Practices of Faith: When Death Comes

by | Mar 23, 2023

Blessed are you when the shock subsides.
When vaguely you see a line appear
that divides before and after.1

Hundreds gathered on Saturday, March 18 to celebrate the life of the Rt. Rev. Frank Griswold who served as Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church from 1997-2006. In his sermon, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry described Griswold as “a contemplative with courage, who helped navigate the church through tough, tough times. . . When we weren’t sure if the old church would sail, like Jesus on the boat on the turbulent Sea of Galilee, Frank taught us how to stay calm through a storm.”

I have in my desk file of sermons and speeches worth saving the text of a commencement address Griswold gave at Virginia Theological Seminary in May 2004. I have re-read his words dozens of times, in the hardest of times.

He began by congratulating the graduates on their accomplishment. They had every reason, he told them, to leave seminary with a sense of pride in their learning and skill. But he cautioned that their most important future learning would occur in those times and places when their competencies failed.

“There will be moments in your ministry,” he said, “when things go amazingly well. Then something will happen to pull the rug out from under you, and you will find yourself in confusion. Yet, when you look back on what seemed so devastating at the time, you will realize that it was actually the Spirit opening you to something new, or pushing you in some new direction. I hope when you have these experiences, which surely you will, you might remember these words from your Presiding Bishop, who is no stranger to what he is saying.”

“I have learned,” he went on, “that resting upon notions of my own competence is extremely dangerous…. It’s not that we shouldn’t strive to be capable and skilled leaders. But beyond all our competencies there is a power that comes from the Spirit of the Risen Christ. And only in moments of powerlessness and uncertainty do we discover how true it is.”

“Being open to the vagaries of the Spirit is terribly important,” he said. “Here I think of a phrase I often use in the context of spiritual direction, when suddenly wacky and untoward things are happening in a person’s life that seem inconsistent with the ways of God. The phrase is from the book of Ecclesiastes: ‘Do not make straight what God has made crooked.’”

“Knowing the inevitability of change and that the Spirit may well take you where you had not imagined you might go,” he asked, “what are you to do?” “The answer,” he said, “is quite simple, at least in its articulation. Be rooted and grounded in your own relationship with Christ.”

He then described what it looked like to be a person of prayer, not in terms of how many hours one spends in meditation or in church, but rather in living one’s life with an undefended heart. “Being a person of prayer,” he said, “means being available in a deep and undefended way to the stirrings of the Spirit. It isn’t so much about the words we form. Prayer is our availability to what the Spirit is up to deep within us.”

Then, near the end of his address, Griswold said something almost in passing that has haunted me since I first read it: “You cannot proclaim resurrection unless you have lived it, and you cannot live resurrection unless you have died. The mystery of death and resurrection is at the heart and center of companionship with Christ.”2

On this side of the grave, what does it mean to die?

I wouldn’t use the word death to describe those caught-by-surprise insights that come to us through disappointment and inadequacy. A death experience is a deeper loss, that even if we survive we can never be grateful for, no matter the life that follows it. In death, the loss is too great and the wound too deep to heal completely. Even if we manage to walk again, the limp remains as a reminder of what once was.

As we near the end of Lent, in church we hear stories of dead people returning to life–the dry bones of Israel and Lazarus summoned out of the tomb. These aren’t near death experiences, but actual, undeniable death, the kind that draws a before and after line in the sand. Nor are they happy ending stories, because dying isn’t something a person gets over. Death is something we go through. We wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but when we’re on the other side, we know it. Because, like Lazarus, we have been summoned from the tomb to a new life.

If you or a loved one are going through such a time now, may God’s grace hold and sustain you. If not, may these days be occasions of compassion and active love for others and assurance that when your time comes, Jesus will be there to see you through.

1Kate Bowler, Bless the Lives We Actually Have (New York: Convergent Books, 2023), 86.
2Frank T. Griswold, “The 2004 Commencement Address,” in The Virginia Seminary Journal, September 2004, pp. 12-18.