Archives For Resurrection

On March 31, 2015

How to Die

A good death depends upon a good life. -St Robert Bellarmine


I’m starting a new sermon series this week at the Highland Church of Christ called “How to Die” It may sound like a strange series for Easter, but I believe this Sunday is the best day of the year to talk about what we are the most tempted to ignore.

One of my most vivid memories of my childhood was burying my grandma. I’m not talking metaphorically, like I attended her funeral, I mean my grandma’s funeral plot was dug and covered by her siblings, kids, nieces, nephews & grandkids.

My mother comes from a line of people who dug wells for a living and when it came time to dig a grave we just did it ourselves. Looking back I realize I was one of the lucky ones who was able to say goodbye to someone they loved back before we stopped doing it in a way that would get our hands dirty, back when death was more a part of life.

The Denial of Death

Remember this prayer?

“Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the LORD my soul to keep, but if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.

Did you know there was another verse?

Our days begin with trouble here, Our life is but a span, and cruel death is always near, So frail a thing is man.”

Millions of children used to pray this. Parents wanted their kids to know that life, as they know it, is not permanent, that we have a soul, and that God can be trusted with it.Prayer for Children

These days, we lean more toward the “Goodnight moon” route in our kids betime, but there was a reason that parents did this. Interestingly enough, a few weeks ago there was a NY Times Op-ed piece written by a parent lamenting the fact that it was so difficult to talk to their kids about death.

I get it, I’m a father of 4, and I don’t want to go back to the “cruel death is always near” with our 4 year old, but people of the past were on to something that I think we need to revisit.

The best kind of life starts with a deep awareness that life is a gift, and it is a gift that one day will come to an end.

In 1974, Ernest Becker wrote his watershed book The Denial of Death. That was a significant year for Becker because it was  the year that he found out that he had cancer, it was the year that he died. It was also the year that Becker turned to God.

Becker’s work has been so significant because he shined a light on all the ways that we try to avoid the most obvious truth. We will die. No matter how much money we accumulate, no matter how many Twitter followers we have, or how big our house is, we will die, and Becker’s question was, “Why does every human culture try so hard to pretend that this isn’t true?”

If that sounds a bit too philosophical for you, try this on for size. Why is  cosmetic surgery  a multi-billion dollar industry? Why have we so thoroughly removed death from our society?

Last year, the well known actress Frances McDormand noticed in an interview that this fear of death had developed a “perverse fixation on youth” in how Hollywood told stories:

There’s no desire to be an adult. Adulthood is not a goal. It’s not seen as a gift. Something happened culturally: No one is supposed to age past 45—[in terms of dress, cosmetics, or attitudes]. Everybody dresses like a teenager. Everybody dyes their hair. Everybody is concerned about a smooth face.

Actress Frances McDormand

Actress Frances McDormand

The Art of Dying

Ernest Becker saw all the ways we were marginalizing death and recognized it was a way we were lying to ourselves:

“We don’t want to admit that we are fundamentally dishonest about reality, that we do not control our lives, that we always rely on something [an institution, our job, our family] that transcends us.”

So we collect trophies, we put overwhelming amounts of pressure on our families, careers, and status to prove to ourselves that we matter, unaware that we aren’t even really in control of our pulse.

This is the Denial of Death, and it should be particularly troubling for people who are followers of Jesus.

Jesus talks about his death a lot. A whole lot. His death was something that his whole life was oriented around, and he had this strange notion that his death had something to do with every other persons death who would ever live. But Jesus doesn’t just talk about His death,, he forcefully insists that people who would follow Him would willing face their own mortality, as if that would help them become fully alive.

This week we celebrate that God raised Jesus from the dead, but we also acknowledge that he died the worst kind of death.

Think about the life of Jesus, he never turned anyone away, he-little by little-poured out his life for the people who needed him the most and stood against the people who would diminish them, and then He asked them to do the same.

And this is, of all the world religions that Ernest Becker looked at, is the great triumph of Christianity. As he approached his own death, Ernest Becker said:

This is the most remarkable achievement of the Christian world picture: that it could take slaves, cripples, imbeciles, the simple and the mighty, and make them all secure heroes, simply by taking a step back from the world into another dimension of things, the dimension called heaven. Or we might better say that Christianity took…—the thing man most wanted to deny—and made it the very condition for his cosmic heroism

Jesus stands in solidarity with all of us who die without getting the right headlines or obituaries, he both starts and stands in a long line of nameless, obscure saints, who when the day comes where their strength fails, when the end draws close and their time is near they go home to be with God.

For the longest time, Christians took great care to die differently than the rest of the world. In the middle ages, when the Black Plague was rampant, there were books written and church classes taught on “The Art of Dying Well” They were taught to look death in the face, primarily by looking past it and seeing God.

Interesting thing about that “Now I lay me down to sleep” prayer. It’s origins are unclear, but many people believe it was created precisely in these moments of disease and high death rates. And the prayer has one more verse that I think is beautiful.

Wake I morn, or wake I never. I give my soul to Christ – for ever.

That’s how to live. It’s also how to die.

“It is appointed once for a person to die. After this the judgment.” -Hebrews 9:27

“But this is the hour—when darkness reigns.” -Jesus

The Orvillecopter by Dutch artist Jansen flies in central Amsterdam as part as the KunstRAI art festivalI don’t know if you saw this story last year, and if not, I’m sorry to do this to you. Because you can’t unknow this. Last year, Bart Jansen woke up to find his long-time pet cat “Wilbur” was dead. And that was unacceptable for Mr. Jansen. So he did what anyone of us would have done. He turned his dead pet into a helicopter.

He combined the fine art of taxidermy and small engine motors. And now Wilbur had been given wings…

As a preacher, I’ve done a lot of funerals and one of the things that I’ve noticed is how uncomfortable most people are during these times. I think it’s the same reason Bart put wings on his dead cat, or why the taxidermy industry exists at all. We don’t like to be reminded of death, and funerals are the reminder of the ultimate reality that we can’t escape.

And this is precisely why we need moments like Ash Wednesday.

Now I know for some of the readers of this blog, Ash Wednesday may sound a bit too Catholic. And I get that. Growing up, I was under the impression that all things Catholic were suspect.

My parents wouldn’t even let me be friends with girls named Mary.

But Ash Wednesday was going on long before Protestants and Catholics ever split. It’s an annual reminder that Christians have observed every year, for thousands of years It’s when we remember that from dust we came and to dust we will return. It is profoundly ancient and biblical.

Think about Job for a second. Do you remember what Job does when he hears the news about his family tragically dying? He covers himself in ashes.

We are all Job

In his famous sermon on the book of Job, Jonathan Edwards pointed out that all of our stories will one day be like Job’s. Sure Job lost everything in one day while most of us experience these losses more slowly. But rest assured one day each of us will be on the door of death, leaving everything behind.

James Stockdale was a war-hero and POW during the Vietnam war. He had lived through the underbelly of the human condition and wound up becoming an admiral, and eventually ran with Ross Perot for the Vice-President. When they asked him about the other POW’s who didn’t survive he always said the same thing:

“Oh, that’s easy, the optimists. They were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter’ And then Easter would come and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving and then it would be Christmas again. One by one, they died of a broken heart.”

I understand why we want to ignore death, why we pretend it’s something that just happens to other people. But there is a reason that the church has practiced Ash Wednesday for so long. Because eventually optimism is really hard to keep someone’s faith going.

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End of the World pictureSo tomorrow is the day that the world is supposed to end. For over a thousand years, the Mayans have scheduled every day on their calendar.

And today is the last one.

I remember the first time I heard about this passive-aggressive prediction. It was eerie and freaky, and I totally believed it. I had all these images from the movies I’ve seen about the end of the world flash through my mind. There were volcanoes and lava or earthquakes and asteroids (there’s always an asteroid isn’t there?), and then finally at the last minute Will Smith comes in and saves the world.

Those are the images we’ve been handed for how to think about the end of the world.

And I think they’re wrong.

So it’s Christmas time. And for a lot of us that means shopping and parties and eggnog. But if you’re afraid of the end of the world tomorrow, than I think Christmas can really bless you today. Another word for the Christmas season is Advent. And Advent is just the Latin word for “Coming” It’s the idea that Jesus came into the world, and that he will one day soon come into the world again.

Advent is about the longing that is in every human heart, a desire, an ache that we all share for things to be different, for there to be no more cancer, or school shootings. It’s a hope for the world to be made new.

At the heart of Advent is the recognition that something is missing.

And Christmas reminds us that this something is really a someone.

I’m preaching this Sunday on a text from 1st Peter that has really captured my imagination the past few weeks. I rarely blog about what I’m about to preach on, but since enough people think that the end of the world just might happen tomorrow, I wanted to share a word of hope that might bless you this Christmas.

When Jesus first met Peter, he was a rough-around-the-edges fisherman. He was impulsive. He was a racist, he was a self-promoting, fearful bigot. In other words, he was a human. And Jesus found Peter, trained him and taught him for years. Peter betrayed, annoyed, and refused Jesus. And Jesus just kept pushing into Peter’s life. Jesus forgives again and again, he piles grace upon grace for Peter.

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On March 1, 2012

What Plagues Us All

I’ve been in ministry long enough to know each of us brings our own unique sets of brokenness to the table. And that we each try to pretend that it isn’t there. So we discover ways of emphasizing our strengths and talents and ignoring our flaws, but in our quieter moments we know just how deeply broken we each are. And Revelation is telling us that what is true of us on the inside, is true at a cosmic level as well.

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On October 4, 2011

Christians and Pleasure

Frederick Buechner once said “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.” I think that’s exactly right. Christians are at their best when they have one foot in the suffering of this world, and one foot in their hope for the next. They suffer with the world today and celebrate with the world to come.

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On April 26, 2011

The Finger Is a Gun

Tina Fey’s new book BossyPants, has a fantastic chapter where she talks about working with improv class. She says it’s more than just a way of comedy, it’s a worldview. This is what that means:

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On April 21, 2011

The Groans of Creation

This is the holiest week of the Christian calendar. It’s the week where we celebrate the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. But this holy season comes on the heels of some of the worst natural disasters in recent history. It seems that the world is starting to come unraveled. So what does this week have to say about that?

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On April 13, 2011

A New Beginning

A blog re-post from Rob Bell about how he came to be a pastor. It’s a story about redemption, and dead end’s that turn into 2nd chances. And it has nothing to do with Hell.

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On February 25, 2011

Denying the Resurrection

I love this. Peter Rollins is quite the controversial figure. And while his introduction may leave some of your feeling a bit uncomfortable, I’d like to challenge you to listen past the surface of what he’s saying. It is after all a Parable.

What I love about this is they way it moves from Theology to something tangible. Ideas, after all, are empty if they just stay in our head. And to move from word to flesh is very central to the Gospel.

So here’s the question: How do you affirm the resurrection in your life? How have you denied it?  Continue Reading…

On October 4, 2010


Last year I read the Lord of the Rings for the first time. I had a feeling that I would like the books, but I never wanted to be “that guy.” It kind of seemed like a slippery slope. One minute I’m reading about Frodo, and the next I’m wearing a Star Trek uniform and talking to guy who owns the local Comic book store about the Borg.

I was wrong. Continue Reading…