I’ve been thinking about death lately. The better word is probably meditating. I’ve been meditating on death. Maybe you think that’s weird. Perhaps it is, but for something that happens to everyone, you’d think we’d meditate on it more. You’d think we’d meaningfully prepare for it. Maybe the weird thing is how ardently we avoid thinking and talking about death, as if we can make it unreal by not naming it. Why do you think we don’t talk about it, don’t meditate on it? Is it too scary, too unpleasant, too distressing? I don’t find the idea enjoyable, but do you think our ardent avoidance might be making the matter worse (the way avoiding anxiety-inducing fears gives them more power over us)? Is it possible that our avoidance is hindering our ability to prepare and to finish well?
Perhaps that’s what so many of us have found edifying in Pastor Johnson’s sober reflections on death. He dragged the monster of death out into the light so that we can get a look at him. Death is ugly. He’s mean. He’s devious. There’s plenty there to fear. But by dragging Death into the light, Pastor Johnson has drawn attention to the Light, the Light of Life, Jesus Christ. The beauty of Christ outshines the ugliness of death. The power of Christ outmatches the strength of death. The authority of Christ outranks the claims of death.
Pastor Johnson invites us to meditate with him,
With the darkness of death in mind… I find that I have two alternatives. I can reach into the darkness and go insane due to unanswerable questions. There’s no way I can avoid death. The valley of the shadow of death is too big; I can’t jump over it or walk around it or pay my way out of it. It has to be faced. Exclusively dwelling in the darkness will generate hopelessness, because death is an enemy to humans – an enemy so brutal, no human has been capable of beating death. I can feel that inability in my bones – I know I can’t beat death – hence my fear… I feel death’s weight, and it terrifies me.
But there is an alternative response. Yes, death is unavoidable, but I’m learning – admittedly, slowly – that I can look beyond the casket. If facing death is standing on the edge of a valley, I can look down into the hole or I can look off to the horizon. Slowly and slowly my body will be separated from my spirit, and I will take up residence in a casket. But as my eyeline lowers and lowers and lowers into the coffin, there’s a great deal of hope to view in the distance.
The only thing that’s getting me through this experience is that my existence, my being sees something beautiful out there. In a word, Jesus.
I’ve read his words many times. Many times. I pray you do too. There’s wisdom there, wisdom borne from years of meditating on God’s Word in the face of death. It was a meditating that started in childhood when his parents had the courage and fortitude to take him to church. Pastor Johnson reflects,
The greatest gift my parents gave to me was getting my lazy rear end out of bed in order to attend Sunday school and worship. Every week we went. And every week, whether I knew it or not, the hymns, liturgies, creeds, and Bible stories etched themselves into my soul… The passing down of the faith from my parents to me has equipped me to face the end.
Appreciate his words. His parents knew the necessity of digging a great reservoir for God’s Word deep in Pastor Johnson’s soul. They didn’t know he would face cancer (and death at a young age), but they knew death was real and that he (and they!) needed the Word of Jesus. And through the repeated hearing and confessing of that Word, God filled a great reservoir of His Word in Pastor Johnson’s soul (and in his parents’ souls), a reservoir from which Pastor Johnson has and continues to draw nourishment and strength, a reservoir so deep that it overflows in rich, nourishing truth for you too.
Have you given thought to your reservoir? To your children’s, your grandchildren’s? Is your need for such a reservoir of God’s Word in your soul any less? Do you need the nourishment it provides any less? Death doesn’t take a day off and it doesn’t exempt anyone. And, speaking soberly, NO ONE KNOWS WHEN DEATH WILL TURN ITS ATTENTION TO HIM.
When I’ve meditated on death I have envisioned it as a line of people (depicted in the image that accompanied the title to this article). It’s a long line and we’re all in it. We enter the line at birth (really, at conception). We reach the front of the line on our death day. But here’s what we must soberly acknowledge: no one knows how close to the front of the line he is. Sometimes infants are called to the front. Sometimes young children are. Sometimes teenagers and young adults are called to the front. And sometimes we don’t reach the front until many years later. But we all reach the front.
Perhaps a similar sober thought moved the psalmist to write:
O LORD, make me know my end
and what is the measure of my days;
let me know how fleeting I am!
Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths,
and my lifetime is as nothing before you.
Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath! Psalm 39:4-5
So teach us to number our days
that we may get a heart of wisdom. Psalm 90:12
The last words in each quoted text are important (and call for thoughtful meditation). Psalm 39:5 ends with these words: “Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath!” The word breath is the Hebrew word hevel. It shows up repeatedly in the book of Ecclesiastes:
[Hevel] of [hevel], says the Preacher,
[hevel] of [hevel]! All is [hevel]. Ecclesiastes 1:2
As we’ve discussed before, hevel
means “vapor, breath, or smoke.” Envision stepping outside on a frigid winter morning and exhaling. Watch your breath turn and twirl. Then grab it and hold it. When you open your hand, what do you have? Nothing. That’s what the Preacher of Ecclesiastes is saying and what the Psalmist is confessing. We are hevel
. Whether we live one year, 32 years, or 100 years, we are momentary breaths (until Christ solidifies us in our resurrection!).
Living as if we are something more than breaths is not only foolish, it’s dangerous, because it keeps us from preparing (from digging and filling the reservoir for God’s Word).
And that’s why the last word of the quoted verse from Psalm 90 is so important. The Psalmist has meditated deeply on the vaporous nature of our life and has turned to the Lord in prayer, asking Him to grant “a heart of wisdom.” We would all do well to pray likewise. We will live for a finite number of days. One day it will be our last day. On that day we will reach the front of the line. It may be many, many days away. It may be today. Sometimes that day comes suddenly (an accident or health event); sometimes it signals its approach (a terminal diagnosis). But the day comes. Surely and steadily it comes.
Soberly accepting this reality, preparing for it, and facing it without fear demands wisdom. In fact, wisdom teaches us where fear belongs, not groveling and trembling before the death monster, but reverently bowing before the Lord. The book of Proverbs captures the idea:
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom… Proverbs 9:10
Wisdom teaches us to fear the Lord, not death. Space prevents us from giving this teaching the attention it deserves, but the fear of the Lord is the central component to Godly wisdom (i.e. to moving through life well and to finishing well). On the one hand, fearing God means fearing His just wrath against sin. As Jesus instructs in Matthew 10:
Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him [God] who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Matthew 10:28
This just wrath, however, has been propitiated on Jesus. He has endured it for us! Paul announces, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). Such astonishingly good news!
On the other hand, fearing God brings confidence in His everlasting, covenantal love:
Let those who fear the LORD say,
“His steadfast love endures forever.” Psalm 118:4
You who fear the LORD, trust in the LORD!
He is their help and their shield. Psalm 115:11
Fearing the Lord means acknowledging Him as the Lord. Further, it means embracing His promise of everlasting, covenantal love. And through baptism, you have been joined to God’s everlasting, covenantal love! Meditate deeply on Scripture’s announcement:
For you have died,
and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Colossians 3:3-4
We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. Romans 6:4-5
Baptism joins you to Jesus, both to His death and to His resurrection. Just has He entered death and rose in victory, you will too. This empowers us to stand in Death’s presence without fear, even to speak to Death from the perspective of our baptism-assured resurrection. Paul models this for us in 1 Corinthians 15:
O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting? (vs. 55)
Christ has dragged Death into the light and stripped him of his power, and through our Baptism, He gives us the authority to speak His victory over Death. This doesn’t exempt us from dying, but it does exempt us from fear and despair. Death has been defeated.
Pastor Johnson describes it this way,
The only way to walk through the valley of the shadow of death is to hire a guide who knows the directions out of the gorge.
That guide is Jesus. And knowing and confessing Him as Lord empowers and equips you with the wisdom to finish well. And that wisdom changes the way we see the front of the line. Instead of fearing it, we can see it as our finish line. Our goal is to finish well. As such, we are moved to ask a different set of questions from the rest of the world. Instead of asking how we might maximize our pleasure and minimize our discomfort, we ask how we can better know Christ and make His reign known. Instead of obsessing over “bucket lists,” we can think bigger than a bucket and focus, instead, on filling a reservoir in our souls with the nourishing Word of God.
Our prayer, like Pastor Johnson’s prayer, now becomes a prayer to finish well. Yes, we pray for miracles and deliverance when death threatens, but our greater prayer is to finish well with the confession of Christ confidently and joyfully on our lips, to be able to say with the Apostle Paul, “I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7). That’s how we finish well. – Pastor Conner
 C.S. Lewis writes about this solidifying (he calls it “firming up”) in his imaginative novel on Heaven The Great Divorce. And Paul, in 2 Corinthians 5, writes about being “further clothed” in the resurrection. Their words are worth meditating on.
 Paul is here referring to Baptism. We died with Christ in Baptism.