About a month ago, my father gave me a copy of my own will to read over before we left for my great-aunt’s funeral. Suffice it to say, I did a lot of thinking about death that weekend.
It was a lovely service, but then came the moment that I always dreaded. I hate looking into the casket and seeing the waxy, lifeless body of the person I had once known. Their features are fixed in place, caked with a garish sort of makeup, and you can tell that there is no spark there. “It doesn’t look like her,” I whispered to my father. “That’s because it isn’t,” he returned.
That’s why I hate looking in there. I understand why it happens, as a final farewell and to give closure to the grieved. But you can tell when you look that something has left. Everything that made up their personality, their tiny quirks, opinions, and Great Loves has gone. Their soul has left that flimsy, mortal shell and entered into eternity.
A storm was brewing on our way to the funeral, ominous in the distance. It split the sky into dark and light geometrics on our right, fading from black to white on the left. We were in Oklahoma, and it looked very honestly as though some of the clouds would touch down.
My family was worried. My brother hates tornadoes. I turned to him and asked him what the worst thing that could happen was. “Uh, we all die a horrible death?” he replied. I met his eyes. “Is that all?”
Because for the believer, death does not hold the same dreadful power that it once did. It’s a crossing over from one dimension to the next – the vehicle that takes us (in a Narnian vocabulary) to Aslan’s Country. “Death opens a door,” says C.S. Lewis, “out of a little, dark room (that’s all the life we have known before it) into a great, real place where the true sun shines and we shall meet.”
We no longer fear death, because all it can threaten is a better life than the one we have known here. Eternity with God lies on the other side, and it is magnificent. As someone once pointed out to me, life on earth is as close to hell as the Christian will ever be. And if life here is so beautiful even despite the decay and depravity of this world, can you imagine what heaven will be like? This world is but a dim reflection of the next, and eternity is being in God’s presence forever.
Just as we need not fear the consequence of death, we can also have faith in its timing. And that’s scary, too, because there’s so much we want to do here, so many people we’re connected to, and so much life we want to live. But I have realized this: if God takes me, then He will be even more glorified in my death. If I die tomorrow, it simply means that my time here is finished and that my work here is done. As long as there is still breath in my lungs and blood running in my veins, I have a mission. The only reason I am still alive right now is because God has not finished with me here.
This summer I was driving my friend back to her house, moaning as we hit our third red light in a row. She answered, “Maybe God just wants us to spend more time together.” I laughed. “No, seriously,” she said.
I think I forget how much of my life God has planned out. He is a God of big pictures, but He is also a God of precise details. There are so many reasons why we could have hit those lights. What if we would have gotten in an accident if I’d gone through – and died?
I wondered then with shock – how many times has God saved my life without me even knowing? How many details, breaths, or decisions could have resulted in my death had they been even slightly different?
My mortality stares me in the face at times like these – at funerals, during car rides, at night when I stare up at the shelves above my bed. But I can stare back, unafraid and unangered. I do not despair at death because I know that there is life beyond its threshold. And it hurts, and the grief is almost too much to handle, and we don’t understand why God has Death take our loved ones when He does. All I can say is that He knows better than we do.
One of the reasons that I love The Book Thief so much is that its narrator, Death, is not depicted as evil, but as tired, sad, and haunted by humans. Death is only the messenger, and he is an old friend. He tips his hat in my direction and I nod in his, knowing that he does his job without spite. He takes each soul and carries it gently at its perfectly ordained time. I watch him pass, and he acknowledges me, and I know that when the day arrives when he comes for me, my work here will be finished, and I will have nothing to fear from him.
“Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,
But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.
Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;
For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.”
“Crossing the Bar”, Alfred Lord Tennyson