Every once in a while I become convinced my husband is going to die. Or that he already has died and a state trooper is on her way to tell me about it. It happens when he has his phone turned off and a text languishes for an hour without a reply. It happens when he’s late to meet me at the gym or when he has a surprise meeting and I go to the church building to talk to him and he’s not there.
Surely, he’s dead.
[While this is entirely unhealthy, it is also a natural consequence of my brother’s sudden death in a car accident. Ever since that day I have lived with the constant and persistent awareness that anyone could (and may very well) die at any moment.]
A long time ago I realized I needed to do something to calm myself down until I could make contact with Justin and verify his alive-ness. Prayer would be good. Or reading my Bible. Instead, I did something I’ve now done more than fifty times. Are you ready for some serious vulnerability? I planned his funeral.
Yeah. I know. It’s creepy. But it calmed me down. I thought of all the people who love him who’d want to participate. I thought through his favorite songs and passages of scripture. I thought about which picture of him I’d use for the little funeral program. Later, after I’d done this a dozen times, I started getting creative and re-thinking funerals all together. What if we just all hike to the top of a mountain and throw his ashes into the wind? Or maybe I could buy a field and bury him there in a wooden box and dig the grave myself…
Y’all, I am strange.
I’ve wondered for a long time why planning Justin’s funeral gave me so much peace and I think I’ve finally figured it out. It has to do with control…
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I hate death. HATE it. Every time we see death depicted in the Bible it is an evil. We Christians sometimes get mixed up about death because what comes in the millisecond after death is so good. But we need to know that isn’t death. It’s life after death, life in spite of death. What we experience beyond the body and later in a renewed, transformed body is the result of victory over death.
Death is always a bad guy.
Because I hate him/her/it so much, I’ve tried to numb myself to its offenses, to act like the death of people I love isn’t such a big deal, like it doesn’t hurt. This is where the funeral-planning comes in. I plan Justin’s funeral to prove to myself that I’m ready for it, that I could bear it should it come, that death can’t touch me.
And in those moments, moments I’ve quasi-lived, on a mountain releasing my husband’s ashes, or in a field digging his grave, I’ve felt strong, in control. Like I have the enemy locked in a cell.
But that’s not what’s happening at all. I realized recently, instead of letting death surprise me in a moment, as it certainly will, I’ve let death seep into every moment, grieving what need not be grieved. In trying to get control over the inevitable pain death will bring, I’ve lived that pain a hundred fold.
Last year I went to Huntsville for a friend’s funeral. As I sat with her husband, we talked about death, about the hope in Christ’s resurrection and the simultaneous not-yet of ours. He said, “Death is the final enemy.” He said, “We’re not done fighting.’
He was quoting Paul in I Corinthians 15: “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”
Sometimes we Christians pretend death has been defeated, but according to Paul that’s not true.
He says in verse 54, “When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
When the resurrection happens, when every child of God is clothed with the imperishable, then victory is declared.
We know the victory is coming, but it hasn’t come yet.
So what does that mean for me?
- When people I love die…
- When I become convinced someone I love will die…
- When I read about a war in Sudan and thousands dead…
- When I get a diagnosis…
What do I do when I stand toe to toe with death?
I can’t be sure, but, when I listen to God’s word, I think I’m being called to fight.
In The Hunger Games there’s this scene where Peeta (one of the children being asked to kill other children in a barbarous Colliseum-esque game) asks his mentor, Haymitch, for advice. Haymitch says, “Here’s some advice: Stay alive.”
And I’ll tell you, that’s some of the best advice you’ll ever hear.
Alive in God
Alive in Christ
Alive in the Spirit
Drink from the water of life and eat from the tree of life and share the bread of life.
The best weapon in a fight with death is life, and life is exactly what we’ve been given.
Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”
Christians fight death with life every day, all over the globe, translating the Bible into all the world’s languages, praying for the persecuted, feeding the hungry, educating the helpless, freeing the enslaved. We fight death by actively opposing senseless killing, in all its forms.
And we fight death by grieving differently than others grieve. With hope.
We can fight death in personal, maybe smaller ways, too.
My friend Karen’s mother recently discovered she had aggressive cancer. While she could have spent the holidays crying and wondering why, she decided instead to take a cruise with the entire family—kids, spouses, grandkids. Everyone smiles in the pictures.
She’s alive, and she’s living.
My friend Belinda told me before she died that it was clear God wanted her alive. She said, “God could have taken me already, but I’m alive. And I must be alive for a reason.”
So she kept living—mentoring young women, sharing the gospel with her Hospice nurses.
Fighting death with life means living, really living our lives. It means getting out of bed and putting down the phone and eating real food. It means loving people. It means being present in the moment and banishing worry. It means laughing and crying and feeling.
For me, the best way to fight death today might be a walk in the sunshine, refusing to waste the rare beautiful winter day by staying inside. It might be drinking water instead of Diet Coke, knowing which one makes my body feel better, my mind clearer. It might be watching my girls play on the swing instead of worrying how I’ll pay for college one day.
And should I get it in my head, for no real reason, that Justin Gerhardt has been in a fatal car accident, I’ll decide not to plan a funeral, but to bake him ooey gooey butter cookies to enjoy when he comes home from work.