This is a truth that we know intellectually, but resist emotionally. The wisdom of Ecclesiastes tells us that there is a time to be born, and a time to die. The writer has not dictated how death comes, or permitted that every death is itself a foregone conclusion – that one dies does not lead to the notion that this particular time and way of death were unavoidable – simply that death itself is unavoidable.
We need to create a space between these two notions – the unavoidability of death and the actual event of death itself. Yes its true, we all die – that does not mean that the instance of the death is inevitable. I’m thinking about this today perhaps because I just heard about Joel Seigel’s passing from colon cancer, which even he attested could have been prevented had he undergone the recommended screening at age 50. (If you’re a fan of Joel, here’s a nice eulogy.) It can be, no, it is so confusing for me to sort out the distinction between the notion that death is not bad, it just is, and the fact that a particular death – such as that of a child – should be thought of as anything but good. Psalm 90 suggests that a human life should rightly span 70-80 years. Surely then we should grieve the life ‘cut short’ – certainly for ourselves, and for the world in what that person might have contributed. Whether we grieve for them depends largely on our theology of the afterlife. If based on that we believe that the deceased child is in a far better place, then regardless of opportunities missed here, their death from their new vantage is a positive thing.
What if we are to get that long life? Even then, it is but a breath for to the LORD “1000 years is like yesterday when it is past”. The lesson, Moses suggests, is to number our days that we might gain wisdom. I think that Moses is suggesting, among other things, that the reality of death should teach us to value each day, not fritter them away on meaningless things – useless toil, extravagant living, idolatry, worry. Any life of any length is but a moment from the view of eternity. Which is partly why the psalmist asks “What are humans that you are mindful of them?” The point being that God is in fact mindful of us. We get no answer as to why, simply an affirmation in hope.
Because we know intellectually that death is a part of life, and thus ultimately either good or value neutral, we feel a need to speak a blessing at the point of death. So we hear (and say) things like this:
- God must have needed another angel in heaven
- God had things for her to do elsewhere
- He’s in a better place
- Add your own
When we feel that a particular death is a tragedy, lets just speak it so. we do no-one any favors by trying to sugar-coat painful facts to make them more palatable.
I’m also thinking about the death of organizations – specifically congregations, denominations, and other fellowships and associations of people of faith. They are born as unique and particular entities, growing out of a set of shared and proclaimed beliefs – taking root in a particular context. One challenge is that contexts change. It may be that a particular entity has lived its useful life, and thus should be allowed to die with dignity. This requires deeper reflection for another post.