Two Ways News is a weekly collaboration between Tony Payne, Phillip Jensen and occasionally Talar Khatchoyan – a newsletter and podcast on a topic to encourage gospel thinking for today (subscribe at twoways.news).
You can’t plan death, suffering, sorrow and grief or avoid it when it comes. It is always unexpected. But we can be prepared to respond Christianly to it. This episode is about bringing the gospel to bear in these times.
A NEW YEAR OF GRIEF
PJ: As we start a new year, it’s actually starting quite sadly for you isn’t it, Tony, because of the death of your father-in-law last week?
TP: That’s right. Alex Churches–some of you listening will know of Alex and Jill, my wife’s parents. Alex was 93 and he was a fine Christian man. He’d been battling with cancer and it finally took him away in the new year just over a week ago. His funeral was yesterday.
PJ: And it was a great funeral. I find it’s so much easier to run a funeral for a Christian because there is this hope of the gospel that runs through it. I first met Alex when I was the chaplain at New South Wales University because he was an academic there, although that wasn’t his starting point in life, was it?
TP: No it wasn’t. He actually started as a fruit picker, and then a motor mechanic, or more specifically a floor sweeper at a motor mechanics workshop in Bathurst. And so it was–in worldly terms–quite a career trajectory. He started as a country boy at the very bottom, became a gifted motor mechanic and apprentice, and from there to a mechanical engineering degree and then to a PhD and a professorship in mechanical engineering. He was one of the more respected engineers in Australia in his lifetime.
PJ: Yes. And he was one of those who was willing to stand up and be counted as a Christian. On campus, from time to time, we ran Christian outreach programs, and we invited Christian academics to put their names on our advertisements, which was a cost in terms of people’s regard and respect and your significance on the campus. But you could always count on Alex to do that and make a stand for Christ, which is lovely. And he joined our church and was there for some time. I liked the comment that was said by the preacher yesterday, that although the churchmanship of our church at the time was not to his taste, seeing young men and women being converted was more important than having a church which went with his taste. That is just sheer Christian maturity, isn’t it?
TP: Yes, he was a very godly man but he was also very aware of his own shortcomings. I believe one of the last phrases he added in talking about his life was “Not good enough.” Three words. He was very much aware of his own shortcomings and yet had a deep trust in the gospel of Jesus, even though he wasn’t good enough and his life hadn’t been good enough-even though, humanly speaking, he’d achieved more than many people will ever achieve and with integrity and honour. He had an Order of Australia, and yet he was very aware of his shortcomings and of the power of the gospel. And that came out in his attitude to church life and being willing to accept innovations and changes that weren’t his taste. The interesting thing about Alex: he was a welcomer for years and years. There’s not many engineers who ended up being welcomers.
PJ: And there’s a stereotype in that.
TP: Yes, and Alex was that stereotype. He was a man of things and science and objects and mechanics. He wasn’t the most easy, fluent, natural, relational conversationalist in the world at all. And yet, for years, he led the welcoming at St. Mathias and did an outstanding job, because he was just committed to loving people and he just loved people.
And so it was sad to say goodbye to him. It was sad that we’ve lost him and that he won’t be with us now. It was a day of celebration and of joy because of the gospel, but it certainly was sad. It brought back memories, and for me of my own mother’s death just two years ago. And I know this time of year is hard for you and your family too.
PJ: Yes, it’s always hard for us because we had a grandson who died seven years ago now, on the Thursday of CMS Summer School. So on the Thursday of Summer School, the family all becomes aware again of his death.
TP: It comes back at you, doesn’t it? Grief is like that.
PJ: That’s right. And, you know, we’re talking here about a boy of 16 and a man of 93, but it makes no difference. There’s this silly thing people say about “he had a good innings”. That’s ridiculous. It makes no difference however young or old. Jesus knew he was going to raise Lazarus from the dead, but when he stood at the tomb, we have that famous shortest verse in the English Bible: “Jesus wept.” Because death is awful. It always is awful. Even when you know you’re going to bring him back from the grave, it’s still awful that he died, and there is still grief.
TP: It’s an emotion and a feeling and experience unlike any other. It’s hardly the cheeriest topic for us to begin our new year of podcasting on, but I think one that’s worth digging into because if we understand death and grieving, and understand why it’s such a significant experience, we can then understand what the gospel says to it. And the hope of the gospel in the face of our greatest enemy is actually a marvellous way to start our year. There’s perhaps no more important thing to say as it’s a subject we can’t avoid, because as you say, it always troubles all of us, and it has always troubled humanity.
PJ: And grieving is a little sign that things are not right, that this is not normal and I can’t just continue on. And so it’s a kindness of God to our minds that we have the experience of grief. For me, grief often comes in waves–you’re walking out of the surf and up to the beach, and suddenly a wave that you didn’t expect bowls you over. I go for a week, I go for a month without even thinking of Nathan, then when I think least about him, suddenly, it all comes back. My mother died when I was 24, more than 50 years ago, and so my sense of anguish and pain about my mother’s death has diminished. But every now and then, suddenly something happens and I am reminded of my mother. And I feel, again, the loss of that most wonderful person. And so though it eases as the years roll on, it never finishes, even though it eases and changes.
But let’s move from the emotional to the rational. Why is it that we find death so offensive? You see, it’s one of the few things in life which, from its moment of existence, is permanent. There’s all kinds of things I can fix, all kinds of things I can have another go at or can learn, develop, try again, and things that will happen to me again. But I’ll never get my mother back. I’ll never get my grandson back and never get my father back. Once they’ve died, that’s over. They have gone. And there is no more of the conversation, of the touching of the hand, of the hearing of the voice. It is finished. And there’s not all that many things in life like that.
TP: It’s one of life’s few true irreversibles. Once it’s happened, the loss is permanent. And that’s a large part of its pain, isn’t it?
PJ: It is. In Luc Ferry’s book on The Brief History of Thought he commented that, whatever philosophy you follow, it has to deal with and explain death. And he points out this sense of irreversibility. He says that the irreversibility of death makes life irreversible, because all our life, we’re heading towards that full stop. It’s not as if life is circular or just going on and on. There are certain aspects of it that are circular, but overall it’s heading towards one direction, and that direction is a full stop. And so life itself has this sense that we’re going somewhere. But then what’s the meaning of life? It has meaning because it’s going somewhere. And yet, it’s meaningless.
TP: It’s almost like, if it’s a full stop, that’s what makes the words prior to that into a sentence. Because there’s a full stop, therefore it must have some meaning. But of course, that doesn’t necessarily follow, which is what the writer of the Ecclesiastes says. He says because death happens to everyone–to the person who’s lived a foolish, wasted, evil life just as it happens to the righteous man, just as it happens to the beast of the field–then what’s the point of it all?
PJ: Yes, you don’t have to go to modern existentialist philosophers or plays or poets to see the meaninglessness of life because of death. It’s there in Ecclesiastes. I’ve got an atheistic friend who was converted through the reading of Ecclesiastes because he said he had no idea that the Bible would contain such a book. He thought that this kind of thought was only modern thought and part of the ignorance of modern education without any Bible or without any history. But the beauty of the Bible is that it says more than that. The Bible gives you the reason for death, which is that death is the wage that sin pays. That’s not a very nice reason, but there’s a rationale for death that the Bible contains.
TP: It makes death meaningful in that sense, doesn’t it? That death happens not randomly, not naturally, not accidentally. It happens within the purposes of God because of who we are and what we’ve done.
PJ: Yes. And that sense of abnormality is what the Bible is teaching. That sense of horror is what the Bible is teaching. That there is meaning and purpose, but that meaning and purpose goes beyond death. The death itself introduces us into the very justice and judgment of God, which is bad news. So people are afraid of death.
TP: Hebrews 2 is really powerful about that and about our fear of death. The fact that the devil holds the power of death means that we’re in fear and that fear enslaves us.
“Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself [that’s the Son] likewise partook of the same things that through death, he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subjected to lifelong slavery” (Hebrews 2:14-15)
What is the power of death that the devil possesses?
PJ: Well, it’s the accusation that he brings to us of our sin. And the trouble with the accusation is that it’s true. And so we stand in such fear of what will be contained in death, that by and large, we move into stupidities. We move into the kind of, “Oh, it will be alright, he’s in a better place. I can imagine he is up there with a beer in one hand and a girl on his lap.” And other inanities like that because we cannot cope with the fact that death is the judgment of God. We can cope with it for Adolf Hitler or somebody like that who we think deserves more than just death, who deserves punishment. But with our family or friends, what people say at funerals is very often quite silly.
TP: That’s very true. And the sobering thing in this verse is that fear of death enslaves us (as Hebrews says). It forces us or constrains us to desperately avoid that which we know is coming, to try to assuage and downplay and remove our fear.
PJ: Now, what do we do?
TP: Well, at one level, we just try and distract ourselves from it. Don’t talk about it. Keep it at a distance, find lots of euphemisms for it. Never say someone died, say that someone passed. Never talk about death.
PJ: Even our animals, we euthanize or say they ‘went to sleep’ rather than ‘killed’, rather than ‘died’.
TP: Yes. We don’t talk about it, and we self medicate, of course. It is why alcohol and drugs are a feature of every culture. Every culture has its way of easing the pain and distracting ourselves and taking us out of the reality of life.
And on the other hand, as a culture we’re obsessed with wellbeing. We’re obsessed with health and humanity has always been obsessed with staying young and trying to keep death at bay. And because of our prosperity and our wealth and our technological advances, we pour enormous resources into trying to kid ourselves that that inevitable judgment, that inevitable end, is not facing us and coming for us. We try to keep it at bay through the whole wellbeing industry and through exercise and athleticism and all those sorts of things.
I think we also try to cope with that fear by trying to erect or build something that will outlast us. I think the desire to be someone, to create something, to leave a legacy is for many people the thing that drives them. Can I perhaps produce something that will be ‘me’, and that people will remember me for?
PJ: Yes. At funerals I hate hearing people say, “You’ll be remembered forever.” Because actually, they won’t be remembered forever.
TP: Yes, and that’s something else that Ecclesiastes says, that you won’t be remembered forever. Not only will you not be remembered in a very few years hence, but this great, wonderful thing that you built, that you thought was so fantastic, will be passed on to some other idiot who will make a mess of it or waste it. Yes. And so we desperately try and build things.
Families and children and our love for children are a good thing and a wonderful gift of God. But it’s interesting that our obsession with our children, our desire to build everything into our children and live through our children and worship our children is a variety of the same thing.
PJ: Yet the beauty of the gospel for us is that while the wages of sin is death, the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. And so the terrific breakthrough of the meaninglessness of Ecclesiastes and the fear of death and the slavery to the power of Satan of Hebrews comes in the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, which transforms not just our eternity, but transforms our life now and our ability to deal with death now.
The favorite passage I would preach at a funeral if I’m just asked to is 1 Thessalonians 4, because it is a great comfort for the congregation and because funerals are for the living and not the dead. Let me read to you part of it.
“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do, who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so through Jesus, God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep.” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14)
And so he goes on. It’s a wonderful concept. We grieve, but not like those who have no hope because our hope is found in the resurrection of Jesus, for as surely as he has risen from the dead, we too will rise from the dead. It doesn’t do away with grief; we’re still surrounded by death, we’re still disappointed by it, we’re still saddened by it, we still are bereft of our friend, our father, our child, who has died. It’s right for us to grieve. But it is not a hopeless grief. It is a grief with reassured confidence in the future.
As a young man being an assistant minister, I used to have to take funerals every week, and there were some strange things I learned. One was how silly were the attempts that people made to deal with their grief without that hope in Christ, such as letting balloons go or playing Frank Sinatra’s My Way. Another thing was most of the funerals were for old people, and there were very few people who attended, usually only about 20-30 people. If you go to a young person’s funeral, there could be 300-500 people. But generally, it is the old people who die, and in a sense of obscurity. And thirdly, when you’re in a non-Christian funeral, it is bleak. It is miserable. It is unhappy. It’s despairing. And the only way in which they can overcome the despair is by doing silly things and making silly comments.
TP: It really struck me at Alex’s funeral that there were nearly 150 people, instead of the usual 20-30 people. And that was because of the Christian community he was part of and because of the people whose lives he touched over so many faithful years of service.
PJ: That’s a man in his 90s.
TP: Yes. Another fascinating and wonderful thing about Christian funerals, and yesterday was a great example, is that we sing. The funeral director at the funeral yesterday said to us afterwards, “I’ve been to a lot of funerals and I’ve never heard singing like that.” It was 150 people singing in thankfulness and praise and confessing their hope, that we grieve but we grieve with hope. And we grieve with thanksgiving.
PJ: Thanksgiving is a really interesting one, isn’t it? Because at a funeral, what do we thank? Who do we thank? How can we thank? And yet, it was a service of thanksgiving, wasn’t it? And so the fundamental question is: who are you thanking for such an important thing?
TP: If there’s no one to thank, there’s no reason to rejoice. But we know to whom we’re giving thanks–the great God whose faithfulness is behind everything that happens, and behind this life and behind everything that’s been achieved in this life, to whom everything was given in this person’s life. And so we sang Great is Thy Faithfulness. And we know he will take us through the fear of death and to joy in life and everlasting hope on the other side–and so we can sing (as we did) What a Friend we Have in Jesus.
PJ: Our thanksgiving for Alex was genuine. We can thank Alex for the lovely things he did, but we know (and he knew) that the things he did came from God. And so we could genuinely thank God for Alex. And we can sing that in the praises, we can say it with our lips, and we know it in our hearts and minds. And that changes the nature of our grief. It in one sense heightens it because we know what we’ve lost. But in another sense it lessens it and enables us to cope with it because we know that it was God at work in him. And our God is still at work in us.