In October I found myself in a van full of college students on a road trip. A campus minister friend had invited me to tag along with him, his wife Gail, and a group of students. Our route just happened to take us through Gail’s hometown, a sleepy little place in northeast Kansas. It is a deeply rooted farming community where many families have been for generations. As we wound through town we passed a well-kept cemetery. I said to Gail, “Are any of your family buried here?” Before she could answer, the student next to me blurted out, “Oh, gosh, what an awkward question!” Surprised, I asked, “Why is that awkward?” “What if someone in her family IS buried there?” she said, clearly uncomfortable. I replied, “Well, then I would ask her to tell me about them.”
Some people feel uncomfortable talking about death. I think we fear bringing up painful memories for someone who has lost a loved one. Of course, death was not my favorite topic as a 21 year old either. Yet, the conversation got me to thinking. Why are we hesitant to talk about this inevitable transition that awaits us? We are, after all, the people who believe that Jesus rose from the grave and that death does not have the final word in our lives. Of all people we ought to be able to talk comfortably about our future demise, because our future demise will be followed by a glorious resurrection.
We see both an aversion to and obsession with death in our culture. We watch autopsies on television at night and play vicious video games filled with bloodshed. On the other hand, we are removed from death in our real lives. Medical advances can make death seem like something that is avoidable, at least for now. It is rare that we are privileged to sit with a dying person as they take their last breath. In addition, with the rise of the contemporary church, it seems that younger generations are growing up in congregations with few elderly people in them. Other than grandma, they don’t know any old people - who tend to die on a pretty regular basis. Death can begin to seem more like an outlier than the norm.
One of my spiritual practices is to sing through my old hymnal. I try to sing one hymn every morning. Sometimes I sing two. One of the things I have noticed this past year is how many of the old hymns contain at least one verse about death, heaven, or the anticipation of seeing Jesus face to face either by death or at his second coming. Here are a few lyrics from three old, seldom sung hymns. Listen to the robust theology and future-looking anticipation:
“When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation and take me home, what joy shall fill my heart; Then I shall bow in humble adoration, and there proclaim, my God, how great thou art.” How Great Thou Art
“How tender are thy mercies, Lord, Thy grace when days are long;
And in the lonely midnight hour Thy precious gift of song.
When I approach the gates of death and life is at an end,
Thy presence will sustain me still, my Savior and my friend.”
How Gracious Are Thy Mercies, Lord
“When with the ransomed in glory, his face I at last shall see,
‘twill be my joy thro’ the ages, to sing of his love for me.”
I Stand Amazed in the Presence.
These lyrics are rich with meaning for me. Is that because I learned them long ago before I needed them? I do think getting older makes them ring all the more true. I wonder if the church has unwittingly adopted a similar aversion to facing the reality of death as the culture around us. We don’t talk or sing much about death and our future hope with any sense of eager anticipation. Oh, but we should! For the person who has trusted in Christ death is not merely the inevitable enemy at the end. It is a doorway to all our heart has longed for. It is the invitation to come “further in and higher up” as C.S. Lewis would say.
So, let’s talk about those who have passed on. Let’s remember their lives and their faithfulness. Let’s sing about what awaits us. We have nothing to fear. I recently read this statement in a favorite devotional: “Until our Master summons us, not a hair of our head can perish, not a moment of our life be snatched from us. When He sends for us, it should seem but the message that the child is wanted at home.”²
¹ Title is a line from the hymn, “O God Our Help in Ages Past”
² Anthony W. Thorold, as quoted in Joy and Strength