Tag Archives: death

God’s Love in a Stillborn Child’s Life

Not having attended many funerals recently, I do not well remember a particular passage of Scripture I have seen used with a tender sense of the circumstances and to good effect. But I did last year attend a viewing for the death of a child who had been born dead, though I was unable to attend the funeral itself. I did not get to hear the funeral sermon, but I think in the preacher’s position I might have chosen Ecclesiastes 11.5 as the sermon text:

As thou knowest not what is the way of the spirit, nor how the bones do grow in the womb of her that is with child: even so thou knowest not the works of God who maketh all.

The wording of this verse alone leads us to think of both the stillborn baby girl herself and the child’s mother in whose womb her bones grew. Rather than speaking of a child and a womb only, this verse bids the hearer attend to the relationship between the mother and the child. This relationship, of both mind and body, of living soul and living soul, is what the mother has had cut off in death, and through her all the mourners. With a child who was born dead, there is not a full life from which to draw examples and testimonies of the Lord’s work, yet in the very relationship of the mother and her child we feel that work of the Holy Spirit. The kingly Preacher speaks of bones growing in a womb, as an incarnation of the relationship between the child and her who was with child, and invites us to feel that concretely: bones and womb. This was no mere shadow of the imagination, but someone who was intimately within the life, within the very body, of the one who lost a part of herself and delivered a child born dead.

We know not which way the wind wends, and we know not how the child grew bones and how the child died: the wind that blew was the Holy Spirit, who gave and took away. We know not his works, but we know that he lovingly knit together the bones of the child that now is dead. The Preacher tells us that we cannot make the Spirit’s way ourselves, but we can observe – even without seeing – the care with which he put together the body of the beautiful child who died even before she ever saw the light of day. It mattered not to the Spirit, as it might matter to us, how long the child would live to use her bones; the Spirit knew the child would die and gave her the gift of bones, that she might show a childlike love before that love was even born. This is the Spirit to whose love we entrust the baby and all the love she ever gave and received.

It is a pleasant thing for the eyes to behold the sun; but the days of darkness are many, and in those days we have nothing to trust but the one who gave us both light and darkness. The Preacher says,

Cast thy bread upon the waters:
for thou shalt find it after many days.
Give a portion to seven, and also to eight;
for thou knowest not what evil shall be upon the earth.

Everything can change, and everything did change for the mother and her baby girl. Yet God, in the child’s life and death, showed in the darkness a patience and a love that the mother could only feel but could not see. This God judges what the eyes of man do not see, and because of his righteous judgement he knows our sorrow, knows it better than we. But this same righteous judgement, who judges what our eyes cannot see and took the child away from the sorrow of sin, calls us all to remove that sorrow from our hearts and put away evil from our flesh. He calls us to know his love in the valley dark as the womb, that we may feel his tender warmth in the darkness of the womb.

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Stillness in Companionship with the Bereaved

In companionship with the bereaved, as Alan D. Wolfelt says in Companioning the Bereaved: A Soulful Guide for Caregivers, a most meaningful principle is being still; it is not about frantic movement forward. This is something I have yet to learn well, even though I acknowledge its truth. We might fruitfully compare the mourning of death with the mourning of sin; and this not only because the wages of sin is death, but also because many people today are averse to mourning of both kinds. It is far harder to sit with an awareness of one’s own sin, and to acknowledge that things are not all right, than to strain forward toward God-knows-what; the same is true when one feels a piece of his heart broken by the death of one he loves. Who wants to own himself incapable of righting something wrong with him, and to acknowledge his own dependence on someone to save him? Much rather would he say it pro forma, to ease his own feeling of the moment enough to just move on. Even he who does so by reason, then, is loath to sit with the thought, and with the feeling, to sit on the ground with the truth about himself. We fear being crushed by the truth, and yet we need the truth to open our hearts to the purifying love of Christ, and this truth is what the Holy Ghost whispers in the stillness of Mount Sinai.

Yet the Chinese once knew that nothing but time, dedicated time, would be sufficient. Mourning for the dead cannot be hurried. In the idealized past, a Chinese scholar-official whose father or mother died would take leave from his post and mourn for three years, eating nothing but gruel, avoiding delights of the world, and every now and then wailing in a shack behind his house. For other relatives, within the five degrees of mourning, he would do similarly, though for a shorter time and with finer sackcloth. The ritual was systematic, even if it was an ideal to which not everyone would practically attain. We may not do exactly the same, but we may practise these things in spirit as much as we can.

To our loss, Christian Chinese seem to have given these things up. Perhaps in the rush to modernize by the latest Western standards, and to leave the old behind, we have forgotten the wisdom of the ancient paths. To be ruled by someone else’s race, rather than to be like the pole star, fixed in the heavens, is to forget where God is. What does God say? ‘Be still, and know that I am God.’ To cease from striving, to know one’s abjection and yet to rest in God’s love, is to find the presence of the God who has always been here. This is the presence we share with those who have lost those they have loved, and this is the presence we desire them to know with us, and us with them. Man fears time, and time fears the pyramids; but after all things have passed away, even the pyramids, do we not find our value in being loved by God, and in loving him? When we give ourselves the space to mourn, and when we give others the space to wear sackcloth and mourn for three years upon the death of a parent – to turn their harps to mourning, and their organs into the voice of them that weep – we show respect for their pain, that they may allow themselves to acknowledge in their hearts, and before the face of God, what they have lost and how desperate they are for God. To dwell in the moment is good. We live in light of the Resurrection, and because of it we are justified, but to God the time of death is real as well. To see the light of Christ in the midst of the valley of the shadow of death is not to be out of that valley, but to be encamped there and dwell in the hope of God’s healing and deliverance; for we walk by faith, not by sight. For this reason we cling to the holy Cross. We pause in the unresolved dissonance. By putting on sackcloth for our own mourning, we are not forgetting the grace of Christ and turning back to pagan sorrow, but we are remembering the meaning of mourning as those who are doomed to die and mourn with hope. Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison.

A Few Reflections on Not Dying Suddenly

Stanley Hauerwas says, in the foreword to John Swinton and Richard Payne’s book Living Well and Dying Faithfully: Christian Practices for End-of-Life Care,

At one time, Christians feared the kind of death we say we want in answer to the question ‘How to [sic] you want to die?’ They feared a sudden death because that meant they had lost the opportunity to prepare to face God. They wanted time to be reconciled with those whom they had wronged, the church, and, most of all, with God. Like us, they loved life and did not want to die, but death did not determine their dying. Their dying was determined by their confidence in the love of God.

When I see the words sudden death, I think of the Litany’s petition for God to deliver us from sudden death. That my paternal grandfather was spared from a sudden death, in fact, has blessed me probably far more than I can tell in this life. It was as he struggled with liver cancer, in 1999 and 2000, that he came to know the Lord as our former pastor came to visit him and talk with him. Having stayed over at that pastor’s house when my brother was born, I knew that my grandfather had gotten to experience some of the love of Christ from outwith our own family, and it was wonderful to know that the pain of cancer had actually brought my grandfather, a long resister of the gospel, to the arms of Christ. And I myself, in Stanford Hospital, got to share something with my grandfather that I would never have experienced had he not had the time to get ready to die. The last time I ever saw him, before flying back to Virginia, there were some grapes on the table, but he couldn’t eat them because he could no longer take the skins. I peeled the skins for him, and in doing so I got to do more for him than I could ever have done before. We had not spent all that much time together before then, in the first 10 years of my life, but that event alone did more to bring us closer together than anything before or since.

When he died, I grieved, but I also felt greatly at peace about it, because I was sure he was with the Lord. I think, too, this experience is why my grandfather’s was the first funeral of which I had any specific memories (it was a beautiful funeral, too), and why I still feel the desire to go up to Mountain View Cemetery, in the Oakland hills, every time I go to the San Francisco Bay Area. It’s also why I feel that my own death, whenever the Lord has chosen for it to be, is something for which the Lord will surely have made me ready.

All Souls

Today, the day after the Romanists’ observance of All Souls’ Day, I wanted to link to some 25 pages from the Rt Rev. N. T. Wright’s For All the Saints? Remembering the Christian Departed (SPCK, 2003) about the bodily resurrection of Christian believers and various other matters related to the destination of the departed. If you have not already read Dr Wright’s thoughts, I highly recommend them.

Along with the theology, I think a bit of æsthetics is in order here. For that purpose, there may be few things as grand and yet sober as the funeral procession in Brussels of the mighty Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. Below, I show some parts of this procession.

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See here the heraldic dignities of the dead emperor. Four men display the arms of Burgundy, of Castile and León, of the Empire as ruled by the House of Habsburg, and of all Spain. They are followed by other imperial insignia: standards, maces, golden tabards. Yet for all this grandeur the men are all dressed in black, and for all the sombreness they show the colourful signs of earthly dominion under God.

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See here, following the horse dressed in the imperial arms, first the collar of the Order of the Golden Fleece, then the sceptre, then the sword.

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See here the orb and the imperial crown, and staves of authority.

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See here the emperor’s mourning son, King Philip II of Spain, his train carried by a nobleman; behind him follow a line of other nobles.

What lordly dignities! what great power on earth! And yet, once summoned by his Maker to a presence he cannot flee, the emperor could not refuse, and like all men he was buried into the dust from whence he had come, to await the resurrection of the dead.