Tuesday, May 12, 2009

What Is Your Only Comfort in Life & Death?

Sorry for the lack of internet presence lately. On Friday evening I received word that my great-grandmother "Mama Blanche," had passed into eternity around 7 pm the previous evening. So I spent 12 hours traveling to Plain Dealing on Saturday, one day in Louisiana with my family (a bittersweet, wonderful first Mother's Day for me), and then another 14 hours traveling back on Monday... and up bright & early to teach this morning (Tuesday). It's so strange to think that on Thursday night, while I was eating frozen yogurt out with some girlfriends, Mama Blanche was drawing her last breath... after 96 years, her heart finally had enough of beating. 96 years. That's a long time. She remembered so much, down to the date, day of week, and time of day. She was my dad's mom's mom, from Plain Dealing, LA, a farm wife and home maker all her life.

A lot of people just assume that since it was an old person who died, the death was not such a big deal, and in some ways, they're right. Mama Blanche's death still felt sudden, I mean, there's always one second difference between life and death, and it's a short second... but it wasn't unexpected. Mama Blanche's body has been giving out for years, her mind lately too. When a very old person dies, it's somehow more like... fading... like we've slowly been losing her for years, I guess. She became less & less of an active part of everyone's daily life-- my grandparents went to visit and care for her every single day--such an example of faithful honoring of a parent--, and we all wrote & visited as often as we could, but she was less & less active in our lives, you know?

But death is just the crossing of a threshold into eternity. This life is just a warm-up, in some ways. How did Gladiator put it? "What we do here echoes into eternity"? Looked at in that light, 96 years doesn't seem so long. Either you spent good time getting ready, or you put in lots of years wasting time. The Bible calls it "heaping up judgement on yourself." It isn't a nice thought to think of anyone, much less someone you love, fading away into a rude awakening of torment, with God citing 96 years of spurned chances and delayed judgement now ready to fall in full. So, what sort of comfort do I-- does my family-- draw in this sort of situation? A "good life"? No. Not enough. Jesus said, "Many will say to Me 'Lord, Lord!' ... and I will say 'Depart from Me, I never knew you.'" A lifetime of church membership? Daily Bible reading? Favorite hymns? Active membership in WMA? No, none of these. The Pharisees (the religious Jewish leaders who plotted Jesus' crucifixion) had all that and more, and yet their hearts were as full of sin as any; particularly self-righteousness, selfishness, hatred, and utter disbelief in their own need for a Savior. Anyone can think he's headed to Heaven, and if he is trusting in his own merit, he's headed to Hell. So... what comfort is there?

The Heidelberg Catechism asks "What is your only comfort in life and death?" The answer is "That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ; who, with His precious blood, has fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, and therefore, by His Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto Him. " The comfort I want most to have in anyone's death is the comfort of knowing that that was their confession, their creed-- that everything they trusted in came from Christ. Was that there in my great-grandmother's life?

It's hard to tell, honestly. My great-grandmother came from that generation and region for whom Christianity was expected, accepted as a cultural way of life, and even lived out in a sense, but the emotional seat, the deep feelings, the warm affection for a Savior, were usually kept as personal. That generation didn't talk much about their feelings. They talked about crops, about the wars, about loyalty to family & country, and about honoring their place in their corner of the world... but they didn't talk much about themselves. It's hard to tell what was just cultural Christianity, and what really could have been genuine, totally-surrendered, abiding faith in the only Savior of sinners. All the Bible reading, the Christian jargon, the church attendance, those don't comfort me in the least. My great-grandmother lived a hard life-- farming in the river bottoms during the Depression and the World Wars; doing everything yourself, wasting nothing and going without. She wasn't the type of person who radiated tenderness or kindness to everyone. She spoke her mind, and it wasn't always sweet. But she did do right by people, and oh, she loved her family-- me-- deeply. She saved for every Christmas and Birthday for as long as she could, and sent us cards with money faithfully... she managed to spoil us all with the gum jar she kept stocked, with bacon and eggs and jelly buscuits, and the best pies and pork chops you ever had. My grandmother told me she cried when she thought she'd lost her wedding ring. She shone with pride and bragged on us, accepted us all unconditionally... there was no question at all that she loved us. Is that my comfort in her death? No... natural family affection is no sign of salvation-- it's just "natural." Salvation comes with a supernaturally changed heart.

There are a few comforting signs; the first that she did not fear death at all; she never had. She joked about wanting to make it to 100, and she certainly clung to life for a very long time, but she never showed a fear of dying. She talked about her funeral all the time. But the "clincher" for me, I guess you could say, came about 5 years ago (I think), though, when she had taken a turn for the worse and was hospitalized. My immediate family was there to visit, and we took turns singing for her. My dad was the last one to sing that evening, and he sang her favorite hymn, "Because He Lives." The last verse and chorus are: "And then one day I'll cross the river,/ I'll fight life's final war with pain. /And then as death gives way to victory,/ I'll see the lights of glory and I'll know He lives.// Because He lives, I can face tomorrow./ Because He lives, All fear is gone! /Because I know He holds the future/ And life is worth the living just because He lives!" She grabbed my dad's hand after he finished, and whispered, "Because He lives... yes, I know He does. And I just wish I could make sure everyone knew that He does." We all were so encouraged to hear her say that. (Another favorite hymn of hers was "Standing On the Promises") There was unsolicited conviction when she said those words, a total reliance on another... I wonder if she loved the words of that song because there were mornings when she really didn't know how else she was going to face that day, except by knowing that He lives.

The other two things that give me comfort are the efficacy of the simple Gospel, and the mercy of our Savior. My great-grandmother did hear and read God's word for 96 years. She read her Bible & the devotional "Our Daily Bread" daily, along with hundreds of Christian books & magazines. She heard countless sermons, and I know that in at least SOME of them if not all, the Gospel was presented. I put my faith in the power of that Word to save. Faith comes by hearing, we are told, and I know she heard a lot. I hope and prayed that her hearing had borne the fruit of faith. I also trust in the mercy of my Jesus, that even if Mama Blanche (or anyone else) didn't have every theological i dotted and t crossed, but still clung to a simple trust in a Savior for sinners, which she knew herself to be, then she could be saved. "I know My own, and My own know Me," the Good Shepherd said (Jn 10:14). I trust that if my great-grandmother was indeed one of His own, He and she knew one another and are even now communing in glory, along with my great-grandfather and countless other saints gone before. God is the righteous Judge of all the earth; will He not do right? I am at peace. It's not my job to judge-- that's His, and I leave it in His good hands.

I know this has gone on a bit, but these are the thoughts I have been (and I suspect at least some of my family has been) wrestling through. I am so incredibly thankful that the testimony of my parents, and paternal grandparents, aunts, uncles, and even cousins is so unquestioned; that I will never sit at one of their funerals, listening to the minister reassuring us all that so-and-so is "joyfully at the feet of Jesus, at peace and in glory," and wonder- just a little bit. No, I know that I'll be able to write, like Margaret Paton did of her own recently-deceased mother, "even yet, she is now with her Lord, to whom her whole soul was so devoted." (Letters from the South Seas, p. 155), of each of them-- and I rejoice! I myself am resolved, by the grace of God, to live the kind of life which will leave my children confidently rejoicing in my Home-going (or sadly shaking their heads at my delusions if they themselves are not Believers). I urge you, readers, to take this to heart, and ask yourselves: "Am I living out the kind of life which will leave my children with no doubt of my devotion to my Savior, and my utter trust in HIS righteousness-- HIS goodness-- for my own salvation?

Well, all that traveling on top of the normal pregnancy wear is taking its toll on me. I can scarcely keep my eyes open right now. I am going to bed! Baby Girl is well and kicking, hard enough that others can feel it if they put a hand on my tummy. My Mom got to feel on Mother's Day- how cool is that? I'm really popping out, all of a sudden, according to several people from school. My ligaments pull and stretch and hurt so much these days. I guess she's just growing-- and I am so glad! Keep it up, Baby Girl; your mommy & daddy want to meet you!


Lyn said...

Thank-you for your encouraging blog post. I go to Matt and Maryscott's church in Philly and found your blog through reading Mary's. I feel somewhat connected because my brother-in-law Stephen Wellum teaches at Southern, my nephews life guard at the pool (at least they will be this summer...)More then that I am a mother of 5 kiddos ages 17months..to 16 years and your post often challenge me and encourage me to keep preaching the gospel to my children. Thank-you for encouraging others in your writings. Congratulations on your little girl....what a wonderful journey you and your husband are about to begin.

Oh! one other connection....I grew up with David Shuey in Webster NY. See if he remembers a Lyn (Hackenberry)Young

Jacqui O. said...

Christina, I am sorry about the loss of your great-grandmother. Several people close to me recently died too. Thank you for your encouragement in this matter; I know that at least one of my friends is now in Heaven. As for the others...well, let's pray that God is merciful.