Two funerals in five days.
Mike (aged 27) died of cancer. Tony (aged 29) drowned in the flash Mangetepopo flood that also took the lives of six of his Elim Christian College students. Both 'orders of service' from the funerals are in front of me as I write. Mike was a close relative of a Carey Board member. Tony had been in and out of the Carey classroom over a ten year period. While I knew neither well enough to be drawn deeply into the grief, I have been reflecting a lot on death:
1. Death is so horrible
There is the suffering associated with the actual dying. There is the pain of the ongoing grieving. There is the poignancy associated with parents speaking at the funeral of their child. There is a young wife with one and a close girlfriend with the other. It just goes on and on, rippling out through all sorts of networks...
Death was not part of God's original intention for humanity - nor will it be part of the final and full restoration of all creation. But in the meantime it is an unutterably horrible part of our existence as a consequence of the evil and sinfulness which stains all of creation. It is an enemy.
2. Death is so intrusive
Both Mike and Tony were in the middle of living young lives fully and well. Mike with his cars and his work and his humour and his recent marriage. With Tony the fullness of life seemed to leak out everywhere - with the students and the outdoors; with music and mission; with reading and teaching; with loving and serving and smiling. What's more, following Jesus is what marked both their lives most of all.
And then along comes this cancer, this flash flood - it feels like they've reached in, snatching and stealing life from two young men. So intrusive. So unexpected.
3. Death is so public
I was struck again by just how a funeral is open to all. Mike's funeral was within the confines of local church and family and friends, as it usually is. But still very public. Tony's funeral was in front of the nation, leading the TV news as it did just two hours later. Then there are all the tributes given at a funeral. Most people have a very partial awareness of Mike or Tony. Not any more! Hitherto unspoken stuff gets said. Heaps of photos. And we leave the funeral with the most complete knowledge of Mike and Tony that we have ever had.
I so appreciated fellow Fat Monk Jono's tribute to Tony. It is heartfelt - but so very wise as well.
['Fat Monk' is a band formed by Tony - go to http://stuff.co.nz/4492138a10.html and click on Related Links].
At one point Jono says how he finds some meaning in Tony's death happening like this because the rest of us can then see what his life was really like. That is testimony to a life of integrity, a life where public and private lives are aligned far more than most.
4. Death can be done well
They reckon that part of the reason why the influence of the early christians was so enduring was because they out-thought and out-lived and out-died their contemporaries. I reckon we saw evidence of all three "outs" over these past five days.
Mike battled cancer for months, with the final weeks being far longer than expected. The strength in his wife's testimony of care and service stands out. Tony strapped a young lad with a disability to himself in a final effort to save their lives from the torrent - and this act may well have contributed to his own death.
At Mike's funeral we sang "I make a vow, my life will always honour Christ, whether I live or die ... For me to live is Christ and to die is gain. No matter what price I pay, I choose to give this life away."
At Tony's funeral we sang "In the quiet, in the stillness, I know that you are God ... In the chaos, in the confusion, I know you're sovereign still ... When you call I won't refuse. When You call I won't delay."
Christians will always ask "Why?" Anything else is inhuman. But we also have an ear for "How?" How can we suffer and die well? And when life is more downhill, we need to be steeling our minds with true truths about suffering and death so that when they intrude and life becomes uphill and horrible we might just find that the emotion of our hearts has some boundaries, provided by our minds, within which to live.
I am deeply grateful to the families of Mike and Tony - and to that remarkable Elim Christian School community - for adorning the gospel so well in these difficult days. Reading the press. Watching the TV. The cause of Christ in this land is being immeasurably helped by their testimony of 'out-thinking, out-living, and out-dying'.
5. Death creates possibilities
God's perspective is like Mt Everest compared with our little Mound Eden (a volcanic bump on the landscape of Auckland). He sees so much further than we can see. So much remains so mysterious to us - but not to him. While we've discovered his mercy and delighted in it, we discover that learning to trust him when he is mysterious just as much as when he is merciful is the journey of faith. And it is not our faith that is critical, but the object of our faith: God.
Corrie Ten Boom used to say that "No hole is so deep that God is not deeper still". As part of my electronic signature I have a quote given me by another elderly woman (Kiwi Beryl Howie - the first female professor of gynacology in the world, I learned recently) - "whatever the problem, the solution is found in walking with God".
God has a track record of doing things with death. It has been said that "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church". At Tony's funeral I found my thinking about Jim Elliot and the martyrdom of those missionaries at the hands of the Auca Indians a full 50 years ago. I poured over those books as a lad. We are still talking about them - assisted by the recent film The End of the Spear. Goodness me - years later the murderers joined in mission with the son of the murdered to create an unparalleled testimony of forgiveness and reconciliation in our generation. From atop Everest God saw this was going to happen. Then just as I was thinking about it, the Principal (R. Murray Burton) of the Elim school gets up and shares how he himself was named ofter one of those murdered missionaries - and proceeds to bring a word of encouragement from the story. It is a story that defined a generation. Under the hand of an Everestian God, maybe we are witnessing something similar in our own times...
Now I need to think about some words for a wedding on Saturday!