Nov 30 2011

Sacred Moments, II

Have you ever thought about how much photography is about life and not about death? We are uncomfortable with death in our culture. While there is some imagery about death in nature, it tends to be either dramatic African predators killing prey (or something like it) or a rather psychologically distant image of a dead tree trunk.

I thought a lot about this as my father died earlier this month. His doctor said something that is so basic that it is obvious, yet so against our culture that it is not often said — dying is a natural process of life and my dad was slowly doing something that we are all supposed to do at some time.

This does not mean this is an easy thing. I was sad to see my dad go, though given his serious health issues, I was also glad to see him at peace. But it also made me think that if dying is a natural process of life, then it is something God has given us as part of life. If as Christians we truly believe that death is a passage to being with God, then death is also a sacred moment, a moment to be honored.

Rabbi Abraham Heschel said this about sacred moments, “The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments.”

I really wanted to be with dad as he died. That was important to me and I was blessed to have had that opportunity. I know that our culture does not want to accept witnessing death as a blessing, but I have learned that it can be. And a sacred moment to be faced.

I spent some time in the Maine woods near where my parents lived as my dad died. At this time of year, you cannot help but see the passing of much life as winter starts to come. Of course, we know that a leafless tree in late fall is not about death because the tree will “come to life” again in the spring. But maybe that is a good metaphor for our own mortality. As we age, our bodies change dramatically, just like the tree in fall. Then the winter of death comes, only to be revived as a spring as we find our way to God after death.

Psalm 89:48 says, “What man can live and not see death, or save himself from the power of the grave?” I think now that this means that life and death are part of the same process. Because of this, death can teach us to recognize what is really important in the world. I know that God used my dad’s death to help me better understand this very, very important lesson. And to recognize what a sacred moment death is.

— Rob


Apr 27 2011

Death and Life

“For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.”  1 Corinthians 15:22

If you are a regular reader of this blog you know that a few weeks ago I introduced you to a delightful website where you could view a live cam on an active eagle’s nest.  Yesterday I was saddened to learn that the mother eagle at this nest had been hit by an airplane and killed.  This eagle had been taking wonderful care of her three eaglets and had touched the hearts of thousands of people across the globe.  This horrible accident was just another reminder how fragile life is and how death is an inevitable part of life.

The picture you see above was taken on the hill in my back yard.  This skull was here when we moved into our house three years ago.  I elected not to remove it.  Why?  I felt it would serve as a useful reminder to me of my own mortality.  A lot of us live our lives as though we will never die.  The fact is we all will one day die unless Christ returns first.  This cow’s skull makes me mindful that I should live my life with the end in mind.  It makes me want to do all I can to make life meaningful while I have the chance. 

There are certainly a lot of reminders in nature that death is a part of life.  When we look around us we see dead animals on the side of the road, trees that have died, and plants that have perished.  In God’s wonderful economy death actually plays a key role in the giving of life.  Plants and animals return to the soil and make it more fertile.  Through death life goes on.

Some feel that this same cycle is what we face as humans.  We live, we die and then we return to dust.  That’s it.  The Scriptures, however, point to something else.  Here too we learn that death leads to life but the difference is that in God’s hands we are restored to life ourselves.  This, of course, is the message we celebrated a few days ago on Easter.  The consistent testimony of the New Testament is that life goes on for those who follow Christ.  For these death becomes the entranceway to life on a far higher level than that we experience here on earth.  (What happens to other living creatures is not clearly noted in the Scriptures; I can only hope that they too are a part of the “new creation” the Bible talks about.)  

When the words are paired we usually see them in this order—life and death.  God would have us reverse this order and see that life follows death.  Obviously we live now and are meant to make the most of life here on earth.  We do this by loving God, our neighbors, ourselves and God’s Creation but it is comforting to know that this life is not all that we have.  There is more—so much more—to come once we pass through death to life and the home God prepares for us even now.


(The bottom picture was taken at Joshua Tree National Park.  The shadows on the rocks remind me of the words found in Psalm 23: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil,  for you are with me.”)

Nov 17 2010

Death and Life

sweetgum leaf 399While reading the book of First Peter yesterday I came across the passage where the biblical author says “For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.  For, ‘All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord stands forever.’”  (1:23-25a)  This time of the year seems appropriate for reading these words.  Now that we’ve had some hard frosts the grass in my yard has withered and the flowers fallen back to the earth.  Every time this happens we are reminded that our lives, like the grasses and flowers, are only here for a certain length of time. 

Death is not a subject most people like to talk about.  It is, however, something that comes to each of us eventually.  The mortality rate for humans remains 100%.  In nature we have all kinds of reminders that we’re not meant to live here on earth forever.  These reminders also serve the useful purpose of pointing us to our kinship with all living things.  Like them, we too will one day die.

I know that there are many people who believe that this life here on earth is all that we have but the Bible tells us that this is not so.  The eternal God offers to us the gift of eternal life.  That life is found in Jesus Christ.  The apostle Paul was so convinced that there was life beyond death that he said, “If only for this life we have hope in Christ we are to be pitied more than all men.” (1 Cor. 15:19)  And just as Peter pointed to the natural world for reminders of our mortality, Paul did the same to talk about what kind of bodies we’ll have in eternity.  He writes, “What you sow does not come to life unless it dies.  When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or something else.  But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body.  All flesh is not the same: Men have one kind of flesh, animals another and fish another.”  (1 Corinthians 15:36-39)   Paul goes on to say, “So it will be with the resurrection of the dead.  The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable…it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.” (1 Cor. 15:42, 44)

I certainly don’t claim to understand what all this means but I do know that in the verses by both Peter and Paul there is to be found good news.  Death may be inevitable on this earth but the life God gives to us through Jesus Christ is everlasting.  For that I am extremely grateful!


(I took the image of the fallen leaves and pine cone in my back yard earlier today.)

May 23 2010

Death and the Blue Jay

bluejay 578“I am the resurrection and the life.  Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.”            John 11:25

Several years ago I was reading a copy of Nature magazine when I was shocked to discover an article praising the virtues of Blue Jays.  As a child I had been taught that Blue Jays were bad because they robbed other birds’ nests.  All the neighborhood kids knew that they were not supposed to shoot birds with their BB guns but that Blue Jays were fair game.  So when I read in the article how valuable Blue Jays are in distributing seeds and regenerating forests I had to rethink my childhood notions.

Later today I will drive over to Middlesboro, Kentucky, to speak at the funeral of a dear friend.  Even though she was 92 years old it still hurts knowing that she is no longer here.  Over the years death has robbed me of a lot of my loved ones.  When I was younger I had a horrible attitude toward death.  As far as I was concerned, there was nothing good about it.  In time, however, I came to see things differently.  Just as I came to see the good in the Blue Jay I came to understand that death is not all bad.

My Christian faith teaches me that contrary to the way it might seem, death is not the end.  For children of God death is in many ways just the beginning.  It is an entranceway to a far better place. 

There is much in nature that reminds us of the inevitability of death.  You see it everywhere.  I also happen to believe that God has placed signs in nature to remind us and give us hope that this life is not all that there is.  The new life that returns each spring following the cold dark winter is one such sign. 

These days whenever I see a Blue Jay I remember how something I once saw as bad is actually good.  When I visit the cemetery this afternoon, I’ll remember the same thing.


(I took the image of this Blue Jay in my yard this past winter.)

Mar 24 2010

Unless A Seed Dies…

seed podNext week I’ll be preaching at one of our community Holy Week services here in Pikeville.  The text I was assigned is John 12:20-36.  In this passage Jesus speaks of his impending death and draws an analogy from nature to do so.  He says in verse 24, “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed.  But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”

For many reasons, this is an interesting verse to me.  On the one hand the seed imagery reminds me that all the new growth I’ll see around me this spring came at a cost.  In a sense seeds had to “die” in order for there to be new life.  The cold and darkness of winter were necessary to bring about the bounty of spring. 

On the other hand, the seed comparison reveals to me something of the mystery of Jesus’ death.  Over the centuries there have been many attempts to explain the meaning of the crucifixion–theologians refer to these as theories of the atonement.  Obviously this is not the place to discuss these but I do find it fascinating that in the Fourth Gospel Jesus uses the analogy of the life/death/life cycle of the seed to explain his mission.

In a little over a week Christians will observe Good Friday and pause to remember the death of our Savior.  Perhaps on that day we ought to look around and take note of the new growth spring has brought us and remember Jesus’ words—“unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies it remains only a single seed.  But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”  John boldly declares that Jesus willingly gave up his life (died on the cross) so that there might be an abundant harvest.  That harvest includes all those who follow Jesus. 

I’m glad that Good Friday and Easter always come in the spring.  There’s a powerful connection there.  There truly is!


(The seed pod above was photographed at Grayson Lake State Park in northern Kentucky.)