Home by Another Way: Remembering Harold Stewart

harold stewart pic
July 17, 1946 – January 1, 2019

As evidenced by the attendance here this morning, the shocking news of Harold’s passing has been devastating to many.

We did receive some comforting words. Harold did not suffer. There was no prolonged illness, no pain, no struggle. Harold was given the opportunity to celebrate Christmas with loved ones here in Fort Smith and then in Nebraska. Harold was happy. He was full and content.

But then we received a dreadful word, a word that was difficult for us to hear, that that his wife Audrey, whom we all know he adored, had to drive home from Nebraska all by herself as Harold’s body was sent home by another way.

“Home by another way.” Those are the exact words Matthew uses in yesterday’s gospel lesson to describe the journey of the Wise Men after they worshiped Jesus, laying down their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Having been warned in a dream not to return to King Herod, we are told that they went “home by another way.”

“Going home” is of course how we like to talk about death. We find great comfort in the old hymn:

O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, our shelter from the stormy blast, and our eternal home.

“Home” is being with God. It is a place of perpetual belonging, acceptance, comfort and love. It is a place of eternal rest and peace.

In his book of Revelation, John described it this way:

“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

See, the home of God is among mortals.

God will dwell with them;

they will be God’s peoples,

and God himself will be with them;

God will wipe every tear from their eyes.

Death will be no more;

mourning and crying and pain will be no more,

for the first things have passed away (Revelation 21).

So, in a way, going home is the goal of every believer. And as Christians, we believe that how we get there, how we go home, matters.

Do we go home following the instructions of King Herod? Do we go home by collaborating with the empire? Or do we go home by another way?

Do we go home following the way of greed and power, the way of self-centeredness and fear, the way of deceit and cowardice, the way of exclusion and isolation? Or do we go home by another way?

I believe the most comforting word, the most hopeful word for us this morning was what we first thought was a most dreadful word: “Harold went home by another way.”

As Christians, we believe Jesus showed us the way, the truth and the life, the very narrow, yet broad and expansive way home.

Matthew writes:

One day Jesus was teaching a large crowd of people. While he was still speaking, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone said to him, ‘Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.’

But Jesus replied, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mothers and my brothers!’ (Matthew 12:46-50).

In other words Jesus said, “here is my home, here is my family.”

I believe this story reveals that Jesus had a much broader, more expansive definition of home and family than we often do.

This, of course is why Gentile Wise Ones from the East were guided by that star to worship the Jewish Christ child: The people of God, the family of God, extends beyond Israel, and includes all people.

And so it was with Harold.

If I said to you, “Harold sure did love cooking for his family.” Your first response would probably be: “Which family are you talking about?”

Are you talking about the Stewart family? Or are you talking about his family at the Elks Lodge? Perhaps you are you talking about his family at First Christian Church?

Someone told me that he left Mike and Jane one of his famous pizzas in the fridge before he and Audrey left for Nebraska. That was so Harold. As his mother Roberta Ray used to always say: “It is very difficult to get Harold out of the kitchen!”

Harold also loved to make his pizza monthly for his Elks lodge family. And each time Harold invited me to the lodge and introduced me to other lodge members, it was obvious to me that he was introducing me to his home away from home. During the fish fry, he introduced me to his son Mike and daughter-in-law Jane, but he also introduced me to countless sisters and brothers. Chris Perry has written that Harold’s example and leadership is the reason they like to say that the “Elks Loge 341 is the friendliest little Elks Lodge in America.” That is because they are truly a family.

And of course this church was the beneficiary of having a brother named Harold in our family. Our brother Harold spoiled us with that infamous pizza recipe, the juiciest hamburgers you have ever tasted, unbelievable pulled-pork barbeque, and most recently, a Christmas dinner that featured a prime rib that Steve Riggs described best as “crazy good.”

What if I said to you that “Harold loved being there for his family?”

Well, are you talking about his sons Brian and Mike? Are you talking about one of his six grandchildren or his great-grandson?

Are you talking about his family at Fort Smith Restaurant Supply? Are you talking about the names of the people with whom he worked that he would text to his pastor requesting prayer for them when they were sick, experienced a loss or had a need?

Or are you talking about a child he mentored for the last three years at Howard Elementary School? Are you talking about the 12-year-old boy he visited once a week, oftentimes bringing him lunch, building his self-esteem, encouraging him in his studies and teaching him the importance of values that he may not learn in the classroom, like looking someone in the eyes while giving them a firm handshake?

Or are you talking about one of the children at the church who he made an effort to greet every Sunday morning before reaching in his pocket and giving them a piece of candy.

Yes, the good news is that Harold certainly went home by another way.

Speaking of going home by another way, it is no secret that Harold could literally build a home. His sons describe him as the best teacher they ever had. They even built an entire house together on Ten Killer Lake. Harold taught them how to do everything, from carpentry, duct work, heat and air, plumbing to laying tile and flooring. They said Harold knew how to crack a whip in such away that you never even knew there was a whip.

Harold could fix anything. His son Brian recalls that anytime he or Mike ever had a problem with their house, whether it be carpentry, plumbing, heating or air, all they had to do was call Dad. They said: “And it seemed like it was before we get the phone hung up the doorbell would ring and there would be Dad, standing there wearing a tool-belt around his waist and light on his head.”

With Harold, anytime something would break, his family said they never called a professional. They called Harold. Just like we did here at the church. Just like I am sure they did at the Elks Lodge.

Yes, more than anyone we know, Harold went home by another way.

Yesterday, someone asked Audrey: “How in the world did you drive home all by yourself?” She replied: “I had a good teacher.”

We all know how he absolutely adored and cherished his wife of 38 years, Audrey, but the love he expressed to Audrey always seemed to have an even higher purpose. For me it was like he was modeling for others what love looks like, what being a true gentleman looks like, what being an authentic disciple of Christ looks like.

As I watched him each Sunday morning, walking into the church building holding Audrey’s hand, opening the car door for her after church—it was as if he loved her as an example to the world how we ought to love one another.

Perhaps that is exactly what Harold was doing. Harold was not only a mentor to a young man at the Howard Elementary. He was trying to teach us all how to be wise men and wise women and go home by another way.

He was teaching us how share the inclusive, expansive love of God with all people; how to see and treat all people as children of God, as sisters and brothers; how to leave this world a better place than we found it.

Yes, as his sons have said, Harold was one of the best teachers we have ever had, for he taught us all how to be wise men and wise women by avoiding the way of King Herod that so many seem to be taking these days, and instead, choose another way:

the way of chivalry over the way of indecency,

the way of love over the way of indifference,

the way of compassion over the way of apathy,

the way of sacrifice over the way of self-centeredness,

the way of inclusion over the way of fear,

and the way of calmness and peace over the way of stress and worry.

And when we choose to go home by this way, not only will we change the world and leave this world a better place than we found it, we can rest assured that like Harold, we will see that the home of God is among mortals. With Harold, we will dwell with God and be God’s peoples. God God’s self will be with us.

To wipe every tear from our eyes.

Death will be no more;

mourning and crying and pain will be no more,

for the first things have passed away.’

There is a great old hymn with beautiful words that describes what Harold experienced the first day of this new year.

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.

How God Responds to Death

cemetary sunsrise

Luke 7:11-15 NRSV

All Saints’ Sunday gives us an opportunity to reflect on a topic that we all like to avoid. Though it occurs to every living person, we do everything we can to distance ourselves from it.

Just a century or more ago, people seemed to be more comfortable with death. There was less distance between the living and the dead. Instead of dying in a hospital or a nursing home, people usually died in their own house.

And their bodies were not sent off to the funeral parlor, but kept at home, prepared there by family members for visitation and burial.

Today, death usually occurs in isolated places where where we have these specialists who deal with it. When families make funeral arrangements, we have more specialists step in to maintain a margin of protection around the grieving.

When I was growing up, I remember being shielded from death. Visitation with the family always occurred in the home of the deceased without the body being present. It stayed at the funeral home.  Although one had the opportunity to privately view the body at the funeral parlor, most people chose to only visit with the surviving family members in the home.

I remember my parents teaching me that there was no need to go to the funeral home to see my Great Granddaddy, because Great Granddaddy was not at the funeral home.

“That’s just his body, an empty shell. He is in heaven with God,” they’d say.

My parents were only doing what they could do to protect me, to keep me at a safe distance from death.

There’s a growing trend to revert back to a more acceptable view of death, to an understanding that death is a natural part of life. After all, at some point, everybody’s doing it. Hospice Homes have been built to accommodate entire families, so everyone can be included in someone’s final moments.

I believe this is a better approach to death. To face it. Accept it.

However, if we are not careful, I believe Christians can take acceptance of death too far. For I believe it can become very problematic when every death, no matter how tragic or horrific, is accepted as the will of God.

In fact, I believe we misconstrue who our God is when, upon hearing of someone’s untimely death we say things like: “Well, it must have been his time to go.” “The Lord called her home.” “Another flower was needed in God’s garden.”  “This is just God’s will, and we just have to accept it.”

By having an understanding that every death is God’s will, I believe some Christians encourage the grieving to move on too quickly with their lives. They infer that spending too much time grieving over a loss means their faith in God is weak and shallow.

“You need to accept that this is all a part of God’s plan. So dry it up. Get yourself together. Get on with your life.”

Thus, many people who still find themselves grieving over a loss they experienced as little as six months ago begin to feel guilty for lacking faith.

People today even try to naturalize the death of children. I do not believe there is anything more unnatural than the death of a child. It is a break of the natural order of things. Our children are supposed to be there to take care of us when we grow old and die.

But I’ve heard people try to limit the tragedy, naturalize the heartbreak. At the funeral of an infant, I one preacher said: “Some children have always died before their parents. The only reason that it seems so tragic is because, today, people are having fewer children.”

He then told the story of Johann Sebastian Bach who had 20 children by two wives. He said, “Only ten of his children survived to adulthood.  What nature took away in the form of untimely death, nature made accommodation by the fruitfulness of human union.”

It was as if he was saying to the grieving parents: “Your grief today is your fault for not having more children! Don’t blame death for your grief, for death is a natural, God-willed process.”

I believe our scripture lesson this morning encourages us to have a better-informed theology when it comes to death.

Jesus and his followers encounter a funeral procession while traveling through the town of Nain. Nothing unusual. A very common occurrence, even today. However, instead of ignoring and isolating himself from death, instead of distancing himself from or denying death by calling it a natural part of life, Jesus confronts death. Jesus stops, recognizes the harsh reality of death

And when Jesus learns that the funeral was for a widow’s only son, Luke tells us that he was moved with compassion. The Greek word used here is a “visceral” verb. It literally means that Jesus was moved from deep within his inner bowels. Jesus had a gut-wrenching reaction to this widow’s loss.

Jesus recognized the tragedy of this death, the unnatural pain and heartache that this death had caused. Jesus recognized that sons should bury mothers. Mothers should not bury sons. Jesus recognized that this was not the will of God.

This is how I believe our God always responds to death. God does not will death. God is not sitting on a throne pushing buttons calling people home.

No, Luke teaches us that when someone dies, God is moved and moved deeply. God has a visceral, gut-wrenching reaction. God is flooded with compassion and overcome with grief. God does not accept death as a natural part of life, but on the contrary, God recognizes the unnatural aspect of it, and God is moved from the very depths of who God is.

Remember Jesus’ response when his friend Lazarus died. It’s the shortest but perhaps most hopeful verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept.”  When a loved one dies, our God does not say: “Have some faith. Move on. Get over it and get on with your life. Stop cying.”

No, our God grieves. Our God cries with us.

With compassion, Jesus reaches out his hand and touches the casket and speaks to the one within it: “Young man, I say to you, get up!”

And then (listen to these wonderful words): “When the son arose, Jesus ‘gave him back to his mother.’” Isn’t that beautiful?  This young man’s life was restored, but so was the life of his mother.

Thus, Jesus demonstrates what our God is all about. God is and has always been about bringing life to all people.

Genesis says that the first act of our God was to breathe the breath of life into creation. God’s breath, God’s Spirit, swept over the face of the waters. God breathed into the human the first breath of human life. And it was in the same manner, God, in Jesus breathed new life into the young man from Nain by speaking the words: “Young man, I say to you, arise,” demonstrating that God’s business is always to give life, not death.

Therefore, I believe it may be questionable theology to say that “God wills death,” or “calls people home,” “or takes our loved ones.”

For our God is always giver. That means God is never a taker.

Thus, it’s more accurate to say that when any death occurs, no matter the age, no matter the circumstance, God confronts it. God is moved with compassion by it. In that moment someone takes their last breath, God is not there taking, but God is there giving, giving all that God has, pouring God’s self out into that person, fully, completely and eternally.

God does not ignore death, demean death, or simplify death saying: “This is all part of my plan.” God does not let any funeral pass by like it is somehow meant to be. No, God is moved with compassion and sees death as a force contrary to God’s will and takes action to overcome it, transform it, resurrect it.

It could be said that God’s whole life in the story Jesus is about this one thing: overcoming the power of death. As Jesus spoke life to this young man from Nain, God speaks life in the resurrection of Jesus and accomplishes not a resuscitation of one, but the redemption of all.

Through Jesus, God restores the natural order of things. God may not keep all children from dying before their parents, but God does restore the power of life over death, and the power of God over everything else in all of creation.

This is the good news for us on All Saints’ Sunday. We worship the God of life. We worship the God who has brought life to the ones we have lost this year, and who is even now bringing life eternally to us.

And this is the challenge for us this day. Because we worship the God of life, we are called even now to do what we can do to bring life, restoration and hope at the graveside of grieving parents and grandparents, as we will do this afternoon, at a Hospice Home or a funeral home, but also wherever there is degradation and dehumanization, wherever women are harassed and objectified, wherever children are neglected and victimized, wherever outsiders are scapegoated and demonized, wherever people are oppressed and demoralized, or wherever anyone is made to feel like they might be better off dead.

I will never forget the response of a homeless woman after our church served her a hot meal this past Easter Sunday.

She said, “Today you have made me feel human again.” T

hink about that. On Easter Sunday, because of the actions of a church, a woman, demoralized and dehumanized by the world, just didn’t learn about resurrection, she actually experienced resurrection.

Thank you for being the God of resurrection, the God of life and restoration. As we follow the Christ wherever he leads us, may we always be your resurrection people who make it our business daily to bring life and restoration wherever it is needed.

Invitation to the Table

Now, may the God of life breathe upon these gifts of grain and grape that they might be for all of us the live-giving presence of the living Christ, that we might be reflections of God’s likeness in a hurting world, so that others might know the blessings of life, abundant and eternal.

We remember all who have gone before us into God’s eternal splendor and now join them and all the angels and all of the saints of heaven as we continue to sing our praises to God together.

God Fights for Us – Remembering Jane Puckett

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I believe this ground, this sacred place where tears have cried a river, is reminiscent of that place the Israelites found themselves in after they were liberated from Egyptian bondage.

With Pharaoh’s army advancing behind them, it was as if their whole world was suddenly crashing down upon them. Because standing before them stood what they perhaps feared the most, the Red Sea. It stood before them like the casket of a loved one for it most certainly represented the end of the line, the end of dreams, the end of hopes. For the Israelites, encamped by the sea with an army closing in behind them, the sea represented certain death.

Overcome by fear, the Israelites did not know what to do. They could not go back to the good old days, and going forward into the promise of good new days seemed impossible. Paralyzed by grief, unable to take one step forward, they did the only thing they could do. They cried out. They cried out to the Lord. They cried out to Moses. They cried out to anyone who would hear. They cried out in disbelief. They cried out in anger. They cried out in fear. They cried out in grief.

But then, the good news. Moses said to the people: “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.” (Exodus 14: 13-14).

And we know the rest of the story: The Red Sea was not the end of the line. It was not the end of their dreams. It was not the end of their hopes.

“Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided.”

Then the same Israelites who were unable to move forward, unable to see beyond the sea, or the casket in front of them, rose up and walked into the sea of their fear as if it were dry ground. They rose up and moved forward into the future with a renewed confidence and a resurrected strength. And this is how they were able to make it to yet unimaginable promised land.

Gary, Josh, Heidi, Amy and Mike, although you cannot go back to the good old days, this is how you and your family will be able to move forward this day into unimaginable good new days. The good news is that the Lord will fight for you. And the really good news is that you only have to stand firm and keep still.

There is no other way that I can possibly explain the industrious strength and the unfailing patience of Jane Puckett. There is no other explanation for her tenacious work ethic, serving her country working for Vance Air Force Base with aircraft maintenance for 42 years. She only recently retired because her unbeknownst cancer made her work physically impossible.

And how else do you account for her courageous battle she fought once she discovered her stage-four cancer that started in her lungs but had metastasized into her brain? How do you explain someone who was as sick Jane, but never complained?

And if anyone had any reason to complain it was her. To work as hard as she did for 42 long years without the opportunity to enjoy a well-earned retirement would make even the sweetest personality bitter. The truth is: a diagnosis like Jane changes most people.

But not Jane. Jane remained firm. She was still the sweet, fun-loving person that she had always been.

The one who loved to go snow skiing in Colorado and water skiing in Canton Lake.

The one who loved to patiently cross stitch gifts for her family and friends.

The one who loved to make baby blankets that were so beautiful that the mothers who received them would hang them on the wall for all to see instead of wrapping them around their babies.

The one who never said anything negative about anyone else.

The one with terminal cancer who had every right to be jealous of those who arbitrarily live into their seventies, eighties and nineties, but still refused to join in any conversation that demeaned another.

The one refused to be bitter and impatient with anyone, including herself and God.

She was still the same firm and patient one who not only tried to make caramel once, only to have it explode sending its sticky shrapnel flying all over her kitchen, but she was the one who had the audacious forbearance to try it again, albeit with the same result.

Even with a terminal disease, she was still the same person who loved to sit on the back porch with Gary and her beloved pet Weazer enjoying a cold drink on a summer evening, thanking God for the gift of her life.

Now, some may say that her kids should probably take some credit for some of her patience and strength, for they were both known to test it a time or two or thirty. Like the time one winter Josh decided to go skiing in the back yard. However, the flat plains of Oklahoma have never been very conducive to backyard snow skiing. But Josh, being a crafty and smart kid, some would argue “perhaps a little too smart for his own good,” decided he would ski off the roof of the house.

Sitting inside, Amy was watching the snow fall out the window, when here comes Josh flying off the roof like some Nordic Olympic ski jumper. “Mama, Josh just skied off the roof!”

Amy also remembers trying her mama’s patience by doing foolish things like walking through a glass door, without first opening that door, requiring a multitude of stitches.

However, as much as these kids tried her patience and tested her strength, I still believe that her strength, her courage, and her patience, especially in the face of her illness, came from a much higher place. I believe it came from the God who continually whispered words to her throughout her living and perhaps especially in her dying. It was the same words whispered to Moses and to the Israelites when they were tested in the wilderness: “The Lord will fight for you, and all you have to do is be still.”

The good news is that her fight is now over. Jane has crossed the sea. Her enemy, her cancer, has been defeated like Pharaoh’s army. She has been led by a pillar of fire and cloud, led by the very hand of God, into a promised land.

And the good news is that as the Lord fought for her, the Lord will fight for you too, and all you have to do is be still. Be still, and then move forward, holding onto one another, holding onto the memory of Jane’s courage and strength, while holding onto the hand of God.

I want to close by reading some words that I read at my grandmother’s graveside service. She also died in her sixties with lung cancer that also had metastasized. However, because of her courage and strength, because she, like Jane, never complained, never had a bitter bone in her body, never uttered a word of malice against anyone, there was no doubt in my mind that before she died, God was there fighting with her and for her. And I knew that everything was going to be alright.  The following are those words (author unknown):

Although Cancer seems to destroy so much, when God is fighting for us, it is obvious that there are many things that cancer cannot do. Cancer, in fact, is very limited in the presence of God. [Like my grandmother, Jane Puckett was a testimony of this].

Cancer is limited.

Cancer cannot cripple love.

It cannot shatter hope.

It cannot corrode faith.

It cannot eat away peace.

It cannot destroy confidence.

It cannot kill friendship.

It cannot shut out memories.

It cannot silence courage.

It cannot invade the soul.

It cannot reduce eternal life.

It cannot quench the Spirit.

It cannot lessen the power of the resurrection.

Thanks be to God.

When Death Surprises Us

Surprise_Surprise

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.

We Cannot Imagine

HeavenLuke 20:27-38 NRSV

One day in the sweet by and by, when we all get to heaven, in the resurrection of the dead, Jesus says we will “neither marry nor be given in marriage.” And today, some of us on this earth who are married, or have been married, sing or shout with a loud voice: “What a day of rejoicing that will be!”

Yes, for some of us with bad marriages, or have Exes that we don’t even want to talk about, this is some very good news! However, for those of us who love our spouses, and cannot imagine life without them, this news is rather disconcerting.

I am thinking specifically about those couples where you never see one without the other. I am thinking about those who have lived together so long that they not only begin to act alike and talk alike, but they actually begin to look alike. Couples who have been married 50, 60 or even 70 years. And when one passes away, the other usually follows very soon after—sometimes just months later; sometimes just days. And none of us are surprised! Not only could they not imagine life without one another, neither could we.

But there lies our real problem! We simply cannot imagine any life beyond this life. A few years ago, the group called Mercy Me, sang a very popular song about heaven entitled I Can Only Imagine. However, the truth is, that when it comes to the resurrection, when it comes to eternity, there is no way we can imagine. Even that popular song that says that we can has more questions in it than answers.

One of the reasons that we cannot imagine it is that eternal life is not something that happens because there is something intrinsic in our nature that makes it happen. It happens only because there something intrinsic in God’s nature that makes it happen. We cannot imagine it, because it is not of us. It is of God.

Some of the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection, but many in the religious community did believe in the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. There was widespread belief that there is something within every human being that is eternal. When we die, our soul simply leaves our body and continues living in another realm. Heaven then is understood as a continuance of our present existence. So if we marry in this life, and our first spouse dies and we remarry, it makes sense to question who our spouse will be when we get to heaven. And if we remarry and our second spouse dies, and we remarry again, and that spouse also dies, and then we marry again, well, we’re going to have a real problem in the hereafter! You think you have problems now?

However, Jesus never talked about the immortality of the soul. Jesus talked about mortality and death and about the resurrection of the dead. As I said last week, when we face our deaths, because it is not God’s will for anyone to perish, it is in the very nature of God to resurrect and transform our deaths into a brand new life. It is just what God does.  It is who God is.

Therefore, in Revelation 21 we these hopeful words:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them;he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’

And with our finite, mortal minds, we cannot imagine it.

The biblical revelation is clear:  Newness, a brand new beginning, a fresh start, a new life can come, but it comes only as a gift from the God of life, the God of the living, the creator of all that is. It cannot and does not come from those who cannot even begin to imagine it.

A very literal translation of the first line of Genesis is “In the beginning God began creating…”  William Willimon puts it this way: “Creation is not something that God did once and for all, but rather something that God continues to do in this world. God keeps making all things new. Day in and day out, God is actively involved with creation, intervening, interfering, renewing and doing battle the primordial chaos that threatens to undo creation. Creation continues as God keeps making something out of nothing.”[i]  This is just who our God is.

The key for us as people of faith in this ever-creating God is to come to understand that much of the pain and brokenness that we experience in this life is not the end, but only the beginning—the beginning of something wonderful that we cannot even imagine it.

We say we cannot imagine spending eternity without our spouses, without our children, without our friends. No we can’t. No more than a small child can imagine some of the pleasures of adulthood.[ii]

Try to explain to a child the immense joy that you receive sitting in front of your fireplace on cold mornings sipping a hot cup of coffee, listening only to sounds of sound of a soft blaze.  Try to explain to a youngster that has boundless energy the sheer gratification you experience rocking in a chair on your front porch at dusk, watching fireflies dance in your backyard.

“But mama, but grandma, but Nana, let’s go out there and try to catch some of them, put them in a jar.”

Think about the look you receive when you say, “No, honey, let’s just sit right here on this porch and quietly rock, breathe in the fresh air and just watch.”

No, just as a child cannot imagine what is pure heaven for adults, neither can we imagine the heaven God has prepared for us. The Apostle Paul put it this way,

But when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known (1 Cor 13).

But right now, we cannot imagine.  We can only trust that the God whose nature is to create and recreate and restore and resurrect will be faithful to God’s very nature.

And although I do not believe there is any way that we can fully imagine eternity, I do believe that we are privy here in our finiteness to glimpses of it. And I am not just talking about fireflies, coffee and fireplaces.

As a pastor, I have seen these glimpses, and though those glimpses might be like looking through a mirror, dimly, I have seen these glimpses often.  Someone loses a job.  They are overcome by depression and despair.  They think their world is coming to an end. They believe that life for them is over.  And I, as a pastor, try to minister to them the best way that I can.  I tell them that God will help them make something out of this mess.  God will make something good come from it.  They will be able to move on.  Things will get better.  And they, of course, cannot even imagine.

Then I check back with them in a few months, after they have landed a new job. And I hear them say things like: “Getting fired from that old job was the best thing that ever happened to me. I absolutely love my new job, and I have never been more happy!”

Someone else comes to me saying that their marriage was suddenly ending. They are completely devastated. They tell me that they feel like their life is over. Their marriage was the most important thing in the world to them, and now it was ending. They have no more reason to get up in the morning, no more reason to try to do a decent day’s work. They’re in utter despair.  Again, I try to reassure them. God will somehow, someway, work it out, help you get through this difficult time. God will work and wring whatever good can be wrung out of this horrible situation!”

“Preacher,” they say, “I cannot imagine.”

And then, a couple of years later, they fall in love again and remarry.  And I hear them say something like, “What I thought was the end of my life was only the beginning. And though I may never be able to go back to the good old days, I realize now that I have plenty of good new days ahead!”

Another comes to me and shares their doctor’s grim diagnosis. They use words like “terminal,” “inoperable,” and “untreatable.”  They say that life is over. Death is the only thing in their future. However, a short time later, as I visit them in the Hospice House, they let me know in a miraculous way that being fully alive and fully whole have absolutely nothing to do with physical well-being.

Who would have imagined?

A child dies. Then God steps in and miraculously begins working and creating and recreating and resurrecting. And untold dollars are raised in that child’s memory to fight a dreadful disease. And countless other children are saved.

Who could have imagined?

And the good news is that one day, when we face our final hours, with faith in the God of the living, the God of resurrection and restoration, that there is nothing final at all about them!


[i] Willimon, William. A quote found in some of my old sermon notes. Source uncertain.

[ii] Culpepper, Alan. Luke. The New Interpreters Bible, Volume 9 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 390.

Faith in the God of the Living

obx_sunriseExcerpt from We Cannot Imagine

Luke 20:27-38 NRSV

What does having faith in the God of the living mean for you?

When he lost his job, he thought it was the end of the world. But a year later, working a new job, he now knows that losing that job was the very best thing that could have happened to him.

When her marriage fell apart, she thought that her life was over. But a few months later, she is beginning realize that although she cannot go back to the good old days, she has plenty of good new days ahead.

When the doctor gave him the grim diagnosis, he thought he had received a death sentence. But a short time later, he is beginning to understand that being alive and whole has very little to do with physical well-being.

And one day, when you face your final hours, you will become aware that, with faith in the God of the living, there is nothing “final” at all about them.

How God Always Responds to Death

Sermon Excerpt from Death at a Funeral

Luke 7:11-15

840-casket-before-burial

This is how I believe our God always responds to death: God does not will death. God does not ordain death. God is not sitting on a throne pushing buttons calling people home. Luke teaches us that when someone dies, God is moved very deeply.  It is a visceral reaction.  God is flooded with compassion for both the deceased and the living. God does not ignore death or accept death as a natural part of life, but on the contrary, God confronts death, recognizes the harsh reality of it, the sheer evil of it, and God is moved from the very depths of who God is.

Therefore, it is very inaccurate to ever say that in death: “God takes people home.” I have said many times that God is a giver not a taker. It is the very nature of who our loving God is. It is far more accurate to say that when any death occurs, no matter the age, no matter the circumstance, God confronts it. God is moved with compassion. And God doesn’t take, but gives God’s self completely, fully and finally to the one who dies and his or her grieving family.

God does not ignore death, or demean death, or simplify death saying, “This is all part of my purpose driven plan.”  Through Jesus, God does not let any death at a funeral simply pass by like it is somehow meant to be.  Through Christ, God is moved with compassion and sees death as a force contrary to God’s will and acts to overcome it. God always acts to transform death at a funeral into life at a funeral.