I stood in the funeral parlor, staring at the lifeless face of my colleague, and thought to myself, "Yes, it comes to this. All of life, however you choose to live it, ends in death." I was surprised at how morose I was, how overcome by melancholia. Death was so … well, … real — so final. No wonder Paul calls death the Last Enemy. But why was I so gripped by this particular death? It seemed to me to be more than ordinary grief. After all, my relationship to this friend, while marked by fraternity, even fondness, was not all that close. Plus, he had lived a long life, healthy right up to the end, had a wonderful family, and had loved and served Jesus. Besides, I had been in situations like this a hundred times and more. I had stood at funerals and faithfully proclaimed the promises of God regarding the death of Christians — and I believe them without reservation. But those promises just didn't seem very comforting right then.
Why? It was existential angst – the thought of personal mortality moving from theory to reality. It was John Donne reminding me, "Ask not for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee." Even telling myself "if I live as long as my friend, I have a quarter of a century left" didn't ease the gnawing dread.
I sat straight up in the middle of the night. What is going on? Maybe it's that blasted blood pressure medicine my doctor just prescribed. My son, a physician, responded to my disgust over having to be medicated by saying, "Your over 50, Dad. Be thankful you have medicine. Take it and move on." He's right, you know. But it didn't sound nearly as encouraging as I thought it did when, as a 30-year old pastor, I said something similar at a Senior Adult banquet. Oh, the bravado of youth! Death is less of a worry to the young – unless you're that neurotic kid in the movie What About Bob? who wears only black and keeps repeating, "What's the use? We're just going to die. We're all going to die!"
I hate to admit it to myself, but that's about how I felt. I was experiencing the symptoms of a very common ailment in the human condition: the fear of death. Some experience it in airplanes. Some in the normal routines of life. More in the throes of an illness. It's common in the wee hours of the morning when time seems to barely move, you can't sleep, and your breathing is inexplicably labored. It's a tool of the devil – reminding us of our own mortality and telling us there is nothing we can do about it. The Bible describes us as those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. (Hebrews 2:15). Some philosophers have recommended we make peace with death. You know, just go gently into that good night. I've never been impressed with that idea. A more natural response is to go kicking and screaming. Linus advised Lucy to live today as if it were the last day of your life. She nodded and immediately began to shriek, "Help me! Help me! I'm about to die." That's how we really feel at the prospect of our own mortality. Making peace with death as if it were not a problem doesn't work. That is why Paul called it "Enemy," not friend.
Of course, we are pretty good at denial. We think we'll jog ourselves to perennial health. Or vitamins will stave off this enemy for years to come. Or, there's always cryogenics. How futile! A number of years ago, as a part of a research project, a hospital chaplain asked a classroom full of R.N.s to each fill in a blank death certificate – and they were to name themselves as the deceased. The chaplain was astonished at the response. Some got up and left the room. Some began to weep. Those that completed the form, to a person, put the date of death at some unreasonably long time into the future. After all, who is afraid of something that is 100 years away? Denying that death will be here any time soon doesn't solve the problem. Oh, if it were only true that death would never really come!
I began to ask the Lord about these feelings I was having. Is there not an answer? Is there not a solution for this greatest of human dilemmas? Ah, Easter! What an answer. Not denying death-not defying death — but defeating death. Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures — He was buried — He was raised on the third day.
God started answering my prayers about this existential crisis — this fear of death. As I was driving to a preaching assignment, I reflected on the verse just preceding Hebrews 2:15. It says, Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death — that is, the devil. And then verse 15, And free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. As I ascended the mountains of east Tennessee, my spirit soared, reveling in the freedom given by the One who conquered death and bids me join in His victory. Easter indeed. Indeed!
As I reflected, I composed the following:
Don't be afraid of Master Death,
Whose visage steals the calm repose,
From anxious eyes that cannot close,
And chokes the rhythm of your breath.
Don't be afraid to face the truth:
We go the way of all the earth;
A journey starting at our birth,
Which mutes the melodies of youth.
Don't be afraid of midnight's chime,
That bids this reaper to your door,
When you're the one the bell tolls for,
And mourners weep for you this time.
Don't be afraid when he enslaves,
Your fragile life by fear of dying.
In human flesh, for your soul vying,
Came Christ who by His rising saves.
Don't be afraid! The Savior sings,
The chant that sets the pris'ner free:
"Where is, O Grave, thy victory?
Pray tell, O Death, where is thy sting?"