Le Morte de Beau

Bo

The Salvageable family lost a faithful companion this week.

Bo joined us eleven years ago when one of my coworkers needed to find a new home for her cat because of her daughter’s allergies. The cat was about five years old at the time. They had obtained him from an animal shelter which had already named him Bo; my family wasn’t excited about the name, but the cat was already used to it. To give him a little more dignity, we often spelled it Beau.

When he joined the family, he wasn’t interested in curling up on a lap. He preferred to be pet while standing on or near a lap. As he grew older, he became more of a lap cat. I found that he liked to be cuddled, held upside down like a human baby while I stroked his head and face. It seemed to me that he was reliving kittenhood, remembering being washed by his mother, so sometimes while cuddling him I would say to him, in my best James Earl Jones voice, “Bo, I am your mother.”

Bo also enjoyed supervising food preparation in the kitchen. He had a favorite stool from which he could supervise the chopping of vegetables and other states in putting together a meal. He loved the smell of cooking meat. He also associated the sound of the can opener with juice drained from canned tuna, which he was allowed to drink from a bowl. Even if he was napping, the noise of the can opener would rouse him and call him to the kitchen. The cook would usually let Bo smell the lid of the can if its contents were not tuna, just to let him know he was not missing anything good.

Bo sometimes would get excited and energetic and would tear around the house. He especially loved high places—the tops of bookshelves, the piano, the china cabinet, and the grandfather clock. He would even curl up and sleep in some of those places.

He liked being part of a large family. Some of his favorite moments involved sitting in the living room while several people carried on a conversation. When only one or two people were in the house, he would sometimes wander from room to room, crying plaintively. He came to like the sound of his own voice; he identified the areas in the house with the best echoes and lectured loudly in those places.

October 2012 brought the Mayan apocalypse to the Salvageable family. Cars were breaking down right and left, the computer crashed, followed shortly by the printer, a favorite co-worker left for a different job, and Bo added to the turmoil early in November. When my daughters were leaving early in the morning for a dance competition, Bo managed to slip outside. I didn’t miss him until suppertime, when I tore apart the house looking for him and also searched outside. When the rest of the family returned that night, the search was repeated, but with no success. We went to bed tearfully. The next morning he was found under the backyard deck of a neighbor’s house. He seemed no worse for the experience, and we were glad and relieved to have him back.

Bo had chronic respiratory problems, probably allergies. We sometimes wondered if he was allergic to himself. While he was capable of a genuine purr, more often he showed his contentment through heavy breathing. In November 2017 Bo had a sudden loss of balance which likely was due to a stroke. He was unable to walk for a couple of days, then gradually regained his equilibrium, but he was never the same after that. He would often tilt his head when looking at people, which I suspect was compensation for double vision. The last eighteen months have been, for the family, a bonus time with Bo, because we realize that we could have lost him when he had that stroke.

This spring his health began to deteriorate. His breathing troubles increased, and he began to lose weight. The veterinarian gave him antibiotics and steroid shots, and we spent money on high-calorie cat foods, as well as supplementing his diet with meat from our table. He still ate, but his body apparently lost the ability to nourish itself from food. Day by day his strength diminished. We did our best to make him comfortable. Like an old soldier, Bo faded away, until he breathed his last Thursday morning.

The Bible is unclear about whether we will be reunited with our pets. There will be animals in the new creation: “The wolf will lie down with the lamb, and the lion will eat straw like the ox.” The only mention of the soul of animals is found in Ecclesiastes, where Solomon says, “Who knows?” Previous generations of Christian teachers insisted that animals had no souls, and therefore had no afterlife. More recent teachers have said, “You will be happy in heaven; so if you need your pets to be happy, they will be there.” I am inclined to believe that animals who have had a close relationship with believers have gained enough soul from that relationship to be reunited in the new creation. We will find out when we get there. Maybe not, but possibly, Bo is waiting for that reunion as he used to wait for his people to come home. J.

cat at door

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What is yet to come?–part one

In the long-held traditions of the Church, the month of November is a time when Christians think about eschatology—the study of Last Things. Granted, many congregations in the contemporary world create their budgets for the coming year in November and, as a result, they use November to talk about stewardship and tithing. But the older tradition is to consider Last Things. From All Saints’ Day on the first of November to the Sunday of the Fulfillment near the end of the month, readings and hymns and sermons and prayers tend to focus the congregation’s attention on eschatology.

More than many topics, eschatology tends to produce a blurring of the Bible’s clear and literal teachings and its imagery about Last Things. Some Christians tend to consult the book of Revelation first about Last Things and to use its splendid imagery to interpret the more straight-forward passages in the Bible about Last Things. The result can be highly imaginative and creative, but at the same time it is rather inaccurate. Not that this is a catastrophe; any Christian who trusts in Jesus Christ for salvation will be saved. Some Christians are in store for a few surprises when the Last Day comes, but afterwards they will be able to laugh with Jesus and the other saints about any misunderstandings.

Eschatology divides easily into personal and cosmic Last Things. I will discuss cosmic eschatology in a later post and deal today with personal eschatology, based on what the Bible says.

Some of the clearest teaching about personal eschatology—and passages I have used in hospice situations—comes from the words of Christ on the cross, written in Luke 23. First Jesus prays for sinners: “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they’re doing.” The prayer could apply narrowly to the soldiers who nailed him to the cross. However it broadly applies to all sinners, all of whom made the crucifixion necessary for salvation. God the Father answers the prayer of his Son: all those who trust in Christ are forgiven. Next, when a thief beside Jesus confesses his sin and prays, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” Jesus responds, “I tell you the truth: today you will be with me in Paradise.” As his own death approaches, Jesus prays, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

From this we learn that, at the moment of bodily death, the spirit departs to be in the hands of the Father, with Jesus in Paradise. Paradise is a spiritual waiting for the resurrection on the Last Day. It is not the final fulfillment of the promise of a new heaven and a new earth. Paul writes about Paradise when he says, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” than life in this sinful world (Philippians 1:23). He also writes, “We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord… we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (II Corinthians 5:6-8). But Paradise is not the final goal of the Christian. “Not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” (II Corinthians 5:4). Paul also stresses the vital importance of the resurrection of the body in I Corinthians 15.

Christians proclaim faith in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. Death is described as sleep from which we shall awaken. Some conclude that the soul will sleep in Paradise and will not experience the passage of time between the death of the body and the resurrection. It appears, though, that in death the body sleeps and not the soul. Revelation pictures saints in Paradise praying for the Church on earth (Rev. 6:9-11). Paul’s notion of “better” and “at home with the Lord” seems to indicate some awareness of being with the Lord, as do the words of Jesus: “You will be with me in Paradise.”

The Bible also hints of a spiritual waiting place for those without faith, those who will not have a home in the new creation. The Old Testament’s word “Sheol” appears, at least in some instances, to describe that waiting for judgment. Jesus borrows the Greek term “Hades” to describe the rich man waiting for the final judgment while the beggar Lazarus is at Abraham’s side (Luke 16:19-31).

But all are waiting to stand before the throne of Jesus and receive his Judgment. The announcement of Judgment will be a verdict, not a trial with evidence produced and weighed. The spirit’s presence in Paradise or in Hades already indicates the verdict for each spirit.

The saints who have departed this earth are not yet walking the streets of gold. They have not yet entered the pearly gates. Those belong to the new creation, not to Paradise. But the saints are with Jesus, in the hands of the Father, and that is a better place than this sin-polluted world.

And next comes the cosmic eschatology. J.

More about the last enemy

One week ago I attended the funeral of a friend. He had battled severe mental health issues for the past ten years. In the end, he ended his life by his own hands.

The church was filled to capacity. Like most of the people who came, I tried to say a few words of comfort to the family of the deceased. His father remarked to me that they had nearly lost him this way on two earlier occasions. I think that, even in his shock and his sorrow, the young man’s father was able to treasure the time the two of them had shared.

What does one say at the funeral of a person who has committed suicide? The preacher was magnificent. He began his sermon by expressing his own regrets, his own fears that he had not been a good enough pastor, not persistent enough in reaching out to the deceased. He went on to say that he expected that many of us—family members, friends, co-workers—felt the same sense of guilt, of not having done enough. He assured us that whatever mistakes we had made, whatever sins we had committed, God’s forgiveness covers them all. He then also assured us that the same is true of the man whose death we mourned. Whatever mistakes he made and whatever sins he committed, God’s forgiveness covers them all. He reminded us (and quoted to us) the Scripture promises of unconditional forgiveness and of a resurrection to eternal life in a better world—a perfect world.

Christians find it hard to talk about suicide. We never want to appear to approve of suicide, to treat it as less than sinful. We want to discourage any person from committing the sin of murdering one’s self. At the same time, we want to be careful not to speak of suicide as an unforgiveable sin. The only unforgiveable sin is refusing to repent and rejecting God’s forgiveness. This is the sin against the Holy Spirit, who works through the Word of God and his blessings to bring people to repentance and to faith.

How can one repent of suicide after succeeding in the act? God’s forgiveness is not limited to the sins we remember to list when we repent and confess our sins. Like the Psalm, we pray, “Forgive my hidden faults.” In the model prayer Jesus taught, we pray for forgiveness; and God’s forgiveness, won for us at the cross, covers all our sins.

God’s forgiveness and our faith are not a series of events. They are a continuing relationship. A Christian who dies in his or her sleep is not lost because of the inability to confess faith while sleeping. A person who slips into senility is not lost, no matter what words or actions occur during the months or years of sickness before death. A Christian battling mental illness who, in a minute of weakness, causes his or her own death is not lost to God forever. The act of suicide is a sin, but Jesus paid for even that sin by offering his own life as a sacrifice on the cross. As the letter to the Romans assures us, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

From the beginning of the sermon to the end of the service, tears welled out of my eyes. (I cannot remember the last time I cried in public—it was a long time ago.) I grieved, but not like those who have no hope. Death is our enemy, but death is already a conquered enemy. Jesus has defeated death, and he shares his victory with us all. I will see my friend again at the resurrection on the Last Day, and both of us will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. J.

The last enemy

“The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (I Corinthians 15:26). The devil, the world, and the flesh are traditionally the three enemies of God and of God’s people, but death is also an enemy. Some people try to be philosophical about death, treating it as an inevitable part of life, but the Bible clearly states that death is an enemy, albeit an enemy already conquered by Jesus Christ and forced to serve God’s purposes.

Usually when we speak of death, we mean the physical death of a living body. In a broader sense, every unpleasant separation is a death. Christians speak of spiritual death–separation of a person from God, physical death–separation of the soul from the body, and eternal death–being spiritually dead when also physically dead. In a similar sense, divorce can be regarded as the death of a marriage. Friendships can die, careers can die, and hopes can die. Every unwanted ending is a sort of death and also a reminder of the reality of our enemy, death.

God told Adam that, when Adam ate the forbidden fruit, he would die. Adam lived another 930 years after eating that fruit, but he and Eve experienced spiritual death in the garden, as is shown by their desire to hide from God. When Lazarus was sick, Jesus told his disciples that the sickness would not end in death. Lazarus physically died, but because of his trust in Jesus he was not in jeopardy of eternal death. In fact, to show his power over death, Jesus called Lazarus back to life.

“The wages of sin is death,” Paul wrote. Every sin is part of spiritual death, separating the sinner from God. Physical death is likewise a result of sin; had Adam and Eve never sinned, they would have lived forever. Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus before raising Lazarus, because Jesus was facing an enemy, one he would soon battle and defeat on the cross. Christians are right to be saddened by death, although we are reminded not to grieve like people who have no hope. We have hope for ourselves and for our fellow believers in Christ. We are guaranteed the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.

While Jesus was on the cross, the thief being crucified next to Jesus confessed his faith, declaring that Jesus was innocent of any crime and asking that Jesus would remember him when he came into his Kingdom. “I tell you the truth,” Jesus replied, “today you will be with me in Paradise.” Later, facing his own death, Jesus prayed, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” From these words of Jesus, we know what happens at the death of a Christian. The soul leaves the body and is with Jesus in Paradise, in the hands of the Father. This is a spiritual existence; it is not yet the new creation with pearly gates and streets of gold. While it is better to leave the body and be with the Lord, the best is still to come.

On a Day known only to God, Jesus will suddenly appear. The spirits of all believers who have died will be with him. At the command of Jesus all dead bodies will rise for judgment. The spirits of Christians will be united with their bodies, which will have been raised and healed. Even birth defects will be healed at this time. All eyes and ears and legs and minds will work properly, and Jesus will welcome all those who trusted in him to their new home, a re-created Earth that will be as good as it was when God first made it.

How can sinners hope to have that eternal life when their sins have separated them from God? Jesus paid the necessary price to cancel that separation and to reconcile sinners to the Lord. He lived a sinless life, but he transferred the rewards earned by that life to everyone who trusts his promises. In that exchange, Jesus paid for every sinner, enduring spiritual death on the cross. In the darkness of that separation, Jesus prayed, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He knew that the answer to his question was that he was bearing on himself all the sins of the world; but his prayer (a quote from Psalm 22) demonstrates his agony at the separation from his Father that was caused by sin.

Having defeated the devil and the world and the flesh and death itself, Jesus physically died. On the Sabbath he rested–his body in a grave, his spirit in the hands of his Father in Paradise. On Sunday morning, Jesus rose, body and soul reunited. His resurrection promises our resurrection on the Day Jesus appears in glory. Death, the enemy, has been defeated. It must now serve God’s purposes as Jesus–the Good Shepherd–leads his people through the valley of the shadow of death so they can dwell in the house of the Lord forever. J.

The anniversaries of space disasters

The anniversaries of America’s three major space disasters occur on the same week. That fact is disconcerting, to say the least. The Apollo I fire on the ground, the space shuttle Challenger explosion shortly after lift-off, and the space shuttle Columbia disintegration on its landing approach happened on January 26, 1967, January 28, 1986, and February 1, 2003 (respectively).

The thirtieth anniversary of the Challenger explosion brings back memories of that time. My first reaction to the news was disbelief; then I watched television coverage all afternoon. I saw replays of the explosion again and again, interspersed with speculation about what went wrong and reactions to the tragedy. President Ronald Reagan gave a speech to the nation that evening. I still feel it was one of his finer speeches. In the following days I wrote a song in tribute to the crew of seven, borrowing some of the phrases and expressions I found meaningful in the President’s speech.

My relationship with my guitar tends to run hot and cold. Sometimes I will practice every night in a row for several weeks, and sometimes the guitar will sit untouched for months. One time I failed to use the guitar for so long that it actually broke—the tension of the strings pulled apart the soundboard. A few months later the members of my family gathered enough money to give me cash for my birthday to buy a new guitar. Now I try to get it out and use it at least once a month.

When I bought my new guitar, I got out some of the songs I had written to relearn them. Generally all I had was a sheet of paper with the lyrics and the guitar chords. When I came to “Keep Flying High,” my tribute to the Challenger crew, I played the chords but couldn’t remember the tune. Disappointed in myself, I set the paper aside and worked on the other songs. One day the following week a tune sprang into my head. For a while I didn’t recognize it; suddenly I realized that it was the missing tune to “Keep Flying High.” I made sure then to practice the song so words and chords and tune would remain together in my memory.

The day my mother died, I was in the midst of a string of weeks during which I was practicing the guitar and singing my own music almost every evening. The morning of that day, “Keep Flying High” kept going through my head. Especially the bridge* kept repeating inside my head. Oddly enough, I was hearing the song not as I perform it, with voice and rhythm guitar, but with the words accompanied by arpeggios.* No doubt the words themselves were fitting—“When you leave this surly sphere, reach out and touch God’s face. Confide in Him and have no fear: He’s suffered in your place.” (The words were inspired by the President’s speech about the Challenger tragedy. He said, “We shall never forget them nor the last time we saw them, as they prepared for their mission and waved good-bye and slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God.” Those words, in turn, were inspired by John Gillespie Magee, Jr’s poem “High Flight.”) The oddity was hearing my song in an arrangement I had never created. I still think of my mother every time I sing that song.

When I was a boy, I followed the space program fervently. I wish our country had some mission today that could lead to the same sort of triumph that Americans felt when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. Seventeen astronauts died in America’s three space program disasters. Of course every human death is tragic. Every person is a hero or has the potential to become a hero. The shock of a sudden, violent, and public death makes the news and often the history books. In response, though, we remember the death that mattered most of all. We remember the death of God’s Son, the death that conquered death forever. “Confide in Him and have no fear: He’s suffered in your place.” J.

 

*BRIDGE: In a song that has verses and a repeated chorus, the bridge appears as a third theme that complements the other two themes. It can also be a second theme in a song with verses but no chorus. The “why she had to go…” part of the Beatles’ “Yesterday” is a good example of a bridge.

*ARPEGGIO: Sometimes called a “broken chord,” an arpeggio is a series of notes played one by one which could be combined as a chord. Harp music often is performed as a combination of chords and arpeggios.