Monday, January 21, 2013

Your Appointment in Samarra

Ok, let me start with an apology to those of you who regularly read my blog posts.  I realize that last week’s post was about death.  Well, this week’s post is too.  If I keep this up I better change the title of my blog from Life at the Altar to Life at the Morgue.  But I determined to write these posts out of what is in my heart as I interact with Christ and the world around me.  And, if you read last week’s post, you know that these last few weeks I’ve been up to my neck in dying and death.

It came home to me yet again over the weekend when I read that Earl Weaver died.  He was 82, so I guess it was time.  He died on a baseball cruise—a pretty good way to go.  But he died.  And it struck me because Earl was one of my childhood heroes, managing my Baltimore Orioles to four pennants and one World Series championship.  He was a crusty old codger even then.  Nobody kicked dirt on umpires better than Earl Weaver.  Only two managers got ejected by umpires more than Earl Weaver, who was tossed 97 times—that’s more than half-a-season worth of games.  It’s no wonder Earl once said, “On my tombstone write, ‘The sorest loser that ever lived.’”  What a winner!  And what a character!

Earl’s death reminded me of how many of my childhood heroes are dead.  Of course, I’m 56 so there you go—it’s been long time since I was a child.  But so many of my sports and entertainment heroes are gone—John Wayne, Jim Croce, Mickey Mantle, Dean Martin, Don Meredith, and so many others—gone.  Thankfully they live in my memory and they live on CD and DVD, so it’s almost like they’re still around even though they’re not.

But Earl’s death reminded me once again of death’s reality.  Sooner or later Death is coming for us all.  Sooner or later, there will be a knock on the door and Death will be on the other side.  No matter how many locks you put on that door, no matter how hard you and your loved ones push against that door, Death will find a way in.  And if we want to learn how to really live, we need to come to grips with that.  James Jones, in his autobiographical history of World War II, wrote that the best soldiers he knew were those who assumed they were dead already.  He said they were the bravest and boldest of them all.  They were the ones who would charge the machine gun nest, the ones who would jump on a grenade to save their friends.  Some of them came back alive.  And some of them came back in a box.  But could they ever soldier!

As a follower of Jesus, I like to think I’ve made peace with my death.  I trust Him with my life and my death.  Jesus holds the keys to death and the grave.  Jesus is the resurrection and the life.  When Death comes for me, Death can take me but he can’t have me because Jesus is preparing a place for me with Him in the Father’s house.  I like to think I’m at peace with my death.   And I think that helps me to live more boldly, enjoy life more thankfully, and not be consumed with fear about the when and the what of death.  Even though I won't make it out of here alive, I hope it could be said of me post-mortem, "Boy, did he ever live!"

Have you made peace with your death?  Too many ignore death and pretend that they are going to live forever.  Someone once asked old man Groucho Marx, “Groucho, what do you hope people will be saying about you in a hundred years?”  Groucho responded, “I hope they say, ‘He sure looks good for his age.’”  Some want to pretend it will never happen to them.  But pretending won’t make it so. 

One of my all-time favorite preachers, Peter Marshall (also long since dead) tells of an old legend about a merchant in Baghdad who one day sent his servant to the market.  Before long the servant came back, ghost white and trembling all the way down to his toes.  He said to his master: "Down in the market I was jostled by a woman in the crowd, and when I turned around I saw it was Death that jostled me.  She looked at me and made a threatening gesture.  Master, please lend me your horse, for I must hurry away to avoid her.  I will ride to Samarra and hide there.  Death will not find me in Samarra."

The merchant lent him his horse and the servant galloped away at break-neck speed.  Later, the merchant went down to the market and saw Death standing in the crowd.  He went over to her and asked, "Why did you frighten my servant this morning?  Why did you make such a threatening gesture?"

"That was not a threatening gesture," said Death.  "It was a jolt of surprise.  I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I have an appointment with him tonight in Samarra."

That appointment’s on your calendar too.  Be ready.

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Pastor in the Valley of the Shadow

You know the line from Psalm 23: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death ….”  I’ve been spending a lot of time in that valley these last few weeks.  Lots of death, lots of funerals, lots of grief—I just finished my third funeral in a week’s span last Friday.  And there were several more in November and December.  The Grim Reaper is doing a brisk business in my little world.  And I feel like the little boy in the film The Sixth Sense who says, “I see dead people.”  I do.  I see a lot of them.  I spend a lot of time in the valley of the shadow of death.

It takes a toll.  I’ve been pastor at my current post for going on eighteen years.  I don’t just bury parishioners; I bury friends; some are like family even.  I enter the anguish of families and even bring a little of my own.  And it wears on a person after a while.  The grief adds up over time, yet I seldom give myself freedom to embrace it—in part because there’s a grieving family to care for, a funeral to prepare, Sunday’s sermon to crank out, a visit to make, a gripe to listen to, a counseling session to hold, the next death to attend to and the next funeral to prepare for.  Sometimes that stuff is waiting for me when I get back from the cemetery.  And it never ends.  The deaths of my own parents were swept up in that same cycle.  I confided in a retired minister some months ago, “I live with this nagging fear that someday all the grief I’ve pressed down across the years is going to rise up and crush me when I least expect it.”  I’ve wondered why it hasn’t done so yet.

Based on a study I did of a David text in 2 Samuel where he eulogized Saul and Jonathan when he got word of their death, I discovered that maybe I have been processing my grief all along through the writing of eulogies for the people I bury.  It gives me time to reflect on the deceased’s life, to celebrate that life, to offer thanks for that life, and to grieve the loss of that life from our everyday presence.  This helps, I think.

And something better help because we pastors spend a lot of time in the valley of the shadow of death.  The good news is, however, that we are not in that valley alone.  Remember what David said about that valley?  “I will fear no evil, for you are with me—your rod and your staff: they comfort me.”  We pastors are in good company in the valley of the shadow.  Jesus, our Good Shepherd, is there.  Yes, that’s Him—the one with the nail scars in His hands.  Jesus has walked this valley of the shadow of death for himself.  This isn’t new or strange terrain to Him.  He knows the way through.  He knows how to get us to the other side.  His very presence with us in that valley reminds us when we need it most that death doesn’t get the last word and grief doesn’t get the last word; Jesus gets the last word—and that word is life.

No wonder Paul could write with such confidence: “Death is swallowed up in victory.  O grave, where is your sting?  O death, where is your victory?  Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Doing 2013 with God

If you’re like me, you received a handful of those Christmas letters.  You know, the kind that tell a family’s 2012 life story—who got married, who’s been sick, where they traveled, who changed jobs, what great things the kids accomplished.  You know what I’m talking about.  We’ve sent that kind of thing a few times ourselves over the years.  Once, I put in my letter a bunch of bogus stuff about my son being in jail and my daughter running away—just to see if people actually read those things.  Only two people responded.  I think that’s the last one I ever sent.

Anyway, this week my family received a Christmas letter from the Baker family.  Larry Baker is one of my mentors, a man who has helped provide me with opportunities, a man from whom I have learned much.  In fact, our son Nathan is named for him.  Larry has doen a lot of writing through the years, and along with the Christmas letter, he sent a new year’s reflection he wrote for the occasion.  He concluded that reflection with words that struck me as powerful and encouraging in the early days of a brand new year.  They came in the form of a stanza from a poem.  Let me set the scene.

World War II officially began in September of 1939.  England, of course, was drawn into the conflict immediately and in 1940 would take an incredible pounding from the German Luftwaffe.  In his broadcast to the nation on Christmas, 1939, King George IV quoted Minnie Louise Haskin’s poem.  It’s a great poem for a new year as we launch out into an unknown future.

I said to the man who stood at the gate of the new year,
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied, “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into   
     the hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way!”

All I can say to that is, “Amen.”