Death is too big for us. “…Three things are never satisfied; four never say ‘Enough’: Sheol, the barren womb, the land never satisfied with water, and the fire that never says, ‘Enough.’” (Prov. 30:15-16) One of the most important turning points in my life was when a high school friend collapsed on the football field. Five days later the church was filled with family, friends, and classmates as our teammate’s corpse lay motionless in the open casket. It was then, in that pew, a strong shadow overwhelmed my adolescent aspirations. Death was too big for me. For some years up to that point I had not taken my Christian faith seriously. Death’s hand fixed my gaze upon the casket. “Where will you go,” it asked, “where I will not find you? What will you do, oh man, that will thwart my hand?” I had no answer. But I left the service with a question: “How then shall I live?” Death is indeed too big for us; it is the kind of thing “goeth not out by prayer and fasting.” (Math. 17:21)
Life is too big for us. “Three things are too wonderful for me; four I do not understand: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a serpent on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a virgin.” (Prov. 30:18-19) In an adverse way, life is indeed too big for us. We cannot be left to our own devices to determine the thing. I left my teammate’s funeral service knowing I had not the requisite power or goodness to conquer death, and I likewise had not the requisite power or goodness to determine how I ought to then live. My adolescent aspirations had a myriad of roads before it, and running from death was not a viable and long-term option for a life well-lived. To decide that would require wisdom, of which I had little. As a father, the pressure to now help this other person get along in life is very real. And the world’s answers are overwhelming. Life is indeed too big for us.
Death and life require holy relationships. After Jesus’ resurrection, every account of a young and fledgling church is an account not of individuals determining how they might spiritually walk straight paths; every account is of a people, a community, a new society, a new family, a new institution under a new covenant. They had just tasted a new death: the crucified God. And yet they had just tasted a new life: the second Adam as the “firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” (1Cor. 15:20). Two-thousand years later and the Holy Spirit continues to indwell this community, often times tightly within families. The past twenty-four hours I have been vividly reminded that the purpose of life is to build and strengthen holy relationships, that these two recurring events—life and death—are to be done alongside those for whom life and death are too big. These are the moments when the Church is strengthened, even defined, by “seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” (2Cor. 4:4)
Death is our son’s end. “As he came from his mother’s womb he shall again go, naked as he came, and shall take nothing for his toil that he may carry away in his hand.” (Eccl. 5:15) and “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart.” (Eccl. 7:2) Pawpaw B’s death happening so close to Benjamin’s birth reminds us that we as parents have one, single, and holy duty: to prepare Benjamin for a death well-died, and that means living a life well-lived. This reality need not be morbid. Every moment of our son’s life, from his first breath (which I heard just a few short hours ago), through his education, and into his relationships and vocation, will be one grand preparation for him coming to grips with his humanity, particularly his mortality and its defining features of how he spends his life. This is the way of Jesus: “…though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Php. 2:6-8) This is the culmination of the ideal Easter, the first and real Easter. This is one of the first recognized ironies of Benjamin’s middle name: Alban, in honor of St. Alban.
Life is Pawpaw’s beginning. “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.” (John 5:24) Benjamin’s birth happening so close to Pawpaw’s death reminds us that the grave is an unwombing of this earthly life, that Pawpaw B had been formed and fashioned by his temporal and earthly life so that he would enter into that eternal and heavenly life, delivered into new life. Christ “endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Heb. 12:2) We as grandchildren, including Benjamin, may follow in the steadfast and simple faithfulness of a man who did the little things well, thanking God that he would surround us “by so great a cloud of witnesses,” that each of us may “also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” (Heb. 12:1)
Four verses have come to mind throughout the course of this day, verses which show us that without a divine reality, neither death nor birth find meaning. Without an Easter reality, a divine reality is powerless.
“Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” (Rom. 12:15)
This means that building holy relationships means taking God’s narrative seriously, as it unfolds in our own lives and the lives of others. This also means that the house of mourning and the house of feasting spoken of in Ecclesiastes chapter seven may be next door neighbors, one of the houses hosting us in the morning and the other hosting us in the afternoon. But how do we do this without a kind of emotional schizophrenia, rollercoasters which leave us confused about which has the power to dominate the other? The answer is the Lordship of Christ. With our eyes fixed on Easter, we need not worry about either joy or sorrow overwhelming us, either one not getting its proper due at the expense of the other. We may sincerely hold both, just as our Lord sincerely held both: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” (Mat. 26:39)
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted…” (Eccl. 3:1-2) The Lord indeed plants, and the Lord indeed plucks. He plants a life; he plucks a life. This is the power of Christ over life and death.
“A good name is better than precious ointment, and the day of death than the day of birth.” (Eccl. 7:1) I was not there for Pawpaw’s day of birth, and I will likely not be there for Benjamin’s day of death. But I have had the privilege of seeing Pawpaw live as a man with a good name, and I have the privilege of teaching Benjamin to be the same.
“For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (Php. 1:21)
This is indeed the Easter narrative in miniature. Benjamin has been given life so that he would be brought to Christ; Pawpaw B has been brought to the end of his life so that he would gain Christ. There is no other paradigm by which my little family and I could navigate the waters ahead. And there is no other bond which will hold together all those with whom we intend to navigate.
In two days my hands, which have now held my son, will carry a man in a box. These are the hands which in a few sleepless days have raised a child up into the earth and will lay a man down into the heavens. These are the hands which will join with the others to deal with life and death. But I don’t ultimately trust these hands, for they one day will be folded across my own chest; and they are not the ones which were nailed to the cross.