Grief and Christmas

As a pastor I can tell you that deaths do not happen evenly over the course of a year. Death seems to be concentrated into the colder months. At my congregation we would typically have 8 to 12 funerals a year. This year, since mid-October we have already had 9 deaths with no doubt more to come before Spring. Covid only partially explains the rise.

This reality means that many deaths happen around the holidays, leaving grief perpetually connected with a day that is supposed to be happy. The same type of association can happen with hymns. We often play a person’s favorite hymn at their funeral, which often ruins it for us. “How Great Thou Art” is a hymn that many people can’t listen to for that reason.

Having a painful association points to having an incomplete and ineffective grieving process. Remembering shouldn’t hurt after a while. If we are still hurting, then we are dwelling on what we have lost versus focusing on the promise of eternal life and a future reunion. This, of course, hinges on having eternal life through Jesus.

The Christmas season will be the source of many cherished family memories. It should be. But the Christmas season is misspent if it is focused primarily on family and not focused on Christ. Celebrating the birth of Christ is celebrating God coming into the world to give a most precious gift.

The Son of God became a human to place himself under the jurisdiction of God’s Law. He came as the child of a virgin so that he would not be born with a sinful nature like the rest of us. Instead, he could remain sinless for life. He then could do something for us that is an incredible act of sacrificial love. When dying on the cross, Jesus was forsaken by his Father as a substitute for his Father forsaking us. To be forsaken, utterly abandoned by God, is the punishment required for sin. If you are connected to Jesus through baptism, your eternal punishment is done.

If your loved one died as a believer in Jesus as their Savior, they are alive with Jesus. Do not look back, look forward. If you also are in Christ, then there are more good times, even better than the best ahead. Let the celebration of the birth of a Savior take you there, at least for awhile. Be sure to also make the most of those who are still alive and with you.

I would say the same for “How Great Thou Art”, or any hymn for that matter. It sure not remind you of loss but rather of gain. Train your brain to do this. Catch yourself when you think about the loss, remind yourself of God’s promise and then imagine what you still cannot see. Do not wallow in loss. It is not forgetting your loved one, it is remembering them properly.

A Checklist for Death

I am a list maker. For many tasks I sit down and make a “to do” list so I do not forget something, and then take pleasure in checking off the list. Oddly, I do not typically do this for travel, but I should and many people do. Travel has a lot of details. You want to pack everything that you will need. You need to stop the mail, water the plants, care for your pets, and perhaps turn off the main water.

Should we have a checklist for death? It is a form of travel. Most of us are not planning to die, but we all will. A global pandemic helps to make that more real. Not only death, but Jesus’ return could be imminent. You don’t want to be unprepared.

The last two blogs covered the two critical areas in preparation for Judgment Day that Jesus shared with us. The first, we need to make sure our faith is alive. The stronger the better. Faith is the oil in the lamps in the Parable of the Ten Virgins. Secondly, we want to be found to be faithful stewards, so we are to be busy doing God’s work at all times.

Anything else? There are a few more things that have biblical touchpoints that make for a wise checklist in preparation for leaving this Earth.

The first is being reconciled to everyone we know as far as that is possible. Don’t fail to ask for forgiveness from people that you hurt. Don’t fail to offer forgiveness to those who hurt you. Dying at peace means living at peace. Is this always possible? No. But be the instigator in trying to heal old wounds–even if you feel it should be the other person or that the effort is futile. To know that you put in the effort matters. (Matthew 5:25f, 18:21-35)

The next is to make clear, to at least the important people in your life, that you are disciple of Jesus. This is not to be done in a vain and bragging fashion. This is just the simple fact that your actions should match your beliefs. No one should be guessing whether you belong to Christ because your sinful nature is allowed to give conflicting messages. The Christian faith is not meant to be a private matter. Disciples are to be making more disciples. (Matthew 28:19-20)

The degree to which you make your faith public depends on where you are. In the U.S., we should not hide who are at all, even though we may face ridicule from some. In countries where we would face dangerous persecution, we must be more clever. Other disciples of Jesus should recognize Christ in us. For others it depends on the Spirit’s guidance. We may be overt with our faith for the sake of witnessing to others. God will guide as to whether another person is open to our witness or a danger to be avoided. (Matthew 10:16)

A third item on our checklist is related to a good stewardship of life. Paul says,

For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Ephesians 2:1o

We are here in this life because we have work to do. God shapes us and empowers us to do “good works”, which cover a scope of activity from showing love and meeting needs of others, to direct witnessing and discipleship of others, to genuine worship in spirit and truth, to doing our daily work to the glory of God, to developing and reflecting God’s character through obedience to His commands, to general good stewardship, to interacting as a friend with God. It is a lot of stuff. As we age and our faculties diminish, we may feel that we are no longer useful to the Kingdom of God; but if God has us here still, then we have a purpose. Look for it. There is no checklist we can possess of things God has prepared us to do, but seek to knock it all out as if there is one.

Our fourth item on our checklist is common to all people. It is making sure your final wishes are known. Have a will. If it has some eccentricities explain them to your loved ones ahead of time. Don’t take the coward’s way out and have surprises at the reading of the will. The final disposition of a Christian’s earthly property should not be a source of conflict nor offense. (Luke 12:15)

Finally, think about how you can make a final impact. I do think that one should help the next generation through a will if you can. I do not think that you should indulge them to a point of not needing to provide for themselves. That is not good stewardship nor healthy for our children. Finances can make an impact for the Kingdom of God and is one way to make a final impact. Though we will not be the witness ourselves, the person we support will do the work and we will share in it. (Matthew 10:41)

Another way to have a final impact is to leave a pre-recorded witness for your friends and family. This can be viewed after your death privately or as part of a funeral. Don’t call people out or embarrass them. Simply share words of your love and God’s.

This list doesn’t require death to be imminent. But sometimes that is a catalyst to get things done. Checking this list and keeping it current shows that you care about the details of life and respect that fact that we are only temporarily here. Real life comes next when you belong to Christ.