With a future like that November 9, 2005

by Audrey L. S. West
Adjunct Professor of New Testament

"We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. "

She doesn't look up when I sit down beside her, but as soon as her bookbag is safely stowed beneath the seat, the little girl reaches up to push her call button. "How long is the trip?" she wants to know. "About four hours," the flight attendant says. A deep sigh. Out comes the iPod, down she slouches in the chair, and before we've reached cruising altitude, she is sound asleep.

Shortly after the in-flight movie has ended, she rouses herself to page the flight attendant again. "How much longer till we get to California?" "An hour and a half." She sighs again, gazing out the window.
Almost immediately after her question, though, we hear a grinding clunk as the wheels come down, and the flight attendant's voice tells us to place our belongings beneath the seat in front of us and return our seatbacks to their full, upright, and locked position. The little girl perks up. "She said it would be more than an hour, but look!! We're almost there!!"

All of a sudden, this quiet, sleepy, bored child begins chattering about all that awaits her when we land in Sacramento. "I'm going home to my Dad. I've been gone for 49 days. That's seven weeks. I'm traveling by myself, you know." She points to the big red button on her shirt that proclaims her an unaccompanied minor. "I do this a lot cuz my mom lives in Connecticut. I was visiting her. But I live in California with my Dad. I can't wait to see him! And my little brother. Even though he totally bugs me. I can't wait!!"

The next thing I know, she grabs a binder from its safe position in the seatpocket in front of her, opens it to a clean piece of paper, and starts to draw. Before we've touched down, she has created a 10-year-old's art project, with all the nuance that a box of colored pencils can provide. After all her anticipation about seeing Dad, I'm surprised to see the finished product: "Dear Mom," it says, next to a big red heart with eyes that are crying, "I really, really, miss you."

"We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope."

Not long ago, it seems, the old man could wrestle pigs. He could shove milk-cows around with a push of his shoulder, and stand atop corral fences. In his younger days, he was something of a walking miracle. In his forties he survived a bout with Rabies, and defeated cancer. Twice. In his fifties he came back from a stroke. At sixty-something, he forced the doctors to send him home only two and a half days after quadruple bypass surgery. And at 71, just a few months after his pelvis was crushed in terrible car accident, he was back on his feet, conferring with local ranchers about how best to treat hoof-and-mouth disease in their livestock. He didn't quit working as a veterinarian until he was 78, and then only because he decided to accept his employer's offer of an "early retirement" bonus.

In those earlier days, he and his family believed that nothing could defeat him. At first, it was confidence in his physical strength and good work ethic. And, maybe the fact that he was too stubborn to let a little Rabies get him down! Later, though, the belief that he was indestructible had been confirmed by experience. He had defeated illness and limitations before, of course he'd do it again! That expectation of future success — or maybe, better to say, expectation of future survival — shaped his decisions and made it possible for him to live fully, even in the face of life-threatening (but merely temporary!) illnesses.

But now, the old man can barely walk. He spends his days sitting on the porch, unable, it seems, to think of anything to do. He was planning to write a book, a collection of stories from his days as a field veterinarian. But now he's not so sure. After all, the programs that meant most to him, the contacts he'd made with local farmers… all those ended when he retired. The younger vets just weren't interested in picking them up again. Maybe writing a book —even just a few short stories — maybe it's just not worth it. Besides, what is there to look forward to? More time on the front porch? More frustration when he falls down and can't get back up again? More realization that one thing that hard work and physical strength might delay, but can never defeat, is death biting at the heels of his old age? What's the point of today, when tomorrow is so constrained?

"We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope."

Paul loves that church. With the tender affection of a wet-nurse for her own children, he cares for them — so much that shares his own self. It's hard to be apart from them; separation is like being orphaned, like being an unaccompanied minor on a trip from Connecticut to California. More than once in this letter Paul asserts his deep longing that he and the Thessalonians might be together again. "Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face," he writes. Or, to say it another way: "I really, really miss you." Paul loves that church.

But one thing gives Paul a moment of pause as he surveys the life and characater of the Thessalonian Christians. One thing ramps up his concern. One thing, and that's their reaction to death: their death, the death of those they love. Paul knows all too well that along with death, comes grief. Along with death, broken-hearted tears threaten to destroy whatever meaning remains in the lives of those who are left behind.
It's not the fact of this grief that worries Paul. He knows that death is real. He knows that loss is real. Whether for the pain of separation from the ones we love, or the pain of separation from a life that has meaning — we grieve from the time we are children into the time when we are ancient of days. But it's not the grief that Paul wants to talk about; it's the loss of hope that sometimes attends it.

It's the loss of hope. The old man grieves as one who has no hope. He grieves for what is lost from the past, grieves for what is no longer possible in the present. He is unable to live fully today because he has no hope for tomorrow. Life is a void… it is empty. It's like the ancient Latin tombstone that reads: "I was not; I was; I am not; I care not." If we grieve without hope, we no longer have strength to participate in the day. If we grieve without hope, our ability to love one another is stripped from us. If we grieve without hope, there is no joy in the living. If we grieve without hope, we turn on the iPod and go to sleep. We sit on the porch and endure another day.

Paul knows that life without hope is not much of a life. Life without hope robs us of the ability to do works of love. Life without hope prevents us from recognizing injustice. Life without hope saps our strength, it robs us of vitality, it erases our joy. But Paul also knows that the strength of the gospel, the vitality of the gospel, and the joy of the gospel all derive from the hope of the gospel. And it is this hope that Paul wants the Thessalonians to know. It is this hope that Christ wants us to know.
Not the hearts-and-flowers hope of a Hallmark card… but the teary-eyed hope in a child's heart when she knows too well that returning to Daddy means leaving Mommy behind. Not the hope that dies out in the night-time of depression and old age… but the hope that finds strength in the promise that, in the end, when God through Christ gathers together all the fragments of this creation, nothing and no one will be lost. Hope that, whatever else "being raised and meeting Christ in the air" might mean, it certainly means this: we, together with those who have died, will be with the Lord forever.

This hope of the promise of God — the resurrection of Christ, the resurrection of the dead, the future reunion with loved ones— this hope for a future makes it possible to live a different sort of today. A today that recognizes loss as real. A today that knows that grief is real. A today that is confident that God's purposes for God's people are real; and that those purposes and love do not end in death and separation. "For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep."

Because of that, our hope is real.
Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.


I Thess 4:13-18

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