Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The difficult job of saying goodbye

On Monday we faced the difficult job of saying goodbye to a dear friend, felled in his prime by a brain tumour which had pursued him for six years and finally overtook him last week. We stood together on a cold morning, as his body was lowered into the sandy Nairnshire earth, and commended him to the God he had loved and served during his time on earth. His wife, surrounded by the love and prayers of family and friends led us to the burial with their three young children, and together we ached, and prayed and sang and said our farewells.

I struggled to hold my thoughts together coherently, both at the quiet burial and then at the large thanksgiving service which followed. My restless mind like a camera struggling to focus, zoomed in and out between the thoughts of the burial itself and what was carried in that beautiful banana leaf coffin, and the family standing without him; then onto memories of him past - of hills we climbed and places we went, and on to the hills we left unclimbed but had promised we one day would like Lurg Mhor, and Maoile Lunndaidh. My emotions likewise rose and fell, as I experienced alternating waves of accepting what God has allowed to happen and railing against it; from finding God's comfort to being like Job of old, and 'placing my hand over my mouth' wanting to but yet aware that I am not in any position to interrogate Him.

The injustice of a world in which the likes of Mugabe reach 90, and this humble, gentle man who loved the outdoors, who loved his family, who served in his church, who was a Dr who had taken his family to the developing world to work in a hospital there as an expression of his deeply compassionate Christian faith, and whose family depended on him; is simply ghastly. There are no definitive answers given to us, as why these things happen as they do. Even godly Job, whose sufferings the Bible records so carefully, and who asked God for answers was not given them; and neither are we. The Biblical worldview provides a powerful macro-explanation for suffering and evil in a world alienated from God. Likewise it presents a view of the end-of suffering and evil with the advent of a new heaven and a new earth and of hope of it grasped by faith and tasted in the present. What we do not have is a micro-explanation of the way in which suffering and evil are distributed now; why one good man dies, while a wicked one is allowed to live. And yet this anguished-mystery is not an affront to the biblical world-view, but embedded in it notably in the Psalms of 'disorientation'. 

At the graveside on Monday morning I was reminded of a talk by Prof NT Wright which I heard many years ago about Jesus at the graveside of his friend Lazarus. Wright said that our modern translations are weak when they say that Jesus was 'deeply moved and troubled'. We all know what it is to be deeply moved and troubled at a graveside, and the first spark of hope comes from knowing that The Lord of all has shared the fragility of humanity with us and is fully with us in this. But there is more than this, Wright says. The weakness of many translations, he says, is that they tell of Jesus' being moved and troubled, but not of his deep anger. Wright says that this last act of Jesus before he went to Jerusalem to offer his life on the cross, was to rage against death, and to declare war upon it - both in the immediate case of Lazarus; and through his death and resurrection - upon the finality of death itself. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies, Jesus told them. This is possible, as we were reminded at that graveside, because Jesus is the resurrection and the life. If the first spark of hope is that Jesus knows and understands the anguish of the graveside, the second is that his resurrection is a sign that death is not the end, and that we too will rise like he did. Jesus' resurrection is not just the defining centre of Christian hope, but also deeply fascinating in the form it took. The New Testament resurrection appearances present a Jesus who was at once recognisable, (physically, emotionally, spiritually Him!), yet also restored. He had been mangled by torture and and execution, but yet he was not in resurrection. To be sure, there were holes in his body from the crucifixion, but he was not exsanguinating through them - he was healed. As I stood by the open grave on Monday morning and watched the descent on my friend's body into the earth, NT Wright's words stuck me again powerfully in this way; because Jesus declared war on sin and death, and secured his victory on the first Easter; my friend will rise like Christ did. What was lowered into that grave was my friend's body complete with the legs that climbed so many hills, the arms which canoed lochs, the heart which powered so many miles on his bike, his oh-so-expressive face, and that awful tumour which took him down. The resurrection will feature all these things - except the tumour; they will not be permitted in the new creation. As Revelation puts it: “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” My friend is no longer in pain, he is safe-home.

If the words of Jesus at Lazarus' grave speak so powerfully of the departed, it's Paul's words in 2 Corinthians 1 which have been at the centre of my thoughts for those who have been left behind. Grief exists in concentric circles, and is felt most acutely by those in the centre circle - the immediate family; and least by those acquaintances who only feel the outer ripples of its pain. Yet for all of us, at whatever distance we are to the epicentre of loss, these words are poignant. Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort,  who comforts us in all our troubles. Christian faith is not a dry belief-system which asks the believer to merely accept the promises of God for the future; but is a lived spiritual experience of walking with God through all the seasons of life. The New Testament vision of the Christian life is one of sensing God now, with the hope of seeing Him in the future. At the thanksgiving service on Monday, my friend's Mother-in-law spoke of the way in which this has been the experience of their family through illness, heartbreak and bereavement. She spoke about a 'wave of love', spurred by countless prayers, enveloping them - even as they grieve, even as they weep. And so while our hope for the dead is the resurrection of Christ; our ongoing prayer for those who grieve most is that they will have a deep, profound and enduring sense of the God of All Compassion with them. And we will pray without ceasing to this end.

The final text, for now, is this. James, in his New Testament epistle, warns his readers against a passive faith which he regarded as less-than-useless. The danger he saw, was a belief in the grace and power of God which failed to spur the believer into action. The actions he demanded from his readers were specific, detailed and profound, and feature things such as the quest for personal integrity and purity and careful use of words. He also makes the following direct and radical statement:  Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress (J1:27). When I stop and think for a moment and realise that this text, which I have known for so many years, now suddenly applies to a dear friend, and her three beautiful little children; I find sorrow welling up from the pit of my stomach and I get a grip of myself before the welling reaches my eyes and overflows. And so it was heartening to hear that the church which they belong to, up in Inverness, has been pure and faultless in this regard. At the thanksgiving service, they spoke all manner of practical support which the family has received. And James presents this obligation to serve, as a matter for the whole Christian community - and we must rise to the challenge.

Hillwalking is a great pursuit. It not only brings us into wildplaces, provides a sense of adventure and achievement, and is wonderfully healthy; but it also pushes walkers together in cars, hostels and on long, long days together and facilitates great conversation. The hillwalks I did with my friend who we buried on Monday may have been comparatively few in terms of Munros ticked - but the conversations we had will last in my memories for a lifetime. Not all of them were sensible; and when I picture him in the hills I still imagine him laughing and laughing at the absurd and bizarre things we talked about. Yet sometimes, he would go quiet and then tell us something deep, moving, profound and wise. It was somewhere in Glen Carron that he told us what it meant to (in the words of Psalm 23) know "The Lord as My Shepherd", with a family to support and terminal illness. It was on Ben Wyvis that he told me of his trust in God's provision for his family now, and if and when he could no longer be there to support them.

Sometimes loss is accompanied by regret, of things not said or of the sense that the person who has gone failed to reach their potential or lost their way in life. In this case, nothing could be further from the truth. This man embraced life with joy and enthusiasm, with love, charisma and boundless energy. When planning outdoor adventures he would want to do the most, achieve the best, in his work he pursued excellence, in family life he was absolutely devoted to his wife and family, in church his musical skills were at the fore, in relationships with others he seemed to always pursue the best for others. He loved water too - canoeing over it, leaping in it, swimming through it! If on a walk we came to a loch, others might hesitate, but he would be the first peeling of his outer clothes and running and jumping in. He was the one who in the middle of his illness had a faith that inspired others, and an integrity that is worth imitating. While the shortness of his life is nothing less than unbearably tragic; there is no sense of incompleteness about the quality of the life he led at all. The loss which is so acute today is not that he failed to achieve greatness because he was cut off from us so young; but that we miss his greatness; his energy, his wise, gentle humour and his madcap schemes so, so very much. When I think of the great hills of Wester Ross, of Glen Affric, of Mullardoch or Torridon, and think that when I get to Inverness we will just continue North because there is no-one waiting there in Nairn to jump in the car; those hills seem so empty, so sad.

This post has been unusually long and rambling, even by my standards. It has also been the hardest thing I have posted on this blog for many years. However, I know that many people who read this also knew my friend, indeed who were there with us on Monday and so it seemed appropriate to honour him, and point to those three things in the Bible which form the centre of this post. The resurrection and future hope, the comfort of God the Father in the present, and our obligation to help the bereaved.

Happier Times: In Plockton, June 2009.
"What a headcase"

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Not a random post. A beautiful, touching, poignant post about a gentle man. A wonderful family. A lover of God. At home now.