Meditation on mortality
I was 42 years old when I accepted the call to be lead pastor of Bakerview Church, Abbotsford, B.C., where approximately 50 percent of the members are seniors. The thought of the sheer number of funerals that would inevitably occur created some angst for me because, although I had been in pastoral ministry for 12 years, I had never preached at a memorial service. I had only minimal experience in dealing with illness and death.
That was about to change.
Thirteen years later, I have helped to plan, lead or preach at more than 210 memorial services – a number equal to the average attendance at one of our three services. Two hundred of the services have been for seniors.
Participating in memorial services for seniors has been one of the greatest serendipities in my pastoral ministry at Bakerview. As family members look back and reflect on the life of their parent or grandparent, a story of faith and faithfulness is relived.
At memorial services, we hear how individuals lived godly lives as spouses, parents and grandparents. We hear stories of how they used their gifts to minister in and through the church, as Sunday school teachers, prayer pals and deacons.
Stories are told of sacrifices individuals made because their values of helping others and supporting mission endeavours took precedence over life’s comforts. I recall the son of a wealthy individual sharing at a memorial service that although the family enjoyed holidays, his father had never bought a recreational property. Why? Father knew it would impact the family’s regular church attendance. He told his friends, “We’re church people, not cottage people.”
It’s humbling to realize how the faith and faithfulness of Christ followers have impacted others for the sake of the gospel. I’m inspired by the stories of godly people who have been faithful disciples of Christ.
God’s dust, God’s breath
Memorial services also remind us of our own mortality, particularly when we stand at a graveside. Here, we are overcome with the finality of death. Earthly relationships are forever changed.
The graveside is the darkest hour. It is earthy. We are reminded that we are dust – a combination of dust and breath fashioned by God (Genesis 2:7). In death, our spirit returns to God who gave it and our body to the dust of the earth.
Yet it is also at the graveside that the resurrection of Jesus focuses our hope. Paul writes that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the first fruits of all who believe in him by faith (1 Corinthians 15:20–23).
Those who experience resurrection, says Jesus, “can no longer die; for they are like the angels” (Luke 20:36). Our hope, our life to come, will not be spent decaying into the dust of a tomb; it opens to eternal life.
Our secular culture would have us deny any anticipation of death. We resist preparing a will and avoid making preparations for last things – unwisely, I would suggest. We sing, “This world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through,” but the pull of this earthly life – the only life we know – is strong.
Scripture calls us to “walk in obedience to all that the Lord your God has commanded you, so that you may live and prosper and prolong your days” (Deuteronomy 5:33). Old age is the blessing of the Lord. “Our days may come to 70 years, or 80, if our strength endures” (Psalm 90:10). However, it is one thing to acknowledge that death is the final chapter for all of us; facing the reality of our own death is much more difficult.
In most cases, the seniors I know want their days prolonged. One woman in her early 80s, who had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer, said to me that she was ready to die, but “Did it have to be so soon?”
The psalmist encourages us to take a different view: “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12). To fully understand the ways of God and his desires for our life, we need to reflect on our own mortality.
Regardless of our age, we miss a lot if we refuse to practise “death awareness,” James Houston suggests in Joyful Exiles. “We need to accept the inevitability and unpredictability of our own death as subjective truth,” he writes. We live in denial if we do not accept the reality that the gap separating life and death is narrow.
When death comes, our Christian hope keeps us from falling over the cliff of despair.
A word of hope
As I minister to those who are dying, or to the families of those who have lost a loved one to death, the greatest comfort I can give them is a word of hope – a word that reminds them that sin and death have been conquered through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. “When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ …The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:54, 56–57).
I was called to the bedside of a man dying from ALS. He had contracted pneumonia and, knowing that the disease would increasingly disable him, he had agreed with his family that there should be no medical or heroic intervention. He was content to let the disease run its course naturally. As I read Psalm 23 with the family and offered a prayer, he journeyed through the valley of the shadow of death and emerged in the heavenly kingdom.
The hope of heaven is a comforting reality when health is failing. Heaven, praise God, is our ultimate destiny.
“I have come home at last! This is my real country!” cries the unicorn at the end of C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle, stomping his hoof on the ground. “I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now.”
I believe that when we pass “through the valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4), we will realize we have arrived in the land we have been longing for all our lives. Our human journey began in a garden, paradise lost. Our journey ends in an eternal paradise where we will rejoice in the presence of our Saviour and Lord.
I no longer experience angst thinking about the memorial services that will inevitably come. I now wait in expectation.
My own faith will be deepened as I hear yet again the story of a life lived faithfully for Christ and the gospel.
My hope for the future will be brighter because I will once again be reminded that death is not the end.
I’m just passing through.
—Michael Dick is lead pastor at Bakerview Church, Abbotsford, B.C.