12 Years of Reflecting on Death

30 is too young to die.

That’s what I thought on this day 12 years ago when my friend Dan was killed suddenly in a freak car accident. Now 30 years old myself, I feel the same today as I did then: 30 is too young to die.

…Or is it?

I was 18 when Dan died. It was the last semester of my last year of high school. I had just wrapped up basketball season and was memorizing my lines for our spring production of Leave It To Psmith. I was student council president that year, and the prettiest girl in the school called me her boyfriend. Things were seemingly as good as they could get. Yet I was still just a vulnerable teenager wondering about his future. In a lot of ways, it probably seemed on the outside like I had it all together. I had a wonderful family and close friends. I was well-liked and having fun as a high school senior.

On the inside, though, I was wrestling with some of life’s greatest questions and even doubts about my own salvation. In hindsight, I see God’s hand clearly at work orchestrating my life’s events to fulfill His purposes for me.

Dan’s death was one of the most memorable, impactful events in my short life thus far. It came at a time in my life when I was very impressionable. And in the 12 years since then, I’ve been learning a lot of difficult, painful lessons. So it seems as if Dan’s death was but an inauguration of lesson-learning for me. God used that incident in that chapter of my life to affect me deeply and effect the way I have viewed reality ever since.

Four lessons in particular He has taught me: Life is short. Death is final. God is sovereign. Jesus is hope.

LIFE IS SHORT.

“What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.”
James 4:14

I stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the other mourners at the graveside service as we tried our best to maintain warmth on that cold, cloudy morning. Tears obscured my vision as I stared at that little black box. I had never seen a coffin so small. It symbolized the tiny baby that was taken from this world just moments after entering it. The young parents should have been celebrating and resting at home with their newborn. Instead they were standing outside in a cemetery grieving over a tiny coffin.

If ever there was a poignant illustration of the brevity of life, for me that was it.

But the proofs for the fact that life is short didn’t end there.

DEATH IS FINAL.

The emergency room was still cluttered with used surgical gloves and instruments left behind by the medical team that worked on my cousin to bring him back to life. I stood there in the room now vacated by hospital personnel with my family as the body of my 24-year-old cousin and friend laid lifeless on the operating table in front of us. Never before had I felt the cold, painful sting of death as much as I did that night.

But the hurt at that moment was more like the painful feeling of a nightmare than reality. None of it felt real. As we stood there in that room—silent but for the sorrowful whimpers—in vain I found myself waiting for his eyes to open again. I stared at his chest expecting to see it rise at any moment. But this was no sad movie or bad dream. It was real life.

And so I learned again in that room that life is short and death is final. We are here but just for a little while, and then we are gone to eternity.

Just a few months before Jamie died, my dear aunt Cathy, my mom’s only sister, passed away at 61. That too seemed so young. She had been an English teacher in life, and we shared a special interest in the works of Shakespeare. At her funeral, I shared from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, one of our favorites. In his famous soliloquy, Hamlet ponders aloud, “To die, to sleep—No more.” How right he was. Later in the play, Hamlet observes while sitting in a graveyard, “Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth into dust.” In other words, even the greatest of men will die after a short while and then return to dust. The Grim Reaper gives no second chances. Death is final.

“…and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.”
Ecclesiastes 12:7

GOD IS SOVEREIGN.

Shortly after a conference hosted by our church, I received word that one of the attendees, a young man from Louisiana, wrecked his vehicle and died as a result. Just two weeks earlier I had been laughing and fellowshipping with this brother in Arizona. The vitality of his joy in Christ and his eagerness to learn more of God encouraged my heart for this next generation of the church. Little did I know that he would not live long enough to continue in the work of church-building. Instead, God would use this event to draw others closer to Himself, and thereby strengthen Christ’s body through his death.

R.C. Sproul is well-known for saying, “Nothing that takes place is beyond the scope of his sovereign will. The movement of every molecule, the actions of every plant, the falling of every star, the choices of every volitional creature, all of these are subject to his sovereign will. No maverick molecules run loose in the universe, beyond the control of the Creator” (What Is Reformed Theology, 172). Therefore, God is sovereign in every slice of life. Thus, He was sovereign in the death of this young man. Nothing surprises God; nothing, in fact, occurs outside of His plan and rule. Instead, The Bible tells us that God has a divine purpose, even in events that surprise or sadden us.

May 22, 2011 is another one of those dates my wife and I will always remember. On that day, at about 5:41pm, an EF-5 tornado touched down in Joplin, Missouri, and destroyed 7,000 homes and took 160 lives. Paige’s grandfather was one of those lives.

In the aftermath of the storm, as the family sought to pick up the pieces of the house destroyed, the questions began to nag our minds. In spite of all the “How’s” and “Why’s,” however, there was no doubt that this tornado was within God’s plan and under His governance. We thanked God that Grandpa Odell knew Jesus as his Savior and Lord. He was 85 years old when he left this earth; he had lived a full life and left a lasting legacy of faith. God’s grace was powerful in this disaster, and we recognized that this was the providence of God for the good of those who love Him.

The Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 defines God’s providence for us in chapter 5, paragraph 1:

“God the good Creator of all things, in His infinite power and wisdom, upholds, directs, disposes and governs all creatures and things, from the greatest to the least, by His most wise and holy providence, to the end for which they were created. God governs according to His infallible foreknowledge and the free and unchanging counsel of His own will; for the praise of the glory of His wisdom, power, justice, boundless goodness, and mercy.”

There’s great, practical comfort in this deep theology. When tragedy befalls, when we lose a loved one and are overcome by a wave of grief and sorrow, we do well to remember that God is “the good Creator” with “infinite wisdom” and “infallible foreknowledge” Who directs our lives and does all things well “for the praise of His wisdom, power, justice, boundless goodness, and mercy!” Thus, even in our darkest moments, we remember Him and take heart.

“…though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love.”
Lamentations 3:32

CHRIST IS HOPE.

When Dan died, the message from his dear mother Rosie was both clear and comforting: Dan had been saved by the grace of God and had placed all of his faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of his sins. Dan’s mother, then, ministered to all 1,000+ people who attended his funeral by pointing our attention not to the one who was saved, but to the One Who does the saving. All who attended his funeral were invited to know the eternal hope that is found in Christ Jesus alone.

I knew this truth: God saves sinners. I had heard the invitation countless times before: Come, follow me. But God used the death of Dan, and the days and weeks of grief and reflection that followed to grow me in my own faith. I believe I was saved before Dan died; but I still wrestled often throughout my teenage years with assurance of my salvation. Dan’s death was used of God to remind me that Christ is my only hope, my only comfort in life and in death. The tragedy of losing a close friend like Dan, an elder brother of sorts, served to nurture and grow the fledgling seed of my faith.

“For His anger is but for a moment, His favor is for life; Weeping may endure for a night, But joy comes in the morning.”
Psalm 30:5b NKJV

The lessons I learned through Dan’s death–and the lessons God has been teaching me ever since–are some of the most important lessons in life. I will be reminded of these truths until it’s my turn to leave this world for the next.

Life is short and death is final. But praise God that He is sovereign and has given me life and hope in Christ my Savior!

As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more. But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children…
Psalm 103:15-17

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One thought on “12 Years of Reflecting on Death

  1. Thanks for the reminder that death is certain, but that there is hope. “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth.” Job 19:25

    I look forward to the day when I shall see Him face to face.

    “He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken.” Isaiah 25:8

    What helpful thoughts to be reminded of as it is so easy to lose perspective.
    Thanks for sharing, David.

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