It is difficult to write about death without being morbid. Or complacent. I do not wish to be either of those things. Death is a painful reality for all of us. Especially at Christmas. This is a time when we remember those who used to be with us, when we look back at old photos of Christmas dinner tables that looked very different, when we grieve for those that we miss.
This is good and right. My friend Inge died at Christmas time, and advent is tinged by the sadness of her passing. This time of year reminds me that she isn't here. And that I miss her. Sometimes that missing is a light and beautiful nostalgia; at other times it is the heavy pain of loss. I feel like I might drown in it.
Jesus understood grief. He wept. (John 11:35) When Jesus' friend Lazarus dies, he does not shrug off his death as though it does not matter. Even though he knows that he will raise Lazarus from the grave, he weeps alongside Mary and Martha as they mourn for their brother. He is moved by the sight of their pain and their grief, and he stoops down into the dust so that he can share in it with them. Our God is not unaffected by our pain. He is with us in the midst of it. As we hurt in this hurting world, we are confident that God hurts with us.
But Jesus does raise Lazarus from the dead. There is not just empathy in this story. There is power. There is a hope that transcends death and goes beyond the grave. Death is not the end.
Last week, Hamish reminded me of 1 Peter 3:15, "But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect." My instinctive response to this verse, to a querying of my own hope, is to focus on the hope that I have for this life: hope that no one is beyond the remit of God's grace, hope that transformation is possible in the hardest of hearts, hope that lives can be healed and made whole in the here and now, that God will break into the darkness and bring his beautiful light.
And I do hope for these things. I do hope to see God's goodness in the land of the living (Psalm 27:14), to see God's kingdom come on earth, to catch glimpses of the new creation now.
But last week, my friend's Dad also died. I did not know him well. I had only met him once, at her wedding. His death has challenged my understanding of hope. It has not lessened the hope that I have for this life, but it has reminded me that, ultimately, what Jesus promises us is hope for the next.
As I read Philippians 1 with my god daughter last week, we came to Paul's assertion that 'to live is Christ, to die is gain.' It is easy to gloss over this verse. It has become somewhat sentimentalised, converted into an iconic tattoo that looks good when your sleeves are rolled up but - perhaps - doesn't really mean anything. To Paul, it meant everything. There is nether morbidity nor complacency in his view of death. He does not want to die. He prays that, if it happens, he would be given the courage to face it without being ashamed, and yet he is utterly convinced that death is gain. To die means being with Jesus and that is a whole lot better than his current circumstance hauled up in a prison.
Perhaps these words are easier to write in a prison cell than in the midst of my life. Heaven does sound preferable to chains and misery (although, interestingly, Paul determines that he will live rather than die such is his concern for those whom he has started to tell about Jesus) but, what about me? Do I view heaven as better than what I have at the moment? Better than the joy of an imminent new life; better than friends and family and laughter and the sound of birds singing at dawn; better than watching the sun sink slowly in a haze of pinks; better than the taste of slow-cooked roast lamb; better than the feeling of falling asleep in safety and comfort beside the one that you love.
To live is Christ. To die is gain. His love is better than life. (Psalm 63:3)
For us in the West there is more challenge here than comfort. For our persecuted brothers and sisters suffering under tyranny in Iraq, it is surely the reverse. For those that know the reality of incredible pain and grief, immense pressure and horror, death is gain. To be with Jesus is, as it was for Paul, better.
I do not know what to do with these words this morning.
In moments of doubt, of which there are many, I question whether I actually believe in heaven at all. Whether I actually believe in an eternity with Jesus that surpasses any earthly experience, an eternity that would make any sacrifice or suffering or loss for the sake of Christ worth it. Do I actually believe in the bodily resurrection of those who have followed Him? That, in the twinkling of an eye, we are changed, we do meet him, and each other, caught up in the glory of his presence?
And then I think of Inge. And I think of her dancing. I think of her body free from pain and healed of every trace of cancer. I think of her as a young woman, even though I never knew her then, with arms outstretched in praise, laughing, giddy with the joy of abandon and surrender. And somehow, this is enough. My weak faith is cemented by the certainty she had - even if I cannot claim it fully for myself - that the hope that we have is hope of resurrection.