George Michael, death and the hymns we used to sing: 4 possible reasons so many are struggling with celebrity deaths

If you have been anywhere near social media in the last few days, you can’t fail to have noticed the outpouring of emotion in the wake of the deaths of, amongst others, George Michael and Carrie Fisher. It’s not that surprising that people who do not claim to have any particular religious affiliation or faith should react in this way. If you do not believe that there is a God, death really is the end.

What is perhaps more surprising is that Christians should react in a similar way. I’m not suggesting that we should not feel sorrowful that families of celebrities suffer loss or that a celebrity dies relatively young. That would be entirely unfeeling and lacking in humanity.

That kind of response is, however, very different to what feels like a disproportionate reaction that sometimes borders on the hysterical, flooding social media.

How do we explain this reaction?

In all honesty, I do not have an explanation. It is more than a little bewildering.

However, I will make four suggestions as to why people of Christian faith might be tempted to be swept along by the culture in responding to the events of the past week or so.

Firstly, the death of anyone, but the death of a high profile figure in particular, is a reminder of our own frailty.

In other cultures in other times, people spoke about death. Death was ever present. Not so in our culture. Many have limited contact with death or dying until it touches their own family. Death has become a taboo subject. Compared to most people, in most places throughout most of history, most of us lead sheltered lives.

Secondly, we live in a culture that believes it can fix anything that needs fixing.

If we don’t like something we can – we think – just change it. Don’t like your Christmas present? Sell it on ebay? Don’t like your gender? Change it. Disappointed with your holiday? Complain. Uncomfortable with how God is presented in the Bible? Alter it.

It’s a great shock when we find that the semblance of control we have over life is just that – a semblance. We have limited control over our lives.

Death does not fall within the category of things we can control. It is no slave to fashion or the pressure of public opinion. There is no celestial customer service desk to which we can complain about death’s behaviour.

“It is appointed unto man once to die,” declares Hebrews 9.27. It is an appointment that cannot be continually postponed.

Thirdly, we often desire to attribute faith where there is no evidence it was present.

Part of our discomfort with death might also be found in our understanding on the afterlife.

The second part of Hebrews 9.27 says “…and after death to face judgment. ”

Someone on social media suggested that George Michael had not “found the light”. It clearly upset some people and was reflected in their posts.

Whether George Michael, Carrie Fisher or anyone else had a death bed conversion, I don’t know. The dying thief was promised paradise when he made His request to Christ. But it is worth remembering that that the other dying thief rejected Christ even in death.

I understand the desire to attribute a last moment conversion to people we love or respect. But when the evidence is absent, we have no right to. Some people choose not to follow Christ. God has given them the ability to reject his love. We do people a disservice if we try to finish their story in a way they never wanted it told.

When Christopher Hitchens died, his friend and opponent, Reformed theologian Douglas Wilson commented in Christianity Today:

“The subject [deathbed conversion] came up repeatedly, and was plainly a concern to him. Christopher Hitchens was baptized in his infancy, and his name means “Christ-bearer.” This created an enormous burden that he tried to shake off his entire life. No creature can ever succeed in doing this. But sometimes, in the kindness of God, such failures can have a gracious twist at the end. We therefore commend Christopher to the Judge of the whole earth, who will certainly do right. Christopher Eric Hitchens (1949-2011). R.I.P.”

Wilson’s comments are a generous blend of humanity and faithfulness to scripture. We would do well to preserve something of his balance if we feel we have to pronounce on the possibility of a deathbed conversion, especially if there is no existing evidence.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, our reactions over the last few days might reveal our fear of death.

I have had two conversations recently with different families living over six thousand miles apart. In the last year, both faced terminal illness within the family. In both cases palliative care professionals had related that Christians were less likely to want to talk about death than non-Christians.

If that is an indication that we believe God is able to heal today, then I can understand the reluctance to talk about death.

If it reveals that we have become fearful of an enemy that Jesus has already defeated, then the situation is more serious. Could it be true that we have lost our grip on hope? On the life to come?

Consider some of the songs we used to sing:

“On that bright and cloudless morning / When the dead in Christ shall rise / And the glory of His resurrection share / When His chosen ones shall gather to their home beyond the skies / And the roll is called up yonder I’ll be there.

Or:

There’s a land that is fairer than day / And by faith we can see it afar / For the Father waits over the way / To prepare us a dwelling place there

Those hymns might not have been lyrically the greatest ever written. And they might not have been as accurate theologically as some would like. But they did capture the imagination and impressed upon us that our best life was still to come.

If the Christians are afraid of death and no longer sing about heaven, what hope for those who don’t know the Conqueror of death?

Following Jesus means that we follow One who has taken on and beaten the greatest enemy of all:

 Who got the last word, oh, Death? Oh, Death, who’s afraid of you now? (1 Corinthians 15.55 MSG)

Farewell 2016

For many, Christmas is a bitter sweet experience. For some it is more bitter than sweet. Somehow the Christmas season brings a heightened expectation of life. The real Christmas story has well and truly been mugged by Western materialism and sentimentalism. Eternal hope has all but been displaced by seasonal hype. And it’s created an environment that is not an easy one for people who come to the end of the year carrying all sorts of losses and disappointments.

So as we approach the end of the year, how do we say “Goodbye” to 2016?

If you have had a “good” year you might not want to say “Goodbye” to 2016! But you still have to! The best thing you can do is to thank God for the way He has blessed you.

But what about those for whom 2016 has been a year of difficulty or a year of loss?

Realistically, changing the date from 2016 to 2017 doesn’t necessarily change anything. But the season of Christmas and new year is a good time to look to God for His help to leave behind those things that are causing us hurt and pain.

How do we do that?

In Psalm 37, David was clearly struggling with something that was painful to him. Stated briefly, his issue seemed to be that God was blessing bad people while he was struggling. As the Psalm unfolds we see how David began to walk out of his difficulty into the clear light of God’s revelation.

First of all he faced his pain.

Verse one says : Do not fret because of those who are evil or be envious of those who do wrong. That was the issue for David: people who are doing wrong seem to be doing well. And perhaps he wasn’t doing so well.

That might not be your issue, but whatever your issue, you can’t begin to move beyond it until you acknowledge it.

Secondly, he developed a godly perspective.

If you read through all forty verses of the Psalm you will be able to trace a whole line of counsel that shifts David’s focus on to God.

Let me give you six ways in which he began to develop a godly perspective:

Develop an eternal view (vv.1-2)

Trust –and do good (v.3)

Enjoy God for who He is (v.4)

Commit your way to Him (v.5)

Be still and wait for Him (v.7)

Manage your negative emotions (vv.7-8)

If over the next few months you gave yourself to developing the kind of perspective that David developed, your outlook would be changed and your heart would begin to find healing.

Finally, he embraced God’s promises.

We often say that we don’t know what the future holds. That is true. We don’t know details about future events.

Yet in another sense we do know what the future holds. How? Because God has given us promises about the future.

Here are five that are set out in Psalm 37:

Protection and plenty (vv.18-19)

Ability to bless others (v.21)

Solid ground (vv.23-24)

Provision (v.25)

Security (vv.27-28)

The call to let go of the past is also a call to lay hold of the future.

I hope 2016 has been a good year for you. If not, I hope that by God’s grace you will leave the year with a fresh perspective and a strong grip on the promises of God.

Instead of writing to Father Christmas, why not write a letter to the Father of Lights?

“What do you want for Christmas?” is a question most of us will both ask and be asked in the run up to 25th December. No doubt more than a few have already sent off their annual letter to Father Christmas.

And it’s big business. The Retail Gazette reckons that people in the UK will spend a whopping £73 billion – yes billion not million – on Christmas this year.

In case you weren’t aware, the Bible doesn’t mention Father Christmas, even though he has connections with the St. Nicholas of church history.

It does however refer to our heavenly Father as the Father of Lights. James, Jesus’ brother is the one, the only one who uses this title for God:

16 Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. 17 Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. 18 He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.(James 1.16-18)

Here’s my suggestion: amongst all the giving and receiving that you do this Christmas, why not ask the Father of Lights for a special gift?

How can you ask and be sure you will receive?

First of all, ask with a right motive.

James again:

When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures (4.3).

It’s possible to ask for something for the wrong reason. God will not give you a “something” that revolves around your pleasure!

Secondly, ask for what is in line with God’s revealed will.

Here’s what Jesus’ disciple John said about asking God:

This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. 15 And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him. (1 John 5.14-15)

Wow! If what we ask for is in line with His will, we know that He hears us, and because we know He hears us we know we will receive what we asked for!

The Amplified Bible drives home the point even more strongly:

This is the [remarkable degree of] confidence which we [as believers are entitled to] have before Him: that [c]if we ask anything according to His will, [that is, consistent with His plan and purpose] He hears us. 15 And if we know [for a fact, as indeed we do] that He hears and listens to us in whatever we ask, we [also] know [with settled and absolute knowledge] that we have [granted to us] the requests which we have asked from Him.

The question therefore is how does what you are looking for line up with God’s will?

There are lots of things we don’t know about God’s will. But there are lots of things we do know about God’s will. That He wants us to be full of the Spirit. That He wants us to be more like Jesus. That He wants us to have a godly influence on the people around us. That He wants our families to know His love. That He wants to give us wisdom.

Finally, what result would a positive answer to your request produce?

The prayer Jesus taught His disciples, that we know as the Lord’s prayer gives us a guide to the kind of results we should look for from our prayers:

  • Extension of God’s influence – your kingdom come, your will be done
  • Needs being met – give us this day our daily bread
  • Strengthening our relationship with God and others – forgive us our sins as we forgive
  • Prevailing in spiritual conflict – lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil

Why not get writing to the Father of Lights? After all, it’s not like He’s keeping a big brother-like eye on you to make sure you’ve been a good boy or girl.

No, He gives to all without finding fault (James 1.5) .

Mary: when God puts your life out of shape

Even in a culture that is not very familiar with the Bible, the outline of the Christmas story is still known to many people.

Even those long disconnected from church recognise the Joseph – Mary – baby – donkey sequence (Even though the Bible doesn’t mention a donkey). And they might even remember that the baby was Jesus.

Of course, some of us know not only the historical detail but the spiritual significance of that detail and how it ties up with the prophecies made about Messiah by prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah.

What we can easily miss, however, is the profound impact that these events had upon Joseph and Mary and how the entrance of God into the world turned their world upside down. It put their lives out of shape.

Firstly Mary was physically put “out of shape”.

It goes without saying that pregnancy affects a woman physically! Some of the changes can be seen. Others are unseen, but no less felt. Carrying a baby changes your body. It changes your world.

When we are “carrying” God’s presence and purpose it changes us. It changes us as individuals. It changes churches.

Secondly, Mary’s relationships with people were out of shape

Joseph didn’t greet Mary’s pregnancy with wonder and delight. It was rather a mixture of sadness and disappointment. And then a plan of action: divorce (Matthew 1.19).

You can hardly blame Joseph for thinking the worst. Put yourself in his shoes. Would you believe Mary’s explanation of her pregnancy? It was unprecedented.

Can you begin to imagine what the other people in her village thought when they found out that she was pregnant? Can you begin to imagine how Mary felt as the gossip spread?

Her whole personal and social world was descending into chaos.

Why? Because no-one understood what was really happening. Joseph eventually understood because an angel intervened.

The difficulty that Mary faced was that there was no precedent for what was going on in her life.

When God is at work in our lives, it can result in misunderstanding. Sometimes that misunderstanding is because people have no template for what God is doing. Some people eventually get it – because God intervenes. Some don’t.

It is hard to handle misunderstanding. Misunderstanding is frustrating, even hurtful.

But it’s part of the price we pay for “carrying” God’s purpose.

How do you handle misunderstanding?

1 Peter 2.23 says that when Jesus was misunderstood and rejected that He entrusted Himself to Him who judges justly.

Sometimes you just have to leave it with the Lord.

Mary’s prospects for the future were out of shape

We can’t in any way claim to know what Mary’s hopes and dreams for the future were. I think it is safe to say, however, that she probably didn’t envisage having a baby out of wedlock (Luke 1.31-35) miles away from home (Luke 2.4-5). Being treated like a criminal by Herod and end up in Egypt for two years as a refugee (Matthew 2.13-18).

When you are a vehicle for what God wants to do, you might be surprised at some of the places He drives you to!

Sometimes we talk about the future as if we have control over it when we don’t!

What’s your dream? What if God told you to abandon your dream? What if God’s priority is not for us to have a clear view of what He wants us to do in the future, but instead to carry His presence in the present – and let Him shape the future how He wants?

When God begins to do something new in our lives or wants to do something new in the world, the impact brings dislocation. Our lives are put out of shape.  When that happens, we often find ourselves wondering if this really is God.

In Mary and Joseph’s case, it really was God at work.

And if God’s purpose pressed their lives out of shape, don’t be surprised if the work of His Spirit has the same impact on you.