By Brian Waple
I would like to use this Last Word to address something that we typically don’t talk about. We have brothers and sisters in our body who have experienced or are experiencing a family member’s or close friend’s death. Our Christian response is to lovingly pray for God’s comfort and peace for the individual’s family during these times of mourning and loss. But, what should be our expectations about dying?
In the Waple/Reynolds families, we have lost several loved ones over a short period of time, and it has caused me to reflect on the significance of death. I guess as you get older, you start to do this more often. One writer who has influenced my Christian life and thought is Henri Nouwen. Nouwen was a beloved priest and author whose writings on the spiritual life are appreciated by those in many Christian faith traditions. Writing about dying, Nouwen had this to say:
Dying is returning home. But even though we have been told this many times by many people, we seldom desire to return home. We prefer to stay where we are. We know what we have; we do not know what we will get. Even the most appealing images of the afterlife cannot take away the fear of dying. We cling to life, even when our relationships are difficult, our economic circumstances harsh, and our health quite poor. Still, Jesus came to take the sting out of death and to help us gradually realize that we don’t have to be afraid of death, since death leads us to the place where the deepest desires of our hearts will be satisfied. It is not easy for us to truly believe that, but every little gesture of trust will bring us closer to this truth. [emphasis added]
This past Sunday, Pastor Martin spoke on desires. He addressed the desires that are driven by our natural tendencies. We (and I include myself) struggle with these desires our entire lives. But, I believe that the deep desires Nouwen alludes to, the ones we glimpse only rarely, are the ones that God has placed in us at our core from the very beginning. And I believe that as a Christian, one of our deepest desires is to be with God and know Him completely. During our lives, we strive to fulfill this desire in one way or another, but we are destined to fall short every time. It is only by passing through the mortal veil of this life that we reach a point where this deepest of desires is finally met.
So, although we will mourn the loss of those we love for the remainder of our time on earth, I believe that there is a truth about death that is helpful for us to hold in our hearts: it is only through death that God’s perfect work is completed. We can learn to be reconciled to death, because as Nouwen states, we are finally returning home, where “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev. 21:4). And it is through death that we are finally able to live eternally, as we were created to be.
“I heard about a mansion / He has built for me in glory. / And I heard about the streets of gold / beyond the crystal sea; / about the angels singing, / and the old redemption story, / and some sweet day I’ll sing up there / the song of victory.” (“Victory in Jesus,” E. M. Bartlett)