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death

October 01, 2012

Hitchens MortalityI began reading Mortality, Christopher Hitchens’ newest book—his final book—on the day it was released. I couldn’t sleep that day, so woke up in the wee hours, downloaded it to the iPad and began reading. It’s not a long work, so did not take more than a couple of hours. Like everything Hitchens wrote, Mortality is brilliant and insightful and well-written and utterly defiant. One of the best-known and most widely-respected of the New Atheists, he both denied and hated God to the end.

Hitchens was only sixty-two when he died. He had just released a memoir, Hitch-22, and was on a book tour to promote it when he suddenly developed terrible pain in his chest and thorax. He began a long and ultimately unsuccessful treatment for esophageal cancer and died eighteen months later in December of 2011. In the time between he penned a series of columns for Vanity Fair and those columns form the basis of Mortality. Not surprisingly, they deal with illness and death and…mortality.

I read this book as a Christian, exactly the kind of person Hitchens wrote against—a Bible-believing, God-fearing theist. Yet I read it with far more sadness and pity than offense. At times in his voluminous writings Hitchens was monstrously unfair to Evangelical Christians, lumping us in with the Fred Phelps’ and Muslim extremists of the world. At other times he was guardedly respectful. This book spans both extremes. Many professed Christians earned his disrespect. Take the author of this comment that Hitchens came across while traveling the World Wide Web:

Who else feels Christopher Hitchens getting terminal throat cancer [sic] was God’s revenge for him using his voice to blaspheme him? Atheists like to ignore FACTS. They like to act like everything is a “coincidence.” Really? It’s just a “coincidence” [that] out of any part of his body, Christopher Hitchens got cancer in the one part of his body he used for blasphemy? Yeah, keep believing that, Atheists. He’s going to writhe in agony and pain and wither away to nothing and then die a horrible agonizing death, and THEN comes the real fun, when he’s sent to HELLFIRE forever to be tortured and set afire.

Of course not all Christians reacted with such glee and such firm confidence of an intimate understanding of God’s providence. There were others who were kind, who told him that, like it or not, they would pray for him, and who sought to bring him encouragement. 

January 06, 2011

A few weeks ago Aileen’s grandmother passed away. Two or three decades ago I’m sure the cause of death would have been listed simply as old age—a shorthand doctors used to say that her body simply gave out after many long illnesses; she just did not have the strength to fight anymore. She was the last of our grandparents, the last of that generation.

In the time since then the family has been wrapping up her affairs, dealing with the estate, emptying the house and preparing it for sale. Each of the kids and grandkids has gone through the house, staking claim to certain special items, little things that often have little monetary value but great emotional significance—clocks, dolls, pictures and things of that nature—the things that they associate with the person they loved. And having done that, they are now left with a house full of stuff. It’s a house full of furniture and boxes and pots and pans and junk drawers and appliances and everything else that a person uses and accumulates over a lifetime.

And so they are now sorting through that stuff, throwing much of it in the trash, donating other things to Salvation Army, and keeping the occasional thing that they just can’t bring themselves to throw out. Aileen’s grandmother was no pack rat—she kept a careful and clean home and had moved enough times that she had not accumulated as many possessions as some people do. And yet there is still a lot of stuff—as much as you would expect to find in a good-sized home. There is nothing in the home that she did not keep for one reason or another. Some she kept because it was practical and she thought she would need it; some she kept because it was sentimental, having been given to her by someone she loved. And now other people—her children and children-in-law, are sorting through all of that stuff, keeping some but discarding most.

September 16, 2010

Last night we received the shocking news that one of our next-door neighbors had taken his life just a few hours prior. He was only fourteen years old. Though he was a boy who suffered from Asperger’s and a few obsessive kinds of disorders, he was still, by all appearances, quite a normal kid—a reclusive one, but one who was still a presence in the neighborhood. Yesterday, while out with his mother, he threw himself off a building and fell to his death. We grieve for the family he left behind—for his mother, his sister and his two brothers.

Later today, when my children return home from school, we will need to tell them the sad news. It is a difficult thing to have to tell young children—that a child who lived next door took his own life. As I lay in bed this morning, wondering how I could best explain it to them, I thought back to an old blog post I had written. Though I wrote it seven years ago, it seemed somehow fitting to post it again today since the issues will be the same as I explain death to my three children, all of whom have been blessedly protected from its harsh reality through their young lives.

*****

My son is three years old and has recently begun to become aware of the existence of death. At only three he has far greater capacity to wonder and to ask questions than he does to understand. This makes it difficult and as his father I struggle to try to share with him what death is and how something so terrifying and so final can be made an occasion of wondrous joy.

Today while my wife was at a Bible study, Nick and I settled down to watch a movie. It was a children’s movie and at the end one of the central characters died. I watched Nick as this event unfolded. I could see his face fall and his eyes narrow as the character died. I saw tears form as he watched the loved ones gather around their fallen friend. He turned to me and with tears spilling down his cheeks sobbed, “Daddy, why did he have to die? When is he going to come alive again?” I pulled him to my lap and reminded him of heaven and told him that people who love God go to heaven when they die. I told him how heaven is a place where there is no more death, no more fighting and no more sadness. I told him that it is a place where we can always be with God and where boys and their daddies can be together forever. He tried so hard to understand, but how is a three-year old mind supposed to understand a concept as large and as unnatural as death?

June 07, 2010

One of the unexpected blessings of writing this blog is that it sets in stone things that that have happened in the past or even just things I’ve been thinking about months or years before. I use the blog, in some ways, as a record of spiritual development. I return quite often to articles I’ve written in the past to challenge myself anew or to recount God’s grace in my life. Sometimes I just flip through the archives over a period of time and I am reminded what was happening then, what I was thinking then, how I was growing.

Several years ago now, a friend of mine who was a former co-worker and manager, succumbed to leukemia. It had actually been a few years since Mike and I had worked together and we had seen each other only occasionally since the company we had both worked for had shut down. I found out about the leukemia through his wife who included me in the updates she would send out every week or two in order to keep friends and family updated on his condition. I read these with increasing delight as he began to show positive signs of recovery, and with horror as the disease rallied and began to destroy him. I went to his home once to fix his wife’s’ computer. Mike was in the hospital at that time and his wife was nearly overwhelmed. “You know God, right? Tim, you’ve got to pray for us!” she cried out at one point. And of course I did.

I got in to the hospital to see Mike just once. Because of his weakened condition only visitors who were very healthy were allowed to visit him. We sat and talked and recounted old times, chatting and enjoying one another’s company. I wanted to know about Mike’s spiritual condition. It was obvious by that point that he was unlikely to survive his illness and I was concerned to know about his standing with the Lord. But before I could really ask him, a nurse swept into the room and made it obvious that the visit was over—Mike had to have some kind of awful but all-too-regular procedure. Mike soon took a turn for the worse and, after ten days in the palliative ward, he died. The day after I received the notice from his wife that he had been admitted to the palliative ward I sat down and wrote an article that continues to haunt me. It went like this:

August 08, 2009

I came across an interesting quote in Joshua Kendall’s book The Man Who Made Lists: Love, Death, Madness, and the Creation of Roget’s Thesaurus. It is a biography of Peter Mark Roget, the man behind the creation of the famous thesaurus that bears his name. In 1824 Roget married Mary Hobson (who, like her husband, was of Huguenot stock) and, by all accounts, they had a very happy marriage. Sadly, the marriage lasted only nine years before Mary died of cancer. After her death, Roget found a letter she had written to him a few years earlier when she had been pregnant with their daughter and when she thought the pregnancy might cost her life. These words were of great comfort to Roget as he grieved for his wife. They are sweetly biblical and earnestly heartfelt.

These few lines then will be seen by you alone. They are to repeat to you, my precious, how dearly I love you, and to thank you for the sweet tenderness and kindness which have made the last year of my life so very, very happy. Do not, love, think of me in sorrow, for God will let us be happy again where we need not fear to be separated any more. If I leave you a sweet infant, it will comfort you and you will cherish it for my sake. But more than all, you will be comforted by that firm confidence in the goodness and Mercy of our Heavenly Parent, which we have so often talked of together as the dearest hold of our consoling religion. … And God will keep you and bless you till he wills that we may meet again.

From The Man Who Made Lists by Joshua Kendall.

(Parenthetically, while it seems that Mary very likely was a true believer, Roget gave little evidence, especially later in life, of a heartfelt profession of faith in Christ)

June 26, 2009

So the king is dead. What a sad end to a sad life; a pathetic end to a pathetic life (by which I mean to use pathetic in its true sense as “arousing pity and sympathy). I don’t know that I have ever seen, in one man, such a combination of self-love and self-loathing, shocking narcissism combined with equally shocking self-hatred. Truly Michael Jackson was unparalleled.

Andrew Sullivan offered a few interesting thoughts.

There are two things to say about him. He was a musical genius; and he was an abused child. By abuse, I do not mean sexual abuse; I mean he was used brutally and callously for money, and clearly imprisoned by a tyrannical father. He had no real childhood and spent much of his later life struggling to get one. He was spiritually and psychologically raped at a very early age - and never recovered. Watching him change his race, his age, and almost his gender, you saw a tortured soul seeking what the rest of us take for granted: a normal life.

But he had no compass to find one; no real friends to support and advise him; and money and fame imprisoned him in the delusions of narcissism and self-indulgence. Of course, he bears responsibility for his bizarre life. But the damage done to him by his own family and then by all those motivated more by money and power than by faith and love was irreparable in the end. He died a while ago. He remained for so long a walking human shell.

I loved his music. His young voice was almost a miracle, his poise in retrospect eery, his joy, tempered by pain, often unbearably uplifting. He made the greatest music video of all time; and he made some of the greatest records of all time. He was everything our culture worships; and yet he was obviously desperately unhappy, tortured, afraid and alone.

I grieve for him; but I also grieve for the culture that created and destroyed him. That culture is ours’ and it is a lethal and brutal one: with fame and celebrity as its core values, with money as its sole motive, it chewed this child up and spat him out.

I hope he has the peace now he never had in his life. And I pray that such genius will not be so abused again.

From beginning to end, Jackson led a tortured life and he led much of it in full view of the public. As much as he was secretive, being whisked about behind masks and tinted windows, the sheer volume of cameras and the unending interest in his life meant that his every step was recorded. We saw him change his skin color, change his face, and almost change his gender. Through it all, we gasped at his obvious self-loathing, expressed in his desire to change everything he is and was and manifested in his increasingly bizarre behavior. He was a tortured soul and I doubt we can even imagine what was going on inside that increasingly twisted heart, that increasingly conflicted mind.

Michael Jackson was in so many ways a product of this sick celebrity culture (that he helped create) that will never rest satisfied until it has both created and then destroyed the newest celebrity. We want our celebrities to start strong and finish weak, to begin with a bang and then fizzle, pop and sputter, all for our enjoyment and entertainment (Susan Boyle stands as the most recent example of this). Jackson gave us so much to talk about, so much to enjoy. More than any other celebrity he embodied the “vanities” of Ecclesiastes. He was at one time known for what he did so well and then was known for being a freak; he was at one time fantastically wealthy and then utterly broke; he was once loved and then despised. He had it all and yet, it seemed, he had nothing. All of it was meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

Andrew Sullivan ended his reflection on Jackson by saying, “I hope he has the peace now he never had in his life.” I hope the same. Truly, I do. I never cared much for Michael Jackson. I listened to his music occasionally in life but, after losing my childhood collection of 45’s, I didn’t ever buy one of his songs or albums. But it was impossible to miss him completely as even decades after the peak of his fame, his face was often in the news and even a simple skim of the headlines would show that his strangeness was increasing year-by-year. Through all of this I haven’t ever hoped for much on his behalf. But I hope now that he has finally found peace. Sadly, though, his life showed no evidence that he had found the One who is peace, the one who offers true peace. And if that is the case, the true horror of it all is that Jackson will spend all of eternity in the same twisted mind that tortured him for most of the fifty years he was given here. Those fifty years seemed to drive him to the brink of utter insanity; the thought of an eternity in that state is too horrific to imagine. We may like to think that death inevitably brings peace to a tortured existence. But Scripture gives us no reason to find hope except in the One who offers hope by saying “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” May you find that rest today so you can enjoy that rest eternally.

October 05, 2008

I’ve met Terry Stauffer a few times—at Together for the Gospel and at least one or two other conferences. He has been a regular commenter at this blog and maintains a blog of his own. He serves as pastor of Edson Baptist Church in Edson, Alberta. Earlier this week I was shocked to receive an email from my pastor pointing to this entry on Terry’s blog. “Last night at about 4:45 our precious 14 year-old daughter Emily was attacked and killed as she was out for a walk. We don’t know a lot of details, but we know that two young men came upon the scene right away, but it was too late for Emily.” On Friday the Staffer’s celebrated Emily’s life and said their goodbyes to her.

Capture.JPGThrough it all, the Stauffer’s have, at least publicly, been pillars of strength; they have been showing such clear evidence of the grace of God in their lives. They have been quoted widely in the media and clips from the funeral have been broadcast across the nation.

Here are a few words from the grieving mother:

“If it was not for the prayers of God’s people and for the arms of God holding us up, we would be puddles on the floor. God gives strength to the weak, and we are weak,” said Emily’s mother, Juanita Stauffer.

“I heard about another father this week, who said he gave the eulogy for a child, and he said, ‘You know it wasn’t hard. I could talk about my child forever.’ And when I heard that, I thought, that is so true. I could talk about Emily for a long time, and I probably will,” she said.

And from heart-broken father:

“Emily loved Jesus. But now her faith has turned to sight,” he said. “The dream is over. The endless day has begun.”

“When Emily’s death was confirmed on Saturday night, I was shocked and bewildered. And when I got on my knees, all I could pray was, ‘Oh Lord, help, help, help,’” he said.

“But right into that, one of my first thoughts was, ‘If this gospel I’ve been preaching is not true today, it was never true at all.’”

God is carrying us. He is using our family, church family and friends. God is also carrying us by His promises which were precious last week and tested and precious this week.

That gospel he has preached for so many years is true; it is the gospel that saved Emily, the gospel that will sustain this family without her, and the gospel that will reunite them in that endless day. May God continue to bless and to sustain the Stauffers and may He continue to magnify Himself through them.

June 20, 2008

Earlier today Dennis Rainey sent the following email to some of his friends. I share this because it is just such a wonderful testament to God’s grace in the lives of these people. Only Christians can have such hope even in the face of devastating adversity.


On Thursday, Miss Molly made her way to her new home in heaven around 6:15 pm. Her last day with us began with a pretty average sunrise, but the sunset that closed out her Coronation Day was spectacular.

As we left the hospital, thunderstorms had blown up over the mountains resulting in a dazzling sunset splashing platinum gold shafts of light all over the Rockies. The light behind the clouds was brilliant. It was as though the sun was declaring, Magnificent Molly is home! What a homecoming it must have been…saying good bye and letting her leave this earthly home was one tough assignment for a young mother and father and a couple of families that had become hopelessly attached to this fragile little girl.

The Scriptures declare, “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.” That verse challenged our faith all day long, but it was nonetheless a day ordered by God’s sovereign hand of love and mercy.

Jake and Rebecca spent nearly all morning with Molly. As we arrived, Beth, Molly’s nurse and an angel herself, told us that Molly’s vital signs were slipping. Her little heart was racing at over 170 beats per minute and she was receiving 100 per cent pure oxygen, yet, her oxygen saturation level in her blood stream was down to 80. She was losing color. The nurse told us that it was Molly’s way of telling her parents, “it’s time for me to leave you and go home to heaven.” I am weeping as I write these words, none of us wanted Molly to leave.

Around noon, Rebecca and Jake honored all of us as grandparents by giving us the honor and privilege of holding Molly and gave us a moment to say good bye. None of us expected we’d get that treat. We didn’t want to rob them of one moment with their precious daughter.

Barbara got to be first. It was quite a maneuver to make sure all the wires and tubes that were supporting Molly’s life didn’t get tangled, but finally there she was in her arms, Mimi’s granddaughter. Barbara kept saying how much of an honor it was hold this little princess of the King. She held her close and cooed words of love and admiration over her beautiful face. Smiles and tears mingled.

Jake’s parents soaked all of her they could in and when it was Bill’s turn, he stroked her face, tenderly whispered his love for her and shared his favorite Scriptures with her. Pam beamed as she gently rocked Molly and sang “Jesus Loves Me” to her. Both Bill and Pam just held her, kissing her face, holding her little hands and weeping as they said good bye.

As Molly was placed in my arms she felt so warm, just like every other newborn. I tried to sing to her and I doubt that she recognized “Jesus Loves Me” as I choked out the words through tears.

Jake who was video-taping, asked me, “Papa, why don’t you tell Molly a story…one of your ‘Speck People’ stories?” I have to tell you that ‘speck stories’ are adventure stories of tiny little people and equally tiny little creatures who live in a make believe microscopic world, facing any number of challenges that demand courage and faith. Our kids were enthralled with these tiny people stories and now I am telling them to my grandkids. The stories always take the Speck People to the very edge of danger…and then I close, by saying, “And you’ll have to wait until tomorrow night to hear the rest of the story.” My grandkids love these ‘continue’ stories. (honestly, I’m not all that good at it…I just make it all up as I go.)

So here’s Jake asking me to tell a story…and I respond to Jake, “You aren’t going to ask me to do that, after I’ve just blubbered my way through a simple song like “Jesus Loves Me”, are you?” Jake was joined by Rebecca in saying a resounding yes—they wouldn’t let me off the hook.

So Rebecca and Barbara surround me as I held little Molly, looked into her face and began my story. A Speck grandfather and his Speck granddaughter went fishing for tiny speck fish. My story was less than 60 seconds long and I looked up into Rebecca’s face and she had the biggest grin, dimples and all. She was loving the moment. As I concluded my story, I told Molly, “the Speck grandfather and granddaughter took their fish and ate them, and then they encountered something that you would never expect or believe…and…you will have to wait until I get to heaven to hear the rest of the story!” At this point I was sobbing, but I got the words out…and Rebecca and Jake started laughing. I will never forget the look pure joy on this young mom’s face.

Rebecca’s laughter has always been contagious and I too began to really laugh. One other detail of importance is that all of us had been gingerly holding Molly, afraid that the stress of handling her might be more than her little body could handle. Jake and I looked at the heart and oxygen monitor to see if our hearty laughter had stressed her system, but the opposite was happening-they were going up! Her oxygen saturation which had been at 80 shot up to 92, then 94, 97, 98, 99…we just kept laughing and her oxygen level went to 100 per cent, which it hadn’t been in 24 hours. All four of us cheered with raised arms like at a football game. It was a moment of sheer delight and mystery. A small thing, perhaps? Yes, no doubt. But in the valley of the shadow of death, God gave us laughter.

Christians are the ONLY people who can laugh in the midst of such a crisis without despair-we KNOW where we are headed. Heaven is certain because of what Jesus Christ did for us through His death for our sins. Because He lives we who believe have the hope of life after death. If a person places faith in Christ for forgiveness of his sins, surrenders his life to Him, then he can be certain of heaven too. It’s the ultimate reason why death is different for a true follower of Christ. And it’s why we could laugh as our beloved Molly was about to leave us.

Laughter stopped and the tears flowed again as I was told it was time for me to say good bye. Rebecca was now holding Molly. Barbara and I knelt beside her as I read her my good bye letter:

Mighty Molly

I just met you-I feel cheated.
I don’t want to say good bye.

I know I’ll likely see you in a couple of decades or so-in light of eternity, it won’t be long, really.
Still I don’t want to say good bye.

You will always be My Molly, my granddaughter.
I’m really sad that I won’t be getting to spoil you
with a doll,
or go sneak chocolate,
or take you on ice cream dates,
and eat chocolate pie and pudding.
Laughing all the time at what your mommy and daddy would say if they knew what we were doing.
I don’t want to say good bye.

Your 7 days sure brought a lot of joy to your mom and dad’s face—
I’ve watched them drink you in with their eyes, kiss you from head to foot, stroke and caress you.
Your parents loved you well—God couldn’t have given you better parents. Courageous parents.
They have loved you with a sacrificial love that only a very few little girls like you ever get to experience.
Because it hurts their hearts so much,
Oh, how I really don’t want to say good bye.

And so, Sweet Molly until that day in heaven
When we will celebrate the Greatness of our God together,
(then we will go sneak chocolate and go on an ice cream date)
I MUST say good bye.

Good bye Molly Ann.

I love you,
 Papa

Molly Ann Mutz
June 13, 2008-June 19, 2008

We cannot Lord, Thy purpose see
But all is well that’s done by Thee.

Dennis
Psalm 112:1-2

April 29, 2008

Mark was determined to die. And in retrospect there was really nothing anyone could have done to stop him.

His first attempt came when he was 18 and it left him with scars running the length of his arms. His sister found him sitting calmly in the bathtub, a razor blade lying in the pool of blood. Help arrived in time to save him. When he was released from hospital his parents took him to the finest psychiatrists in the city. Each one of them diagnosed him with something different: one said he had a personality disorder and another schizophrenia. One even told him that he was “just a punk” who was bent on defying his parents and making their lives miserable. I think this one may have been on to something.

Mark overdosed on pills on his sister’s birthday. She had invited a few friends to spend the night and they were in the family room watching a movie when he came down to the basement, delirious from the medication cocktail he had consumed. Another call to 9-1-1 and another stay in the hospital once again saved his life. This time he was admitted to a psychiatric institution where he spent several months resting and recovering. Upon his release, ominously, he told his parents that if he wanted to kill himself there was nothing they would be able to do to stop him.

So what was the family to do? Sure, his family could have tried to ensure that someone was with him every hour of every day, but that would have left his entire family in a state of bondage. They hoped against hope that he had, indeed, recovered, and that he had found some reason to live. They prayed that he would find something worth living for. They grew to trust him, believing at last that he had found reason to go on living. Perhaps his artwork or even his writing could give him the inspiration to face life.

But his artwork was dark as death. His room was filled with dolls, covered in blood and in various states of torture and dismemberment. It sends chills down my spine just to think of it.

One Sunday in July Mark finally won his battle. No one knew he was still so determined to die. His plan was elaborate. It was cruel.

Sunday morning his mother climbed into her car, planning to go to the store. On the steering wheel was a note from Mark saying that he had taken his life, that it was too late to save him, and that he had left clues about his suicide in places they did not expect. His mother, hysterical, ran into the house. After quickly skimming the note, his father ran upstairs and into Mark’s room. Mark lay on the floor, already stiff and cold. A mask ran from a tank of helium to his face. A block of wood had held the valve open as he breathed in the poisonous gas. Mark was dead.

I was asked to come and be with the family just hours after Mark’s death. The coroner had just left when I arrived. The phone was ringing as neighbors called to ask why there had been police cars and an ambulance outside the house. My wife and I sat with the family as they poured out their grief and their guilt. Shouldn’t they have known that he was going to try this again? Shouldn’t they have been able to prevent it? If only they had decided to walk into his room the night before! Mark’s father, searching for meaning in the face of tragedy, spoke of Mark’s death as a gift to the family. Maybe, he said, just maybe, Mark had seen how his problems had contributed to the troubles the family had experienced recently. Maybe Mark took his life so that the family could put aside their differences and renew their commitment to remaining together. Maybe, in some bizarre way, Mark sacrificed himself for the good of others. Maybe this was Mark’s gift. Maybe there was just a little bit of light amidst all the darkness.

Mark gave his family another gift. He left little notes in unexpected places. After his death the family would open a book and find a cruel note he had left there just before he died. His sister opened her Bible and found many passages highlighted. Mark had asked to borrow it and had highlighted passages throughout the Gospels and through Romans that outlined the way of salvation. I’ve often wondered if he understood the passages he had highlighted. I hope he did.

Aileen and I and the members of the church we attended gathered around the family, which has no relatives in North America, providing them with food and taking care of the funeral planning. One of the strangest experiences of my life was returning that helium tank to the store Mark had rented it from. The clerk was quite upset that I did not have the receipt for the tank and told me I could not return the tank until I found it. He finally relented when I told him that there had been a tragedy within the family and he was not going to get a receipt, ever.

In the days following Mark’s death, his parents did reconcile, at least for a time. His mother, who had been living a few minutes away, moved back in with his father. His sister moved home from school, and for the first time in many months the family was truly together.

The funeral was a study in opposites. Or perhaps it was a study in unity. Mark’s friends mostly occupied one side of the church. They dressed in jeans and t-shirts, mostly black. Many of them wore the distinctive makeup of so-called Goths. Many wore pentagrams. Yet these people, so obsessed with death, seemed unable to deal with death’s stark reality. As they stared at his body, lying at peace in the coffin, they broke down. Many of them felt the need to touch him, tousling his hair or touching his shoulder. One or two of them pushed little baggies of marijuana into his coffin.

The friends of Mark’s sister occupied the other side of the church. These seemed mostly to be clean-cut businessmen and churchgoers. His parent’s colleagues, largely professors and scientists, were mixed among them. An overflow room was needed to hold the members of his sister’s church (my church at the time) who came to show their support for her.

These two groups, so different from each other, were united in their grief. Some grieved for the loss of a friend. Others grieved for the grief their friends were feeling. Two of them grieved for a son they were unable to help. One grieved for her only sibling. Throwing herself on her brother’s body, Mark’s sister wept as she poured out her grief that she would never be an aunt. She was now an only-child.

I love her as a sister. She spent countless hours with my family when she was younger and seemed to become another sibling. I told her then that if she ever needs a big brother I am only a phone call away. But I know I’m a cheap substitute for the God-given gift of a flesh-and-blood brother.

The family asked me to read from the Bible and pray at the funeral. What could I say about a young man who hated God and did all he could do to defy Him? What could I say that would provide some comfort to the family and help them through this terrible time? The answer, obviously, was absolutely nothing. So I prayed that God would comfort them. I prayed that God would make Himself real to them and provide them with the strength to go on.

I carried Mark’s coffin to the grave. We laid it down beside the little patch of plastic grass, placed there to cover the stark reality of freshly-dug soil, and solemnly stepped back. His friends soon surrounded the coffin, pulling out their cigarettes as if to share one last smoke with their friend. While they tossed their cigarette butts to the ground beside his coffin one or two placed a flower on top. The pastor led us in a prayer. And then we turned and walked away.

Years have passed since Mark’s body was laid to rest on a hill in a quiet cemetery. Mark’s gift has been forgotten. His parents have gone their separate ways. His sister has moved to Australia where she is involved in ministry, rescuing girls from a life of prostitution. Her mother was baptized about a year after Mark’s death, having been led to the Lord by the simple love of the Christians who surrounded them during those dark days. His father has moved away and remarried.

Mark left pleasant memories of his childhood, but little more than heartbreaking memories of his teenage years. The family has fractured, unable to find grounds for reconciliation. His death was senseless; purposeless. Mark left his family no gift.

But the light still shone even when all seemed so dark. God, who specializes in working good from evil, was able to take what was senseless and purposeless and use it to build His kingdom. All credit goes not to the person who caused the pain, but to the One who used it for good.

Yes, I did post an article awfully similar to this several years ago. Somehow it just seemed timely to post one like it again…

January 07, 2008

A few years ago Chris and Rebecca, close friends of ours, shared with us that her grandfather, Art, had been diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. The doctors considered it terminal and inoperable, saying that it was one of the most aggressive forms of brain cancer. He would have only a couple of months to live and for much of that time, especially as the end approached, he would be in agonizing pain. Like the rest of their friends and family, we prayed for this family, asking that God would strengthen them and that He would either heal her grandfather or take him home before the pain became too much to bear.

Rebecca’s family is spread across three provinces, one state and thousands of miles. Yet in the weeks following Art’s diagnosis, he was able to spend time with each of his children, with his nine grandchildren and their spouses and with his four great-grandchildren. Soon he and his wife found themselves in small-town Saskatchewan visiting Chris and Rebecca and their immediate family. Their little daughter, only a couple of years old at the time, loved to hug him, to sit on his lap and to rub his face between her hands. She squealed with delight when she saw him and the family was able to capture some wonderful pictures and video of them together. Art also delighted to meet his newest granddaughter who was only a few weeks old and who was named after his wife. Rebecca was able to spend some precious, quality time with him; sitting at his feet and listening to him recount God’s goodness and faithfulness in his life. He and Chris sat together playing the piano and singing hymns to the Lord.

Art was at peace with what he knew was coming. He was ready to die. Still, he never doubted that if God saw fit, He might send the cancer into remission and extend his life here on earth.

On the second or third evening he spent with Chris and Rebecca and their family he began to feel tired and went to lie down in the living room. The family slowly migrated to his side and they spent the evening there with him. He sat on the sofa, holding his wife’s hand, reminiscing about how they had met and had fallen in love. He told about his young son who had died many years before. Then he took Chris and Rebecca’s baby in his arms and read her a blessing from the book of Numbers. “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.” And shortly after, in mid-sentence, as he was answering a question Rebecca had asked him, his head settled back, his chest rose and fell once or twice more, and he was gone.

Perhaps it is more correct to say that he had arrived. He had left his wife’s side—his wife who had shared his life with him—and had gone to the side of His Savior, who had given His life for him.

The family found out later that at the very moment he died, but on the other side of the country, a prayer meeting was underway. The church that Rebecca’s uncle attends was praying that God would take him home soon, to spare him an excruciating end. God saw fit to answer innumerable prayers. He spared Art so much pain, but first allowed him to spend some precious moments with his family—moments that will never be forgotten. Imagine how precious the blessing will be to Chris and Rebecca’s daughter when she is able to understand it. While she will not remember her great-grandfather, she will know how he loved her and will know how he held her up before the Father.

And it was such a blessing to me to hear about this man of God. I do not mean to glorify death, for I know that however and whenever it happens, it is an unnatural passing and a consequence of human sin. Yet sometimes even something so unnatural can excite the heart. To know that a man who loved God and lived life in His service has gone to his home! He escaped all that is unnatural in this life and went to be with the One he was created to be in communion with. He has gone where his heart ached to be. His desire, like Paul’s was “to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.” Such a death is an occasion for both joy and sorrow—sorrow for the departure and the necessity of it, but joy for the arrival and all the blessing that brings.

Though I never met Art, he has often been on my mind. When I heard of his death I prayed for Chris and Rebecca and the family that the Comforter would bring them peace. And I prayed that God would let me stay strong, just like Art. Oh, that death might come so gently when my time approaches. That in a moment I might be able to go from the hand of my wife to the hand of the Savior is almost too precious to believe. Thanks be to God that we can all have such hope and such assurance of eternal life, if only we will trust in Christ, just as Art did.

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