Exhibit 1: I’m driving through Brannon Crossing (a new shopping south of town) and notice a huge “open house” sign by the side of the road— in front of a Living Legacy crematorium! That just gave me the creeps. What exactly does one do at a crematorium open house? Admire urns or ash samples while noshing nuts and punch? Odd.
Exhibit 2: As Hurricane Ike approached the Texas coast, near Galveston, the hurricane center issued an evacuation order, soberly warning that because of an expected 20-foot storm surge, “people who live in one or two story homes near the beach should evacuate or face certain death.” Yikes.
Exhibit 3: Watch any newscast in any city at any hour. You’ll hear about the car that hydroplaned in the downpour and smashed into a light pole, killing the driver. Or the small-time home invasion in which an elderly man was clubbed to death. Or the staph infection that attacked the immune system of a perfectly healthy high school girl and left her parents planning a funeral as school started. All deaths, all unexpected and sudden.
Pychologists talk about how most people maintain a certain state of stoic denial about their own death—or even the death of people closest to them. On the other hand, living in a so-called “culture of death”, we see death all the time—death on video games, in movies, on tv shows, on real crime reenactments, the news and more—and get desensitized to it.
So, when it comes to death, it’s either denial or desensitization. Are there any other options?
In a recent Rolling Stone interview, David Letterman discussed his memories of many guests who had appeared on his show over the years. But he was most moved by a “heartbreaking” meeting in a dressing room with musician Warren Zevon, who appeared on “Late Show” shortly before his 2003 death from cancer.:
“Here’s a guy who had months to live and we’re making small talk. And as we’re talking, he’s taking his guitar strap and hooking it, wrapping it around, then he puts the guitar into the case and he flips the snaps on the case and says, `Here, I want you to have this, take good care of it.’ And I just started sobbing.“He was giving me the guitar that he always used on the show. I felt like, `I can’t be in this movie, I didn’t get my lines.’ That was very tough”.
Though he didn’t know his lines in the moment, David Letterman shows us another way to deal with death. It’s simply called reality. Death comes to all. Our lives really are as the Bible describes: “vapor…smoke…grass that is here today and in the fire tomorrow… flowers that fade.” Human life is temporary. And that can be heartbreaking.
How do Jesus-followers respond in the face of such heartbreak? We’ve all heard the things that people who have had a close brush with death say: enjoy the little things, drink in the wonder of the ordinary, take every opportunity to say “I love you” to those you care about, shift your goals from success to significance, fill the dash (on your tombstone) with something that matters. All of that is well and good, but there is nothing inherently Jesus-saturated about any of it.
Now, listen to Jesus, who often refers to the temporary nature of life on earth. He says our response to the heartbreak of the frailty of life is to:
+ fast: lean into the reality of the world’s brokenness now.
“Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken from them, and then they will fast in that day.” (Mark 2:19-21)
+ partake of the Lord’s Supper / communion—It’s a reminder of the sustenance of the cross and anticipation of the heavenly banquet.
“This is my body…this is my blood…for you. Do this in remembrance of me…For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (1 Cor. 11:24-26)
+ pray in persistent faith: expressing trust in our Father even when we can feel the frailty in our bones and see no change in circumstances.
Jesus said, “…they ought always to pray and not lose heart….and will not give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth? (Luke 18:1, 7-8)
+ make disciples, leading people towards faith in Jesus and helping them take next steps in the pursuit of following Him.
“Make disciples of all nations, baptizing them…teaching them…and I am with you to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:19-20)
+ care for the least and the last – God’s consistent heart to display compassion for the hurting, the poor and broken never wavers.
“Lord, when did we see you hungry…thirsty…a stranger… naked… sick…in prison?….As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” (Matt. 25:37-40)
+ live your moments up to your elbows in the gospel—and with your eyes looking for Jesus– There is an urgency to living like Jesus– and to looking for His return at the same time.
“Stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming….Who then is the faithful and wise servant whom his master has set over his household to give them their food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes….You must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” (Matt.24:42, 45-46, Luke 12:40)
It’s an astonishingly simple list, isn’t it? Terminal patients and near-death survivors tell us that the prospect of imminent death gives intense clarity to what matters most. The certainty of death transforms their perspective on life.
Jesus –followers know the clear truth: earth is fleeting, life is temporary and death is coming. But beyond that, we also know the truth that the certain hope of resurrection enables life to flow back into the vapor.
So, when death intersects our ordinary,
Jesus’ folk simply,
live Jesus’ gospel life.