Let me begin with some memories.
· I remember playing chess with Dad. A steward on board ship taught me when I was nine years old. Dad read the rules and started playing with me. It became a bonding activity, which I treasure. He had hoped I would help him work on the car, the way he used to with his father. We played chess instead.
· I remember watching him ride his bicycle past the main house at Matopo Mission, no hands, steering by leaning one way or the other. He was probably 38 or so. I was about seven.
· I remember the last time he accepted a challenge to a race. I was 14, and he was 45. He never tried running against me again.
· I remember conversations about pastoral work and missions and church affairs. He was a basic resource as I try to put together an understanding of BICWM.
· I remember the phone ringing when I couldn’t get to it. He would always call back twice more to make sure we really weren’t home.
· I remember his stories and jokes, and the way we used to try to derail him in the middle of a long story. We failed. He let us run out of steam and then picked up where he had been and finished his story.
· I remember his quoting poetry. “Come down to Kew at lilac time; it isn’t far from London.”
· I remember the way that he and mother loved each other and provided for us a home filled with love. Dad remembered well the dress she was wearing the first time he saw her leading the singing at the front of the church.
· I remember the way that he and Verna Mae created a new home with their marriage of 24 years. Dad’s comment was that she taught him to accept people unconditionally.
There are many more memories. Like Mary, we lay up memories in our minds and ponder them in our hearts.
This morning I want to speak about death and life. David Climenhaga is now healed of age and disease. As one pastor puts it, “David Climenhaga has completed his baptism.” [Eugene Peterson, The Pastor: A Memoir.] Dad was baptised into the death of Christ on December 22, 1928 at Matopo Mission in Zimbabwe. Last Sunday he completed his baptism and entered into the resurrection of Christ. So Paul in Romans 6, “Don’t you know that all of us who were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” We live that new life imperfectly here; Dad lives that new life perfectly in the presence of God.
Vachel Lindsay describes the scene in his poem, “General William Booth Enters into Heaven.” He describes the way that Booth walked into the courts of Heaven with his brass band playing, as Alan Paton puts it, “apparently without so much as a ‘by your leave.’” I think Dad entered Heaven more quietly, the introverted middle child. But the last verse of Lindsay’s poem captures what I think he experienced as well:
And when Booth halted by the curb for prayer
He saw his Master through the flag-filled air.
Christ came gently with a robe and crown
For Booth the soldier while the throng knelt down.
He saw King Jesus—they were face to face,
And he knelt a-weeping in that holy place.
Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?
I can see Dad kneeling and weeping for joy, overcome with gratitude for God’s grace extended throughout his life.
Learning to Live; Learning to Die
One might say that Dad spent 98 years preparing to die. An evening hymn has the verse:
Teach me to live that I may dread the grave as little as my bed.
Teach me to die so that I may rise glorious at the judgment day.
Dad had learned to live, and he learned also the final lesson—how to die.
We read three Scriptures. The passage in Romans 8 reminds us that God uses the events of our lives to prepare those who love him to be glorified with him. We know that nothing can separate us from God’s love. If we rest in God, we are safe from all harm, even the harm of death.
The passage in 1 Corinthians 15 focusses on the way that death brings life. Earlier in the chapter Paul observes that our hope rests on the reality of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Sometimes we may think of Christ’s resurrection as having mostly symbolic importance, but Paul grounds faith in the fact that Jesus rose. An anecdote from the life of C.S. Lewis shows how important this fact-ness is. Lewis was an atheist when he went to Oxford as a philosophy and English tutor. Then, through conversations with friends such as J.R.R. Tolkien, he began to re-evaluate his atheism. He reached a point where he could say God exists, but he could not accept faith in Christ, because “resurrection is impossible.” In his autobiography Lewis tells how he was having an after dinner drink in his rooms with the history tutor—a hard-bitten, absolutely safe, atheist. Then the history tutor remarked him, “Rum thing about the resurrection, Lewis, it looks like it really happened.” What he meant was this: Looking at the historical evidence of the New Testament, as a scholar in the field of ancient history, he saw the documents as historically reliable. He still did not believe in God, but he admitted the resurrection as fact. (From C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy.]
Lewis saw what this meant, and soon after he also placed his faith and life in Christ, the resurrected one. Dad did the same, and with his faith placed firmly in Christ, he could learn to live and to die in Christ.
In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul continues with the great reality that the resurrection of Jesus defeats the last enemy, which is death. It is good to remember that death is our enemy. Death seeks to destroy people. Death divides us from those whom we love. Death brings pain and tears to many. But, Paul, continues, for those in Christ death also proves to be the seed of the resurrected body. A hymn in the Mennonite Hymnal puts 1 Corinthians 15 into a hymn with the following words:
In the bulb there is a flower; in the seed, an apple tree;
In cocoons, a hidden promise: butterflies will soon be free!
In the cold and snow of winter there’s a spring that waits to be,
Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.
In our end is our beginning; in our time, infinity;
In our doubt there is believing; in our life, eternity,
In our death, a resurrection; at the last, a victory,
Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.
Paul would agree.
Then Paul comes to the verses we heard read. The body you and I have here today cannot see God in God’s full glory. We are too weak, too shadowy, too insubstantial. We must be transformed, given the resurrection body Paul has described, in order to live forever with God. Dad received that gift of an imperishable, immortal body on Sunday morning.
My sister Donna walked with Dad through the past 26 years following our mother’s death. Denise and I cannot say enough to express our gratitude to her for her love and wisdom given to Dad. Thank you, Donna. One of the gifts Donna has given us is to describe something of Dad’s last days. I was with him three weeks ago, planning to celebrate his 98th birthday in the dining room. Two days before his birthday he went into the hospital with the aspiration that led to his death. On his birthday I took a piece of cake with an unlit candle into his room in the hospital, and I sang Happy Birthday to him. Then I ate the cake because he couldn’t; besides he told me he didn’t like chocolate cake, although he appreciated the birthday wishes.
I flew back to Manitoba the next morning, and Denise and I walked with Dad in his last days through regular updates from Donna. On Friday, two days before he died, Donna reported that he was in good spirits and had even told her a joke. It’s an old joke, but he was an old man.
An RAF pilot was shot down over the South Pacific during World War Two. He was fished out of the water unconscious and taken to the nearest hospital, which was in Australia. When he woke up, he was worried about his condition and asked the nurse attending him, “Did I come here to die?” “No,” she replied in her Australian accent, “you came here yesterdie.”
I can imagine our groans around the dinner table at his pun, but the truth is he could have found no more effective way to show us that he was truly at peace. Death held no terror, because death is the door to eternal life. As Paul says, “We grieve, but not as those who have no hope.” He also grieved, but his hope was greater than his grief. Our hope also is greater than our grief, because we hope in God’s love, which is endless and eternal.
The Mystery of the Incarnation
The day before he died, Donna offered to read to him from the Bible. Dad said, “Yes.” “What shall I read?” “John.” “What chapter?” “Chapter One.”
She began reading with verse 1. When she got to verse 14, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth,” Dad exclaimed, “Isn’t that amazing! Isn’t that wonderful!” The mystery of the incarnation had seized and consumed his soul.
John 1: 1-14 is the final passage read in the Christmas Eve service every year in the Anglican Church. They title it something like, “The Great Mystery of the Incarnation.” It is a joyful mystery. God became human and took a human body so that we can become like God and live with God. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” Now Dad has put on his resurrection body and made his dwelling with God in Eternity.
Messiah Village Chapel
30 June 2017