Wednesday, February 12, 2014

On Death

MS. For Russell Dicks, 1500-1800 words

By Rev. Jesse Halsey, D.D.
Lane Professor of Pastoral Theology and Liturgics
McCormick Theological Seminary | c1947

The Puritans gave much thought to death; we give very little. But with the passing of a friend or relative, and with increasing years, death comes nearer and reveals to us his fearsome mien. One modern preacher of wide experience avers that “death is not long from the thought of any person.”

Be that as it may, the writer here testifies that only twice in a ministry of forty years has any person come deliberately and asked frankly and fearlessly to talk about death.

The writer of Hebrews says that Christ came “to destroy him that hath the power of death (that is, the devil) and to deliver them who through fear of death were al their life-time subject to bondage.” Even without Luther’s emphasis on the part the devil plays in the picture, we would all gladly confess that the deliverance from this, as form every other devastating fear is in some very real measure related to Christ and our fellowship with  Him.

First then, look at His teaching; then at His experience, though they are so interwoven that, with Chaucer, we rejoice in saying, “first He wrought and afterwards He taught.”

Jesus never argues about God’s existence or being; He calls God “Father,” and teaches his disciples to pray and say “Our Father.” He himself is overhead to pray thus, “Father, I thank Thee . . .” (Luke 10:21) In the hour of death He asks the question we often ask, “My God, why? . . .” thus bringing comfort to many who have come after:  “in all our affliction he was afflicted . . .” He learned obedience by the things that he suffered: “having suffered being tempted he is able to succor them that are tempted.” But in the last article of death He is heard to murmur—or was it in a strong voice to say, “Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit.” This is the ultimate faith, His or ours.

Likewise, Jesus never argues about immortality, He takes it for granted. It is an axiom of faith. Stated in argument: “A cosmos cannot have a chaos for its crown” (Latze), it seems reasonable. But that was not Jesus’ approach. In the Upper Room when they were all distressed by his departure, He said, “Let not your hearts be troubled, ye believe in God; believe also in me; in my Father’s house are many rooms: If it were not so I would have told you.” Philip was not the last to ask such questions, nor the last to get an answer: “not what I do believe, but Whom”; “I know whom I have believed (trusted) and am persuaded He is able . . .”

“We do not believe in immortality because we can prove it, but we constantly try to prove it because we believe it,” so says Martineau. Then, as George Herbert Palmer said at the death of his wife, “emotion joins our reason,” and we refuse to longer doubt.

As Christians we walk by faith and in the fellowship of Christ: trusting as He trusted, it is impossible to be afraid. Many, like Mr. Fearing and his daughter, Miss Much-Afraid, when they finally come to the river go over “not much above wet-shod.” The roots of our religion are in Christ’s resurrection and the concomitant belief that as He lives we shall live also. Communion with Him along the way—prayer as we most often call it—is the –is the secret. Willum MacLure, the Highland doctor who all his life from boyhood had knelt down every night and said, “Now I lay me down to sleep, if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take, and this I ask for Jesus’ sake. Amen,” like many another found light in the night of death. Prayer; honest confession; bold assurance of faith; humility, confidence, trust; “vocal or unexpressed”; this is the best preparation for death.

An illuminating experience, and encouraging to us because it is rather typical of the experience of many others who have for human reasons changed their point of view with a change of personal circumstances, is that of Sir William Osler, the great physician, who in a lecture on Immortality delivered at Harvard* in 1904 says that as a physician he has seen many persons die and most of them were unconscious or unconcerned. He confesses that he is also a “Laodicean,” i.e., indifferent (Revelation 3:15). Some ten years later his only son, Revere, was killed in the First World War. Sir William’s whole attitude changed. Thereafter he was often heard singing or humming snatches of Abelard’s hymn about heaven: “O what the joy and the glory must be.” His center of gravity had changed.

When the feelings are neutral one can argue for or against immortality in as remote a way as some of the Ingersoll lectures*, but “let one of his own flesh and blood bid him goodbye and pass within the veil and reason surrenders the place to love, and many a man has set his face toward the Eternal City in the hope that he may again see a golden head on which the sun is ever shining.” (Ian Maclaren)

“Aunt” Abby Grey, ninety years old was dying. She had read the Bible through over sixty times and knew great passages by heart. In her youth she had learned an ancient catechism. Her young pastor stood by her bed. Because her children, and her children’s children who stood by were of another form of faith, the minister had read from their Book, with no response from the patient. Then the minister began to repeat, “In my Father’s house . . .” The old lady picked up a verbal inaccuracy and carried on half the chapter, then sank into a coma. Presently, however, her lips moved and the nurse said that she couldn’t make it out, it sounds like “souls of believers.” Fortunately, the young minister had also once learned the Catechism and picked it up: “the souls of believers do immediately pass into Glory and . . .” “Aunt” Abby had “gone home.”

*For the last fifty years Harvard has sponsored the Ingersoll Lectures on Immortality. Clergymen, scientists, and others have given their ideas in a series expressing many points of view, and now totaling nearly thirty different books.

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