The following is an adapted version of what I shared at Freedom Fellowship a year ago during Holy Week (the post was originally published on April 3, 2015). I had been teaching a series on the Gospel of John. John’s story is written to a group of people 2 or 3 generations after Jesus died. They have never seen Him and now all those people who were eyewitnesses are dying. John’s Gospel is written to tell the story of Jesus in a way that new generations of people could learn who Jesus was and is—much like we tell family stories of our grandparents to our children. For example, though I never met my grandfather physically, I know him because of the stories. I think that is in part what John is trying to do with his Gospel.
Shortly after my brother, Robert, passed away, my cousin and her husband, Gretchen and Jeremy, finalized the adoption of three wonderful sons. When an adoption becomes final, the family has the option of changing the children’s names. Gretchen and Jeremy decided not to do that. At least, they chose not to change their first names, but they did change the middle names.
For years, Jeremy had been saying he wanted a son named Joe Bob. For years, Gretchen said they would never have a son named Joe Bob.
When the time came to select middle names for their children, Gretchen asked Jeremy if “Robert” could be their oldest son’s middle name. She wanted to honor my brother by using his name. It just so happens their oldest son’s first name is Joseph. So Jeremy gladly agreed for his middle name to be Robert. Jeremy and Gretchen now have a son named Joe Bob. (It’s actually Joseph Robert, but it counts!)
And my brother would love that! That is exactly the kind of thing that would make him smile ear to ear and laugh non-stop.
We pass on the memory of previous generations through stories and names and talking about them. It is how we can remember those we no longer get to see. It is how we teach future generations about the people they have never been able to see face to face.
We don’t do death well. I think, nationwide, we are getting better at it. I appreciate what Hospice care has brought to families who are suffering. But overall, we don’t die well. We adjust our diets, we exercise like crazy, we buy creams and ointments, we have created an entire field of medicine dedicated to making us look younger, we tan every way possible—from sunning, to sitting in lamps, to spraying it on.
Or we don’t do any of those things. We smoke, drink, eat whatever we want whenever we want, and scoff at the idea of exercising. And then we avoid the doctor because we are afraid of what she or he might say.
We don’t do death well.
And I have to be honest, I don’t know how. I don’t have the answers. I could try to make some up. I could come up with three points that all begin with the same letter, or I could use “death” as an acronym to spell out the five steps to dying well.
But that would not be honest. Because I don’t know how to do death well.
In fact, the reason I started this post with a story that involved my brother, Robert’s memory is because his death is the one that still shows me I don’t know how to do death well.
But his death has done something else for me, too: it has given me an ability to sit with other people who also don’t know how to handle death.
In John Chapter 11, Jesus goes to the village of Bethany 4 days after Lazarus has died. When Martha comes to Jesus, He tells her something incredible. It is one of the “I Am” statements found in John’s Gospel:
I Am the Resurrection and the Life.
Jesus is saying two things to Martha but she is only hearing one. The thing Martha is not hearing is that Jesus came to do a miracle. Jesus is asking her if she believes He is the resurrection, partly meaning now, and she is answering that she believes, but in the future. And that really is okay.
Martha believed Jesus, mostly. But she saw death the way we all see death: as final.
And that leads to the second thing Jesus is saying: in Him, there will be life forever. But resurrection requires death. At the Highland Church of Christ this past Sunday, Nika Maples said, “If you want to follow Jesus out of the tomb, you first have to follow Him into the tomb.”
Physically speaking, as humans we can do nothing to avoid death. We can push it off. We can stretch out the average life span. We can, and should, keep looking for cures to terminal illnesses. But ultimately, death will come to us all.
But that is not the end of the story.
This is Holy Week. Today is Good Friday. The day the Savior of the world died. Tomorrow, Holy Saturday, is the day of waiting, darkness, maybe even despair.
But Resurrection Sunday tells us that the story does not end of Friday or Saturday. We will face death. We will face loss. We will wonder and doubt and ponder and sit in disturbed silence.
But one day, we will realize that pain is not the end of the story. And we will celebrate.
I want to point out something else about the story of Jesus with Martha and her sister, Mary: even knowing what the end of the story is going to be (Lazarus being raised back to life), Jesus still wept. Jesus knew what He was about to do. He also knew that physical death was not the end of the story. But still He wept.
Because death is hard. It always has been. It always will be.
So we will grieve. We will mourn. But we will have hope because the I Am is the resurrection and the life.
We don’t do death well, but that’s okay.
Because we have been called to life.