Death and Life

easter-sunrise-woodlawn-cemetery

A small group of white-haired elders stood before us at a meeting of our regional Presbyterian churches. A few of them could remember the time when they had celebrated holidays with their parents in the midst of a thriving church, but the half-dozen who stood there represented most who remained. Prayers of thanksgiving were offered for all who had worshiped in that congregation, for “the faith professed at the font, the gospel proclaimed from the pulpit, and the assurance received at the table within its walls.”  One of the elders, in a slow and dignified manner, handed the membership rolls to the presbytery’s stated clerk.  Then, the Moderator of our presbytery said the words that some of those elders must have thought they would never live to hear: “In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and by the authority of the Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy, I declare that the congregation of Bethel Presbyterian Church is dissolved.”[1]

Perhaps it was just me, but it seemed that a deep sadness filled the room. We were, of course, sad for the members of Bethel Church, because what they were experiencing was like a death in the family. This was a funeral of sorts, and the shock of parting and the pain of saying goodbye were real for all gathered. At another level, I think many in the room also knew that this was not an isolated occurrence, that we would be re-enacting this ritual goodbye again and again in coming years as several struggling congregations reached the end of their institutional lifecycle. As we faced the end of one congregation’s existence, and contemplated the death of others, sadness was a fitting response; I suppose that it might have been natural for all of us to go home in despair, and lament the inevitable death of the Church.

The fact that the day didn’t end in despair can be explained in many ways.  But one of the simplest explanations I can give is that we Christians don’t always do what is natural, but rather what is supernatural. We do what is possible only because God in Christ gives us the perspective and power to accomplish it. Psychology tells us that death and sadness are realities to be accepted rather than denied, to be openly acknowledged rather than hidden or repressed.  But it’s Christianity that tells us death is not the final word; it is inevitable but not invincible. It’s like the great reformer Martin Luther describing the supernatural perspective and power that changed his life, saying, “If you listen to the Law, it will tell you: ‘In the midst of life we are surrounded by death,’ as we have sung for ages. But the Gospel and our faith have changed this song and now we sing: ‘In the midst of death we are surrounded by life!’”[2]

Supernatural perspective and power help explain, I think, why Christians facing the reality of death often are able to spend so much energy discerning where and how God is offering the gift of new life.

  • The leaders of our larger Presbyterian Church, faced with statistics suggesting high defection and low conversion among younger generations, might have quit trying and “kicked the can down the road” to others who, years from now, would dissolve their congregations and dispose of their property, in a decent and orderly manner. Instead, they continue to launch new efforts, including the current emphasis on 1001 New Worshipping Communities. When you have time, go to YouTube, search for “1001 New Worshipping Communities,” and watch a video to see one of the new Presbyterian churches that are starting all across our country. Recently, some of us have experimented with new venues and styles for what I hope will eventually become our third worship service: we held a study in a local used bookstore, met in a worship service at the YMCA Meyer Center that included calisthenics, gathered with seniors in the beautiful chapel at Meridian Village, and held a praise service in the center court of the Morris University Center on the campus of SIUE. We can give in to despair about the rising number of young adults under age 30 who say they have no religion,[3] or we can work together to discern God’s call to do something about it.
  • The leaders of this congregation, during the 1990s faced with a changing community and an aging building, might have given up and said, “Oh well, we’ve been here since the 1880s, and a hundred years is pretty good run.” Instead, they chose to engage in a time-consuming process of research, dialogue, land banking, fundraising, and eight years of work with an architect, all aimed at providing the best possible facility to house mission and ministries not only for this generation, but for the next. Next Sunday at 11:45, and the following Sunday at 9:30, the Construction Readiness Committee will be presenting an update about their work, and I encourage you to come and be a part of the discussion. We can give in to despair about an inadequate building, or we can work together to discern God’s call to do something about it.

If you look at the Bible and Church history, then you’ll see many periods during which the future appeared bleak until God used a person, or a faith community, or a movement to bring life where they seemed to be only death and despair.

That’s what Easter is all about: God bringing life where there is only death and despair.

  • Isaiah, writing in the sixth century BCE, had to wait for it, but knew it was coming. Imagine his circumstances among a conquered and enslaved people, still able to hear God saying: For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress.[4]
  • The Apostle Paul believed it so strongly that he gave up power and privilege to become an itinerant preacher and, ultimately, a martyr. If God doesn’t bring life where there is death, then he would have been a fool to choose that path, and he said so: If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died …. for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ ….The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
  • In today’s worship, Luke’s gospel is the one through which we get our perspective on Christ’s resurrection, and the range of emotions that surround the way God brings life where there is death rings true to our experience. Jesus’ resurrection prompts confusion, terror, and amazement. Some hear the report, but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.

In recent weeks, the children in our N.E.T. Program (“New Experiences Together”) have had opportunity for experiential learning in a tomb-like area that has been constructed in our Christian education wing near the old Kansas Street entry. I’ve heard reports about the great care with which our children view the “body of Jesus” laid in the tomb, then return to find it empty, prompting amazement, even reverence, I think.  This story that we tell about God bringing life where there is death isn’t just a cute fable like the story of the Easter Bunny; we keep finding new ways to tell it because we believe that what God has done in Christ still has power to transform lives, families, and societies.

Recently, I read a book of letters written by famous Americans to their children, and was impressed by how often they encouraged their sons and daughters in faith:

  • Daniel Webster, the great orator, senator, and secretary of state to three presidents, wrote to his son Edward: “Above all, remember your moral and religious concerns. Be constant at church, and prayers, and every opportunity for worship. There can be no solid character and no true happiness which are not founded on a sense of religious duty.”
  • Benjamin Rush, soldier, signer of the Declaration of Independence, champion of higher education, physician, first American-born professor of chemistry, to his son John: “Be punctual in committing your soul and body to the protection of your Creator …. Implore … his mercy in the name of his Son, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Read in your Bible frequently …. Attend public worship regularly every Sunday.”
  • Barbara Bush to her children: “…above all, seek God. He will come to you if you look. There is absolutely NO down side. Please expose your children and set a good example for them by going to church. We, your dad and I have tried to live as Christian a life as we can. We certainly have not been perfect. Maybe you can! Keep trying.
  • Eddie Rickenbacker, WWI Flying Ace of Aces, who once survived 22 days in the Pacific on a rubber raft, and later became President and Chairman of Eastern Airlines, to his son William: “Realize how blessed we of this land have been … in our existence …. the problems of the future may be God’s way of making us suffer for our lack of appreciation of our way of life and the blessings bestowed on us by the Supreme Power …. You are certain as the years go on to have many heartaches, headaches, trials, and tribulations but when the hour looks the darkest never lose faith in that Power Above.”[5]

Never losing faith in the Power Above, even when the hour looks the darkest: that’s what Easter is all about, and that’s a vital message for parents and grandparents to instill in the younger generation. Perhaps in the midst of some future crisis or pivotal moment for a family, community, or even a nation, it will be one of our children who does the true, right, noble, and beautiful thing, who becomes the voice, hands, and feet of Christ to bring life where there is death. So during a time when every priority under the sun seems to come between people and church participation, when a post-Christian culture tells us that the women’s words were an idle tale, still we announce the old and true message, first proclaimed by the angel: Christ is risen. He is risen, indeed. Where once there was only death and despair, God has brought life. Alleluia! Amen!


[1] Liturgy of Recognition and Dissolution: Celebrating the Ministry of the Bethel Presbyterian Church, http://www.glpby.org/documents/Dissolutionliturgy206.pdf, accessed 19 March 2013.

[2] “Resurrection,” M.E.M.O. column by Martin E. Marty, The Christian Century, 20 April 2004.

[3] See chapter 3, “Religiosity in America: Shock and Two Aftershocks,” pp. 91-133 in American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, by Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010.

[4] Isaiah 65:17-19.

[5] All of these quotations are drawn from the pages of a book by Dorie McCullough Lawson, Posterity: Letters of Great Americans to Their Children, New York: Doubleday, 2004.

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~ by JohnH1962 on March 31, 2013.

2 Responses to “Death and Life”

  1. Loved your message!

  2. Thank you, Peggy. The music was inspirational, and I thank YOU.

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