Weep with those who weep

Last night the strangest thing happened. Debbie and I were getting dressed for a walk in the neighborhood (trying to keep in shape at our ages), when I was pulling on my socks at the desk at my laptop when I pulled up my Facebook page and noticed this post from my friend and my former RUF intern Tom Cannon:

“My Dad, Joseph J. Cannon, Jr, passed away at 5:00 pm today. ‘Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?’ – Genesis 18:25″

As I read that I found myself consumed with grief. I had only met Joseph J. Cannon Jr. once, many years ago when Tom was a first year student at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA (his hometown). I had met Tom when he was a senior at the University of South Carolina. I had just started my first ministry work after graduating from seminary: Presbyterian Chuch in Amreica Minister to Students (with Reformed University Fellowship) at the University of South Carolina. As an engineering graduate from Clemson University from the beginning it felt like a round peg in a square hole but it was the first RUF in South Carolina so I moved forward. Tom was a student from Philadelphia who had come to know Jesus through the faithful witness of members of Campus Crusade for Christ.

John Bumbardner

John Bumbardner

Through his involvement at Rose Hill Presbyterian Church and the faithful ministry of  Pastor John Bumgardmer, Tom had come to understand some of the Biblical truth of God’s sovereign grace. Because of this when I showed up on the USC campus Tom and I met and for the next two years he was an intern with me with Reformed University Fellowship. After spending time with Tom, I knew that we were bound together by something that even to this day I cannot fully understand much less explain. Well, Tom  left USC to enroll at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. The Presbytery (a collection of Presbyterian churches and ministers in a paricular geographical area) I was part of sent me and Debbie to visit Tom as one of our “students under care”.

Joseph and Betty Cannon

Joseph and Betty Cannon

That is when I met Tom’s dad Joseph J Cannon Jr., when Debbie and I went to Tom’s house and met his family. Thinking back on the situation, what strikes me as odd is that the highlight of our visit was lunch with one of my spiritual heroes, Cornelius Van Til but when Dr. Van Til died several year back I did not shed a tear. When Tom’s dad died, I cried like I had lost my dad all over again. I began to ask myself why, why all these tears for a man that I barely knew. Then I began to think about death, grieving and sorrow.

I grew up in a small family where there was very little death. I had a first cousin, Bob Hollingsworth, who died when I was in junior high. He was a wonderful cousin, one that I would very much have liked to have known through the years. With that exception I knew little of death growing up. I never knew my grandfathers, one died long before I was born and the other for one reason of another (family stories differ) was not around when I was growing up. My first exposure to death close to the heart was the death of my father-in-law, Dave Cranford who died the day I graduated from seminary in May of 1981. When it came to comforting my wife during this time I was completely useless. I thought that God’s word about grieving was found in Job 1:21 “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord”. Not knowing that these were the words of Job before he came to know God “face-to-face”.

So when did I learn to grieve? It was in 1996 when a man named Jack Miller died. Jack’s

Jack Miller

Jack Miller

name will not make it into any history books. Even in the annals of church history, I doubt that he will get a foot note. but Jack changed my life. How that happened is for another blog but God used Jack to help me “re-understand” the centrality of the gospel to my life, marriage, ministry and everything else in my life. So in 1996 Jack died and I wept for 2 months. No, that is the truth. I found myself having to pull over to the side of the road 2 months after Jack died to compose myself well enough to see to drive. Why was this? Well one of the things that Jack taught me is that this world is not running the way that God had originally intended, it is a fallen world marked by death,separation, sickness and loss. All of these things, though under our Father’s soverign care, is part of a fallen world that Jesus came to correct.

So since that time I have come to hate death and to believe that too many Christians accept death “as the way things are”but that is just not right. Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus’ tomb, knowing that in a few minutes he would raise Lazarus from the dead. Why did he weep? Because he knew that death was not God’s original intension, it was the devil’s plan and he hated anything that was opposed to his Father’s will. As I have told congregations in the past who have gathered to mourn the loss of a loved one: “Death hurts like hell”. I would say this not in some sort of profane way but as an actual description of what death is like. Sometimes Christians gather to worshipand the presence of God’s Holy Spirit is so real that it can almost be touched. At times like these Christians sometimes say “If it were anymore like heaven, I could not stand it”. But death is just the opposite. It is a realtiy of everything that the enemy of our souls designs for us: separation, isolation and loss. If you want to know what hell ie like, it is like losing someone you loved very much. So when death comes I mourn.

I find myself weeping at the oddest moments. When some movie star, whose work I have enjoyed dies; when a public figure dies (even when I may have disagreed with his politica) passes on; when a rock musician whose songs have brought joy to my heart sluffs off this mortal coil. I have come to embrace the words of John Donne “each man’s death diminishes me”.

If that is how I react when someone I hardly knew dies, how does it impact me when someone I deeply love suffers loss. I just about lose it. I have so many questions about life and death and judgment and eternity that I just do not get sufficient answers for that I end up weeping, but weeping with hope.

Tom and Dawn Cannon

Tom and Dawn Cannon

So as my friend Tom weeps for the loss of his father there is little I can do but weep with him. I am confident in his faith but even more confident in the grip that our heavenly Father has on him, God will not let him go even in the midst of his grief. But until the day that Jesus returns to finally banish death, I will weep because of death. I will contiue to hate death and to understand that death hurts like hell, it really does..

 

Do not go gentle into that good night …

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

So Dylan Thomas, the Welch poet, wrote and the older I become as a Christian (both chronologically and spiritually I believe) the more I agree with him.

This afternoon as I worked on my skills in AutoCAD I find tear flowing down my cheeks over the death of someone I have never met. Aly West, the sister of mine and Debbie’s friend Erika Chambers, passed away this afternoon after a heroic battle with cancer. Erika was a student at MTSU when we first moved to Murfreesboro and attended Trinity. Like many at Trinity in those days, Erika was looking to be a recording artist. She has had some success at that but not as much as Debbie and I think she should! She has a wonderful voice and Debbie and I always enjoyed listening to her.

One of Erika's CDs

We have kept up over the years through some of her appearances but mostly on Facebook and My Space. But then we met up with her about a year ago to attend  a Sara Groves concert together.  Though we had not seen each other in several years, it was a wonderful reunion (and Sara Groves was wonderful as well!). Then or soon after Erika let us know that her sister Aly had cancer. This is how Erika describes Aly:

Aly West is a vibrant, 26-year old who exudes creativity like few people can imagine. A costume designer, seamstress, graphic artist and photographer, there isn’t much this girl can’t tackle.

Erika and Aly and her family are committed Christians. They know that God is in charge of our world and that he is a loving and caring Father but Aly’s family, along with Aly’s husband Terry, they were not going to let Aly “go gentle into that good night” . They were going to fight. In Erika’s words “fight like girls”. They did this because as Christians they knew that there is just something wrong with cancer, there is just something wrong with death. So Erika started a Facebook group, “Team Aly”, to enlist prayer support for Aly and

her family and Debbie and I joined in for this wonderful young woman who was facing such a battle. It proved to be, however, a battle that after a lot of “fighting like a girl”, cancer won. Aly died this afternoon and as I said I have been weeping off and on ever since Erika let us know.

But that does not mean that Aly, Erika, their parents and Aly’s husband Terry lost because they know the truth that though death may have won this battle. Jesus has won the war! This is how Erika described that moment when Aly left this world to enter another one:

Our precious girl was wrapped in the arms of Jesus and flown to heaven. .. surrounded by family, prayer and praise. No more pain. She is rejoicing with the Lord.

When it was time to “fight like a girl” they fought. When it was time to embrace Jesus, they did just that. Debbie and I are thankful to be able to be part of this team. I think that Aly, Erika and the rest fought “like girls” because they know that this is not the way it is suppose to be. Death was not in our Father’s original plans, it is the plan of the enemy of our souls. Many Christians look at I Corinthians 15 as if death was no longer and enemy, as if everything was alright. But here is what God tells us in that passage:

When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” 55 “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1Co 15:1 NIV)

Paul says that when our resurrection occurs, when Jesus returns then we can yell at death: “Where is your victory? Where is your sting”? Until then death does sting. It separates us from those we love. Jesus understood this when he wept at the tomb of Lazarus. He is a “man of sorrow and acquainted with grief”. But Paul does tell in just a few verses later “But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ”. (1Co 15:1 NIV)

John Donne got it right, Paul Simon was wrong “No man is an island”. Some time ago I posted that Donne’s word in this poem become more and more real to me the older I get: “any man’s (or in this case woman’s) death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind”. Donne, of course, writing as a metaphysical poet does not mean this in what many would consider a “humanist perspective” (though Christians should be the true “humanists”) but as a Christian who know that all men and women are created in the image of God and therefore are spiritually linked to him.

So I am diminished by Aly’s death. I am diminished as I think of Terry married only 4 years and becoming a widower. I am diminished as I think of Aly’s parents facing the future after the death of a daughter. I am diminished as I think of Erika’s loss of her beloved sister but all of this brings a renewed opportunity to renew my hatred for death and give me renewed hope in the promise of our own resurrection. God did not design us for a “disembodied” existence! He has promise bodies that will never out! He has promised us a world with “Not one little grave, in all that fair land”. Many will laugh at this, many may mock but it is the promise of our Father and our Older Brother has gone to the “undiscovered country” and come back! He did this to ensure that death and the devil do not win in the end. Death is not the final word!Maybe, just maybe in that new heaven and new earth we will all be able to wear some of Aly’s designer creations and hear Erika sing and enjoy all these things with our glorious Older Brother.

As I finish this blog entry an Emmylou Harris and Ricky Scaggs duet of “Green Pastures” has started pouring out of my Ipod. Sometimes God’s timing is uncanny.

So join me in praying for Terry and Erika and her parents. Pray that our Father will comfort those who are afflicted and that they my grieve but not as those who have no hope. They have the greatest of hopes, the gospel, that promises not only glory in this life but also in the life to come.

Remember also the some other words of John Donne

DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me…
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

(Since I never met Aly, I did not feel free to post pictures of her here but if you want to find out more about this wonderful woman go to these places on Facebook: Aly West, Aly West Custom Designer and Team Aly).