Hawthorn Presbyterian Church

On Preparing for One’s Death (Part 3)

[first published in the monthly congregational Notes, for July, 2018.]

In Parts 1 & 2, we covered our relationship to God in Jesus Christ, how we should live, and our relationships with others. When we understand and embrace these truths, our preparation is essentially done—now go on and live to the glory of God, at peace and without fear! However there are things that will happen after our death which will involve others, and some forethought now may help them when the time comes.

Although wills are read after one dies, they are written beforehand. Having one implies that there is property to be distributed and because “the love of money is a root of all evil,” (1 Tim 6:10) they can be a source of great division and argument. Marriage being what it is, it seems to us that unless there are some special circumstances the great bulk of an estate will naturally go to the surviving spouse. If both should die, then the Bible has some counsel for us in Proverbs: “A good man leaves an inheritance to children’s children” (Prov. 3:22a). In other words, what we cannot take with us we should pass on but try to keep within the family. But just as we tithe in life, we could do so also in death. This is especially so if we have no near family to inherit. Is there a legacy or a bequest that we can give to further the cause of Christ? There are many secular agencies who do good things and clamour for the dollars of the dead but it seems to us that Christians could in good conscience limit themselves to organizations soundly based on the Bible, and that could also include one’s local congregation. Take professional advice, think carefully and provide prayerfully.

At some point it may be helpful to provide guidance to those who have to arrange or conduct the funeral and although some things will be cultural, the Christian should always want their funeral to be noticeably different from that for one of another faith or even no faith at all. This does not mean having to leave out elements that others expect but it does mean determining in advance that all that goes into a funeral will not undermine the Christian message and the assurance that it brings. So eulogies still can be spoken (or put in print) and the modern penchant for audio-visual tributes can be accommodated, but in a way that does not obscure or confuse the grace of God. A Christian will want Jesus set forth more than themselves and their faith rejoiced in far more than their works. The easiest way to set eulogies in their proper context is to contain them within a service which is clearly designed to be a time of worship first and remembrance second, and the easiest way to do that is to have the major portion of the service at one’s home church building. So, give thought to possible hymns of faith and comforting Bible passages but leave liberty for the living to find comfort in their own favourites too. After all, funerals are for the living not the dead.

These days, cremation is very much the social norm, perhaps because it is generally cheaper, or perhaps because people just don’t care. It was not always so. While we will be without the body for a time, there will be one in the resurrection. Certainly a cremated body will be no problem for God on that Day but if the option is available, the Christian may want to ponder how burial more powerfully picks up the Bible’s affirmation of the value of the body and the rich ‘sleep’ metaphor which is used to picture the death of the body pending the resurrection (eg John 11:11-13; 1Thess 4:14).

R.C. Sproul once wrote that he had no intention of dying; he simply planned to have a change of address!! On that, the world is full of superstition and wishful thinking; the Christian has an assurance grounded in the eternal faithfulness of God. Let that hope be seen in your life today and at the time of your death—whenever it may be.

On Preparing for One’s Death (Part 2)

[first published in the monthly congregational “Notes” for June, 2018]

Last time we considered the first step in preparing for death—making sure that our trust in Christ for the forgiveness of our sins is firmly grounded in his saving work on the cross. What then in the meantime? Death may be years away; only the Lord knows!! Jesus’ words on the end times are appropriate here too, “Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Matt 24:44). Wesley said of the early Methodists, “Our people die well,” and that can be true of all believers.

What is it to be ready? We can draw some parallels from considering the plans we might make for a journey to another country. We have our passports and tickets, but what then? We may take some time to study something of our destination’s culture, laws and language. If we are in any way anxious about the journey, focusing on the destination lessens that fear and puts it all into perspective. In the same way, so long as we can hold the metaphor, though the ‘journey’ (i.e. the actual process of dying) may make us anxious and fearful, focusing on what little God has revealed about the destination will give us the grace to look beyond the moment of its coming (or the days, weeks, or even years) and into eternity with informed expectation. This is good preparation. What songs do the redeemed sing and what do the words mean? What is the character of the New Heaven and the New Earth? Well no-one has come back to tell us, but we can make a good start by learning what God has allowed us to see: Revelation 5:9-12; 14:1-5, and 15:32-4 for some songs, and Revelation chapters 21-22 for the character of eternity’s “daily life”. In all this, we know that the reality will be far, far more glorious and blessed than we can presently comprehend.

We cannot ‘pack’ because we will take nothing out of this life (Job 1:21) but that is the point; the best preparation for dying well is to live well, not materially but spiritually, keeping our faith fresh and our lives clean. We must desire holiness. It should not surprise us that a heart still cherishing some secret sin will be anxious about meeting the Saviour, whereas a heart that has struggled (even daily) against that same sin will look forward to meeting the One in whom there is final victory. If we stay close to the Lord we will not be able to forget His grace in saving us. In turn that will keep our heart filled with fresh thankfulness, and a truly thankful heart cannot be a fearful one and will want to be obedient. Hymn 435 in our morning hymnbook puts it this way at verse 3, “O to grace how great a debtor / Daily I’m constrained to be / Let that grace, now, like a fetter / Bind my wandering heart to Thee.” May we all sing “Amen!” to that!

The gospel is about being reconciled to God and living transformed lives, but as a corollary it should also move us towards wanting reconciliation with others. Sadly that might not always be possible as others may not (yet) be willing to be reconciled to us but we have nothing to lose in being willing to mend breaches—there will be none in heaven! The passage of time can help, but real reconciliation will require a mix of humility, confession, forgiveness and the willingness to recognise the ongoing work of God in our lives as well as in others. Even the best can struggle, but if we can take away any burdens of regret in those we leave behind, we should try to do so. It too is a gospel fruit. Paul and Barnabas split over a disagreement on the usefulness of John Mark for ministry. Yet years later, we read Paul saying to another younger man, Timothy, “Get Mark and bring him with you for he is useful to me for ministry.”(Acts 15:39 & 2 Tim 4:11). If an apostle can admit to being ‘wrong’, so can we. 

On Preparing for One’s Death (Part 1)

[First published in the monthly congregationl “Notes” for May, 2018.]

There is sometimes a superstitious fear regarding death, as if talking about it or even preparing for it might somehow hasten its coming! And it is because of this fear that many are uncomfortable in making wills or having simple discussions about possible funeral arrangements. If we fail to do these things out of fear, it is really just another aspect of selfishness, because it serves to make things far worse for loved ones when the time comes. Thankfully the Christian, whose faith is grounded in the grace and sovereignty of God, is delivered from all superstitious fears so we can talk about our arrangements in peace. While we do not know the number of our days, God does, and He is not superstitious!! If we can help take away the stress on those we love, we surely should want to do so.

But before we think of others and the decisions they may be called on to make when we die, we should give attention to preparing ourselves for death. This is not morbid, but wise. The first, most essential, preparation is to be sure that one is right with God. This is something no-one else can do for us because “each of us shall give an account of himself before God“ (Rom 14:12) and “it is appointed unto man once to die, and after that the judgment.” (Heb 9:27). The Bible is clear: after death there are no ‘last minute special’ offers which allow us the false comfort of thinking that we can live as we please now but repent after we have died. By then it will be too late. Neither are there rituals which the living might do for us, or payments they can make to anyone in order to advance our souls along some imagined pilgrimage to heaven, or to speed up final purification in an imaginary purgatory. When we die, our standing before God is eternally defined—it is too late to change. And, as none of us knows the time of our death, we should want to know right now whether our relationship with God is something that He will accept or whether it will result in rejection.

If we are honest, we know we have not lived as we should; we have sinned and come short of God’s righteous standard. Even though our sins might often be thought of as ‘civilised’ and ‘normal’, they are all offensive and because we are already sinners it is impossible for us to make any atonement for them. Thankfully Jesus’ name means, ‘Jehovah Saves,’ so in hearing this we are told that God has provided a way for our sins to be dealt with through him. We do not have to guess at a solution. And Jesus could not have been clearer when he said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). So there is a way to God when we die, an acceptable way, defined by Jesus who lived, died, rose again, ascended into heaven and who is coming again to receive those he has forgiven.

In the wonder of God’s grace, we are not required to perform any religious duties or pay anything in order to have a share in the forgiveness Jesus provides. All we are to ‘do’ (if we can use that word) is humbly confess the reality our sin to God, admit our un-worthiness, and receive and trust whole-heartedly in the declaration that on the cross Jesus has done for us what we could not do for ourselves.

As our faith grows we will find that increasingly we hate sin for the right reasons and cannot happily continue in it. We find a growing desire to know more of Christ and to be obedient to him even when it is costly. We find that we are now concerned for the spiritual state of others so we pray for them and their conversion. All this helps grow our faith, so that whether our death should be sudden or drawn out and maybe even painful, we will not fear it more than we love Jesus and will face it well.

A Week is a Long Time

[first published in the monthly congregational “Notes”, for April, 2018.]

If we had been in Jerusalem for that final week before Passover and Jesus’ crucifixion, no doubt we’d have been caught up in the excitement of his entry into Jerusalem too. All four gospel writers are remarkably detailed in the picture they paint for us of the crowd’s emotion and fervour [Matt 21, Mk:11; Lk 19; Jn 12]. A King is coming! And not just any king! If Jesus was a king, then he was a king who: 1. Gave sight to the blind, made the lame walk, loosed the tongue of the dumb, cured all manner of diseases and even raised the dead to life; 2. Commanded the impersonal in creation! He took bread and fish enough for one and made it feed thousands, turned water into fine wine and ordered the wind and the waves with a word; 3. Commanded evil spirits with such authority that they had no choice but to obey; 4. Forgave sins on his own authority; 5. Saw through and criticised religious falsehood and hypocrisy; 6. Was not afraid to publicly teach against corruption and the misuse of power. What more could a godly Israelite (or even merely a political Israelite) want? Here was a king that could be loved and followed as a deliverer! He only needed to “say the word” and the people would follow! Solomon’s greater glory was surely just around the corner. It had been a long wait since the return from exile!

Imagine, then, the collective let-down when all of this enthusiasm seemed to lead nowhere. Perhaps some surmised, he needed a trigger before he would do what Elijah or Elisha did all those years earlier with fire and myriads of angels (2 Kings 1 & 6). An arrest would be a good trigger! The religious authorities feared that it might be, but all that came and went without great incident, in the end leaving many with only an image of a beaten and bloodied political prisoner. We can imagine the dashed hopes that led some to cry “Crucify Him!” [as a fraud] and others to line the long slow walk from Pilate’s hall to Calvary with their tears of disillusionment (Lk 23:18-25 & 27). How wrong the people were! They had given up, cursed, and wept too early! And lest we become too critical, even Jesus’ disciples had lost hope too (Luke 24:21).

Thankfully, redemption is completed and we will never experience the same depth of despair or disillusionment as the disciples. Nothing as weighty as the Cross will ever happen in our or anyone else’s history. As Christians we now enjoy the wonderful privilege of salvation where the promises of God take on rich personal meaning and the privilege of prayer ushers us into the very presence of God. That is exciting when we have seen His promises bear fruit in our own lives (or in others) and our prayers answered. It is very encouraging to see that God is still at work in His world.

But what of when we cannot “see” and again are called to walk by faith? Excitement at the work of God so quickly gives way to despondency when it seems that God is not operating according to our plans and expectations of what He should do. As a result, we can find ourselves up in the air and uncertain. Where is God hiding?

The events of Passion Week should teach us absolutely that God never plays games with anything, let alone the life and emotions of his people. If God could only act as I expect Him to, then He would never do all that He knows that I need, and my present (and my future) would be the poorer. The secret acts of God are therefore a blessing!

If a week can seem a long time for you, let it also be long enough for you to rise above your fear and uncertainty and re-focus your faith in the One who transcends time and who has proved His ability to do so through the Cross and resurrection

The Witness of Stones

[First published in the monthly congregational “Notes” for March, 2018.]

When Joshua led Israel across the flooded Jordan (which God miraculously parted) he took twelve large stones from the riverbed and built a monument so that future generations would be reminded of God’s great and gracious provision for them (see Josh 4:1-7 & 19-24). There could be no excuses: the stones would “speak” and would continue to, even if people no longer wished to listen. In fact, because it was made out of river stones, the only way of “silencing” the monument would be to destroy it.

I was reminded of this event while taking two weeks visiting the city and University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. This memory did not come because the city takes its name from a river crossing (which it does) but because of the testimony of so many old stone buildings and memorials built since the University had its origin in the early 1200s. Many of these buildings were constructed as churches or chapels, or had other (Christian) religious uses. Although some were initiated by motives that were not entirely selfless, it is without question that they were also built to stand as monuments to the glory of God who is the foundation of all life and learning. These old stones still “speak” to those who will hear, even though, sadly, many who sit in them or pass by them every day seem to be wilfully deaf to their witness.

One day, these Cambridge stones will cry out in rebuke to those who think that real learning has somehow rendered the glory of God fit only for the tourist or the quaint world of myths. It must be our prayer that before that Final Day comes, spiritual ears (and eyes and hearts) will be opened and their testimony heeded. God is indeed the source and ground of all Truth there is to know, and we will be greatly blessed if our halls of learning once again return to their Christian foundation.

The testimony of such stones is not only metaphoric. Jesus knew that should God give them the opportunity and power, the stones of the Jerusalem streets would cry out in witness to who He was (Luke 19:39-40). No doubt if it could speak, the stone which sealed Jesus’ tomb could also bear powerful witness of the resurrection!

But we should not only pray for the witness of historic buildings to be heeded even though such prayers can also include the witness of our own building to the people of Hawthorn. God has appointed that there are other “stones” to speak to the world in which we live: “living stones”, men, women and children with lives built on the foundation of Jesus Christ and the testimony of prophets and apostles (1 Pet 2:5 & Eph 2:19-22). Unlike physical buildings that can fall and decay, Christ’s spiritual house lasts forever. Christian, this includes you! There is a sense in which Christ Himself by His Holy Spirit has dragged you out of the mud, washed and shaped you and set you on a great foundation along with many others so that together you might sing His praise and be a living memorial to Him. He has joined you in the Church so that each one’s needs, challenges and fears give the perfect list of how to pray for one another.

So, O Reader whoever you are, do you listen to the stones? Despite the fashion of the age, our great universities are witness that there is NO incompatibility between deep learning and the Christian faith. It is the atheist who is deaf and blind!

Listen also to the witness of the living stones around you as they point away from themselves and this world to its Redeemer! No these are not yet perfect and their building “unfinished” but do not be deceived by that; one day it will be perfect, and anyone not part of that building will be consigned to God’s eternal rubbish dump.

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