This Side and That Side
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
November 13, 2013
For the funeral of George Newman Allman, Sr.
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
2 Corinthians 4:16 - 5:1
Let us pray,
Source of all true wisdom
calm the troubled waters of our hearts,
and still all other voices but your own,
that we may hear and obey
what you tell us in your Word,
Through the power of your Spirit.
16 So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. 17 For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, 18 because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.
5 For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.
I've always been drawn to Emily Dickinson's poem, "My Life Closed Twice before Its Close," which goes. . .
My life closed twice before its close—
It yet remains to see
If Immortality unveil
A third event to me
So huge, so hopeless to conceive
As these that twice befell.
Parting is all we know of heaven,
And all we need of hell.
Emily Dickinson wrote this poem in this life. She had lost two great loves during the course of her life when she wrote these words, and at both, both instances of loss, as she describes in this brief and poignant poem, her life also closes. One of the times was the loss of her father, and the other the loss of her first and only love. Loss, and especially these two losses, shaped much of her life, and gave inspiration to some of the greatest lines of insight ever written on the subject of death, at least our perspective from this side. It is the pair of last two lines that has always grabbed my attention, because she really does state so clearly and so completely much of what we feel on this side while we mourn for those we have lost. She writes, "Parting is all we know of heaven and all we need of hell." So true so brilliant. The key words contrasted in the poem are know and need, whereas parting, remains the constant.
We know that there is parting, we know that we have suffered loss, we know that there is and will be an empty space surrounding us now, empty chairs, an empty bed, silence, where conversation had once flowed freely. These are what we know of death, and so she says that it is enough to make Hell real to us, not needing fires or torment, just loss, parting, and is therefore also the limits of what we know heaven to be, from this side. . . again, know and need.
But hope is not based in knowledge, is not based in what we know. Hope is based in faith, hope is based in what we believe, what Christ has taught us, what Christ has done for us, what Christ represents in our lives. We may not know much about heaven, but our belief transcends what we do not know, and includes wonders beyond what we can even imagine, or as Paul writes "glory beyond all measure." We use words like rest, and joy, and love, and light, and wholeness, and eternal, and peace to describe what we believe heaven to be. In our minds eye and through our hearts spectacles we see loved ones gathered, all together, joyous harmony, and reunion, joined together in God's amazing love, a bright shore, made sure by the will of the father, the sacrifice of the son, and the love of the holy spirit.
We see in the scripture passages like 2 Corinthians 4 that what we see and know on this side is not all there is. On this side we see age and sickness making us weak, crippling our bodies, making life a challenge beyond our understanding, but we cannot see the spirit within, growing in strength, preparing for communion with the Lord, communion with the love that created it, communion once again at home, as life was created to be, at one with God, able again to walk without falling, to run without slowing, to work without tiring, and to dance without ever faltering, the stressless restful peace and harmony of love: Everything that the world was created with and for finally made whole.
This side and that side, is a heart wrenching juxtaposition, especially for those grieving loss on days like today. Though there is emptiness in our vision, though there is vacancy where George used to be, there will never be emptiness within your heart, for in your heart love never dies. . . and that love that you feel, though you can't see it, the fullness of love that you feel in your heart, every memory that put that feeling there in your heart, every hug, every laugh, every tear, cried alongside our dear friend and father and husband and grandfather, that has filled your heart and will continue to fill your heart, is just a taste of the glory yet to come on the other side, for though we do not always see it, love is the connector that takes away the boundaries between life and death, between this side and that. . . and for love we thank God, for it has touched us all, giving us more than hope, but the life giving waters that make it all somehow worthwhile. It is this truth that we witness to today, the Resurrection and the Life Everlasting. Amen.