Sunday, November 22, 2009

Not The Last Word

And regarding the question, friends, that has come up about what happens to those already dead and buried, we don't want you in the dark any longer. First off, you must not carry on over them like people who have nothing to look forward to, as if the grave were the last word. Since Jesus died and broke loose from the grave, God will most certainly bring back to life those who died in Jesus. And then this: We can tell you with complete confidence—we have the Master's word on it—that when the Master comes again to get us, those of us who are still alive will not get a jump on the dead and leave them behind. In actual fact, they'll be ahead of us. The Master himself will give the command. Archangel thunder! God's trumpet blast! He'll come down from heaven and the dead in Christ will rise—they'll go first. Then the rest of us who are still alive at the time will be caught up with them into the clouds to meet the Master. Oh, we'll be walking on air! And then there will be one huge family reunion with the Master. So reassure one another with these words. (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, The Message)
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Each year, starting in late October and progressing for four weeks, we celebrate three birthdays in our house. I start things off, followed by my mother, and then my youngest daughter. The birthday flag flies for about a week (not for Mom, since she doesn’t live with us) each time and the cake (or pie, or cheesecake) doesn’t seem to last nearly long enough. As the three people involved are at three distinctly different stages in life, this four-week span provides an insight to the celebrations in equally unique ways.

But, starting just the day after my birthday, we also remember four other milestones of a significantly more somber nature. They also involve four members of our extended family who have left us. Among them are my father, one of my brothers, a brother-in-law, and an infant nephew. All of these losses were hard, though we had some time to prepare for three of them. My father left us abruptly after multiple heart attacks over a six-week span. My brother Mike battled cancer for almost five years before succumbing to its grip. My brother-in-law Darryl spent a year wrestling with cancer as well.
And then there is Michael. Michael was named for my brother Mike who had already been waging his war for some time. My brother Pete and his wife were overjoyed with the prospect of their second child, and we all shared in that joy. Then, one afternoon in November, my pager (no cell phone at that point) went off with the code my wife used for “urgent” matters. I don’t recall what I was expecting to hear, but it certainly was not the news she presented. Michael, just two days from a planned C-section, had left us. As all of us seem to freeze in time when we die, he would forever be an infant.
The quickly arranged trip to Albany followed. I met up with Mike in the Philadelphia airport and we entered my younger brother’s shattered world. We laid Michael to rest on top of my father in a small village cemetery in southern New York State. The grief was as thick and deep as I could possibly imagine it … and so much more for my brother and his wife. But even here, in the darkest of steps on the Crooked Path, God speaks through the Apostle Paul, “You must not carry on over them like people who have nothing to look forward to, as if the grave were the last word.”
As I talked about this passage with Pete just this week, eleven years later, I can still hear the grief in his voice. He reminds me that this is an often misquoted passage, where some misguided Christian will stop at the comma in the phrase noted. So many of them want you to “get over it” or “not to grieve like the others” or something similar. And they do mean well, but they probably don’t get it. As Christians, we aren’t told to avoid the grief or to shorten the process. We’re told to do our grieving with a great deal of hope. We have to know and believe that the God who conquered the grave in Jesus will present us with our loved ones again. Death, as Paul wrote, is not the final word in any case. It is only a temporary setback.
There is one more event that comes around every year, one that grew great significance in the wake of Michael’s death. You see, Peter and his wife lost a baby girl, Sophie, a few years later. Sophie, like her brother, never took a breath in this world. As part of their grieving process, and in response to the challenge of a pastor to get either “better or bitter,” the lives of these two children are celebrated in one of the greatest outreaches of our time. This year alone, over 160 shoeboxes filled with the love of Christ join Operation Christmas Child, springing from the hearts of an extended grieving family and make the bold statement “Death is not the final word.” God has the last word for all of us, and that word is Jesus. My brother Pete’s steps on the Crooked Path get little lighter seeing all those boxes go out.
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  1. Are you in the process of grieving the loss of a loved one, or do you find yourself fighting against it because somebody said you should have gotten past it by now?
  2. Perhaps you’ve had the opportunity to minister to somebody else who is deep in grief. Do you have a solid, Biblical approach for coming along side them and sharing in their pain? What would you do if you had that opportunity?
  3. As the pastor at baby Michael’s service charged us all, when tragedy strikes are you going to get better, or are you going to get bitter?
The Message – Scripture taken from The Message. Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.

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