Wednesday, September 25, 2013

When Death Comes Too Soon

It came without warning — the email message from the pastor appealing for prayer for a 38-year-old wife and mother in the congregation, who had been rushed to the hospital with what later turned out to be a blood clot in the lung. Within two hours came the news of her passing — news of sobering import for us, for the young woman was related to our own family by marriage.

Imagine the grief of a husband who, having carefully built up a business to support his family, suddenly finds his life partner taken away. Or can you imagine the desolation of a daughter whose mother, only that morning, had been preparing her for a high school homecoming dance she would never attend because of her mother’s death?

I once passed a church bulletin board that read: “I plan to live forever. So far, so good.” But we know that sentiment was meant ironically. Genesis 6:3 promises us a life span of 120 years, which Psalm 90 seems to reduce to eighty years at most. But some good, Bible-believing people never approach even that number, and are taken in the vigor of their prime. Others — even non-believers — linger on into the frailty of old age. It seems there is no equity, no justice in our respective allotment of years.

So we ask, “Why?” How do we understand these things? Christians have long suggested answers to the “why” of sudden, premature death. For example, perhaps God foresaw what was ahead for the younger person’s life and, wishing to spare them additional suffering, took them home to himself. Or perhaps he had a task for that person in the afterlife, and “needed” them there. Of course, the hope of reunion with loved ones in heaven offers comfort to many.

I don’t offer any of these answers here. For some, in the face of the desolation of loss of a loved one, such explanations might seem trite. There is really no glossing over the devastation we feel when someone we cherish and admire is wrenched away without warning. It’s hard enough to face loss when there have been, perhaps, months or years of dealing with life-threatening illness, or when advancing age suggests the possibility of our loved one’s impending demise. But when death seems to come too soon, without preparation, the usual “answers” may not offer the comfort we long for.

How did the mothers of Damascus feel when their children fell victim to the insidious attack of sarin gas? Or how must the Christians of Egypt feel when Islamic terrorism rips apart their families? Through the ages countless people have had to deal with the sudden, premature loss of loved ones through warfare, persecution, accident, or pestilence.

How did Mary of Nazareth feel beholding her son, only thirty-three years of age, being tortured on the cross of Calvary — cut off despite such promise, such wisdom from God, emanating from his young life? How did James and Jude, and their brothers and sisters, feel when their elder brother was taken prematurely from them? Before the resurrection, they had yet to fully understand who he really was, and that “death could not hold him.” Yet, they held on through their grief. For those who remain, life goes on with duties to perform. Mary became, for many Christians, the representative of the faithful church. And James and Jude became authors of parts of the New Testament.

The sudden loss of a loved one has moved some to question God’s existence. If God is good, why did he allow such evil? But if God is not good, why acknowledge him? Atheists have justified their belief in God’s non-existence on the basis of personal tragedies such as debilitating illness, serious injury, or the unexpected and premature death of someone important to them. But we are different. We understand that the existence of a loving God who created this vast universe of 200 billion galaxies, some fourteen billion years old, can hardly depend on what happens to us, for good or ill, on this small planet. If it did, we would be God. But we are not.

Further, we understand that the sudden loss of a loved one can teach us a valuable lesson, even if we can’t understand why such things happen. Confronted with our loss, we realize how petty are many of the things we worry about each day, and how insignificant the issues we argue about with those we live with. We come to understand how precious, and how fragile, are those relationships we have with people we know and love. We realize we can never allow our self-centeredness to erect barriers between us and them, for those bonds that unite us today, which could be severed tomorrow, are too important to jeopardize over trivialities.

Yes, life goes on for those of us who remain. We go forward in hope, even when we can’t make sense of the sadness we face. We may not be granted understanding, but we are given support. As Moses was about to die he proclaimed to Israel, “The eternal God is your dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms” (Deuteronomy 33:27). In the Lord we have “a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (1 Corinthians 5:1), as the apostle Paul declared; and he affirmed that “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Further, God “has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all men by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31).

So we go forward in faith, even when we can’t answer the question, “Why?” There is a call of God upon each of us, his children, and faith is doing what God has called us to do. In the midst of our grief, that is enough.