As we walk into the room of mortality, you will notice that the aesthetics of the room are dramatically different. We are not looking at scientific instruments or contemplating the wonders and mysteries of the heavens or of the origin of life. Here, we consider the end of biology—the end of life. I’m sure what struck you immediately when we came into this room is the closed casket over there near the doorway into the room of eternity. Not many houses have a casket. But this is an important room for me, and it reveals some of the reason why I believe in God.
We all know it, but we don’t like to dwell on it, and we probably try our best not to think about it: eventually, every single one of us will die. If we follow prominent traditions, our body will someday be placed in a casket like that. Most of us think about death enough to buy life insurance, but that’s still very different from facing the reality of death in an extremely personal way. One irony is that we all know that death is inevitable, but we have our various ways of denying it. Years ago, I read an insightful book that emphasized that point: Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death (Free Press, 1973).
I don’t like death. For many reasons, I am not looking forward to it. I guess my sentiments were well expressed by my father-in-law who once said to me, “I’m not afraid of death, but I’m anxious about how I’m going to get there.” I mentioned my father-in-law when we were in the room of personal adversity. He died of colon cancer at the age of 89.
As a very young youth minister, I officiated at my first funeral for a teenage boy who was killed in an automobile accident. I had no prior connections with the family, and as far as I could figure out, neither he nor his family had any connection with the church or with God. It was difficult enough—being my first funeral and all. But what was really heart wrenching was the comfortless anguish that was audibly expressed at that funeral. I’m not suggesting that anguish isn’t appropriate and even understandable at such a horrific moment. But what I heard were the cries of a hopeless crowd. It reached its peak when one of the grandmothers threw herself toward the casket and shrieked in utter despair. She had lost her grandson forever, and it was clear that she had no hope of ever being reunited with him. Those images and sounds have stuck in my memory for decades.
In 2012, I attended a funeral of a 16-year old grand-niece who was also killed in a car accident. When I was in my early 20s, I used to babysit and spend a lot of time with my nephew, her dad. We were all in anguish over Emily. We shed many tears. But we sang songs of hope. We read Bible passages about heaven and a final resurrection from the dead. At times, we smiled at each other and even laughed. Her parents were devastated but not despairing.
What made the difference between these two funeral experiences? One had hope, and the other had none. Admittedly, hope can be a powerful emotion even if it has no basis. But Christian hope is a powerful emotion that is based on many considerations that point to what is true. The apostle Peter expressed it this way: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:3-5; emphasis added). That’s why the apostle Paul is able to say that we should “not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13).
I have witnessed the actual deaths of Christian people and attended the funerals of many Christians. I don’t mean people who attend church at Easter and Christmas or who attend mostly because it’s the socially advantageous thing to do. I’m referring to Godly people who lived a life that clearly and consistently demonstrated that God was their priority. They weren’t perfect, but they were faithful. They all faced death with hope … because they believed that God loved them; that God sent His Son to die for them; that God raised Jesus from the dead; and that God would someday put an end to death itself.
I’m especially thinking of Paul and Katherine, my in-laws. Everyone whose lives were touched by them somehow knew that they were touched by God. While traveling in car a couple of months before he died, Paul talked about his impending death. My family captured the impromptu moment on an iPhone video. He quoted and commented on Psalm 23. Through a few tears, he emphasized two significant points: the Lord will lead through the valley death; and the valley is characterized as the “shadow of death” (in the King James Version). It was a journey that went through death to something better; and it was just a shadow that should not be feared. While a Hebrew scholar might quibble with Paul’s use of the word “shadow” in this passage, the point remains that he had a solid hope at the time of death because the Lord was his shepherd. The night before he died, our family gathered around his bed and sang songs of worship.
I’m also thinking of my dad. My dad died of cancer in 2005 at the age of 89. Two days before his death, we gathered around his home hospice bed and sang songs of praise to God. In his extremely weakened condition, he still used his right index finger to tap his blanket to the beat of the music. When we finished singing one lively song that he loved, he feebly raised his right arm with a fist and moved it back and forth as though he was saying, “This is victory time.”
I’m thinking of my mom who died in 2012. She was a woman with a relatively simple Christian faith. Her Christian “house” had just a small “theology room,” and I don’t believe she was ever interested in having a “philosophy room.” She didn’t talk much about theology in a formal sense, and she knew nearly nothing about philosophy. But she knew God. She prayed to God. She depended on God. She had hope in God.
I’m thinking of Dr. Robert Lowery, long-time professor of New Testament at Lincoln Christian Seminary who died of cancer in 2011. Among other things, he was particularly noted for his teaching and publications on the book of Revelation. One family member relayed the following story about Dr. Lowery. Knowing that he was going to die, he told one of his grandchildren that one day, grandma is going to call, and she’s going to say that she has some “good news and not-so-good news.” And when she calls with this news, “I want you to dance.”
Now why would anybody want others to dance at the time of their death? One very good answer: HOPE … hope that comes with assurance that is made possible only through Jesus Christ and His resurrection from the dead.
So you see, this room of mortality isn’t so depressing after all. That’s why the room’s sound system is playing some pretty upbeat songs. It’s not your typical funeral home music. As bad as death is, somehow it can point us to God. That’s what it does for me.