need the lady with the fork. I need Sophocles' intuition that "Surely a just god's hand will raise him up again." And I need the Jesus whose resurrection proved their instincts right.


Rev Robert Lyon is the assistant at St Jude, Guelph, a congregation of the Anglican Network in Canada, that meets at 10 o'clock on Sundays at the Evergreen Centre, near Riverside Park. Robert welcomes your questions and comments, and will be pleased to discuss topics on request. Contact him at nm@bbs42.net.
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