Death Is Only a Horizon

I did a funeral today for a lovely lady named Eleanor Wiley.  In my remarks I quoted an old poem that reads:

We give them back to Thee, dear Lord, who gavest them to us; yet as Thou dost not lose them in giving, so we have not lost them by their return. Not as the world giveth, givest Thou, O Lover of Souls. What Thou gavest, Thou takest not away, for what is Thine is ours always if we are Thine. And Life is eternal and Love is immortal, and death is only an horizon, and an horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight.*

I picked up on that last line and agreed that life is eternal.  Jesus said that “whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”  Eleanor was one of those “whosoevers,” and I believe she has already laid claim to her everlasting life.  I also agreed that love is immortal.  I asked Eleanor’s husband, Herb, if he loved her less today than before she died and he said, “No, of course not!”  That’s because his love for her is still alive and well.  It is stronger than death.  Finally I agreed that death is only a horizon, and a horizon is nothing but the limit of our sight.  I said it like this:

If you stand on the shore long enough and watch a cruise ship sail out to sea, there comes a time when you can’t see it anymore.  It sails beyond that curve in the earth’s surface that obscures it from your sight.  It doesn’t mean that it isn’t there; it only means that you can’t see it any longer.  For those people on board life is going on as it rarely does on shore, with fine dining and ballroom dancing and moonlit walks on the promenade deck.   In her death Eleanor Wiley has sailed beyond the horizon.  We can’t see her anymore, but that doesn’t mean her life isn’t going on.  It is.  Although I have a feeling that as we gather here this morning to mourn her death she is standing at the stern of that ship, looking back toward the shore, standing on tiptoe and waving her handkerchief to let us know that she’s all right—that death is only a horizon, and a horizon is nothing but the limit of our sight.

Bon Voyage, Eleanor!



*In my research, I was not able to come up with the undisputed author of this poem.  While most of my sources cite Rossiter Raymond, people who claim to know better say it was William Penn.

Birth is Like Death is Like Birth

What happens when you pray for someone to be healed of cancer and they die anyway?

That’s what we were asking at Anna Reinstein’s funeral on Tuesday.  Anna was only 51 years old, a beautiful young mother with children still at home.  She had a rock-solid faith, she had hundreds of people praying for her, and they were praying to a good and loving God.  At least that’s what we thought.  On Tuesday afternoon I stood before a sanctuary full of mourners and said:

“But here we are at her funeral, and even though nobody wants to say it out loud we’re thinking that Anna lost her fight, that we must have failed her in some way, and that God himself has let her down.  It’s not wrong to want to be healed of cancer.  It’s not wrong to do everything you can toward that end.  What’s wrong, I think, is to believe that if your cancer goes into remission you’ve won and that if it doesn’t you’ve lost.  What’s wrong is to come to a moment like this one feeling a little embarrassed for all that faith and optimism you once had, for all those slogans you posted around the house.  What’s wrong is to believe not only that your prayers failed, but that God failed, or that for whatever reason he could not or would not heal Anna. 

“When that happens you sometimes start to re-define your understanding of God.  You begin to think maybe God is not all-powerful, maybe he is not all-loving.  Why didn’t he heal a woman like this?  But what if, instead of re-defining your understanding of God you re-defined your understanding of death?  What if death is not the enemy we sometimes think it is, and what if succumbing to it is not the same as “losing”? 

“I think about my daughter Ellie, who used to fight against sleep when she was a little girl.  She never wanted to go to bed; she was always afraid she might miss something.  And so I would have to hold her sideways in my arms and rock her back and forth to put her to sleep.  She would fight against it, so that I had to keep a firm grip on her, but finally I would feel her little body relax and eventually she would fall asleep, and I would put her to bed.  She always seemed to be a little surprised when she woke up the next morning, rested and refreshed, a little surprised to find that the sun had come up after all, and that her dad was sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee while her mom made pancakes.

“If we could see death from God’s perspective we might see that it’s like falling asleep at night, we might not fight against it so hard, we might believe that we would—in fact—wake up the next morning.  But for me the most helpful analogy has been the one I heard from John Claypool who said that, “from the womb’s perspective, birth is like death.”  I hadn’t really thought of that before, but when a child is born that womb that was so full of life only moments before is suddenly dark and empty, and if a womb could grieve, it would grieve the loss of that child.  But the child isn’t grieving: the child has been born into a world full of light and sound and love.  And even though it’s a little frightening at first I don’t know of any child who—after getting used to the world—wants to go back to the womb. 

“The world is a good place to be and we know it.  With all its problems and imperfections it is still the best place we have ever been.  It’s the place where our friends and family are, the place where we have experienced all the life we have ever known.  We hold on with both hands, terrified of losing our grip.

“But suppose this world is only the womb in which we are made ready for our everlasting life?  And suppose the world into which Anna Reinstein has been born is as different from this world as this world is from the womb?  It’s been traumatic, but that’s just how birth is.  It’s hard, sweaty labor, and if you ask any woman who has given birth she will tell you that it hurts.  It is a bloody, messy business, and at the end of it someone almost always cries.  But it’s not the end.  It’s the beginning of a whole new life.  Suppose that death is just like that: hard, sweaty labor, full of pain.  Suppose that it’s a bloody, messy business, and that at the end of it someone almost always cries.  But suppose that it’s not the end after all, but only the beginning of a whole new life.   

“When the apostle Paul talks about what it is like to enter into life with God he uses the analogy of death and resurrection.  He says that “we have been buried with Christ by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4).  But Jesus has a different perspective than Paul.  He has an eternal perspective.  He can see things from the other side.  And when Jesus talks about what it’s like to enter into life with God he uses the analogy of birth.  He tells Nicodemus that “no one can enter the Kingdom of God unless he is born again” (John 3: 3, 5).

“Suppose that’s what’s happened for Anna: suppose she’s been born into the Kingdom of God.  And suppose that we have gathered today not to mourn her death, but to celebrate that birth.  It’s been hard, painful, messy, and at the end of it here we are, crying.  But it’s not the end, not for Anna.  Not at all.  She has been delivered.  She is surrounded by the bright light of heaven.  And she is feeling more love than she has ever felt, even when her mother first held her in her arms.

“It’s the beginning of a whole new life.”

Never Can Say Goodbye

I spoke at Bill Rock’s funeral on Thursday, and since then several people have requested copies of my homily.  I thought I would share it here.

I met Bill Rock at a Gold Band Sunday school class party over at the Pusey House.  I was invited by some of the members of the class, and I remember how eager they were to introduce me to Bill, whispering that he had lost his eyesight recently but bragging openly about the twenty years he had served as church treasurer and the forty years he had taught fourth grade Sunday school.  “Bill?” they said.  “This is our new pastor, Dr. Somerville.”  And he turned toward the sound of their voices and reached out to shake my hand.   I can still remember that handshake, both firm and gentle.  I got the feeling that he was not a man who had been humbled by his circumstances, but a man who had always been humble, faithful, willing to serve.  That hunch has only been confirmed by the things I’ve learned about Bill in the past two years, the stories I’ve heard since Sunday afternoon, and the eulogy that Bob delivered today.  Bill Rock was a very special man.  Your presence here this morning is testimony to that, and the only reason this room is not full to the rafters is because so many of Bill’s friends and loved ones have gone on ahead of him.

It was around this time last year that Bill’s daughter, Nancy, came to my office to talk about his funeral service.  He was very sick, and it didn’t look as if he was going to get better.  She came to see me because she knew he could go at any time.  She wanted to be ready.  But I don’t know that you are ever ready for the death of someone you love any more than you are ready to choose which breath will be your last one.  We fight for our breath.  We fight for our life.  It is precious to us and we don’t want to lose it.  And that’s just how we feel about the ones we love.  We don’t want to lose them either.  And that has caused me to think some new thoughts about John 3:16, that familiar and well-worn verse that says, “For God so loved the world he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”  When we stop to think about that verse we often think about what a gift God gave—his only son!—or what a gift we’ve received—eternal life!—but I don’t know that I’ve ever thought about God sending his son because he didn’t want to lose us.

I should have.  The verse begins with the truth that God loves us.  It continues with the truth that he loved us so much he gave his only son.  But only at the end does it say he did this so that he did this so that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, and for the first time I imagined God sitting beside a hospital bed, holding onto the hand of someone he loves, hoping and praying that their next breath would not be their last.  It suggests that in these few years we have on earth God could grow fond of us, that as he knits our bones together in our mothers’ wombs, as he brings us into the world through childbirth, as he watches over us all the days of our lives, he might come to know who we are and love us in the same way any parent comes to know and love a child.  I can imagine how he came to know and love Bill, and how it has grieved him in these last few years to see Bill lose his sight, to have that long, long struggle with sickness.  But I think how much more it would grieve him if he thought Bill’s death would be the end of him.

God loved the world, John says.  He loved it so much he gave his only son.  He gave his only son so that he wouldn’t ever have to say goodbye to Bill Rock.  And all Bill had to do was believe that God could love him that much.  It’s not easy.  None of us thinks we’re worth dying for.  But if we could believe in that love, if we could receive that gift, then the end of our life in this world would be the beginning of our life in the next, and that life goes on forever.  There is no end to it, and no goodbyes. 

I hadn’t thought about God giving the gift of eternal life because he didn’t want to say goodbye to us, but if there is any truth in that idea you can see how he might understand exactly how we feel when we don’t want to say goodbye to Bill.  And because he is God and can do something about it he has: he has made possible the hello that follows goodbye.  If there is any truth to this notion of the resurrection, to the idea of everlasting life, then I can believe that someday I will be introduced to Bill Rock again, that some of the members of the Gold Band Sunday school class, or some of the members of his family, or maybe even Marylou herself will say, “Look, here’s Bill!”  And there he will stand before me—his feeble knees firm, his weak hands strengthened, his eyes bright and clear as he reaches out to shake my hand and says with a smile, “Hello, Jim.  It’s good to see you.  I think we’ve met before!” 

Apart from Christ himself that may be the best gift of John 3:16: the knowledge that this is the last time we will ever have to say goodbye to Bill Rock,

…and the promise of that next hello.

Plenty of Room in God’s House

hygeia-house-front-porch1I did a memorial service this afternoon for Mark Boschen, one of our new members who died quite suddenly and unexpectedly.  He was 61 years old.

One of his favorite scriptures was John 14:1-3, in which Jesus says to his disciples, “Don’t let your hearts be troubled.  You believe in God; believe also in me.  In my father’s house are many dwelling places.  If it were not so would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?”  I told the congregation that when I was a boy, growing up in West Virginia, people usually quoted that passage from the King James Version, the one that says, “In my father’s house are many mansions.”  Since many of these people were poor, they relished the idea that even though they were living in shacks, they would one day be living in mansions.  I didn’t know until I went to seminary that the Greek word translated as “mansions” in the King James Version is really monai, which means something more like “dwelling places,” or even “rooms.”  When I translate it these days I like to say, “In my father’s house there is plenty of room.”

I told the story about the time I was pushing my daughter Ellie on the swing in the back yard when she was two or three years old.  I was quieter than usual and she noticed.  When she asked me about it I said, “Well, I’m just a little sad about Mr. Brent.”  Mr Brent was a member of my church there in New Castle, Kentucky.  He had died that same day, and I was still absorbing the blow.  He had been good to Ellie, too, and she got quiet as she thought about him not being around anymore.

“Where did Mr. Brent go?” she asked.  “To God’s house,” I answered.  “Where is that?” she asked.  “In heaven,” I answered, and then I told her a little more.  “God has this house, you see, with a big front porch and steps coming down to the front yard, where there are oak trees growing and acorns everywhere on the ground if the squirrels don’t get to them.  There are old men sitting in rockers on the front porch whittling and telling stories.  Inside the house there are children running up and down the steps, and in the kitchen women are cooking, talking, and laughing, and there’s always a fresh pot of coffee for anyone who comes looking.  It’s a wonderful place, God’s house, and every once in a while God himself comes through to get a cup of coffee, or bounce some babies on his knee, or sit on the front porch with the men.  Those are the best times of all.”

Ellie was quiet for a while and then she asked, “Are there toys there?”  “Oh, yes!” I promised.  “There are lots of toys.”

She was quiet again and then said, “I want to go.”

And my heart broke open, to think of my precious little girl gone from me, even to a wonderful place like that, even to God’s house.

As I told that story I could see that for the Boschen family it didn’t have to be a little girl to break your heart.  It could be a 61-year-old man.  It could be anyone.  And even the idea that the one you love is going to God’s house doesn’t keep your heart from breaking.  But what if you didn’t have that much?  What if you thought that when your loved ones died they were simply lost and gone forever?  What then?  Is there anything that could console you?

“Don’t let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus said.  “You believe in God; believe also in me.  In my father’s house there is plenty of room.  If it were not so would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”

That’s good news, and comforting news too, for Mr. Brent, for the Boschen family, and for the fathers of little girls everywhere, who need to know that someone is watching out for us, and making room for us—plenty of room—so that where he is we can be.  All of us.  Together.  Forever.

Stronger Than Death

love3In just a little while I’ll be doing the funeral of Nancy LeSac, a faithful and courageous church member who died on Monday morning after a long struggle with brain cancer.  Her story reminded me of Joyce Maye, a member of my church in Wingate, North Carolina, who died after a very similar struggle.  I found the text of the message I delivered at her funeral and wanted to share an excerpt here as a reminder that even—and perhaps especially—in tragic circumstances, the gospel is good news.


The writer of that great poem we call the Song of Solomon says that “love is strong as death” (8:6), and I almost believe that he is right.  Love is strong!  It can haul you out of the pit.  It can put you on your feet again.  It can set your heart soaring.  It’s strong!  But so is death.  It can cut your legs out from under you.  It can smash you to the ground.  It can snuff your life out like a flame.  When we think of how love makes us feel, and how the death of a loved one makes us feel, I think we can agree that Solomon understood something that is common to human experience.  Love is strong as death and death is strong as love.  Exactly as strong.  The more love we have for someone the more it hurts when we lose them.  The less love we have the less it hurts.


In Joyce’s case this harmless piece of poetry becomes a terrifying equation.  She was so easy to love that many of us—most of you here—developed a love for her that was unusually strong.  As a consequence, the fact of her death has hit us with such force that we don’t know if we will be able to stand up against it. 


When I heard the news I was at Travis Family Restaurant, having lunch with my friend Jim Eastin.  A waitress came to tell me I had a telephone call and Christy, in a broken voice, broke the news to me.  I came back to the table and sat down hard, feeling the color drain from my face as I did so.  Jim tried to resume our conversation but suddenly stopped, reached out to touch my arm, and said, “Are you all right?”  “I don’t know,” I said, finally.  “I don’t know.”


For the rest of that day that’s how it was for me.  Love and death had collided at full speed, and the wreckage was everywhere.  I went to be with the family but I don’t know how much help I was.  After the initial hugs and condolences I simply sat at the kitchen counter, sighing and shaking my head.


If all we could depend on was our own love in time of death we might never know if we were going to be all right.  Love and death are equally matched; it could go either way.  But at the foundation of our faith is the truth that God has added to our love his own.  “God loved us so much,” The Bible says, “that he gave his only son, so that anyone who believes in him will not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).  In other words the force of God’s love, in combination with ours, is too much for death.  What once looked like an even match becomes suddenly, miraculously, one-sided, and death doesn’t stand a chance.  “O death, where is your victory?” Paul says.  “O death, where is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:55).  And as death lies dying at our feet he shouts, “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!” (1 Cor. 15:57).


What all this means is that Joyce was right when she said to me, more than two years ago, “I believe I’m going to be all right.”  By virtue of the strong love and amazing grace of God she is all right this morning.  Strong as death is it will never be strong enough to snuff out the light that was and is…


…Joyce Maye   

Liberian Funeral

I drove to Washington on Saturday to preside at the funeral of my good friend Francis Dennis, a member of my church in DC and a former ambassador from Liberia.  Printed below are some excerpts from the service:


I am honored by the invitation to come back to this place and to this pulpit to say a word about my friend Francis Dennis.  He was one of those people I was told about when I came to First Baptist in the summer of 2000.  “One of our members is the former ambassador from Liberia” someone said, proudly, and so, even before I met him, I was looking forward to meeting him.  I don’t know what I expected—some ambassador I had seen in a children’s book, maybe, wearing a top hat and tails, with a monocle held up to one eye, medals on his chest, and a sheaf of important documents in his hand—but what I got was Francis Dennis, this warm, personable human being whose laugh was one of his most distinguishing trademarks.


After we got to know each other when we met in the hallway Francis would stop, draw himself up to his full height, bend at the waist in a formal bow and say, “Dr. Somerville.”  And I would return the gesture, bowing to him and saying, “Ambassador Dennis.”  But both of us did it with a twinkle in our eyes, as if we knew that for all the formality of our titles and positions we were really just two children of God.  If we had been born in the same time and place we probably would have climbed trees together as boys, wrestled, run races, and gone swimming in the river.  One of the things I loved most about Francis (and there were many) was that he never lost his childlike spirit.  He seemed to understand that life is funny, and if you can’t see it in the good times you will never be able to see it in the bad times.  I don’t think I ever visited him in the hospital that we didn’t end up sharing a laugh.


What can we say about the children of God, about this child of God named Francis Dennis?  There is an old prayer, often recited at funerals, that says: “Life is eternal, love is immortal, and death is only a horizon, and a horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight.”  I believe that for the children of God this much at least is true: that life is eternal.  It was never God’s intention in creation that we should die.  And his intention, in redemption, was that we should live.  He sent his only son so that we could if we believed, and I don’t know anyone who believed more than Francis.  I think it is also true for God’s children that love is immortal, although all I can really offer here is my own experience.  I know that I loved Francis before his death and I know that I love him now.  My love for him has not been diminished in any way by his death.  If anything, my love for him is stronger. 


And finally, this: the idea that death is only a horizon, and that a horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight.  I’ve been picturing Francis standing on the deck of a ship as the lines are cast off and it begins to pull away from the dock.  I imagine him going off to his next assignment, dressed in top hat and tails, with medals on his chest, holding up a white handkerchief and waving as long as he is in sight.  But eventually that ship slips over the horizon and disappears from view.  It doesn’t mean that Francis is gone.  It only means that we can’t see him anymore.  But somewhere he is still on his way, standing at the bow, sailing toward the rising sun.  A child of God whose adventure has just begun. 


I can almost hear him laugh to think of it.