A few weeks ago, I was with a friend just after his father passed away. Another friend lost her grandmother, a third had a cousin that unexpectedly and tragically died. In the middle of these losses in the lives of my friends, one of the pastors from my teen years went home to be with the Lord. And then, Sunday afternoon came the news of the helicopter crash in Los Angeles that took the lives of nine people, including 3 children and of course, Kobe Bryant and his daughter. To quote an email I received from a friend last night, it has been a “death in your face” few weeks. Death raises so many questions and to properly deal with it requires so much energy that many of us run from it while others seem to get sucked in by it. We want to understand, we want to know why, we want to be comforted, what we seem to want more than anything else is to not have to feel its sting. Almost six years ago, after the death of a friend from college I wrote the blog below as my way of processing my feelings and trying to move from the unknown questions of grief to the known points of faith. Over the past few days I’ve revisited those thoughts and hope that sharing them again with others might help as we face the sting of death together.
A friend passed away this morning. We all deal with the news of death differently and yet; we all deal with it similarly. We do different things, have different responses but the reality is we are all searching for a way to deal with something we were not created to experience or equipped to fully understand. Some cry, some run, some remember, some try to forget; when faced with death, I tend to write.
We were classmates in Bible College, baseball teammates and friends. We both grew up mesmerized by Magic Johnson, loved the Yankees, ran very slowly and couldn’t jump at all. We laughed often, even when it wasn’t completely appropriate; I pray we strengthened each other and believe we both knew we could trust and depend upon each other. My friend was diagnosed with a terrible disease (not that any are pleasant), he endured it with dignity and faith. While his body was being ravaged his mind was sharp, his sense of humor was ever-present, his smile was not forced and his trust in Jesus was steadfast. We didn’t stay in touch after college as often as we should have, but when we did there was no time lost, no awkward moments, just friendship always filled with laughter.
As Christians, I feel like we are not as thoughtful about death as we should be. We tend to skip ahead to the end of the book, the final chapter of victory without ever learning the lessons of endurance, the beauty of suffering or the necessity of compassion through weeping. Our use of I Corinthians 15 may be a perfect example of this. We are often heard quoting verse 55, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” We use this verse to comfort ourselves when we experience death and we should, but this is the end of the story and enduring death requires more than just the last lines to carry us through. I don’t believe we should ever quote verse 55 without quoting and trying to understand verse 54: “But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, THEN will come about the saying that is written, ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’” The sting of death is removed; the victory of the grave is defeated by those who enter into death not those left living. My friend has tasted Jesus’ victory over the grave; he is reaping death’s defeat. My wrestling today is not with where he is or what he is experiencing, I’m sure of those things; my wrestling is about and as one of those who remain “in the land of the living”.
The Apostle Paul made an incredibly important statement in I Corinthians 15:26 (some 29 verses before he addressed the sting and the victory), “The last enemy that will be abolished is death.” Death continues to be the enemy of the living; those that are asleep (using Paul’s language) have seen their enemy defeated. I haven’t shed a tear for my friend today, I did while he endured the disease, but today he is well. Today I feel the sting of death, but he does not. I feel the sting of death for his mother, for his family, for his friends, for our teammates, for myself, for everyone that loves him. I believe Jesus felt the sting of death when He stood at Lazarus’ tomb. He knew Lazarus was in paradise, He knew He would raise him from the dead in just a few moments, but in that moment, He felt death’s sting. He felt it for Mary, for Martha, for His apostles and even for Himself and He responded to death’s sting—He wept. The shortest verse in the Bible, John 11:35, says so much, “Jesus wept.” I believe that when death comes, we need fewer declarations about “a better place”, “no more suffering” and seeing each other again and we need more weeping. We need more tears of compassion and we need to acknowledge that death stings. We need to realize that grief is real, and grieving is a gift from God. It acknowledges our weakness and leans upon God’s strength. As a pastor I deal with death a lot. I sometimes deal with it well and sometimes not so well. I am learning that Jesus defeated death for the dying but that does not mean that the living no longer feel its sting. Rather than speaking past the sting or ignoring it all together, I am coming to believe that there is a balm for the sting of death, and it is compassion through tears. I am learning to stop trying to give an answer that I hope will make people feel better in the moment and instead to feel the sting with them, to weep with the weeping and to long, even ache for the day when death, the final enemy is finally vanquished.
The last time I saw my friend was a few months ago. I had the honor of serving him communion in his home. To be very honest, as we drank the wine and ate the bread, I started to feel the sting of death. I welled up with tears as my weak friend leaned on the strength of Jesus’ victory over what would be his last enemy. This morning when I got the news I thought of that moment we spent together, I thought of how that was our last time together on earth but that we would eat together once again, at the marriage supper of the Lamb and again I felt deaths sting. It was not fear, it was not anger, it was not doubt; it was the reality that I continue to have an enemy in this world. And then, in the midst of this sting I had a smile come over my face because all at once I realized that my friend has no more enemy. Death came for him and found itself defeated; the grave called and found its power had been removed. I feel the sting, but Scott does not. So, I will endure, and I will probably cry, and I will pray for everyone who loves him, but most of all I will look forward to the day when the sting is gone and my last enemy is defeated! As morbid as it may sound to some, the day I die will be the day when my last enemy will be gone and THEN I will sing with Scott and every other saint that has died before me, “O death where is your sting? O death where is your victory?”