The Rev Eric Burton was Minister at Highbury from 1966 to 1977.
Now into his 80's, Eric took the services at Highbury on Sunday, 12th September. During the evening service he told us that this was only the second occasion he had directly addressed the subject of what is beyond death in a preaching ministry spanning nearly 70 years.
He had been prompted to preach in this way following the untimely death of his second wife only three months ago.
It was very moving to hear his reflections and good to share them here ...
Meditation – Beyond Death?
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever. velation 22:1-5
Following Eileen Davison's fatal fall from a horse the media reported on the consequent distribution of parts of her body. Resulting from those transplants, five people are continuing to live with renewed hope of good health. That fact, relatives of the deceased said, "It's the only hope in the chaos.” The only hope?
Since the recent sudden, quite unexpected death of Vivienne, my lovely loving wife, I find more hope in the promises of Jesus in pages of the Bible and words such as these:
"His servants shall serve Him; and they shall see His face; and they shall reign for ever and ever." (Revelation 22. 3,4 & 5).
In sixty seven years of preaching only once have I dared to do so about the nature of life beyond the thin veil we call 'Death'. That surprisingly was way back on the 27th August 1944! The evidence is here (not written in green inkl) Dh, the self assertion of youth!
I am consoled to find that in those same early years I frequently chose Dora Greenwell's lovely hymn for congregations to sing.
“I am not skilled to understand
what God has willed, what God has planned;
I only know at his right hand
stands one who is my saviour.”
To attempt to pry would be useless and perhaps irreverent. For many, a story John Baillie tells in his masterly book ‘And the Life Everlasting', will suffice.
A patient informed by his devotedly Christian doctor that his end was near, asked if he had any conviction as to what awaited him beyond death. His doctor fumbled for an answer. Just then there was a scratching at the door. “Do you hear that?" the doctor asked his patient. “That is my dog I left downstairs. He has grown impatient and come up and hears my voice. He has no idea that is on this side of that door, but he knows I am here. Is that not the same with you? You do not know what lies beyond, but you know your Master is there."
"I know not what the future hath
Of marvel or surprise,
Assured alone that life and death
His mercy underlies."
His Servants shall serve him
While the New Testament is very vague about life beyond death, it does stress most emphatically that it is all religious. "His servants shall serve Him; they shall see His face and His name shall be in their foreheads" … It is all concerned with Him, His glory.
Dr. Leslie Weatherhead used to invite people to imagine two people going to a classical music concert. The first, Adam, trained in music, plays brilliantly, enters into every part of the concert. Zed goes to the concert to please his friend. Bored with music the concert leaves him cold.
At the concert Adam lives in a world of wonder, love and praise. Zed is just alive, that's all. They sit together, between them there is a great gulf. Zed cannot cross it in a moment and be where Adam is. Adam's long training and practice allow him to revel fully in this great musical treat. Poor Zed feels horribly out of it. He cannot respond to music, and at the concert music is everything there is to respond to!
I wonder if dying is something like that: passing into a spiritual world where all the enjoyment is spiritual. We all survive, I think. But whether we live to the full and revel in that life will surely depend on the extent to which we discover the spiritual dimension in this life here. I never think of heaven and hell as two places.
Another of Whittier's hymns ends:
"To turn aside from Thee is hell,
To walk with Thee is heaven."
Jesus said, "I go to prepare a place for you, that where I am you may be also." (John 14.2 & 3) Those words were spoken to the disciples who had followed Jesus and tried to serve him here on earth.
“Some day or other I shall surely come
Where true hearts wait for me;
Then let me learn the language of that home
While here on earth I be:
Lest my poor lips for want of words be dumb
In that high company.”
They shall see His face
The writer of those words had seen it, loved it, lived in the light of it. He set down these five words as being sufficient for all our needs. What a promise! The best of all promises.
I am very fond of a song called 'The Road is Long' written by a Salvation Army teenager. Its repeated refrain and final line is: "I want to see this man called, this man called Jesus, I want to see the risen Lord.”
In what is for me the most satisfying statue of Jesus, Thorwalden's 'Come unto Me', the head is bowed. "If you want to see his face," the sculptor said, "You must get on your knees."
Richard Baxter wrote:
"Come, Lord, when grace has made me meet
Thy blessed face to see;
For if thy work on earth be sweet,
What will thy glory be!
My knowledge of that life is small,
The eye of faith is dim;
But 'tis enough that Christ knows all,
And I shall be with him.“
They shall reign for ever and ever
Two little girls were looking at a painting of Queen Victoria seated on an ornate throne, the orb in one hand and the sceptre in the other, a crown on her head and wearing the most royal robes of state. One girl whispered to the other, "What is she doing,?” The other replied, “She is just reigning:"
With that word 'reign' erase from your mind thoughts of thrones and rulers. Think rather in terms of deliverance from, and victory over doubts, fears, sins and suffering that so hinder our vision while here on earth.
Returning one day from the funeral of his dearly loved son, some friends of the great German theologian Dr. Harnack, wondered what he would do. Do? He went into his study and opened his Bible at John 13.7 and underlined that verse in red ink. Therein that great man found his Christian hope.
It reads: ‘Jesus said, "You do not realise now what I am doing, but later, you will understand."
I have in my possession a very precious scrap of paper.
On it the last words my first dear wife Joy ever wrote: It reads:
“Funeral hymns ….. ‘All my hope on God is founded’
Hope to find one with more about the love of God."
That hymn was sung at the service in which we gave thanksgiving for her life upon earth.
"His servants shall serve him. They will see his face, and they shall reign for ever and ever. " Amen
The sermon over, Eric, moved to the platform and invited Maureen Williams, one of our church members to the lecturn. He introduced the reading she was to share with these moving words:
"We move to a very personal note in this service, which I hope you will allow.
When my second lovely, lovable wife died three months ago we received, and are still receiving, letters and prayers not least from this church at Highbury, and we are so grateful as a family for all the help, in prayer in particular that you have given to us.
Some people have sent us letters, and some sent poems, and one of the most helpful came from someone in this church, and she is going to read those words which she sent in writing to me, and she is going to read them to me now - thank you Maureen."
You can shed tears that she is gone,
or you can smile because she has lived.
You can close your eyes and pray that she'll come back,
or you can open your eyes and see all she's left.
Your heart can be empty because you can't see her,
or you can be full of the love you shared.
You can turn your back on tomorrow and live yesterday,
or you can be happy for tomorrow because of yesterday.
You can remember her only that she is gone,
or you can cherish her memory and let it live on.
You can cry and close your mind,
be empty and turn your back.
Or you can do what she'd want:
smile, open your eyes, love and go on.