At the start of October, a lone sniper opened fire on a crowd in Las Vegas, Nevada. At the beginning of November, a shooter entered a church in Texas and opened fire on the congregation. Both of these happened as I was in the middle of my post-op, healing journey. Though not special in the history of tragedy, these events did have a peculiar element in common: death was dealt indiscriminately and without the presence of an enemy. Though it did not come in the usual way, it brought the usual outcome: enfolding young and old, man and woman, all colors, all creeds, and all walks of life in its permanent embrace.
Death has shadowed and shaped my thoughts in many ways these last few months. Does it matter whether I die in a shooting, a mugging, an accident, an illness, or old age? Dead is dead, and dead is inevitable. How it comes is no longer relevant once it comes. When the Hereafter arrives, I doubt anyone stands complaining about how he/she got there. Thus, I have come to believe that the real tragedy of death is not in the dying, but in the living.
Lest you think me either confused or calloused, give me a moment.
Why do we mourn? On one level, we grieve that which is lost to us or to someone we love. Death is an assault on the fabric of life. Whether it comes gently (as in age and illness), or violently (as in accident and assult), the hole it leaves behind is real. “Your life is not your own,” as many have said. We are each connected to so many others by relationships spun from the invisible threads of word and deed, experience, memory, and responsibility. The final cut that severs these threads is painful, and the emptiness left behind is palpable. It ripples through the threads even to those beyond the edge of the hole. Those who remain are left to cover and close the gap as best they know how. Loss, however, is only the first kind of pain.
There is another kind of pain that hangs on the heart of every mourner by a grave. “She was so young. She never got a chance!” “He had so much left to live for.” “She was such a help to the community, such a role-model.” “He was just starting to get his life sorted out. Why this?” “Why couldn’t she change?” “Why would he choose to leave me behind?” Standing at the edge of the grave, we cannot help but face the truth of the life lived … or not yet lived … or never lived. When youths die, we grieve that they had so little opportunity. We scorn the years of pain that they have avoided, and grieve all they have missed: a chance to know love, joy, and wonder. When elders die, we reflect on the quality of of the life lived. Was she patient? Was he kind? Was she bitter? Was he self-obsessed? We may praise the good qualities of the one we lay to rest, but in our hearts, we weigh all the hard and ugly truths as well. We grieve, not only for the loss of the person, but for the cumulative losses of the life. This is the subtle question that death asks of every mourner: how did he/she live? Riding the coattails of this question: how are you living? It is possible to waste a life.
In Luke’s account of the life of Jesus, he tells a story of when Jesus responded to two tragic current events. Some Jews from Galilee had recently been slaughtered by the occupying Roman authorities, and their blood mixed with sacrifices in the temple. A double tragedy – death and sacrilege. In a different and unrelated event, a group had been killed when a tower collapsed. Those who were with Jesus asked, were these people bad because they died in this way? Did they somehow deserve this ending? Jesus responds with an emphatic, “I tell you no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Luke 13:3) The Galileans who were murdered were no better or worse than others. Neither were those who had died in the accident. Their specific death was not the point. To explain, he follows up with a story about a tree that never bears fruit, and the patience of the gardner who begs to give it another year. Pastor John Piper rephrases Jesus’ answer like this: “The amazing thing is not that they have died, but that you have lived!” You get more time! Death is coming to all. How then will you live?
Every day we live is another day of grace, a divine forbearance, an opportunity to seek life and to nourish others. Will we persist in our anger, our bitterness, our self-righteous independence? Will we spend our precious days shaking our fist at the sky? At God? At humanity, our parents, our siblings, our spouses, our children, our exes, our country, our leaders, our teachers? Will we wallow in despair? Resign ourselves to cynicism?
We cannot know the minds and hearts of the shooters in Vegas and Texas. What little we do know though (and what we might safely guess) is that, in these two lives, anger and despair came to fruition in the form of madness and violence. The most profound tragedy of all was not that many died, but that these two lives had so long been emptied of hope, joy, peace, courage, and love.
And so I mourn, but not like those who have no hope. I grieve the losses and failures of lives variously spent, my own included, but there is a greater peace. Jesus’ death was not a tragedy. It was a triumph of a life lived in perfect harmony with God’s love, power, justice, and peace – redeeming even those who drove the nails into his hands. Redeeming love: may this be my theme for as many days as I have left.
“Be careful how you live, not as unwise, but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.” Eph. 5:15,16
“Teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Ps. 90:12