Coming to Peace with Death

My father died on April 28, 2016. It pained me to see his body shut down, piece by piece until all that remained was a crumpled figure, barely recognizable, gasping for air. Pancreatic cancer defiled his body. I prayed God would allow death to arrive sooner than later and end my dad’s suffering. I welcomed death, but never as a friend — only as a useful enemy.

Compassionate people have given me words meant to comfort, saying “death is part of life”. While I appreciate their kindness, I don’t respect their logic. I thought death was, silly me, the end of life. Illogical clichés, no matter how well intentioned, don’t offer the hope we need.

Personally, I don’t find much comfort when people try to paint a pretty face on death. It’s lipstick on a pig. Death is ugly, cruel and selfish to the end. Death steals every asset, ability, and eventually every memory. We must be careful when explaining the tolerable side of death because we can slip into the same irrational and risky behavior of people suffering from Stockholm’s syndrome. (Stockholm’s syndrome is a psychological phenomenon in which hostages develop positive feelings toward their captors and even defend them because they mistake a lack of abuse with an act of kindness.)

Every culture has attempted to make peace with death. Eastern cultures have tended to view our physical life as an illusion, turning death into a hero that will set us free from the illusion of life. Greek and Roman philosophers accepted the reality of the material world; but like eastern thinkers, obliterated individual identity after death. Marcus Aurelius said, “You came into this world as a part: you vanish into the whole which gave you birth, or rather you will be gathered up into its generative principle by the process of change.” (Epictetus, Discourses III, 24, 84-88.) Modern atheists sing a similar song about the “circle of life” and find solace in the idea that our bodies will fertilize the earth and get recycled by the cosmos. Pragmatists have tended to make peace by placing their hope for immortality in the memory of the living. In all, the common compromise with mortality is the surrender of the individual’s conscious identity after death. Death is not defeated, only redefined. The peace offered is, at best, a truce not a victory.

The question remains, “Is such a peace treaty with death worth the paper it’s written on?”  Woody Allen quipped, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve immortality through not dying. I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.”¹

Christianity never seeks a truce with death. The Bible unapologetically describes death as “the last enemy to be destroyed” (1 Corinthians 15:26). It clarifies that the only acceptable terms of peace will be death’s total surrender. Death must give up all power and authority. The eternal peace Jesus will win comes as a result of total victory, not compromise. It won’t be a cease fire with the enemy (like the Korean War), but an annihilation of the enemy (like the Allies’ victory over the Nazis).

We can trust the peace Jesus promises because he has already personally defeated death — the most powerful and ruthless dictator — on the cross.  Jesus fought to win, not to obtain a truce. He removed death from the throne at His resurrection and has made death His footstool. One day Jesus will make death our footstool too, as promised in 1 Corinthians 15:20-26:

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

If God never calls death a friend, neither should we. Death stole everything from my dad. When I buried my dad he made a small package. His urn weighed 10 pounds — nearly the same weight as when my dad entered the world. The words of Ecclesiastes pierced me, “All are from the dust, and to the dust all return” (Ecclesiastes 3:20). Real hope springs from the fact that God refused to compromise with death but instead waged war to win a total victory; so that those who are allied with Jesus can know that they will never be left in the dust. The only one left in the dust will be death.

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What’s Better Than Being Remembered?

I recently posted about my dad’s diagnosis of stage 4 pancreatic cancer in When Terminal Cancer Hits Home. The post was read far and wide. People wrote back their prayers, expressed their sympathy, and often shared their own family’s struggles with cancer. I have been overwhelmed by people’s openness and tenderness.

A friend of my dad’s from childhood, who Dad hadn’t spoken to for over 50 years, called to see how he was doing. After hanging up the phone Dad turned to me with a disbelieving smile and said, “You don’t know how much people really care about you until something like this happens.”

On Thursdays, we sit together for hours and Dad tells me about his childhood. Growing up in Chesterown, Maryland my dad can share a lot about his mother’s side (the Kirby family) but not his father’s side from Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. I asked him if we could drive together around Chambersburg so he could show me some sites. Dad is not up for traveling so I turned to google. Within five minutes, I was able to find my paternal great-grandparent’s grave while sitting comfortably in Dad’s living room. It was nicely indexed online, alongside several other family members.

On the way home from Dad’s, I phoned friends from Gettysburg who, years ago, shared they had information about the Kieffer family from the Chambersburg area. Until recently, I had been too preoccupied to look into it. The next day my friends delivered a book, five inches thick, about the earliest families that settled around Chambersburg. Apparently the Kieffer family (also spelled Keefer and Kuffer) goes way back and our surname means “barrel maker”.  Who knew!

I registered on hoping to make a family tree for my dad. In six hours I was able to trace our paternal roots back to Johan Nicolaus Kieffer who was born in Germany (1734) and died near Chambersburg (1818). I assembled digital files of death certificates, census registrations, probate ledgers, and gravestone pictures. I can’t wait to show my dad.

After I stayed up researching until midnight, my wife asked me at breakfast, “Why are you suddenly so curious about your ancestry?”

As an adoptive parent I care less about biological connections than most people. But I care deeply about real connections. My curiosity about our roots was rekindled as I’ve talked with Dad about his father, Jack Kieffer. I only knew my grandfather as a fun-loving Chestertown socialite who couldn’t resist stopping to talk to nearly every person we passed on the street. My grandfather loved golf, drank scotch, and told great stories. My grandfather’s dad died when was six so he barely remembered him. He told us his dad’s legal name was Crist — the name on his tombstone. Online I found Crist’s death certificate. It turns out Crist was a nickname for Christian. I don’t know how my grandfather never realized this. But, I wonder how my dad, James Crist, and my brother, Jonathan Crist, will feel about it.

Researching my ancestry has put some things into perspective. Not only was I ignorant of little things. I didn’t know the big things. Until this month, I couldn’t name my eight great-grandparents. People who lived, loved and dreamed about their future only 100 years ago.  I wouldn’t exist without them and yet I know almost nothing about them.

My great-grandkids will likely know as little about me.

Ecclesiastes warns, “There is no remembrance of men of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow.” (Ecclesiastes 1:11)

The sobering reality is that you will soon be forgotten. Chances are your great-grand children won’t even know your name. If you want to be remembered you must place your hope elsewhere.

God says, “Even these may forget, but I will not forget you. I have engraved your name on the palm of my hands.” Isaiah 49:15-16. The image of engraved flesh is dramatic — bloody, painful, and permanently scaring. What kind of person scars himself like that?

Only a crazy lover determined to prove His love.

After Jesus died, the grieving disciples beheld this crazy love when Jesus showed them his nail scarred hands. Jesus’ scars surpassed those Isaiah spoke about. His scars promise redemption not mere remembrance. The good news of Isaiah is God will never forget us. The better news of Jesus outshines mere remembrance. It announces resurrected life!

Overcome the “Fear of Missing Out”

In 2013 the word FOMO was added to the Oxford English Dictionary. The Fear Of Missing Out is the “anxiety that an exciting or interesting event may currently be happening elsewhere”. College students and young adults have a reputation for being severely afflicted with FOMO. As a freshman I wrecked my health by depriving myself of sleep to pack my day (and night) with excitement: pizza runs at 2am, all-night gaming, road trips and over-the-top pranks. But, it’s not just young adults who suffer. Sometimes FOMO plagues us all. Families pack weekend after weekend with serial sporting events and leave little room for spiritual or relational nourishment. FOMO shows up during the Christmas season when we run ourselves ragged to keep every tradition and then spend money we don’t have.

FOMO is amplified by social media. Technology now gives us the ability to see all the good times friends had without us. Facebook show us exactly what we’ve missed.

How do you know if you suffer from FOMO? Here are 5 common symptoms:

  1. You find it difficult to commit to social invitations. Are you concerned something better may come along and you will miss out on a better opportunity?
  2. You are restless. Are you looking for the next thing to provide you a sense of excitement? Has it become increasingly difficult to enjoy simple pleasures God provides each day?
  3. Your mind wanders elsewhere. Do you have difficulty being present emotionally or mentally with the people you live with daily — your spouse, your kids, your neighbors and friends?
  4. You constantly compare. Has social media stopped being about “staying in touch” and turned into “keeping up”? Do you waste hours online and end up feeling jealous and exhausted by the great things others are doing in their lives?
  5. You believe having more or doing more will make you happy. Do you crash when you can’t handle “the more” you think you want? Have you begun experiencing a bi-polar lifestyle of extreme highs and lows that leave you feeling strung out?

How do you overcome FOMO?

  1. Recognition is the first step toward healing. Until you admit that FOMO is ruining your joy you won’t be able to overcome it. Don’t minimizing FOMO’s impact on you.
  2. Identify your triggers. What sets off your Fear of Missing Out? Consider removing those triggers for a time (or permanently). Fast from social media, leave your phone in your car, or take a break from relationships that feed your FOMO.
  3. Reflect more deeply.  Ask yourself, “Will I truly be happier if I have ____ or if I do ____?” When you identify a lie, you can starve it and feed on the truth. Sometimes less is more. Ask yourself why FOMO is such a common human experience. Could it be that you were made for something more than this broken world currently offers? If you are missing out on what God has in store, FOMO may help spur you to search in a new direction.
  4. Look To God: Only God can satisfy. Our Fears Of Missing Out can only be calmed when we look into Jesus’ face and see the one who came “to make all things new!” (Revelation 21:5) Once we do, our patience will return as we become convinced that no matter how inadequate our current situation God will, one day, restore what is lost and broken. Ultimately, we will not miss out on any good thing!
  5. Read the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible. The author speaks from experience. He suffered from FOMO like none other and offers advice for how to overcome.

Chances are you don’t need more good times. You simply need to choose to enjoy what you already have. God has created a world of simple pleasures which are often free and usually the best. Enjoy a brisk walk, a warm drink, a healthy meal. Sit quietly with a friend or family member and listen. Treasure the people near you.

Remember, at Christmas, even God thought it best to slow down and content Himself with less when He became human.

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Leaking Peace? Plug the Drain with Gratitude

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”  (Phil. 4:6-7)

This verse promises an unfathomable, divinely empowered, peace that guards the hearts and minds of Christians.  Why then, does God’s peace elude so many of us?

First, notice that the promise comes with a prohibition: “Do not be anxious about anything”.  Nothing drains peace like worry.  And nothing is as useless as worry.  That’s why Jesus said,

“Do not be anxious about your life… Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow, nor reap, nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not more valuable than they?  Who by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” Matthew 6: 26-27.

Birds have a lot to teach worrywarts.  This fact sheds new light on the derogatory term “bird brain”.  Some of us should consider the term a compliment.  At least birds have the wisdom to trust God. But a worrywart only trusts himself and that becomes his undoing!

Second, the peace God offers is inseparably linked to gratitude.  Nothing sustains peace better than genuine thankfulness toward God.  Unfortunately thankfulness doesn’t come naturally, and people are as unaware of their ingratitude as they are of their bad breath.

Recently, I was complaining to my wife about having to wait too long on the phone (I mean my new iphone) for the greedy drug company to put me in contact with a real person (The company had developed a new medicine, without bothersome side effects, for our son). And even though I remember sending in correct paperwork twice already, (actually email saved me postage and time) the drug company failed again to update our health insurance information (to reflect the new, cheaper rates).  I could only see every annoyance, so as I lay down that night I offered a vague thanks to God. But, I failed to notice that my “thanksgiving” list was functionally empty.  I was too focused on thinking through my “to do” list for the next day.  Thanklessness and anxiety had drained my peace dry.

2682157559_c49267be69_b-2So how can you keep peace from leaking down the drain?  The good news is that God provides a constant stream of peace.  So, it shouldn’t take long to fill up when you follow Philippians 4:6-7 and plug your leaks.

First get serious about giving thanks to God. If you’ve felt melancholy for some time, its likely you need to change your perspective from worry to thanksgiving. When you fail to appreciate your blessings it will result in only feeling exhausted by them. So, slow down! Pause longer than you think reasonable and thank God for every little thing. Get specific. You’ll discover untapped joy, and renewed energy special gifts God reserves solely for thankful hearts.

Second (and more importantly), remember God is for you.  Jesus is proof!  When he died on the cross, he paid the ultimate price to guarantee your peace forever.  His resurrection establishes that he really is who he claims to be — so there is nothing to worry about. Get busy thanking God for all the good things coming to you, simply because you are connected to Jesus. The more specific you can get in your thanksgiving, the more leaks you will plug.

  • Feeling overlooked, or forgotten? Thank God that He has tattooed your name on his hands (Isaiah 49:16).  You are precious to Him.
  • Feeling overcome with grief? Thank God, Jesus knows what it’s like to suffer intense grief (Isaiah 53:3). He is with you in the darkness and he will bring you through it.
  • Feeling exhausted with anger? Thank God that He endures your anger with patience and he responds with loving kindness (Exodus 34:6). He’ll bless you as you wrestle with Him (Genesis 32: 26-29).
  • Feeling hopeless to change? Thank God you are discovering your need for Jesus. Let your skepticism drive you away from self-reliance and toward a greater dependence on Jesus (John 15:5)

As you plug the leaks caused by ingratitude (and worry) expect your peace to overflow its normal reservoir and become a “peace that passes all understanding.”

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