When Death Surprises Us


Memorial Service for Florence Styers, March 17, 2000

Death is always painful.  Losing someone you love is always tragic.  However, the pain and tragedy of loss seem to intensify when it takes us by surprise.  It leaves one in a state of shock, a state of disbelief.  Numb.  There are some times when our hearts break slowly over time, and then there are those harsh times when they break very abruptly.  This is what happened to my heart on Grimmersburg Street on Tuesday evening.

There is nothing good about death. It marks the end of life on this earth. It is our last great enemy. And it separates us from the ones we love. Death is always a tragedy.

We can try to comfort ourselves by saying things like “Our loved one is better off than we.” “She is in a far better place.”  “At least she did not suffer.”

 But at the same time, we cannot help to selfishly ask:

“If she was so healthy, why couldn’t we have her here ten, even twenty more years.”  “What was so bad about the place she was—here with us, in the presence of the ones she loved and with so many who loved her?”

No, the truth is: there is nothing good about any death.

And it seems even harsher when it surprises us. Because the truth is we do not like the surprises of our fallen world.

We do not like the world’s surprises because they do not fit into our plans.  They disrupt our lives. They cause confusion and chaos. And our fallen world is full of them. Tragedy and catastrophe, sickness and disease, wars, storms, floods, and earthquakes stalk our earth continuously ready to jump out and overtake us when we least expect it. And so it often is with death.

However, the good news is, as our fallen world is full of surprises, so is our God. Our God is a God of surprises.  However, God’s surprises are not tainted by sin and evil, but are shaped by love and by grace. In the garden, God surprised Adam and Eve as God took garments of skin, and with God’s own hands crafted together clothes to cover their shame. Although they deserved to die, God clothed them, enveloping them with grace and forgiveness and love.

If one has heard it only once, one cannot forget the story when God told Abraham and Sarah they were going to have a baby in their old age whose descendants would give birth to Israel. Do you remember Sarah’s response? She laughed out loud. Sarah blessed laugh of the surprised.

And in this Lenten season, as Christians, we know how through Jesus, God once again surprised humanity as he became one of us. God surprised us by offering us the very best he had to offer: God’s only Son Jesus Christ. And when this fallen world rejected him, by humiliating him, by stripping him, beating him and crucifying him to a cross, God surprised us yet again by bringing him back to life and offering him to the very ones who denied, betrayed and killed him.  And promising eternal life through resurrection to all who follow the risen Christ.

And the good news is God still surprises us today by transforming our darkness into light, our despair into hope, our sorrow into joy and our deaths into life.

As we were all surprised this past Tuesday, just think of the surprise that Florence Styers’ received!  There is an old hymn which reads:

Just think of what it must be like to step on shore and finding it heaven,

of taking hold of a hand and finding it God’s hand.

Of breathing a new air and finding it celestial air,

of feeling invigorated and finding it immortality,

of passing from storm and tempest into an unbroken calm,

of looking up and finding it home. 

What a great surprise!

And until that day comes when we will meet Florence again, as God will surprise all of us in a twinkling of an eye with the gift of resurrection, we can count on God surprising us in many ways. 

Memories of our loved ones are a gift of grace. I believe God will surprise all of us the rest of our lives with the wonderful memories of Florence Styers . When our days are difficult, and when our days are long, when we have those despairing moments of grief (and because we loved  Florence we will have those moments), I believe it is then when God will surprise us with those precious memories of Florence’s delicate smile, her warm touch, her soft humility, her tender compassion and her faithful service. I believe God will use those memories to surprisingly touch those places within us that most need touching and renew our spirits—giving us the strength to continue our lives until we meet Florence and God one day face to face.

We will never forget the way in which she lived her life.  Someone told her children recently that Florence lived until she died. We will never forget the contributions she made to this community, through her job, through serving Meals on Wheels, and through her church. 

On Monday when she came to the office to write some checks as our church treasurer, as she did faithfully each week, she told me how she would soon be eighty.  I was shocked.  Surprised.  I told her I would not have been surprised if she told me she going to be 67.  She said the secret to staying young was staying busy. And that she did. I cannot tell you how many times people have come into the office this past week asking me questions which my response has been, “I don’t know the answer to that question, that is something Florence always took care of.” 

And you know when I think about her age, I should not have been surprised on Monday when she told me she was going to be eighty. Even God would have needed at least that long to create someone as lovely and as faithful as the Florence Styers I knew and loved. 

Yes, when we are surprised by the harsh surprises of this fallen world, when our hearts break abruptly, we can count on God surprising us with these great memories of Florence, renewing our spirits. 

And I believe God will continue to surprise us through our loved ones, our friends and our family, and our church.  Those days when we most need it, I believe God will send us an unexpected word of encouragement, an unanticipated visit, and an unforeseen embrace. God will startle us as the people of God around us will make us laugh like Sarah and Abraham, the laugh of the surprised.

Yes, when we have those moments when we feel we just can’t go on without Mama, without Nana, without Florence, God will surprise us with her memories, God will surprise us with our loved ones, God will surprise us with God’s Holy Spirit and God’s eternal hope.  God’s hope that as God surprised Florence with eternal life, one day God will surprise all of us who call him Lord with eternal life.

Death is hard.  Losing a loved one is painful. There is nothing good about it. And the pain of loss seems intensified when it catches us by surprise. But thank God, God will catch us all by surprise, with his love and with his grace, now and forevermore.

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