By: Stephen McAlpine
It’s six years ago today since I conducted my father’s funeral. A bittersweet experience to be sure.
Dunno where that time went. But here’s the thing, I’m at that age where the dads of so many of my friends are dying. offhand I can think of five recently, In fact I am starting to count this up on two hands over the past couple of years. And I’ve had lots of conversations with my friends in the aftermath of the death events and the funerals that many of them played a large part in organising.
A long term friend who now lives in the UK is home here in Perth for a month or so. He got on the plane before Christmas to the news that his dad did not have long. His father’s funeral was last week. We talked it through the other day. The songs, the eulogies, the gospel message proclaimed. The various tensions of various family members, some estranged and painfully so. My friend’s father loved Jesus and loved proclaiming the goodness of God to all who would listen. A long term pastor in the AOG, he died singing the praises of the King who had given his life for him.
It’s an age and stage. And as the Scriptures remind us, it’s better to go to the house of a funeral than the house of a party, because we’re more likely to learn about life in the house of death than anywhere else. And probably more likely, if we are ready to listen, to learn more about life in this season when, as people in our fifties, our parents are ageing and dying.
So what can we learn from the house of death, or at least this season when, according to the natural order of things when age takes people we are close to, especially our parents?
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the deaths and funerals I’ve been party to, is this: you die as you live. Having been involved in church ministry over the years I have conducted my fair share of funerals, my dad’s was only one of a a long list. But we die as we live. The shape and pattern we have set over the years goes with us. I remember well enough my dad’s aged care facility and the manner in which people behaved as they aged.
“I remember well enough my dad’s aged care facility and the manner in which people behaved as they aged.”
I’d hazard a guess that their personalities became more set as they got older, and then with inhibitions down for the many who had dementia, we saw something of their true selves unrestrained. I have to say that was sobering. The flipside of course is that the godly people I knew over the years were also themselves in their latter days. All of this probably means that how you’re going to be at the end is directly correlated to how you are now. And given we don’t know the day of our deaths, probably better to sort that now.
If you’ve ever done funerals then you know the difference between a Christian funeral and one that is not. And to be honest, there’s nothing more challenging or sobering than conducting the funeral of someone who wasn’t. It’s just the sheer lack of hope that is so jarring in a funeral without Jesus. The scorn or disinterest directed towards Christianity – or any thought to what happens after – by so many drains away in the face of death. I have heard some fantastical nonsense at funerals, much of which seems designed to inure people from the reality of what is before them. Ironically, the most earthy and realistic takes on what has just happened to a loved one comes from Christians. Though perhaps there’s no irony in that.
You’ve probably seen enough movies in the drama genre that start or end with funerals. There’s always the family tension that keeps the drama humming along. That accords with what I’ve seen. If you’re a Christian in that setting, perhaps the only Christian in your family, you have a chance to model the kindness and forbearance of Jesus to other family members in that setting. Self control is part of the fruit of the Spirit, and it often seems that funerals of loved ones are the places where self-control can go out the window. A self-controlled and compassionate lover of Jesus, in the midst of a death, is a great witness to the gospel.
Yes, you’re next. All things being equal, anyway. Perhaps that’s the biggest jolt to me and my friends as we all hit our fifties and sixties. This thing ain’t for turning. The conveyer belt of time keeps rolling, and we’re now closer to the edge, inching forward all of the time. There’s a sense that we must lose our complacency now. And if not now, when? The fact that our fathers have died has, for many of my friends, made us reflect long and hard on the legacy that we will leave behind us.
“The fact that our fathers have died has, for many of my friends, made us reflect long and hard on the legacy that we will leave behind us.”
Given the good – or ill – of our fathers in their lives, we get to examine the trajectory we are on. Or we don’t. That is such a worry is it not? To face a death and not reflect upon our own is surely a missed opportunity. My favourite book by far on the subject of death is Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Illyich”. The lightning bolt observation right at the start highlights the naivety and false sense of security among the living in the face of the dead; the many living who are too preoccupied with this short life to face the reality of their own deaths. This is searing is it not?
“Besides considerations as to the possible transfers and promotions likely to result from Ivan Ilych’s death, the mere fact of the death of a near acquaintance aroused, as usual, in all who heard of it the complacent feeling that, “it is he who is dead and not I.”
That is an amazing observation by one who was the master observer of life in his day. Tolstoy writes about death like no other. Roll that delicious line around on your tongue: “It is he who is dead and not I”. Now spit it out. One day it will be you. Or I. Though there’s no “either/or” about it is there? It’s “both/and” surely. Better to lose that complacency towards death now.
I don’t mean to sound too sombre, but planning for death, its inevitability and inexorable pull towards our grave, is not a bad thing. In fact, we need to start that process now, while we yet live. How we live, where we focus our loves, these things matter. Scripture tells us that we are a vapour, that all human flesh is as grass. And while that might not feel so in the midst of youthful flourishing, the years go by very quickly. It is astonishing to me that I am now going to be 56 years of age in 2023. Jill and I often lie in bed talking about the inevitability of death and the sorrow that the death of either of us would bring. We feel the ageing process, and we often remark on the fact that on the day of our wedding – which seems no time ago at all -our parents were younger than we are now. How did that happen?
I want to end this with the hope that we have in the gospel. When we read Jesus’ words in John 8 when he states that anyone who keeps his words will not see death. Sure, we know that unless Jesus comes back soon we will see death (and while we must still long for his appearing, the older we get the more we realise it may not be in our lifetime), but we won’t see death’s foul face in all its horror if we trust Jesus. How much must God care for and love us if the very thing that is appointed to all of fallen, sinful humanity, is removed even from our sight, never mind our experience, when we draw our last breath.
“We won’t see death’s foul face in all its horror if we trust Jesus.”
As we go further into 2023, with the gathering uncertainties we witness around us, and the record levels of anxiety in the West, despite the huge wealth and longevity we experience, it’s comforting to know the hope of the resurrection, a hope that shapes not just how we will face death then, but how we will live life now. That Jesus tasted death so that those of us who have lived in the fear of its mere shadow, not simply its reality, is the true wonder of the universe. And if you find yourself as so many of us have recently, dealing with the death of a parent, then prepare yourself to be the harbinger of the good news of life in the face of death. That’s the season we are in, so use the time wisely.
Article supplied with thanks to Stephen McAlpine
About the Author: Stephen has been reading, writing and reflecting ever since he can remember. He is the lead pastor of Providence Church Midland, and in his writing dabbles in a number of fields, notably theology and culture. Stephen and his family live in Perth’s eastern suburbs, where his wife Jill runs a clinical psychology practice.