[A sermon based on Matthew 25:1-13 & 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 for our All Saints' Day Memorial Service]
I was raised going to church with a boy named Ben Henry. Ben was three years older than I so I had no memories of life that did not include Ben. One Sunday afternoon Jackie and Peggy Strickland were visiting our home, probably because Mama had been sick. The phone rang and I answered it. Someone was calling for Jackie and Peggy because their son Darryl had been in an automobile accident. He and Randy Berry had been taken to a hospital. Ben Henry, who had been driving, was killed. Ben was sixteen. I was thirteen. I often hung out with those guys but I hadn’t that day. The following Tuesday I served as a pallbearer at Ben’s funeral.
I was raised in the little house in Barnesville by my mother and father. I had no memories of life that did not include both of my parents. Mama was diagnosed with cancer when she was forty-six and I was nine. She was in the hospital again, as she had been so many times before. One Saturday morning my father and two of my aunts went to see her in the hospital in Macon. I was working at my grocery store job. When my lunch hour rolled around I went to the Dairy Delite, bought some lunch, and took it home to eat. Aunt Clara was cleaning the house. Aunt Dot was crying. Daddy put his arms around me and said, “Son, Mama’s not coming home.” “How long?” I asked. “The doctor said twenty-four hours to two weeks,” he answered. She died at noon the following day. A couple of weeks later her father and my grandfather died. I was sixteen.
In the intervening years there have been, of course, many, many more.
I tell you all of that just to say that I am acquainted with death and grief. I don't have firsthand experience with a lot of the things about which I preach, but I do have firsthand experience with this.
Today we have called the names of twelve people for whom First Baptist Church was their spiritual home. We want this memorial service to honor their lives and to offer encouragement to their families and friends; we also want this service to help all of us because we all either have experienced the deaths of loved ones or we will have that experience.
Death is a universal human experience; therefore grief is a universal human experience. Unfortunately, good grief is not a universal human experience. I want our grief to be a good grief. What do I mean by good grief?
Well, a good psychologist would teach us that good grief is grief that is properly lived through and processed. Andy Lester, drawing on the work of Wayne Oates, has described the six “psychological phases” through which one will move if grief is to be experienced so as to lead to a meaningful life. Here are those phases [Andrew D. Lester, It Hurts So Bad, Lord! (Nashville: Broadman, 1976), pp. 81-84, drawing from Wayne E. Oates, Anxiety in Christian Experience (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1955), pp. 51-56.
1. Shock. In this initial phase our mind cannot absorb what has happened. We experience disbelief and denial.
2. Numbness. This is a type of natural anesthetic; our bodies cope with the shock by slowing us down and deadening our senses.
3. Fantasy versus reality. Our mind might conjure up fantasies that enable us to pretend or to wish that our loved one was still alive and with us.
4. Flood of grief. Here reality crashes into our consciousness and we are overcome with grief. This phase can be characterized by periods of uncontrolled weeping. Unfortunately, sometimes Christians fail to let this phase happen because they incorrectly think that such crying indicates a lack of faith.
5. Selective memory and stabbing pain. Things—pictures, songs, events—trigger memories that bring the person back to our consciousness and create painful feelings. Crying may occur at such moments. But we are remembering reality and coming to terms with the loss.
6. Acceptance of loss and reaffirmation of life. In this final phase we come to accept the loss of our loved one and to reaffirm the life that God has for us to live.
Acceptance and reaffirmation—that is what results when our grief is a good grief, when it is a grief that enables us to move forward with our lives in a positive and creative fashion. Grief in itself is a normal human reaction. Grief becomes bad (that is, negative and counterproductive) when we fail to process it and get hung up in it.
We Christians, though, have the God-given ability to experience good grief because we can grieve with hope which is an assurance that comes from God’s faithfulness in keeping God’s promises. Even though we will always miss our loved ones who have died, we can accept their leaving us because we trust in the promises of God. We can move on with our lives because we know that they have certainly moved on with their lives; they lived in Christ, they died in Christ, and they will be raised in Christ. We who are left are still living in Christ and one day we will die in Christ and another day we will be raised in Christ.
Our grief is a good grief when we understand that we all, we who have died in Christ and we who are living in Christ, are in this together; we are all awaiting the return of our Lord and the resurrection that will accompany his return. Because Jesus was resurrected he is with us now and we have been raised to new life now and we live in fellowship with him now. Because Jesus was resurrected our loved ones who died in him are, though absent from us, present with him and they live in fellowship with him now. And because Jesus was resurrected, when he returns all who are in him, whether they are still living or whether they have already died will rise to welcome him back. Then, in the best news of all, “we will be with the Lord forever” (1 Thessalonians 4:17).
While our loved ones who have died would certainly expect us to miss them, they would also want us to keep living full lives and since we live in Christ we certainly can do that. We want to be like the five wise bridesmaids who had their lamps all ready when the bridegroom came. We want to be living lives that are based on and empowered by our personal relationship with Christ. We want to live in hope, to live in faith, and to live in love. We want to live not in bitterness but in gratitude, not in loneliness but in fellowship, not in anger but in peace, and not in paralysis but in productive activity. We want to keep doing whatever God has for us to do for as long as we are here to do it.
Those who have gone are living in Christ; we who are left are living in Christ. But one day a reunion is coming--a reunion of our Lord, our loved ones, and us.
Good grief, what a day that will be!