Pastor Tim Smith: Hope of new life
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How will you be remembered? What is it about you that will live on in the memory of your friends and family long after you've gone?
Those questions came to my mind when, the other day, I stood by the graveside of a dear lady from our church fellowship who had recently passed away, leading her family in a brief time of committal and remembrance.
When my own mum died a little over seven years ago, there was a common theme in the letters of condolence my dad subsequently received.
Many of the people who had known my mum expressed their gratitude for the different ways in which she had shown friendship to them, to the extent that on her gravestone she is described as 'a devoted wife, mother, grandmother and valued friend'.
What a great thing to be remembered for!
And to know that my mum had had such a positive, helpful, lasting influence on other people's lives was also a wonderful encouragement for us as a family as we began to come to terms with her passing.
Also, as I often remind people when I'm leading a funeral service, the good character traits we recall in the lives of those whose death we mourn, are given to us, not only to remember and give thanks for, but to learn from and emulate.
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For me, this means I value expressing friendship to people, whether that's through some words of encouragement, being a listening ear, or just offering a simple piece of practical help.
I guess that, as well as wanting to follow my mum's example, it's also a way I'm able to keep her memory alive.
Another thought that flashed across my mind as I stood there the other day in the cemetery, was the sobering realisation that my own days of living are numbered.
Speaking about his own mortality, the comedian Woody Allen once said: 'I don't want to achieve immortality through my work, I want to achieve immortality by not dying. I don't want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen, I want to live on in my apartment.'
But we all know that's not going to happen.
'What is your life?,' the Bible asks in James 4:14, 'You are a mist that appears for a while and then vanishes.'
The pandemic that we're currently experiencing is a fearful reminder to many of us that our time on this earth is short.
And then what? Some would suggest that nothing happens; my achievements and reputation might live on for a while, but not me. Others speak of reincarnation, that I'll return in some other mortal body, determined by my behaviour in this life.
However, at the heart of the Christian faith is a promise to me of a gracious gift from God, of life that is far better than anything I've known to date, once my earthly years have run their course.
The Apostle Peter, in 1 Peter 1:3 speaks of a 'living hope, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead'. In other words, because Jesus has conquered death, I have the hope of new life.
This kind of thinking is thought strange by many today, but it has been the source of hope for many ordinary people of faith, confronted with the reality of their own dying day, down through the centuries.
One such person was Henry Francis Lyte, once vicar of All Saints' Church in Brixham, who, just a few weeks before his own death in 1847, wrote 'Abide With Me'.
The hymn, still chosen at many thanksgiving services today, was first sung publicly at Lyte's own funeral.
In it, he writes of the necessity of knowing God's presence and the hope of the resurrection, in life's most trying moments:
Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.
Heaven's morning breaks, and earth's vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.