Last night I learned that one of my childhood heroines had just passed away. It’s not an over-exaggeration to say that alongside Han Solo and Luke Skywalker, Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia fired my imagination and shaped my childhood playtimes like no one else! (I LOVED her later role in the Blues Brothers too!) Tragically, her death is one of a long, long list of celebrities who have died this year: David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Terry Wogan, Paul Daniels, Victoria Wood, Prince, Carla Lane, Muhammad Ali, Kenny Baker (R2-D2), Gene Wilder, Leonard Cohen, Andrew Sachs, Rick Parfitt and George Michael have all passed away in the last 12 months. I mean, famous people die every year, but 2016 does seem to have been a particularly painful year.
Like millions of others I have found this year especially hard to navigate. Social media has provided an outlet for an outpouring of grief, disbelief, and even fear, that has been quite staggering. But how should we respond when the rich, gifted and famous die? Perhaps more importantly how should I, as a follower of Jesus, respond?
Here are 4 ways I think are appropriate:
1. CELEBRATE their gifts
I know that some Christians really struggle with this – so I’m just going to put it out there – when a celebrity dies it’s OK to celebrate their talents, their artistry and their gift to the world, without having to condone everything about their lives. I mean, I certainly don’t appreciate Prince’s promiscuity, but I could listen to him play guitar all day long. Likewise, as a boxing fan Muhammad Ali is surely the greatest ever (the Rumble in the Jungle still gives me goose bumps) and I absolutely applaud his charisma, his courage and his civil rights endeavours, but I can’t and won’t worship his god.
The truth is that all people are made in the image of God and reflect something of His divine handiwork in the way that they use their gifts. It’s right and fitting to see and celebrate those gifts as common grace in this world.
2. GRIEVE their loss
It is also totally appropriate to grieve when people die. Death is cruel and cold and crushing. Death was not a part of God’s original creation (Genesis 1-2) but rather the tragic consequence of Adam’s original sin (Genesis 3). The world has been ravaged by death, and grief has been a ‘normal’ human experience, ever since. Indeed two of the most comforting words in Scripture are those describing Jesus’ response to the death of His dear friend, Lazarus:
– John 11 v 35
Jesus wept. He shed tears. Despite having power over death (as He was about to reveal to and through Lazarus) Jesus still felt grief at death and publicly, beautifully mourned. And whether for a celebrity whose work has touched our lives in profound ways, or for an anonymous migrant drowning in the Mediterranean Sea, so should we.
Because people are precious, death is vicious and grief is real.
3. COMFORT those who mourn
OK, confession time, as much as I understand why people get sad when stars fall, I do struggle with the mass hysteria and over-the-top-ness of some people’s sorrow. In fact it does wind me up sometimes and I find myself defaulting to a tutting “pull yourself together and get over it” mentality. And I’m increasingly persuaded that this is not godly.
i) Because of God’s clear command through Paul:
“Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”
– Romans 12 v 5
(Note that Paul doesn’t specify who it is appropriate to weep with. It is a quite comprehensive and unconditional command!)
ii) Because of Jesus’ beautiful promise to the mourner:
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
– Matthew 5 v 4
(Note that Jesus doesn’t specify how that comfort will come. I am persuaded that while comfort can arrive by the Holy Spirit alone, the normative way is for God to give His comfort through His people. Which leads us to…
iii) Because we have comfort to share:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”
– 2 Corinthians 1 v 3-4
(Note Paul’s exhortation to ‘comfort those who are in any affliction.’ That surely includes those who are grieving the loss of celebrities, whether we ‘get it’ or not!)
Maybe, just maybe, we should remember the comfort that we have received from God and ask Him for the grace to chose tears over tutting and comfort over condemnation.
4. LIVE with eternal hope.
With all that said, I do believe that as Christians, we should process death in a different way to those who don’t follow Jesus. I fear that many who grieve for fallen stars do so because, in many ways, hope dies with them. We exalt the famous, the favoured and the wealthy and have no framework to handle their frailty, their mortality and their demise. They represent all that the world has to offer, but the world has no answer to death and cannot promise eternal life. Only Jesus can give that. Ultimately the death of our idols (and the media frenzy that inevitably follows) confronts us with the deeply uncomfortable truth and the only sure statistic – that death comes to us all. We will all die. Oftentimes we seek to live in such a way that would suggest that we won’t.
But we will.
And if in this life only we choose laying up treasures, building bigger barns, eating, drinking and making merry, then whether death creeps upon us slowly through ill health, or breaks upon us suddenly and violently, we have lived as fools. And while I’d like to think that Christians, myself included, would not be so foolish as to live this way, sadly I think that we all too often choose to live like those around us, and therefore grieve like those around us when death comes calling. And this is not how it should be. I have found this verse particularly helpful:
“Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.”
– 1 Thessalonians 4 v 13
As followers of Jesus it is right for us to grieve, but our grief should be distinctly different to those who don’t share our hope.
Because our hope is in a resurrected Saviour. One who died for our sins on the cross, who rose victoriously over the grave and who gives the sure promise of eternal life to all who would trust Him. In a desperate, decaying, dying world there is surely no greater hope than this. We must hold fast to this hope for our own soul security. And we must hold out this hope to a world that is hurting, grieving and confused right now.
By grace I pray that we would live and love, worship and witness, comfort and grieve, serve and suffer as possessors of the eternal hope that can only be found in Christ.