Death Magnified: A Reflection on Lives Cut Short

Life cut short empty swing shutterstock_249465919

Life cut short magnifies death.

The sudden death of basketball legend Kobe Bryant (age 41), his daughter Gianna (age 13), and seven others (ages 13-56) in a helicopter crash in Southern California on January 26th has shaken many people to the core. The impact is similar to the global shock and grief in response to the deaths Princess Diana (age 36), Dodi Fayed, and their driver, Henri Paul in August 1997.

Statistically, about 151,000 people die daily around the globe. About two-thirds of those die from age-related issues. But it’s the deaths of younger celebrities that seem to have the most impact. Consider the so-called “27 Club” of rock stars who died at the age of 27 like Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison (who all died between 1969 and 1971), Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse.

In a celebrity death, we see death magnified. We experience deeply, viscerally, in ways words fail to express, the tragedy of lost potential, of earthly blessings vaporized in an instant.

For some reason, the death of a public figure brings home the vivid reality of loss that is the strongest mark of death. Everything takes on a new perspective. Time stops. People crave being together. There’s an inner drive, an instinct, to honor the person and to share memories cherished and grieve dreams lost.

Celtic spirituality (not to be confused with the Boston Celtics professional NBA basketball team!) had an insightful name for this experience. Celtic Christians (based generally in the British Isles in the 4th-6th centuries) had a concept of “thin time.” This is a moment or period when we experience that “haunting” of something much more beyond the daily world of our senses and material existence.

We live with a thick curtain between ourselves and “spiritual, eternal” realities. We are absorbed in the world we know. We hardly ever think there’s something more. Then a disruptive event, especially death, pulls back the curtain. It’s like there’s a sheer drape through which we see shadows, sense movement, and perceive a very different “reality.” This is what Christians define as The Real World. 

Death poses the ultimate problem and challenge of life. Followers of Jesus grieve, the Apostle Paul said, “but not as those who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13).

The Heidelberg Catechism, written in 1563 in Germany during the early years of the Protestant Reformation, presents one of the most reassuring statements of hope in the face of all life’s difficulties, including death, in all theology. Framed as a catechism (a question-answer format used to teach students through memorization), it begins with the most important question we all ask:

Lord’s Day 1 Question 1

Question 1. What is your only comfort in life and in death?

Answer. That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.

Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.

The living Lord Jesus comforts us so we can comfort others.

A life cut short magnifies death. But the resurrected Lord Jesus magnifies Life and gives us an unshakable hope.

God Hates Death

picture of eiffel tower
Photo by Thorsten technoman on Pexels.com

“Doug, I’d like to ask you a theological question.” That’s not a typical comment from my brother, Dave. And we weren’t in a typical location—but it was perfect for getting perspective.

Let me set the context: In June 2018 my wife, Sarah, and I led a missions retreat in Austria. We decided to stay overseas for an additional 10 days in France. We wanted to do a bus tour of northern France and the Loire valley and invited my middle brother (I’m the youngest) and his wife to join us. We had a delightful time.

So we were on the second level of the Eiffel Tower. After walking around to take in the views, we all got cappuccinos. Dave and I sat down, overlooking the Champ de Mars, the larger green space southeast of the Eiffel Tower.

Then came the question: “What do you say to parents who’ve lost their young child? Why would God allow that?”

That’s one version of the toughest question we all ask: Why does God allow suffering and evil?

Within moments I heard myself say, “Dave, God hates death.” I paused as that thought sunk in—for both of us. I can’t recall ever saying it that bluntly before.

“God hates death. Like a doctor hates cancer. Like an educator hates ignorance. Like a judge hates injustice. God is all about life. God gave us life in the first place and made this amazing creation. Death – and all that goes along with it—came into the picture because humanity didn’t want to love God or live in harmony with God.”

“The whole Bible is about God providing ways for us to choose life and love and hope in the midst of death,” I said, “God hates death so much he sent Jesus to defeat death so we could have abundant life now and eternal life with him forever.”

“Is that what you tell parents?” Dave asked.

“In a more interactive and pastoral way, yes, that’s part of the conversation.”

I am so thankful that, in midst of unbearable pain, through faith in Christ, death is not the last word.

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
55 “Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?”
56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 
57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
58 Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. 
Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord,
because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.

As Dave and I continued in conversation, one other thought came to me, “And I don’t think we will ever know why things happen the way they do (at least, not in this life). But that’s probably for the best…”

In my experience, even knowing why some decisions are made or why some things happen doesn’t necessarily help. We are likely to question and challenge any reasons. It’s not about why. It’s about God’s love giving us hope and God’s power giving us strength.

 

Jesus’ birth makes life now matter

Nativity scene

A number of years ago, I was at a dinner gathering with people from around our community. I knew most of them by reputation, but they were not involved in the congregation I served. Cathy, the woman sitting next to me said, “Do you mind if I ask you a theological question?”

“Not at all. What’s on your mind?”

“Well, both my parents recently died. I believe they are in heaven. As I was talking to my husband about heaven, I said that I felt ready to die. I don’t want to die now and leave my family, but I believe in the Lord. Then I thought: What is the point of life in this world anyway? I mean, there are many good things in our lives, but just what is the point of this life, especially if heaven is so great and glorious?”

John, our host, chimed in, “Life here is really great—but there’s also plenty of heartache. Why not go straight to eternity?”

These questions, though new to them, are ones many have asked silently in their hearts. In one sense, these are the Ecclesiastes questions. The Book of Ecclesiastes, normally attributed to Solomon, David’s heir and King of Israel whose wealth and power were beyond comparison, dives deeply into the the futility and never-quite-satisfying nature of life. Here are the opening words:

These are the words of the Teacher, King David’s son, who ruled in Jerusalem.
2 “Everything is meaningless,” says the Teacher, “completely meaningless!”
3 What do people get for all their hard work under the sun? 4 Generations come and generations go, but the earth never changes. 5 The sun rises and the sun sets, then hurries around to rise again. 6 The wind blows south, and then turns north. Around and around it goes, blowing in circles. 7 Rivers run into the sea, but the sea is never full. Then the water returns again to the rivers and flows out again to the sea. 8 Everything is wearisome beyond description. No matter how much we see, we are never satisfied. No matter how much we hear, we are not content. (Ecclesiastes 1:1-8 New Living Translation)

Citing the cyclical nature of life, the endless repetition, the author asks, “What is the point of life when all that we do seems to add up to emptiness, vanity, and meaninglessness? Why do we keep going?”

To ask these questions is to penetrate to the meaning of life; to answer them is to grasp in a new way the very purpose of existence.

I think a partial reply is found in the verse, “To you is born this day in the City of David a Savior…” (Luke 2:11)

Jesus came to show us that part of God’s grand purpose for us includes the fullest experience of life in this world to better prepare us for the fullness of life in glory!

Jesus’ birth gives meaning to history. Jesus’ life on this earth gives meaning to my story and yours. This earthly life is our way of connecting with God now and for eternity. A passage from Forbes Robinson (1867-1904), an Anglican chaplain, presents the heroic aspect of our living now by faith. He suggests that our living “by faith and not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7) can inspire even the angels who have no experience of “faith” because they live now in God’s presence —what a fascinating thought! Robinson writes,

“If angels could envy, how they would envy us our splendid chance, to be able, in a world where everything unseen must be taken on sheer faith, in a world where the contest between the flesh and the spirit is being decided for the universe, not only to win the battle ourselves but also to win it for others! To help [another] up the mountain while you yourself are only just able to keep your foothold, to struggle through the mist together, that surely is better than to stand at the summit and beckon. You will have a hard time of it, I know; and I would like to make it smoother and to ‘let you down’ easier; but I am sure that God, who loves you even more than I do, and has absolute wisdom, will not tax you beyond your strength…” [quoted in John W. Doberstein, Minister’s Prayer Book (Philadelphia, PA, Fortress Press, 1986), 203-04].

Life is not just an exercise in waiting for heaven. Life now matters. Affirm the message of this quote, attributed to Irenaeus of Lyons (a second century church leader), “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.” God became flesh to validate as well as redeem life in this world. Live now.