Pondering Death

My brother and I found a baby bird that had fallen out of its nest before it could fly. The nest was in the rafters of the church, on the Sunday School wing side. We were so distressed. How could this happen? We had to DO something. WE had to do something. So we scooped up the little peeping thing and ran across the gravel parking lot to Dad, who was out mowing the lawn in his old plaid shorts and white ribbed cotton tank undershirt. “Dad! We found this bird! Can you help us put it back in the nest?”

And that was my first lesson on death. Dad took the bird from us and it pooped on him. As you can imagine, he was not happy. But he was more than angry with us. Had we left the little thing, its mama would have found a way to care for it. She would have gotten it back to the nest. But no. We meddled in the natural order of things and had basically sentenced the little thing to death. To return it to the nest would mean rejection from the mother. Our scents were all over the scraggly feathers. I think we ended up putting the bird back in the grass where we found it. We watched for a bit to see if the mama came for it. And then we lost interest. Childhood does that. It gets bored and wants to go swing or ride bikes.img_20200331_115906

My dad had a very agrarian response to death. He’d watched animals be born and die. It’s the way of the world. And people die, too. His job was to be with them throughout their lives to lead them to eternal life, to be with them at the end and to walk them toward the pearly gates, to bless their lives and to commit them to the arms of the Heavenly Father when the struggle was over. I don’t know how many people he actually watched die, rather saw take their last breaths. But in a sense, we’re all dying and we’re all marching steadily toward our graves. Some of us will get there faster than others. And Dad marched alongside his flock, knowing that they were all going to fall prey to death one day or another. One way or another. He was so good about bringing comfort to the dying. He really shone in that area. He was kinda a UPS man for God. “I’ve got this package to deliver. It’s very fragile and its contents are precious. I must deliver it unscathed to the Father.” Of course, he knew that it would hurt for those left behind. But the joy for the dead was unmistakable. Like the time he stood at his mother’s funeral and exclaimed with unshaken belief, “Play beautiful music for the Lord, Mom.” And every time, my mom was right behind him with a bundt cake for the bereaved. Because cinnamon and sugar and nuts and powdered sugar icing make every day a little better. 

Oh there were bunnies who met the same fate at our well-meaning hands, too. Critters housed in boxes and jars because we felt we could care so well for them, better than their mommies. Death was so horrific for us, so final and unfathomable. And the thought that we could play God and save the world was appealing. 

But we can’t save the world. People and bunnies and birds die. In my life-experience, I’ve prayed for people to be released from their pain and suffering, for death to come swiftly. I’ve seen death in the faces of the living. I sat at the bedside of a beloved friend for a couple of days before he died, shared fond memories with him, and ultimately asked him to say hi to my dad in heaven for me, blessed him on his way. Death was weighing heavily on him. It was agitating and labored. It had taken flesh and shriveled it. It had taken the blood red of a mouth and made it black and dry, a cave through which short gusts of wind might pass. I’ve uttered an hallelujah when the news came that death had finally won the day, that the suffering was over, the fight over and the beloved was safely in the arms of Jesus.img_20200418_194524

So, death has lost its sting. As it should. As Jesus declared it would. There are those in my sphere who belong in the arms of Jesus before their suffering intensifies. And for myself, I welcome the day when I too find myself wrapped in the very real arms of the one I’ve imagined holding me through my darkest hours. I don’t need to rush the day, but when it comes I don’t think I’ll complain. 

I find myself in a very interesting situation right now. Daily, we are receiving emails and news reports with death tolls. A running tally of how many people have died from Covid-19 related illnesses. And the world has shut down presumably to curb the rate of spread, to alter the pace of the death tally. And I’m confused on so many fronts. 

  1. The death toll keeps climbing despite the precautions taken. There are reports of people contracting Covid-19 who haven’t left their homes, whose loved ones are extremely careful. Is getting sick inevitable? Can we play God and prevent illness, through wholesale subscription to what science says, as inexact and trial-by-error as it is? Oh, but there would have been more cases had we not shut down the world. Do we in fact know that? Would there have inevitably been more deaths? Or perhaps there would have simply been a number of mild cases. In fact, there may be widespread undocumented cases.
  2. And is shutting down the economy, closing businesses, truly the right way to handle plagues? Because there is fallout. And do we have any idea what that fallout will look like? So many people are out of work right now. They are eating up life-savings. They are forced onto unemployment rosters. 22 million people have filed for unemployment in the last month. That is a far greater number than the Covid-19 death toll. Is this a potential humanitarian crisis? Food banks, blood banks, community services, unemployment benefits, mental health services are all stretched. And this is in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. What about Africa where people live hand-to-mouth daily, where people lack refrigeration and electricity and the ability to store food? And even in America, there is poverty. How many more are going to fall below the poverty line because we’re scared to death? Scared of death.
  3.  Scared of death…. But we aren’t scared of the deaths of unborn babies? No, there are large portions of our society who are scared of losing the right to kill an unborn baby. We aren’t scared of what poverty brings with it – unrest, crime, mental health issues, the potential for abuse and starvation and dependence on government? We should be. Because dependence on government is dependence on the wrong thing.

I don’t have any answers to these questions. I’m not a politician or a scientist. But I do know a few things. God has allowed this plague. In His infinite wisdom and goodness, he has deemed this necessary for our good. It is hard to imagine what that good might be. A great awakening from a world-wide spiritual slumber? A call to repent for our self-righteous, self-idolizing, dependence on human institutions and constructs? A harvest of the saints? A reassessment of the true value of life, all lives? An exposure of corruption and badness in our hearts, our minds, our entertainment, our institutions? I’m not pointing fingers. I count myself among those who need to take stock. Where have I been spiritually asleep? Where have I been self-righteous, depending on my own strengths and beliefs and patting myself on the back for what I have done? Not realizing that it is God in me that brings about the good and just. Where have I harbored corruption and badness, clung to it in fact because I like it, because it feels too good to be angry or bitter or resentful?

I know that death does in fact come for us all. How we face it makes a huge difference. We can run but we can’t hide. We can fight but we can’t win in the long run. So, do we deny it and live like we’re never going to die, like there will never be a reckoning? Do we shake our fists at death, at God, at the cosmos and claim unbelief, putting our faith in very fallible, changing science? Do we hide in a hole and refuse to help others because they might bring us death? Do we stand on the truths of God, knowing that He is a good and faithful creator, that he is a loving and forgiving father, that he is active in the world today and that he doesn’t want to see any of his children (because that’s what we are, children) lost or astray, that he loves us enough to become the atonement for what we have done or not done when he himself is perfect and blameless and beyond fallacy? 

There is assurance in standing on the truths of God. Jesus told us he has gone to make a place for us. Jesus has said he is the way, the truth, and the life. Jesus has said that he conquered death. To date, he is the only one to do so. Knowing Jesus has given me greater comfort and peace about the whole death process. I know I will die. I know that he will walk every step of the journey with me, whether it is sudden and painless, or the long, drawn-out fight against disease, or the laborious trudge of age. He has never left me and he won’t start now.  And at the end, he will be there to wipe the hair from my forehead, the tears from my eyes, to embrace me in a love greater than I’ve ever known. I don’t have to do anything for this great gift except devote my life to his will. Not my will but yours be done….


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