It was 1995 and John had just finished Kindergarten in Dunn, NC, where we lived. Claire was taking Erin and Allison back to Gastonia to go to church camp with their best friends, so I decided to take the week off and take John camping at CrabtreeLakeState Park near Raleigh. Of course at the last minute we had two critical health situations arrive with church members, both of whom were sent to DukeMedicalCenter. I decided we would go ahead and camp because the campground was closer to Duke than we lived.
So we packed up the car and went to the park and set up our tent and got our sleeping bags situated, our fishing rods ready to use, and our camp chairs set up beside the lake. We had stopped at a country store to get crickets for fishing and bought cokes – it was hot so we got 32 ounce bottles and John thought that was the greatest thing ever.
Did I mention it was hot? As I remember it, the highs averaged 102 and the lows averaged 99. We would sit by the lake with our fishing lines out and our sunglasses on. There wasn’t much action on the fishing front. I’m sure they were all out in the middle as deep as they could go. The water around the shore was like a hot bath. Each afternoon about 3 we would clean ourselves up the best we could and take off for the hospital. We would visit our patients and eat supper in the hospital cafeteria, then we would return to the camp site in the early evening.
Toward the end of the week we were sitting in our chairs and I was wondering if John would ever want to go camping again, when out of the blue he looked over and said, “Dad, this has been the best week of my life.” That was one of the most profound learning experiences of my life. I was focused on the heat, the fish not biting, making him leave the campground to go to a hospital of all places every afternoon. He was focused on what a grand adventure it all was – spending the day together drinking gigantic cokes in our bathing suits and sunglasses and waiting on a big one to take the hook; going to visit people he knew in the hospital who let him know how good it made them feel to see him, then ordering a personal cheese pizza every single night for supper in the hospital cafeteria. He was most definitely sad when the time came that we had to take the tent down and pack up to go home.
“Taking the tent down” is a familiar phrase used to indicate that something is coming to an end. What else do we put tents up for besides camping trips? Well, sometimes we put them up for wedding receptions or family reunions. I’ve seen them up for field days at local schools recently. It used to be really exciting when the circus came to town and assembled the big tents in which you could see acrobats and animals and clowns and jugglers, and it was sad when the tents were taken down and the circus moved on.
These tents all have the feel of adventure, excitement, celebration, and there is sadness when they are taken down. There is, however, one other place where we frequently encounter tents which is a more ambivalent experience for us, and that is the cemetery. The tent is there for protection from the sun, from the rain, from the wind, from the cold, and perhaps also from loneliness, from fear, from grief as we are gathered together under that shelter. There are many times when such occasions call for celebration, but others when that is difficult. And taking that tent down gives it all an air of finality, and the sadness can be overwhelming.
In today’s reading the Apostle Paul uses this metaphor of “taking the tent down” in such a way as to encourage us to rethink some of our feelings. He invites us to think of our body as a tent – our temporary dwelling place while we are in the midst of this earthly adventure which is so filled with excitement. But he will not allow us to be saddened about the fact that the day will come when this tent is taken down. He says, “We know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed (or taken down), we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” What a mouthful of truth Paul offers us in that sentence.
I’d like to offer a few reflections based on this passage from II Corinthians. First, there is a difference between grief and being afraid of dying. Paul is speaking here of courage in facing one’s own death. He is not attempting to make us feel guilty if we struggle with grief when a loved one dies. The pain of separation triggers the most intense emotions we can have as human beings, equaled only by the intensity of the love which made the person you miss such an important part of your life. Such pain cannot and should not be sloughed over, denied, or repressed. It must be expressed, lived through, and worked through.
What Paul does encourage us to do is to develop a theology which helps us overcome our fear of dying. Doing so can help us in dealing with the loss of loved ones, because we can remove the despair which people have who wonder about what has happened to that person after death. Grief is enough to deal with without adding that.
Paul said, “We have the same spirit of faith as he had who wrote, ‘I believed, and so I spoke,’ (the Psalmnist). We know that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence.” That statement of faith has it all. We know that God raised the Lord Jesus from the dead. We know that he will raise us from the dead with Jesus. We know that he will bring us into his presence. We know that he will also bring you into his presence with us.
Through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the powers of sin and death have been defeated. Jesus has taken our sins into his body on the cross, serving as our sacrificial lamb, offering us forgiveness of sins. He has promised that his Father’s house has many rooms and that he has gone to prepare a place for us there, that where he is we may be also. We look forward, therefore, to a reunion with our loved ones of faith in the presence of Jesus when our earthly life is ended. What is to be afraid of here?
Second, it is important to note that Paul is not encouraging us to give up on life. He is not saying we all ought to drink some poison or take some other drastic action to end our earthly lives so we can get on with the good stuff of heaven. Paul says all of this in the context of the hardships he has encouraged as a Christian missionary. He says, “We have been afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” His faith does not make him want to end his life, but it makes him courageous to live his life as he knows is right without fear of the consequences. His ultimate mission is to take the good news of the Gospel to as many people as he possibly can before his tent is taken down. He says, “It is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God. So we do not lose heart.”
Don’t you see all around you that people are quick to give up? Nobody cares about me, society doesn’t take care of me, things are all messed up and I can’t make a difference. I’m going to give up. I’m going to get depressed and go in my house and feel sorry for myself. Maybe I’ll even end my life. Who would care, anyway?
God cares. And more people care than you think, they are just so wrapped up in their own problems and wondering whether anyone cares about them that it is hard to focus on the pain of others. But we can make a difference, and we must not lose heart. Secure in the love of Christ for us, we can find strength to go forth into each new day finding purpose and meaning through him, and enduring the obstacles and hardships set before us by Satan.
In the next verses, which we will look at next week, Paul says, “So we are always of good courage; we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. We are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.”
He told the Philippian church from prison in Rome, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I shall remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus.” Being freed from the fear of dying allows us to live life fully and purposefully and victoriously.
But the balance to this is the third point. While we are not to rush to our death, neither are we to fearfully seek to extend life as long as possible without taking into account its quality. We are not made to live forever, and as we age we begin to see signs of that. Paul says, “Our outer nature is wasting away.” Dick van Dyke tells the story of a six year old boy who overheard his parents and some of their friends complaining about all their ailments and problems. One finally said, “Everything just seems to be going to pieces.” The boy was very concerned about this conversation and when he said his prayers that night he added this: “God bless Daddy and Mommy, and all those other people who are falling apart.” (Faith, Hope, and Hilarity)
I guess billions of dollars are spent each year trying to keep the signs of aging at bay, but it is all ultimately a losing proposition. It is best to keep a sense of humor as you grow older.
Paul explains it this way, “We have this treasure (the grace of God) in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us.” No matter how rich, famous, or powerful we become, our mortality always serves to humble us into remembering our human weakness and should also serve to remind us of the power of God.
Our trust should be placed in God, who will still care about us when we are in the nursing home even if others have stopped coming to see us. Paul says, “This slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison…”
Why? Because “we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” There is a twinge of sadness when this tent is taken down, but there is also a deep sense of peace. There is joy at taking the tent down for the last time and closing this chapter in our lives and going home.
That’s what I think about when I think about death. Taking the tent down. A tent which has been filled with adventure, with anxiety, with joy and with sorrow. Moving to the Father’s mansion, which has plenty of rooms. No crying, no sadness, no death. No temptation, no evil, no failure. Just peace and joy and loved ones and God. I’m confident we will all look at God and say, “Dad, this is the best time of my life!”
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
June 7, 2015
Central Presbyterian Church