Keeping the Tense Present

26 07 2010

In class the other day, my students were sharing prayer requests.  One student asked for prayer concerning his grandmother who had lost her husband a few years previously.  In the course of our discussion I asked the student if his grandmother was a believer.  “Yes,” he said.  “And your grandfather, what about him?” I asked.  “Yes, he was a believer, too.”  He paused for a moment.  “Well,” he continued, “I mean he is a believer.  I guess he’s still a believer.”  He seemed a little uncomfortable and there was some nervous laughter around the room from the other students who did not know whether or not he was making a joke.

“You said that well,” I answered to him.  “I think that we as believers need to be very careful how we talk of the believing dead.  We always speak of them in the past tense, as if they don’t exist anymore.  They do still exist, and probably moreso than we do at this time.  We need to think carefully about what we believe about life, death, and the future, and we need to make sure that the way we speak is consistent with what we believe.”


And then May came . . .

27 05 2009

Since last May 7, we have been looking ahead to this May with a bit of dread.  We heard pretty early on from others who had lost children that the first year is the most difficult because you are passing through all of life’s markers without your child for the first time.  Each holiday or event is another reminder that your family is three and not four.  The first Thanksgiving, the first Christmas, the first birthday.  And then comes the first anniversary of the death of the child.  “Does it get better after the first year?”  we would ask those who were giving us their insights.  “Oh no.  It will always be painful, but you get better at living with that pain and loss after you have two or three birthdays under your belt.”  Others tell us that the bitterness and pain fades over time and is replaced by good memories of the loved one.  Bless them.  I am not there yet.  I don’t mean the good memories, they are always there.  But even the good memories–and perhaps mostly the good memories–bring pain.

This May was not the May we anticipated, however.  The brief illness and passing of my mother deflected much of our attention from Anna.  On the other hand, the passing of my mother brought the anniversary of the death of Anna into sharp focus for us.  It forced us to think about Anna’s death not as an isolated event, or something that touched only us.  Instead we learned more about Anna’s death by watching and experiencing the death of my mother.  The two events were so different and yet the same ultimate reality lay beneath the two.  Life here is not permanent.  It may be measured in months, years, or decades, but make no mistake, it is measured.  And that measure will come to an end.

In Anna, we saw a young girl who, although she had no conscious idea that her bicycle ride that Wednesday afternoon would be her last moment here on earth, nonetheless had an awareness and knowledge of the issues of life and death.  She spoke often of death, not in morbid terms though with a touch of fear, and she knew that death was gain for the one who is counted as a child of God.

In my mother, we saw an old woman, full of years, but still loving life and active.  We saw a woman who was given news about her cancer and received it as good news that her time here was over and she would soon be with the Lord.  My family may disagree with this, I don’t know, but it seemed to me that my mom gave a kind of half-hearted fight to beat the cancer.  I think she was doing it for our sakes.  She may have felt a bit like Lazarus being called from the grave.  “You mean I have to die a second time, Lord?”  I think she was ready to face death.  My mom’s life was not always the easiest.  She grew up in a very poor family in Missouri during the depression.  I think her poverty and “show me” Missouri mentality gave her a seriousness and a sense of acceptance about life that served her well in those last days.

We passed through last November and December and celebrated Thanksgiving and Christmas without Anna.  We looked ahead to her birthday in March and then to May 7.  But before we got to either of those we received the news of my mom.  So March and April we all rightly turned our gaze to my mother as we helped her to navigate those last weeks in and out of the hospital.  And then May came and five days before the day of Anna’s passing my mother went to join her.  And two days after the day of Anna’s passing we were in church again remembering my mother.  In between those two days we had a moment to catch our breath and think about the events of the past year.

I don’t know what the next year holds.  In fact, that very question has been troubling us for some time now.  But the word of God is true.  And as I look back on this past year, which has seen such turmoil and disruption, I can only think of the words of God to Israel through the prophet Joel, “The threshing floors shall be full of grain; the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.  I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent among you.”  Anna resurget.  Maranatha.

Grandma Deloris, Feb. 13, 1929-May 2, 2009

2 05 2009


I received a phone call about 30 minutes ago that my mother, Deloris Borger, passed away quietly at her home.  She had a very short bout with cancer.  Death has claimed another victim, but our Lord has defeated death.  My mother loved the Lord and is with him now.  Perhaps Anna was there to open the door for her and show her around.

Easter, Healing, Death, and the Resurrection

30 04 2009

I had an opportunity on Easter Sunday to speak briefly to the nursing staff on the floor of the hospital where my mom was being treated.  About seven or eight nurses and others gathered with me in a back room for a time of Scripture reading and prayer.  I am very glad for this opportunity, first of all because it gave me an opportunity to share the good news of Jesus’ resurrection.  But I am also glad because it gave me a moment of reflection on the resurrection that helped me to better understand the place of healing and death in the life of the believer.

After the death of Anna I had a strong sense that Anna’s final state was a good thing.  Anna, being absent from the body, is present with the Lord.  Being present with the Lord is a good thing.  The question I had to ask myself at that time was, if it is true that to be present with the Lord is better than our state now, if as Paul says, to live is Christ and to die is gain, then why don’t we all kill ourselves in order to be with the Lord?  Or, put another way, why do we hold on to life so dearly?  Why do we fight death at the moment it appears?  I recall a passage from a book I read while in seminary that dealt with the issues of death and dying.  The author told a story, I believe it was supposed to be a true story, about an incident in the 19th century when an American Indian chief was being tried by the army and had been sentenced to die by execution.  At the hanging, a minister was present who gave a brief sermon about the afterlife and about the goodness of being with the Lord.  He contrasted the fallenness of this world with its sickness and problems with the blessedness of being with the Lord.  After he finished the Indian chief calmly said to him, “If that is true, then why don’t we switch places.  I like it here.”  The author concluded his story not with the simple distinction between the Native American and Christian view of death, but instead by noting that the minister in the story hurriedly refused the offer, saying that it was not possible to switch places.  The author of the book noted the paradox of the minister’s position.  If what he said about death and the blessedness of being with the Lord was true, then why did he so instinctively and tenaciously hang on to life?

I think I discovered my own answer to that question on Easter morning while I was talking to the nurses.  I told them that my mother was in the hospital because of her cancer.  She is very sick.  I hope and pray that she walks out of the hospital and lives to see another Easter next year.  But in the end, whether it is this year or next, my mother will die.  In fact, every patient that those nurses and doctors treat will die.  I explained to them that if they are in the business of fighting death, they will lose 100% of the time.  Every one of their patients, without exception, will die.

But if we can look forward to the resurrection as a time of restoration, as a time of ultimate healing from the sickness and corruption of this world, then we can begin to see that our little healings along the way are slight glimmers God gives us now so that we will understand the final healing to come.  In other words, each one of us will die.  Each one of us will be raised from the dead at the second coming of Christ.  Some will be raised to eternal life and some to eternal damnation, but all will be raised to live again.  In God’s coming kingdom there will be no sickness and death.  There will be no need for healing.  But healing in this life serves the same function in our physical bodies as our acts of righteousness do in terms of our sanctified soul.  We are not yet fully sanctified.  We are not without sin.  But we strive toward that knowing that at the resurrection all will be made right.  We don’t abandon our efforts at goodness simply because we know that we will not be perfect.  In the same way, we do not abandon our bodies to sickness and disease simply because we know that in the end we will die.  Instead, the healing that takes  place in our bodies is a foretaste of the disease-free life we will live when God’s Kingdom is finally established.

So I told the health care workers on Easter Sunday that if they are fighting against death, they are doomed to fail 100% of the time, because every one of their patients will be claimed by death eventually.  But if, instead, they see their work as a partnership with God to bring about small hints and foretastes of the resurrection and God’ eventual victory over death, then they will succeed 100% of the time.  Because whether their patient lives to see another day, or dies during treatment, they are working not as fight against death, but as a precursor to the resurrection.

Anna Resurget.  Anna will rise again.