First the bad news. My aunt died yesterday while Sharon and I are traveling a third of the way around the globe. We have just begun our journey and have found it is impossible to return for the funeral services.
As I have reflected and grieved over the past few hours for the life of a favorite relative, I'm impressed to share my experience with you.
Life is bad but God is good. The experience of our sinful world is the reality of death and loss. Sometimes in the joy we experience with family, friends, or transient circumstances, we forget that our lives are like grass that withers or flowers that fade. Death's crushing grasp, however, reminds us that every person is born under a mandatory death sentence. Although death was not part of God's original creation, its horrendous reality is the consequence of humanity's disobedience. Life is the promise of God's ultimate restoration and in the midst of loss, that reality is more difficult to see than the grief that envelops us. Assurance of His ultimate victory eases, but does not eliminate the sting of pain in the midst of loss.
Death never arrives on schedule. Although I knew that my aunt was ill and even though my brothers and I had strategized how we might handle her possible death during my travels, I was not prepared to receive the bad news that she had died the very morning we left the United States. Even when death is anticipated, its apparent finality brings a crushing load that over whelms those of us who are left to grieve. Whether suddenly springing to rip a family apart or dragging to conclusion a long struggle with disease and suffering, death never comes at the "right" moment. There is no convenient date for death. And even if we could schedule death's timing, few of us would actually choose to keep the appointment.
Long life is not long enough. When I last spoke with my aunt, she reminded me that she had already lived beyond three-score and ten. She rejoiced in the good things that had come her way during her life and declared that she had made peace with the nearness of her anticipated end. Nevertheless, when the moment came, her daughter, who was with her, longed for just one more day or even an additional hour in which to somehow cram some last farewell. Perhaps one of the most destructive of death's results is the lost opportunity to say anything else to those we love.
Sorrow and grief will abate in time. Eventually the present pain of loss will lessen as we who are left behind move through the various stages of grief. Such progress will be greatly aided by participating in a grief recovery group with others who have recently suffered loss. At the moment, however, even the assurance of Christ's ultimate victory seems a more distant hope than the distracting scratching of shovel on earth or the thud of the coffin lid. God's true gift of the Holy Spirit somehow sends us comfort in the midst of chaos. In the firestorm of our loss, His still, small voice communicates love and concern for our need.
Others have suffered more. While we grieve at death's stroke against our family, we grapple with the comparative blessing we have experienced compared with someone who has lost a loved one in more tragic circumstances. What of those whose son is a casualty of war or whose spouse is taken in a crushing automobile accident? What of parents whose little children suffer horrible disease or whose aged parents lose their memory while their bodies continue to function? For my aunt to have lived a long life, endured traumas, and to have also enjoyed her dogs and her grandchildren, remains a blessed experience that thousands of less-fortunate would envy.
Plan for the future; live today. Twin challenges confront every believer. How to focus on plans for the future while staying in touch with the tenuous present. Good intentions never trans formed into present actions remain only figments of our thoughts. Irresponsible anticipation of future things can stymie hard work and corrective action today. Likewise, hedonistic abandonment of appropriate concern for ultimate things means a shallow, meaningless repetition of daily life. God's challenge for his people has always been to live in keen anticipation of eternity while joyfully embracing His blessings and benefits today.
Death is an enemy but rest is a gift. My aunt's life mercifully concluded before the worst ravages of painful deterioration or the harsh realities of medical treatments destroyed all quality of life. Scripture describes our loving Father as giving rest to faithful followers and as painful as death's separation is, there is mercy in resting free from the harshest consequences of death's protracted process.
God's breath suffocates death. Our crushing enemy will ultimately be crushed by our Heavenly Father's final solution. As Dennis R. Bolton, pastor of West Columbia, South Carolina's Mt. Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church says, "Just as God's breath restored life to the valley of dry bones and returned to their own land (Ezek. 27), so the people of God will resurrect into a new creation as the new Israel." The Creator who first breathed life into Adam's nostrils in that body which He had just fashioned from the dust of the ground, so the same Jesus will suffocate death and eradicate this final enemy into the joy of His eternal restoration.