Shadows

Epiphanies come at the oddest of times. Sometimes you are deliberately seeking meaning and understanding and the “AHA!” moment happens. Other times your attention is diverted and an epiphany breaks through unexpectedly. These moments of clarity are always welcome, as they deepen our understanding of God and our relationship with him.

A very long time ago I had an epiphany in the middle of a funeral. I was standing in the pulpit reading the 23rd Psalm when a word jumped out at me and the heavens broke open, with the angel choir singing a loud chord of resonant “AHHHHHH!”

The word was shadow. See if you can spot it.

The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside the still waters.
He restores my soul;
He leads me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil;
For You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.

And there it is. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the SHADOW of death…” What a lovely epiphany! If you are grieving the loss of a loved one or fearful for your own death, what is this saying?

When David wrote this timeless classic (which is read at almost every funeral I have officiated) he was expressing the hope and the reality of our relationship with God. He praises God for providing for all of his needs. He paints images of green pastures and still waters as a way of suggesting that being in God’s presence is where we find peace. He reminds us that when we are weary and strung out, God restores us. If we are smart enough to follow God, our path will be one of righteousness.

With God, the valley we travel is only a mere shadow of death, for death has no sting.

This powerful image proclaims that death is not a real or a final destination…it is as fleeting as a cloud passing in front of the sun for a moment. Shadows come and go. Death comes and goes. Eternal life is forever, and it is in the house of eternal life that we will dwell with the Lord all the days of our lives. We walk through the valley of the shadow of death to arrive on the other side, where heaven is found.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
My cup runs over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life;
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord
Forever.

I pray that these words today bring you comfort. When I read them, my cup very much runs over with goodness and mercy.

Christ invites us to come to the table that is prepared before us and feast on peace, hope, comfort, and joy.

Cloud Shadow by Michelle Robertson

Dead to Me

If I told you I’ve been thinking about death a lot lately, would you think I’m morbid? Or just a pastor? Our community has suffered several unexpected deaths in recent weeks. A colleague’s mother was killed in a horrific car accident, a lovely man with Down’s Syndrome finally succumbed to death, and a beloved gentleman died suddenly in his garden. Funeral preparations have blunted the joy of Easter and we are doing what we do as we prepare to bid farewell to these joyful people. Ministry is hard.

But in the midst of writing funeral liturgies and selecting scripture passages, this comes along:

Romans 6 (Common English Bible)

Or don’t you know that all who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore, we were buried together with him through baptism into his death, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too can walk in newness of life. 

Easter is nothing if not a proclamation of the newness of life. This passage reminds us that we don’t just celebrate Christ’s resurrection, we actually participate in it ourselves. John Donne, the 17th century poet, scholar, and Church of England cleric, says this about the impact of the resurrection upon humankind: “The Resurrection is an enormous answer to the problem of death. The idea is that the Christian goes with Christ through death to everlasting life. Death becomes an event, like birth, that is lived through.”

Death is just an event. It is a passageway, not a final destination. Think of it! Rather than being an ending, it is something that is lived through as we continue life in a new location.

If we were united together in a death like his, we will also be united together in a resurrection like his. This is what we know: the person that we used to be was crucified with him in order to get rid of the corpse that had been controlled by sin. That way we wouldn’t be slaves to sin anymore, because a person who has died has been freed from sin’s power. But if we died with Christ, we have faith that we will also live with him. 

So the question for us today is this: have you really died to self so that you might live with Christ? This is a question about the newness of life. When we accept Christ, we begin life anew as followers of his Way. Are you faithful in your daily walk with Jesus, or have you slipped off his path?

We know that Christ has been raised from the dead and he will never die again. Death no longer has power over him. 10 He died to sin once and for all with his death, but he lives for God with his life. 11 In the same way, you also should consider yourselves dead to sin but alive for God in Christ Jesus.

May we commit to being truly alive for God in Christ Jesus.

Just a Closer Walk by Kathy Schumacher

Standing in Awe

I recently watched the movie I Can Only Imagine, which is the story of how the number one Christian song by the same name was written and produced. The band Mercy Me and its lead singer Bart Millard are the central characters in the story, with a great performance by actor Dennis Quaid as the abusive father. There is a surprising twist of how Amy Grant played a pivotal role in what happened. Those are all the spoilers you will get here, so go find it and watch it.

The song explores what happens when we die. Millard asks the question, “Will I dance for you Jesus, or in awe of you, be still?”

I have a friend who is actively dying. I have lain awake at night trying to process this. I am no stranger to death. My parents are dead, and as a pastor, I have seen more funerals than baptisms and weddings combined. I have been with people at the very moment of death and watched that transition.

A group of Girl Scouts once interviewed me as part of their merit badge program, and the question was asked, “What is your favorite part of your job?” I looked at this pack of giggly girls and I’m sure they expected me to say, “Weddings!” Every giggly girl would think that would be just wonderful, to be part of so many weddings. This is not the case. I told them that ministry with the dying was my favorite part, and their faces fell. I went on to explain that it is in those moments that I feel closest to God and experience the pure and uncomplicated “sacred.”

We understand the word sacred to mean set apart. Things that are sacred are set apart from the ordinary, set apart from the earthly, and set apart for God’s use and his glory.

Death is sacred. There is not one sacrament created by the church that can even touch it. Communion, baptism, and all the other things churches observe as sacramental cannot hold a candle to death.

In the moment of death, the veil is literally torn between this earth and that heaven. The process of transition is that moment of our lives where we experience God in his fullest. Even our birth isn’t as powerful as our death.

When I was a very young pastor, I was called to the hospital bed of my church organist’s mother. She was dying, and we waited. We held her hands and talked in soft voices as she took her last breath. It was the first of many times I would experience the moment of death, and the memory is still vibrant to me. I saw/felt/understood her spirit rise out of her body and linger in the upper corner of the room. It was so real, I turned my head to look up at the corner. When I looked back at her, she was gone.

Gone where?

Philippians 3 (The Message)

20-21 But there’s far more to life for us. We’re citizens of high heaven! We’re waiting the arrival of the Savior, the Master, Jesus Christ, who will transform our earthy bodies into glorious bodies like his own. He’ll make us beautiful and whole with the same powerful skill by which he is putting everything as it should be, under and around him.

The thief on the cross next to Jesus who believed Jesus was the son of God was promised that he would be in paradise THAT DAY. The moment of death becomes the moment of life, when we enter into our citizenship of high heaven. Our earthly bodies become transformed into something glorious, beautiful, and WHOLE. Death has no victory…death has no sting! No more pain, no more illness, no more confusion, no more tears.

Ponder this today, and make it your life’s goal to enter this paradise. And do not fear death. You will never experience the sacred in this life in the way you will experience it in death. God with us, Emmanuel, in a way we have never felt before.

Can you only imagine?

The Open Portal by Michelle Robertson

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N_lrrq_opng