Death is a profound teacher. Somehow the loss of a loved one convenes a classroom that is closed to other life experiences. Pastoral ministry gives a front row seat to the harsh lessons of grief. The most tragic, regardless of the circumstances, were the ones that people had to face alone. With my office for twelve years right across the parking lot from a large, family owned mortuary and funeral service, there were occasions when the funeral directors or greeters would ask if someone from our staff or congregation could visit a family who had received no visitors. In many instances they were people without church connections. For the most part they were traveling that valley alone.
You know they are seldom totally alone. There were usually work colleagues, school friends, neighbors, and extended family to provide a small circle of support during those times of loss. But, Scripture is clear in delineating the grief that is unique to people who share faith. And, I must exercise some great care because i would not depict non-Christians or others who are not affiliated with a church as being shallow or insincere or any less genuine in their support. But, there is a difference. The Apostle Paul explained this difference in his first letter to the Thessalonians. About death he wrote---
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep,
that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.
1 Thessalonians 4:13, ESV
Being surrounded by hopeful people in times of personal crisis is a unique blessing of active church life. Once again I pray for clarity and humility in explaining what I'm intending here. In most cases this care is more than empathy or Hallmark sentiment. It's the connection of the Body of Christ, a mutual dependence that communicates love, compassion, and intimate concern. Paul wrote about that link too. His words to the church at Corinth are descriptive of this union---
If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice
1 Corinthians 12:26, ESV
Please know that these conclusions are more than distant observation. Because they are God's Word I don't need verification or additional proof to believe them. But, in fact, there have been two experiences where our relationship with other believers have carried us through some dark days.
1. My encounter with stage-four transitional cell carcinoma in 2004. These were
months of major reconstructive surgery and very intense chemotherapy. The
loving care of our church family carried Harriet and me, and our entire family
through grueling days of uncertainty and trial. Their hopeful support was a
significant element in guiding us through some hard times.
2. The murder death of our son, Brian Eliot Holmes, in 2011. They were surely the
darkest days of our forty-three years. We cannot imagine having to face that
crucible apart from the loving care of Christian friends from all of our four
church pastorates and from the community of believers around this state and
beyond, for that matter.
Perhaps being a pastor brought some greater measure of attention to these moments of grief and suffering. The truth is, however, I've witnessed that same degree of loving support is just about every personal crisis faced by Christian friends over the years. There's always a smile or two at the ministry of the casserole dish and the motion of the church body when death or hardship visits a church member. Or, even the great joys of life too. The partnership of belonging to Christ and being an essential part of his body is a thrilling testimony to the value of being involved in a local church.
The promise of his presence is a constant blessing. That he is always with us gives guidance and comfort in every life circumstance. Truly, we are never alone. But, Jesus realized that promise for us in another way. You see, he lives in his people. And, when his people are around us he is there in a special way. You know, where two or three are gathered. It is an assurance about life that prepares and strengthens us as we face the many ordeals that are bound to happen.
And, we are never alone.