We had Gordon’s memorial service recently. It was a rich celebration of his life, and a time for mourning his death. His children spoke tenderly and movingly of what a good man and a good father he was to them, what a great grandfather to their children. I saw and spoke with people I hadn’t seen in 30 or 40 years – “So good to see you again; just sorry for the occasion that brings us together.”
Death is many things: an essential and necessary part of the cycle of life; a shadow under which we all live, every day of our lives; a “friend,” if you will, when it brings an end to physical pain and suffering; an enemy to be destroyed; a Power that holds Creation in its anti-life grasp; the great Interrupter of our nicely-managed lives and schedules and hopes and plans; the Separator of us from those we love.
As I was preparing for Gordon’s service, I was struck again with our need to do three things on such occasions: mourn; celebrate; hope. Our culture tends to view death as just one more thing to be managed. After all, it’s a natural part of life, and since natural life is all there is (so we tell ourselves), death is simply one last thing to handle. Mourning tends to get suppressed; we are uncomfortable with sad and dark feelings, and what good are they anyway? Don’t worry; be happy; life goes on.
It’s hard to mourn if there is no hope. If all we really are is a random collection of atoms, a bag of matter and energy, there’s not much reason to mourn when the power finally goes off because there is nothing to look forward to. Without deep hope it is hard to deeply mourn, and so memorial services are turning into mere celebrations of the deceased. We party at birth, we party at significant life events along the way, and we party at the end before the six-foot hole swallows all, before the ashes are recycled by wind and water.
“The sting of death is sin,” Paul wrote the Corinthians, in that great passage that includes the triumphal cry, “Where is your victory, O Death; where, O Death, is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:55-56).
A sting(er) is a delivery system for a toxin; remember how your body reacts to a bee-sting. Sin is the delivery system, the stinger, for the toxin of death and every one of us gets stung in the end. But there’s something more than, something after, that sting.
You might be familiar with some “fine art” paintings of various “heroes of the faith.” There is often a skull somewhere in the painting, a memento mori, a “reminder that you must die.” We used to be able to talk about death; it was more “in your face” then than now in our hyper-medicalized world. Christians used to pray for a good death.
A good death involved more than dying at home in your bed, surrounded by those who love you; it certainly included that, but there was more than that. A good death was necessarily connected to, an outgrowth of, a good life: not a life assessed in terms of grand achievement, of great success and wealth, but a life well-lived in faith, in hope, and in love. A life that ends in the peace of Christ, at peace with God and neighbor, forgiving and forgiven, reconciled, in great gratitude and hope.
Gordon lived well, and died well. Of course he did neither his living nor his dying “perfectly”; where did we ever get the idea that “perfection” in these things was possible, or even necessary? We don’t need to make him into a hero in order to admire and honor how he lived and died.
As his cancer progressed, Gordon remained Gordon. He maintained his sense of humor, his curiosity, his gratitude for gifts large and small and his love for problem-solving, even when the problem was the cancer threatening his own life. He embraced what came his way with grace and courage, not letting go of life, not complaining but welcoming each day’s gifts and challenges. He struck a wise balance between battling and accepting, but without self-pity or protesting “why did this happen to me?” He savored and lived the moments he was given, understanding that it’s all a free gift from God, not a possession that was “his.”
Even as his cancer progressed, Gordon remained Gordon. I think it’s fair to say he became “more Gordon.”
I thought one of us said it well, as we were speaking following the service. “I actually didn’t know Gordon all that well,” she said. “And now, I’m sad that I didn’t have the opportunity to get to know him better; he was such a wonderful man!”
You are surrounded by similar wonderful women and men, boys and girls; take time to get to know and enjoy these great gifts of God’s love.
In my penultimate conversation with Gordon, in hospice, we talked a bit about his memorial service. His pain medication was pretty high, so he wasn’t his usual sharp self, but Gordon was still very much there. “Any special Scriptures you’d like read? Any favorite hymns?”
“No, not really”, he replied; “my kids can take care of all that” (which they did, and did so very well!). Then he said, “Just Jesus. Just Jesus.”
A good life. And a good death. God grace us who are alive to live, and to die, well, in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection.