On the mind of the Rev. Dr. Nathaniel Jung-Chul Lee

Dec 2, 2022

This past Wednesday, David Ralph, our beloved Organist and Music Director, went to be with Jesus. David’s funeral will be held Monday, December 5th at 7:00 p.m. at Incarnation. The service will be led by the Rev. Liz Marcato and the Rev. Gisela Wielki from The Christian Community of New York City. Remembrances of David’s life will be offered at that time, and our own Rev. Adrian Dannhauser will also offer a brief reflection.

With all that’s happening Monday, my goal here is a bit more simple. Here, I want to help you who loved him say “good-bye,” and to start letting go.

Death is the great paradox of human existence. Nothing is more common––nothing more ordinary. There are roughly two-hundred and fifty people who will open and read this “e-minder.” Death is just about the only thing that we will all experience––the one experience that unites us all. And yet, something about it remains ever beyond our comprehension. It is an affront, a contradiction, an insult; a door slammed in the face of everything we believe and want to believe about life. This cannot be. But it is.

It is. David Ralph’s once future is now past. And the strong, vibrant melody of his life––a song, which we once sang with him––now stands deafeningly silent.

I say all this, not to dwell on the tragedy of this moment, but to press for an answer to the pain we will all inevitably feel. For it is inside of the paradox of death that our grief lies. It is because something so unthinkable has become so plain that we are at a loss. This is why we ask: “How can this be?”

What are we to make of a moment like this? Is there any hope here? Can there be any hope here? Our scriptures say there is but one hope: Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. So, the Burial Rite in the Book of Common Prayer begins with these words from the Gospel of John: “I am the Resurrection and I am the Life, says the Lord. Whoever has faith in me shall have life, even though he die” (Jn. 11.25).

Because death is a paradox, those of us awash in the wake of a loved one’s death are often pulled to one of two poles. On the one hand, the mystery and incomprehensibility of death is likely to pull us toward denial––a feeling I suspect many of you feel when you saw David’s face in the bereavement notice. After all, just a short while ago, those eyes were still bright, those lungs full of breath, and his heart still beating. That they no longer do seems too much to bear. We feel: it cannot be true.

Denial is one of the most common ways of dealing with our grief. But in the resurrection of Jesus, God says something different entirely. Resurrection is not the denial of the reality of death. To the contrary, death is the assumption of re-surrection. There is no such thing as re-surrection without death.

The first thing we know because of the resurrection of Jesus is that God has affirmed the naturalness of death. So much so that, in Jesus, God himself tasted death. And if God saw it fit that his own Son should die, so shall it be for us. We all––we all––we all shall fall. This is the natural cycle of life. This is the first word of “resurrection.”

On one pole, the incomprehensibility of death pulls us toward denial. On the other, this inevitability and this naturalness are likely to pull us toward despair. If we can get past the denial, if we can come to grips with the fact that our friend is no longer with us, we are likely to wonder: “Is this all there is? Is this the end?”

Perhaps some of you are asking those questions today. And that’s OK––it’s OK. But here, resurrection has something to say too.

Though death is the first word of resurrection, it is not the only word. Death is the first word, but it is not the last word. By taking death upon himself, Christ conquered death forever. More than this, in his resurrection, death is turned upside down. Death itself is turned backwards. Dying has become its opposite. Dying has become new life.

Because of the resurrection of Jesus, we face death knowing that there was and is one whose life is stronger than death––Jesus Christ, God’s own son. And because David’s life was inside of that life, the desolation of death, too, has been put to death. By the grace of God, the resurrection turns the paradox of death inside out, showing us that on the other side of death, is life anew.

Therefore, we need neither deny nor despair death. We need neither to run from it, nor to lose heart. For death has lost its dominion already. “Death has been swallowed up in victory. ‘O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?’ Thanks be to God, through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15.54-56). For by his resurrection death has been destroyed by death, and in it, we have life everlasting.

The promise of the resurrection is this. A day is coming when God will wipe every tear from our eyes. And then—and there—there will be no more death. Nor sorrow. Nor crying. Nor any more pain. For the former things will have passed away, and the one who sits upon the throne will say: “Behold! I make all things new!” (Rev. 21.4-5). God will make David (and me, and you), finally, perfectly, and completely new…

So, to you who are here left behind, let me leave you with this last word. In the wake of David’s death, many of you will undoubtedly continue to feel yourselves pulled toward each of these poles again (…and again). We cannot always control our grief, and you will often find yourself denying or despairing without even knowing why. But as are you pulled back and forth this way, remember God’s promise to you in the resurrection of Jesus.

Though David is gone now, you will see him again soon.

And then, forever.