On Saturday I went cycling with a couple of good friends, John and Jay. The weather was beautiful and the ride, very enjoyable. We were riding in the gentle rolling hills and farmland between McGee’s Crossroads and Bentonville. We rode by fields of young tobacco, corn, and other crops I could not identify. We saw Enoch’s Winery and Bistro and wondered about a bistro in the middle of farm country. We passed by churches and schools. We pedaled by family cemeteries, abandoned buildings, and odd stores in old buildings. We did not talk much, so there was plenty of time for thinking. When we stopped at a small grocery store at the halfway point, John mentioned he had been thinking about what color to paint his old bike. Then he asked me what I had been thinking.
It was not meant to be a deep question, but my response was the truthful one, or at least part of the truth. I said I was thinking about the inerrancy of Scripture. I didn’t go on to mention that I had also been thinking about the use of metaphor in the Bible. And, about death. There was no need to mention those thoughts as I had already ground the conversation to a halt. We somewhat awkwardly transitioned back to the new color for John’s old pink/magenta bike.
Back on our bikes, I could not shake the thought that there seems to be way too much death lately. Jay’s dad died a week ago. An acquaintance (about my age) from my church’s worship team died suddenly, also in the last week. I attended viewings/wakes for both of them. My pastor’s mom died a month ago. My friend and business partner’s mom died earlier in the year. It seems like lots of folks are dying. That is probably just a consequence of getting older. Regardless, I don’t like it.
Like many in modern society, I thought death was distant. Until a few years ago, I had seldom attended a funeral. In the first 40 years of my life, I only remember attending one, that of a teenage sister of a good friend of mine. Funerals seemed to be rare rituals presided over by professionals. Even when I did attend one, it seemed to further distance me from death. I saw but brief glimpses of the dead at viewings. Cemeteries tend to be in out-of-the-way places. Places we don’t visit. My family’s plot is in NJ, where my dad is buried. I think I have been there once in the last 30 years.
Things were different in earlier times. Death was all around. Children commonly died. The bodies of the dead were tended to by families. Funerals were common occurrences that involved whole communities. Cemeteries were important parts of a town or city.
Today, we use euphemisms to talk about death, saying things like, “he passed” or “the dearly departed.” We may say something like, “she's in a better place.” These phrases hide the real truth—death is wrong. It is not how things were meant to be. Despite our attempts to keep death in its place, death is still something that happens to everyone.
Paul in I Corinthians 15 talks about the hope that we as Christians share in Christ’s resurrection. After talking about that triumph, in verse 26 Paul says, “The last enemy that will be abolished is death.” Death is indeed an enemy. Jesus weeps at Lazarus' death (John 11:35). The night before His crucifixion, and later during His final moments, Jesus does not use such pleasant euphemisms.
Later in the same chapter of I Corinthians (verse 55), Paul says “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” Though often quoted, those words are for the future when death has been conquered.
Pondering my own mortality, I rejoice in the future promise of those words. I don’t fear death, but I do see it for what it is—the enemy, a horrible consequence of the Fall. I look forward to its ultimate defeat.
In the meantime, death sucks.