Sunday, May 30, 2010

A Good Death

We buried my wife of 26 years today. The celebration service was extraordinary, the weather was stunning, and I was so deeply moved by the lengthy line of friends and family who gridlocked Bowling Green as the procession moved through town to the cemetery. It is a tradition in the South that folks stop their cars on the road and respectfully let the entourage pass by. That was cool.

The funeral today was the culmination of what I call a good death.

I hope that phrase gives pause. We never hear death called a good thing, but I believe it. We have all seen how death tears people apart emotionally and spiritually. They become angry with themselves, with their family, and sometimes with God. And sometimes they never recover. I know some people here who have lost a mother or a father, and even though they are Christians they remain crippled for years by that death.

I think there are lots of reasons for this, and perhaps we'll reflect on that sometime. What I want to discuss tonight is how death can be a good thing.

Lynne's father passed away just seven weeks ago after a lengthy illness. We actually had two funeral services, one where he lived, and another in west Tennessee at the family cemetery. Six generations of his family are buried there.

I had the honor of being asked to preside over the service in west Tennessee. You'll notice that I did not use the word "preach." I am not a preacher, have no interest in it, and intend to resist if called.

But I was delighted to do this. My father-in-law was a humble, sweet man who had the DTV version of the Bible. For those of you not familiar with the DTV, it means "duct tape version." He had his Bible for so long and used it so much he put duct tape on it to keep it together.

We were at a rural church before a small group, so I figured that I couldn’t do too much harm, or that things couldn't go too badly. I opened with what I thought was a pretty funny line. "I want to put you at your ease and let you know that I am not a preacher. I actually am an attorney who has been in practice for 26 years. It is my understanding that it is illegal to be a lawyer and a preacher in Tennessee." No one cracked a smile. "Tough audience," I thought to myself.

Anyway, I told them that Tom died a good death, and that we should celebrate his death. We should not fear death as so many do. If you think about it, we go to great lengths to avoid death, and this really is silly. Clinging so hard to life makes little sense, yet we spend tremendous economic resources and emotional capital trying to avoid something that, guess what? can't be avoided!

I told them that we should instead reflect on Tom's "kingdom life." In Luke 17:20 the Pharisees demanded that Jesus tell them when the kingdom of God should come. To quote from the Authorized Version, " He answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.”

That is a big, big statement: “The Kingdom of God is within you.” Other translations say that the Kingdom is at hand, is among you, is in your midst, and so on.
What does that mean? What is meant by the statement the Kingdom of God is at hand, and the Kingdom of God is within you?
We all know of and anxiously await Christ’s return to reign over His kingdom, so the phrase certainly anticipates Christ’s future return. But it also points to a present kingdom. That’s right, we can live in God’s kingdom right now. It’s all around us and within us. All we have to do is look and see.
I could go on for a very long time about this and sound like a professor of theology, but I won’t do that to you. Instead, I am going to direct you to a terrific example of the presence of the Kingdom we experience every day: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance. Our Junior Bible Quiz friends recognize this right away. It is the Fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22. That is a great example of the presence of the Kingdom, and it is how we can live the Kingdom life every day. That’s what my father-in-law did.
I also saw it played out when he died in hospital. As he drew his last breaths Lynne talked so sweetly and lovingly to him, and gently stroked his forehead. I read Psalm 23 and Romans 8 to him. Janice, my sister-in-law, was rushing there and talked to him on the cell phone while my nephew Brandon held it to his head. On the day of his funeral Janice and my mother-in-law went down and dressed him and anointed his body with oil.
This is the Fruit of the Spirit, and this is the Kingdom in our midst. This is the Kingdom in us. I was utterly blown away by witnessing and participating in something eternal and divine in the present moment.

And I’ve been doing it again for the last week since Lynne became ill. Not only has the Spirit been on the move bestowing its fruits, but I have seen the Kingdom at work too. You’ve heard me say that out of death comes life. This is a deep truth embedded in the Bible that we should pay more attention to. It’s the Resurrection, of course, but I’ve also seen it in small in hundreds of ways.
Lynne’s organ donation is a great example, but this episode goes well beyond that. I have watched God change lives in front of me. One person I am thinking of in particular has had his soul startled into awareness, and whether he knows it or not there is no going back.
Dozens of people have told me that this has caused them to reexamine their marriages and their lives, and to start paying attention to spiritual priorities they know they have been neglecting.
It’s changing me too. I am learning much, much more about loving and being loved. I like it a lot. I also watched as hundreds saw my wife buried in a timeless ritual. That too is a present part of the Kingdom.
Just as with my father-in-law’s death, I am again stunned at being right in the middle of God revealing His eternal truths and mysteries as they are made manifest in His Kingdom. Better yet, I am a player in it!
You are too. See!
My wife’s death is a part of God’s revelation of His glory. With all of these awesome and majestic things going on around me how can I call this anything but a good death?

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