Category: Death

Memento Mori – Remember that you will die…

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I haven’t posted anything for nearly a month and the main factor has been lingering illness. For several weeks I was plagued with unpleasant symptoms and diminished capacity. I’m pleased to have recovered enough to have something like a normal week, but I wanted to return to writing with something I reflected upon while sick. Memento Mori. 

In art, religion and culture a memento mori is something that serves as a reminder of the reality of death. Throughout the ages, many people have used iconography, such as pictures of skeletal remains, or activities such as walking through a cemetery, to bring to the front of their minds the fact that they must someday confront death.

Anyone who takes life and spirituality seriously cannot ignore the brevity of earthly life and the imminence of bodily death. To invoke a reminder like a memento mori is to force ourselves to remember our mortal fragility and to make the most of our time on earth, which is oh so fleeting.

For me, being ill served as something as a memento mori. Falling ill does not come with the guarantee of recovery. While we have excellent healthcare in Australia and it’s easy to be melodramatic about one’s symptoms to the point that they seem more severe than they actually are (“man flu” anyone?), relatively young and healthy people can and do die suddenly in this country more often than we’d like to acknowledge. Sickness says, “Even if this isn’t the last struggle, one day this body will give out.” And in the context of eternity, that day is coming sooner than imaginable.

I don’t want to be morbid and obsessive when it comes to the topic of dying. But I think many Christians suffer from the same mental and social avoidance of the subject as our unbelieving neighbours do. If we’re good evangelicals, we talk a lot about the historical and spiritual significance of Jesus’ death: but it seems we are quite proficient at mentally and emotionally divorcing the reality of His death from the rapid approach of our own.

This ought to change. In my life and yours.

In my research recently I’ve revisited the connection between godliness and preparedness for death and eternity in Puritan thought and spirituality. It has been said of the Puritans that for them, “a holy death was . . . the culmination of a holy life.”[2] Everything about life now had eternal realities in view and death was the inescapable passageway between this life and life evermore with God. Thus, dying well was recognised as an important component of the Christian life for many generations before us. And dying well is difficult if you’ve spent your whole life avoiding the subject.

Thomas Watson (the main subject of my research) said that one of the surest ways to grow in godliness was to “think of your short stay in the world.”He adds, “The serious thoughts of our short stay here would be a great means of promoting godliness. What if death should come before we are ready? What if our life should breathe out before God’s Spirit has breathed in? Whoever considers how flitting and winged his life is, will hasten his repentance.”[3]

We are all in danger of failing to heed a warning like Watson’s. There are special seasons where thinking upon death comes more easily. The sudden death of a loved one. The death of someone “before their time.” A serious illness, injury or close encounter with the prospect of death. But next week will see most of us failing to have “serious thoughts” about the end of our lives for a number of reasons.

One is delusion. When the serpent enticed Adam and Eve to rebel against God, he assured Eve that, in contradiction to God’s clear Word: “You will not surely die.”  Part of what allows us to live lives that don’t take death seriously, is to believe a form of this deception. Some days we can live (and sin!) as though we will never have to die. As though God’s Word in Hebrews 9:27 “It is appointed for man to die once and after that comes judgement”, isn’t a reality.

Some of us may fall for a slightly watered down version though, when tempted to go on living in ignorance of eternity and disobedience towards God. Satan may assure us “You will not surely die yet,” “You will not surely die anytime soon.

A chilling example of this is when a friend of mine shared the gospel with a young man in the Brisbane CBD one weekend. The young man was dismissive and left without taking God’s Word to him about sin, salvation and eternity seriously. The youth in question participated in some risky behaviour later that night as part of the “planking” craze sweeping the world at the time. He fell to his death from a building only a few hours after failing to take heed to a message of life and death.

Christians may believe the gospel – but do we treat each day as though it could really be our last. Are we clinging to Jesus with the type of desperation that says we may need the gospel for our dying moments at any time?

Another thing that will stop us from serious consideration is distraction. We may recognise that we need to take death and eternity seriously and agree in principle that these realities should shape our daily lives. But there are just so many things that take our minds other places. So much that needs to be done. So many interesting things to engage the intellect. So many pleasures that beckon us to pursue them for a few minutes or hours instead of contemplating the end of life.

Finally, we can also be desensitised to some of the things that would normally serve as good memento mori to us.  This is especially true of our repetitive exposure to death in news media. Every time we hear about a murder, traffic accident, terrorist attack, fatal disaster or other event resulting in the loss of human life, we should think about our own mortality and whether we’re prepared for eternity (see Luke 13 for Jesus’ take on this). But because we are constantly presented with strangers dying, we can’t seem to bear the emotional toll of always taking such news to heart and so we grow cooler (if not cold…if not callous) towards news of death unless it’s much closer to home.

How might we overcome delusion, distraction and desensitisation when it comes to our need to confront the reality of death? Here are three practical suggestions.

  1. We can intentionally take time to think and speak about death more than we currently do. Turn those nightly news items into memento mori that challenge you to think about the shortness of your own life. Set aside time in your week or month to contemplate death and better prepare for it. Discuss death more openly and frequently with trusted Christian friends: they need to be prepared just as much as you do.
  2. Share the gospel with people more often. Faithfully pleading with others to consider the reality of death and what lies beyond is a good way to keep being reminded of it yourself. A gospel outline like Two Ways to Live brings up the issue of death quite clearly. Others like Way of the Master often lead in with a question like “If you died tonight do you think you’d go to Heaven?” To present the gospel faithfully, you must tackle the reality of death: and not only that of the person you’re sharing with, but your own.
  3. Consider spending time with people who are closer to death or at greater risk of death. If you have trouble confronting death in your day-to-day thought-life and lived experience, it may be helpful to get connected with those who are evidently facing death soon. Spend time with elderly relatives or church members, or visit a local nursing home or hospital.

    I’m not saying we should form relationships with the sick or elderly merely for the sake of turning them into functional memento mori – that would be morbid. There are much wider opportunities for mutual gain in relationships between younger and older generations. However, for the young who find it hard to treat death as something close or even imminent, one way our relationships with the elderly can benefit us is to see how they treat the subject of death when it is undeniably creeping closer.

So whatever you have planned for this week, this month, this year – remember to remember that you will die. Don’t allow the dark hues of death to colour your whole life: the resurrection of Christ enables us to enjoy life now and anticipate the fullness of life beyond death. But equally, don’t live in this world as if death is not something you will have to face and face soon.

To close with the enduring words of C.T. Studd:

Only one life, yes only one,
Soon will its fleeting hours be done;
Then, in ‘that day’ my Lord to meet,
And stand before His Judgement seat;
Only one life,’twill soon be past,
Only what’s done for Christ will last.
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[1] Pieter Cornelissen “Skulls” flickr (CC BY 2.0)
[2] Dewey Wallace Spirituality of the Later English Puritans (Macon: Mercer University, 1987): 1.
[3] Thomas Watson, The Godly Man’s Picture (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1992): 207-208.
[4] You can read the poem in its entirety here: http://paulhockley.com/2016/05/24/quote-only-one-life-twill-soon-be-past-poem-by-c-t-studd/

Slain 100 years ago

JL Smith                                    Lt. John Lyall Smith M.C. Born c. 1886 Died 29/07/1916

Today marks the centenary of the death of the closest relative I’m aware of to have died in an armed conflict. Lt. John L. Smith was my grandfather’s uncle, the eldest son of my great-great grandparents John and Jessie Smith of Aberdeen, Scotland. The family came from Scotland to Queensland, when he was around 25 years old in 1911 and settled in Ayr, one hour south of Townsville (which I had the pleasure of visiting last year). John had worked as a stonemason (following in the footsteps of John Smith Snr) and had served in the Gordon Highlanders infantry regiment and Scottish Horse regiment in the British Army whilst in Scotland.  

Only a few short years into the family’s new life in Queensland, World War I broke out in July 1914. John enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force in early 1915 and left Queensland from the Port of Brisbane aboard the HMAT Aeneas in June of that year. He was made a Regimental Sergeant Major upon enlistment (presumably due to prior military service in the UK) and arrived at Gallipoli in the later stages of the famous campaign. While he did not take part in the legendary Anzac Cove landings, he most certainly saw action against the Ottoman Turkish forces – as attested by his promotion to the rank of 2nd Lieutenant in November and receipt of the Military Cross for “gallant services.”

John L Smith group (C)
Regimental Sergeant Major J.L. Smith – front row, centre position

His service record indicates that he was afflicted with jaundice from late 1915 until the end of January 1916 and that he convalesced in Cairo during this time. On 19th March, 1916 the 25th Infantry Battalion of which 2nd Lt. Smith was a part became the first Australian battalion to arrive in France to join fighting on the Western Front. According to the Australian War Memorial, their first major battle was at Pozieres, commencing on 23rd July 1916. John was promoted to the rank of 1st Lieutenant during this battle on 25th July.

The map and description of the Battle of Pozieres below come from the Australian Government’s WWI Western Front History page:

Pozieres[1]

In mid July 1916 the three Australian divisions of 1st Anzac Corps marched to the Somme. On the night of 22/23 July the Corps was committed to the third phase of the Somme offensive in which the only successful attack was 1st Australian Division’s capture of the village of Pozières. Over the next few days the Australians extended their hold on the village as the Germans made determined but unsuccessful attempts to retake Pozières. In this period, at the end of July 1916, the Australians also suffered from the worst shellfire they ever experienced. By the time 1st Division was replaced by 2nd Division, it had lost 5000 men, mainly to artillery fire.

Some 500 metres north east of Pozières was a windmill on the highest point of ridge. The 2nd Division was brought forward to capture the OG lines (called by the Allies Old German line 1 and 2), which ran along the crest of the high ground past the windmill. Australian artillery observers stationed on this ground would then be able to direct artillery fire on the German rear areas up to 10 kilometres to the east in the direction of Bapaume.

On the night of 28/29 July 2nd Australian Division attacked the OG lines. Rushed planning resulted in failure, except on the Division’s left, where 6th Brigade captured a length of German trenches beyond the Pozières cemetery.

It was during the mostly failed attempt to make gains on the Old German Lines (O.G. Lines) on 29 July 1916 that Lt. John L. Smith lost his life – only a few days after receiving his last rank promotion. According to eminent War reporter and historian C.E. Bean, John was struck down – probably by German machine gun fire – “…while directing [his] men to sections where the entanglement [i.e. barbed wire] was sufficiently broken…” (Bean, The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918 Vol. 3, p. 634). Elsewhere, Bean is reported to have said that Pozieres Ridge : “is more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other place on earth.” (wikipedia). 

Tragically, John was missing in action for quite some time and his family at home appear to have learned of his disappearance from the newsreel at the local theatre in Ayr. His death was not confirmed by the A.I.F. until around October 1916. His distressed and elderly parents (my great-great grandparents) were naturally deeply grieved by his death. There is a long, painful correspondence between them and the Australian Military Command in Melbourne requesting both their son’s personal effects and the Military Cross medal he was awarded. Reading these letters has allowed me to sense some of the grief my ancestors felt at the death of their eldest son during the very bloody war. The records do not contain evidence that the matter of the Military Cross was ever fully resolved – though it appears that they would have received it from the Governor General in due course.

Today I reflect on the death 100 years ago of a young man – probably the same age I am now – in one of the most horrendous and bloody conflicts of human history.
That he lost his life in France is a sad testament to the fact that he died as a result of proud empires jockeying for Continental and even global dominance. War can be fought for just causes – such as the defense of innocent peoples and nations in the face of aggressors. But war is always the byproduct of human evil like pride and greed.

But Lt. J.L. Smith fought for King and Country and appears to have served bravely and admirably as a soldier. He made decisions and faced situations that I will probably never have to face. He gave his life in the course of a battle that arguably contributed significantly to the weakening of Germany to the extent that they would later lose the war.
Whatever we may think of WWI and its causes – every Australian who has lived since has benefited at least indirectly from our victories in both World Wars. The death of John L. Smith and thousands of others was anything but meaningless. He made a noble sacrifice on a battlefield with a tragic cost of human lives.

And so on 29th July 2016 – 100 years on – I remember the violent end of this young man’s life. Though I’m not a big fan of our national Anzac mythology, I nevertheless find myself commemorating this familial link to that terrible conflict and the suffering of so many on the field and of their bereaved relatives at home. Lest we Forget. 

  

Death knocked three times…

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Once upon a time, Death knocked three times at the door of my family. It was 2002, I was a teenager, still in high school and hadn’t experienced the death of any close family members thus far in my young life. Then just before Easter that year, I came home to find my family in the throes of grief. My paternal grandmother, “Nanna” as we called her, had succumbed to death as a result of breast cancer. It came as a shock – I’d been aware she had cancer but had no idea her health had been in decline. This first, cruel intrusion of death had a big impact on my family.

A few months later, our beloved family dog Ranger, who we’d owned since I was 3 years old also died. While losing a pet is not the same as losing a grandparent, it was another taste of death, another round of grief and noticeable, daily absence from family life.

Another few months passed and my maternal grandfather, “Granddad” passed away from a coronary episode. I knew him better than my Nanna, as he had lived much closer to us and I’d spent much more time with him growing up. This was in many ways the biggest personal loss of the year – the death of the most important male figure in my life after my father – but by that stage I was well fatigued from all the grief and mourning and found it difficult to express my sorrow with my emotions so drained.

That was when death knocked three times – by far the darkest season of my life with the greatest sense of loss I’d experienced. But unbeknownst to me, death would knock three times in a short space of time once again, many years later.

Towards the end of 2014, I found out simultaneously that I had fathered a child and that the child was in all probability already dead. It was a shocking experience, as I only had limited, rather removed, second-hand knowledge of miscarriages and a child dying long before it was due to be born. There will always be a sense of sadness for the loss of the baby who would have been approaching his or her first birthday around now, had they continued to grow and develop healthily within their mother’s womb.

A year ago today, my maternal grandmother, “Grandma” passed away a few days after her 92nd birthday. Although her death at that age was by no means unexpected, it still had a profound sense of grief attached to it, as she was the grandparent I had the closest attachment to out of all four. She had been part of my life, almost weekly, from the earliest times until well into adulthood and now suddenly she was gone. I wished I had seen the signs more clearly at the time and recognised that she was in fact about to die – but she had come back from poor health so many times before that it was too difficult to discern whether another comeback was around the corner instead of deterioration to death.

Then, just three months ago, my wife’s mother died suddenly and unexpectedly. The way she died and the way we found out about it were both quite traumatic. There remains to this day, things we will probably never know about what led to the circumstances surrounding her death. It has affected me significantly as a son-in-law seeing his mother-in-law lose her life without any warning and as a husband trying to do the best to comfort and support his grieving wife who lost her mother without any warning. Once again, there is a hole in our lives because Death knocked again.

These three deaths differ in detail and are tragic in different kinds of ways. But each one has stained the last three calendar years of my life with the shock and pain of death. Once again, I find myself in a dark period, where my family has been visited too many times by that most unwelcome intruder.

Here are my reflections during this season when death has knocked three times:

1) I hate death

Death is the greatest reminder that there is something profoundly wrong with the world. As a Christian I have to acknowledge that humanity deserves to suffer at the hands of death – because our rejection of God and His goodness is so wicked and ungrateful that we all ought to be left to Death as its playthings. And yet, at the same time, death is bad. I hate what it is and what it does. I long for a world where it no longer exists. You can probably only hate death when it’s come close enough for you to stare into its wretched, ugly face. It has for me and I hate it in truth.

2) We all must face the death of loved ones – and it’s a terrible reality

Sometimes it’s hard to truly appreciate the impact that the death of a loved one has had on someone else when we see it happen to them. We’re sad for our friends, co-workers or acquaintances when we see them mourning, but often we’re sufficiently removed from the situation to not feel the power of the emotional shockwaves they’ve been hit with. But even those reading this who’ve never lost someone who was an important part of their lives will have to experience it personally one day. That’s the terrible truth that faces us when we love people in a world that’s tainted by sin and death. It’s sad because it means that in all likelihood I’ll see many more people go through what I’ve gone through in the last couple of years, before too much time passes.

At certain times it can be quite daunting when I reflect on this truth in light of other relationships in my life. One day I will have to face the death of my last living grandparent. One day my own father and mother will be the ones that die. One day I may have to say goodbye to the most precious companion I have in life – my beloved wife. I may survive a number of my friends and relatives and perhaps even some of my own children. Grimly, the only thing that will prevent me from experiencing the deaths of those I love will be if I myself die first – leaving them to experience bereavement at my passing, instead of me being left to mourn theirs.

Perhaps the most sinister aspect of Death knocking several times is the part where it leaves the calling card, promising to visit again at another time.

3) Death can strike at any time (even in a technologically advanced, sanitised, first-world society)

My experiences have been a poignant reminder that death doesn’t follow a predictable schedule, it can come without warning and can strike at any time of life. The death of our unborn child was a confronting taste of Death taking away a life that had barely begun. The shock of learning of death before I even had time to appreciate that there was life, showed me precisely how abrupt Death’s intrusions into life can be. The death of my grandmother demonstrated that even when someone has been blessed with a very long life and you know they can’t go on living forever – Death can still approach like a vicious, stealthy predator – undetected until it’s too late. The death of my mother-in-law was both harrowing and surreal in the way it emerged out of nowhere – to the point where three months on it still doesn’t feel as though it should have happened. And yet it has.

In the 21st century, developed world, we’re pretty good at delaying death and preventing it from punctuating our lives quite as frequently as it did for our ancestors. We’re masters of ignoring it as we go about our lives doing hundreds of things that seem so important, as long as we operate on the assumption that we and everyone we love will still be here tomorrow. Yet Death is the star of the nightly news almost without fail – reminding us that it’s out there and warning us that it could visit our home anytime, just like it did for those poor people all the way out there in a distant land.

4) Caring for the vulnerable

The three deaths I’ve been describing make me want to reinforce the value of caring for the vulnerable – especially those who are particularly vulnerable to death. My child’s unexplained death in the womb helps me appreciate how precious the lives of all unborn children are. We should mourn their deaths and strive to protect these most vulnerable members of the human race.

Grandma’s death from old age tells the story of those who are vulnerable to death at the other end of the human lifespan: the elderly. Older members of our families and communities are precious – that’s why we grieve when they are taken from us. We should care for them and treasure them while they remain among us.

My mother-in-law’s death is still shrouded in uncertainty, but it seems most likely that it came about as a result of the mental illness she was cruelly afflicted with for many years. Those who suffer from different kinds of mental illness are often vulnerable to death in their own way. They are precious and in need of our care and love too. We may not be able to do anything to stop death from taking them from us – as has been the case for us. But we can enrich their lives and they ours, for as long as God permits us to remain in one another’s lives.

5) Jesus knocks death on the head for me (more than three times!)

Perhaps the only real source of comfort when Death knocks multiple times is the fact that Jesus has knocked death on the head for me and will do so again in the future.

Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the sin in my life which brings the sentence of death upon me has been dealt with; life has triumphed over death; the fatal blow that will kill Death itself has been inflicted. Even though death still takes lives every day – the age of death is now coming to a close. The coming, Eternal Age of Life has begun to swallow it up.

Because God has kindly allowed me to hear and believe the gospel – I have passed from death to life. I have died with Christ in his death, I live with Him in His resurrection. Through the Holy Spirit’s gracious application of Christ’s work to my soul, Jesus has knocked death on the head for me personally and I’ll never experience the eternal death I deserve.

Because Christ will draw me to Himself when I die, He’ll knock death on the head when it attempts to imprison my soul in darkness without hope to await judgement. Though my body will die, this will simply be the transition that commences my enjoyment of Jesus in a heavenly state that is free of sin, corruption, distraction and misery. Remembering this truth empowers me to face death without fearing its power to deprive me of the things I love in life.

Because Christ will raise my body again and unite it with my soul to live forever at His coming, He will have knocked Death on the head definitively by reversing fully its effects. But this will be the ultimate Death of Death, when the Age of Life is fully ushered in and Death is judged and thrown into the Lake of Fire as a sign of final judgement. Millions will be raised to life. Creation will be renewed. Death will burn forever, while Life reigns.

I know Death will knock again. It will once again be painful to endure when it does. But thanks be to God that Jesus dealt death its own fatal blow and will give it a knock so hard it that it will never come back again.

[1] Delete “Death” (CC BY-NC 2.0)

From Death to Life

For the last few years, I’ve usually tried to pen one or more reflective poems during the Paschal season and share them with friends on Facebook. This year I found myself with little time to compose anything, as I spent the long weekend at an Easter Convention with Helen, where we shared with brothers and sisters from a range of church backgrounds about our plans to serve in Japan as missionaries.

However, only a few days after we commemorated Christ’s death and celebrated His resurrection, I found myself turning to poetry to express my feelings in the cruel face of death. The week following Easter, we lost a close family member suddenly and unexpectedly. It was a shocking intrusion into our lives and was a very surreal experience to have, when the glories of the resurrection were so freshly in our hearts and minds. It will be a long and hard journey forward for us from this time on, but we have been helped greatly by the Spirit of God at work through God’s people – reminding us of the truths we need to hold onto during this dark time.

It’s the second time in less than 12 months that death has taken away one of our close relatives. This time around I am thankful that on this occasion I have more solid grounds for confidence that this particular harsh assault of death will soon be undone by the power of Christ’s resurrection. And so this poem, though less specific to the events of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection than usual, has become my out-of-time reflection on death and resurrection life for this year.

FROM DEATH TO LIFE

When the darkness covers light
When the day is lost to night
When all the world’s cruelty seems to unite
Where may we find some deep respite?

When joy is sudd’nly gone
When life is brut’lly torn
When all have stopped to weep and mourn
Shall midnight ever yield to dawn?

When a beloved one is taken
When our world is pierced and shaken
When we hold onto the vain hope that we still might be mistaken
How can we know we’re not forsaken?

When we’ve blackest grief to bear
When gloom clouds the very air
When we offer each and every feeble prayer
Will you let us know that you are there?

When we face the road ahead
When it’s harder now to tread
When we may wish it was another person walking it instead
Can we look to one who’s risen from the dead?

Yes! When flowers bloom again
When there’s no more tears and pain
When the star of life grows bright until it ne’er more shall wane
Then we’ll see we haven’t hoped in vain

When the dead in Christ shall rise
When they fill azure skies
When an endless, glorious joy our King supplies
We’ll see her smile, through brand new eyes