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Let’s talk about death!

The death toll for the Covid-19 virus has now passed the 10,000 mark in the UK.

This week we have seen new stories of NHS workers who have died in the line of duty, the digging of mass graves in New York City and news of people we know who have died.

It’s time for preachers to talk about death, and to do so clearly.

In a recent article in the Financial Times Prof Martin Lohse, professor of pharmacology at the University of Würzburg, talks about clearly communicating the potential steps to relaxing the social distancing measures in the UK:

“A differentiated loosening of restrictions would inevitably be more confusing for the public than the stay-at-home instruction …”
“Transparent communications helps. Telling people the truth about difficult choices, but also the hopes, makes a real difference.”

It was a lovely surprise early on Easter Sunday morning to hear the Easter Message from our Queen. Six things impressed me about this message:

1. It’s brief

At just two minutes long, it said more than many Easter messages that might have been much longer.

2. It’s clear

Using one well-chosen image of light in the darkness, the Queen managed to create a free-flowing message that captured the mood of Easter and our own times.

3. It’s evocative

It connected with our imaginations and experience of birthday candles, and the lighting of candles in other celebrations.

4. It’s simple

The biblical message of the power of light to overcome the darkness comes over loud and clear.

5. It’s memorable

For me one of the standout phrases will be:

“Easter isn’t cancelled; indeed, we need Easter as much as ever”.

6. It’s encouraging

It applied the timeless good news of Easter hope to our present fears about a contemporary crisis. The Queen reminds us that,

“The discovery of the risen Christ on the first Easter Day gave his followers new hope and fresh purpose, and we can all take heart from this.”

“We know that Coronavirus will not overcome us.

As dark as death can be particularly for those suffering with grief light and life are greater.

May the living flame of the Easter hope be a steady guide as we face the future.”

This is transparent communication about the darkness of death that does not shrink from naming the suffering and grief that accompanies it.

Yet the talk about suffering and grief are generously enveloped in the language of Christian hope.

This reminded me of how Paul speaks about death in his first letter to the Thessalonian Christians:

“Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again …” (1 Thessealonians 4: 13–14a)

Here again we see transparent communication about the crushing reality of grief combined with the comforting reality of hope. This is a hope that’s not based on platitudes or the Hallmark card sentimentality, but an event that has redefined our history and our calendar: “We believe that Jesus died and rose again!”

For the Christian, death is not the end of the story for Jesus and our death is not the end of our story.

All we have to do is live long enough and death will begin to stalk us — first it will be people of our grandparents’ generation, then people of our parents’ generation — then our contemporaries — then the icy finger of death with beckon us too — it is only a matter of time!

In the midst of a pandemic the words of the Funeral Service have never been more poignant or timely in my generation:

“In the midst of life, we are in death”.

Yet, in the in the middle of a crisis, preachers can affirm the reality that:

Death does not break the bond between the believer and the Saviour!

Preachers: It’s time to talk about death

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