Celebrations of Life: 30 Years, 4 Years, Today

Today is the 30th anniversary of the death of my father and baby brother. I saw them perish in a fire when I was a boy–an event that has shaped not just my family life, but my entire understanding of the world.

Today is also the funeral service of a church-friend who died suddenly, a fellow just a little older than I am. Shawn and his family tumbled into our church a little while back, adding energy to our community as they discovered and renewed their faith. A week ago Sunday I began a series called “Remembering Heaven,” about restoring a Christian vision of how resurrection life transforms the way we live in our homes, our workplaces, our neighbourhoods, our churches, and our world. The series requires looking away from heaven for a little while as we move past poor theology and pop culture images to get a deeper sense of new life.

And then Shawn died, and on Sunday I had to face the congregation again to talk about dissolving the great divorce between eternal life and everyday existence.

I am a teacher, really, and have terrible awkwardness when it comes to the deep personal needs of church folk. I struggle to be consistently helpful at potlucks and nursing homes and board meetings. I typically sit in the pew as our normal preacher–a pastor in beating heart and pumping blood–brings messages of grace to our community. I receive more than I give. Pastor Mike is on a well-needed sabbatical, however, and I had this book idea I wanted to work out. “Remembering Heaven” is the result, a series that runs up to Easter as we learn about creation, subcreation, and new creation.

Now, with Shawn’s wife, his little girl, and all his friends there, sitting in grief and loss…. There is no way to speak about our Christian hope in a way that is theoretical. As our community sang, I thought about my pastoral awkwardness–the deep needs of the family and my own vocation to work in words and story and images. And I thought about my own family. My father and brother 30 years ago, and my mother 4 years ago next week. All my grandparents are buried, and a close cousin, and any number of friends. I have not lost a spouse or a child, but I know loss, and it makes me tired. The music continued, and then it was my turn to speak.

And in the clarity of the moment, I knew that my role was to offer hope. For that is the nature of the gospel: well-founded hope–not pie-in-the-sky, sweet-by-and-by, escapist, romantic visions of heaven that are told to us as childhood fairy tales and whispered in the ears of nursing home patients as a kind inoculation about the terror of impending death. More than terrible Victorian paintings and episodes of Simpsons and TV preachers offering cloud cars and Cadillacs, I believe that God’s vision to transform earth with a vision of heaven gives root to our hope in heaven.

I gave the sermon as I had written it and we will see if it can provide comfort and root hope. I felt utterly inadequate to the task. But it was a sermon that links the creation prologue (Genesis 1:1-2) with this passage:

Revelation 21:1 Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “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.”

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children.

Shawn’s family has chosen not to use the word, “funeral.” Instead, they are hosting a Celebration of Life tonight. I like this term. My father and brother’s funeral had two pastors and a priest, though we were not at all religious. And in all the words and talk from kind friends and ministerial neighbours, I had no sense from the funeral service (to re-use N.T. Wright’s words) of what Christians teach on the subject of heaven (Surprised by Hope, 24). At the very least, tonight, people will know about New Life, which is what the Scripture wants to talk about as well.

So now, 30 years, 4 years, today. Life goes on, and so does Death, though it is our defeated enemy. And though I continue to feel loss, in particular on this day, and though life makes me tired, my hope of New Life grows as my trust in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross deepens. I have come to believe that a “Celebration of Life” is not just what we do when someone dies or when we think of those that we have left behind. I think that in our invitation to celebrate life, to encourage life, to make new life grow–to live on earth now what we see of heaven then.

Here is the introductory sermon in the series, “Remembering Heaven.” If the link fails, click here.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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21 Responses to Celebrations of Life: 30 Years, 4 Years, Today

  1. Mike Foster says:

    Keep all that was good in your friend, your father, and your brother alive in you.

    Like

  2. salooper57 says:

    Love the “Remembering Heaven” theme – may the good God uphold you tonight and speak his hopeful and healing word through you!

    Like

  3. L.A. Smith says:

    I’m sorry for your losses, Brenton. It is so hard to say goodbye to those we love. But I agree with you in your assessment that hope is the only thing that gets us through these hard times. I pray your words were a comfort to the grieving. And to you. May God bless you with grace, hope and peace in the dark days.

    Like

  4. Shelley J Merritt says:

    Wonderful post. Real. Not avoiding that death marches on all around us and within us. Real. Hope is stronger yet, and we still hear strains of eternity’s victory trumpet and once in a while feel slight breezes of eternity brush past our cheek….as I did while reading your words.

    Like

  5. danaames says:

    May the Lord grant them repose in a place of light and verdure.

    In the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, in the Anaphora (the prayer of consecration), the priest recalls that the Only-Begotten Son of God came for us and gave himself up for us, and that on the night he was betrayed he took bread and the cup and prayed over them. In the Orthodox Liturgy, the “words of institution” are not the place where we believe the Holy Spirit changes the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. It’s actually further on that we ask the Holy Spirit to make the change (epiclesis), after this part of the prayer:

    (priest) Remembering this saving commandment and all those things which have come to pass for us – the Cross, the Tomb, the Resurrection on the third day, the Ascension into heaven, the Sitting at the right hand and the second and glorious Coming – offering unto Thee Thine own of Thine own, on behalf of all and for all, (choir/people) we praise Thee, we bless Thee, we give thanks unto Thee O Lord, and and we pray unto Thee, O our God.

    My understanding is that in Greek, “remembering” (anamnesis) conveys a very strong sense of participation: not simply that we call to mind, or even “re-member” as in putting things back together, but that we actually belong amidst the thing that is being remembered and are connected to every aspect of it. At first it’s startling to hear in English that we’re supposed to remember something that hasn’t happened yet, the second and glorious Coming of Christ. But when we “hear it in Greek” it makes profound sense that this, too, has come to pass for us, having been baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ.

    There really isn’t any line. We can’t perceive it all, yet, but there’s really only One Reality.

    Dana

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    • Thank you so much for this, Dana.
      Yes, “remember” is a cool word in Greek (and probably more complex than we think in Hebrew). I used “re-member” that way in the first sermon.
      But I wonder if when Paul said that we remember Christ until he comes again, the memory is not the second coming but the cross and resurrection (and that which we co-join Christ in).
      And your note on Grk. memory should help r=us remember the connection to the Grk word for secretary, amanuensis (I can’t spell it), which expands our idea of what’s happening in the epistles.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I find the topic of heaven to be fascinating and convoluted… and completely misrepresented in our culture. I love the beauty of the Torah concept: “being gathered to his/your people”. Abraham (Genesis 25:8), Ishmael (Genesis 25:17), Isaac (Genesis 35:29), Jacob (Genesis 49:33), Aaron (Numbers 20:26), and Moses (Numbers 27:13 & Deuteronomy 32:50). We often overlook that. I have been grieving with a friend who lost her mom last month, but I look forward to the gathering someday. May you, as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • A gathering is interesting. Do you get much more than a dim sense of the afterlife in the Hebrew Bible?

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      • Outside of being a gathering place, I would say the Afterlife concept in the OT focuses more on returning to the Garden (of Eden). Heaven, or the heavens, is more the idea of “what’s up there, in the sky” rather than an afterlife hangout. However, Psalms talks about heaven being YHWH’s dwelling place (Psalm 33:13-14), and His throne room (Psalm 103:19). To the prophets heaven was God’s Kingdom (with a throne room): 1 Kings 22:19 (Micaiah), Isaiah 6:1-3, Ezekiel 1:26-28. But mostly the focus of an afterlife was returning to God… and seeing Him face to face (Psalm 17:15), without the fear of death. Being redeemed, and allowed back into the Garden to dwell with YHWH, that was the goal… It is the New Earth concept found in Isaiah 65:17-25.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. successbmine says:

    May you find comfort in God’s word and His presence as you grieve again (still) and afresh for your friend. Your feeling of inadequacy was probably a good thing. When we are overconfident we lose the real meaning of what we are speaking. But when we know we don’t have it all down pat we are open to the Lord working and speaking through us which is far more effective than human words can ever be. God be with you moment by moment.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. My son-in-law passed away yesterday. Only 44 years old.

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