Old friends buried their son a week ago today— at twenty-two-years-old, his death in a gun accident was unlooked for— a painful understatement. Words like tragic, awful, and heart-wrenching come to mind but fall short of the abrupt end-of-life-as-we-know-it reality. We fall headlong off the cliff of unlooked for disasters. The death of the young seems such a waste and contradiction of our normal expectations. In the typical ebb and flow of life we expect things to continue as they are, change occurring slowly, like leaves turning color in the Fall. Sudden death of the young is a painful and unexpected slap in the face at times in which we otherwise expect equanimity It’s in times of war or famine, plagues or natural disasters that the unplanned for death becomes more common.
In peace, sons bury their fathers. In war, fathers bury their sons. ~Herodotus
In my days as a fire fighter, the death of the young was, if not typical, common enough that it often lost some of its surprise. The thirty-something-year-old man dead in his pickup truck, flipped upside down in a stream bed; the nineteen-year-old girl, literally dying before my eyes with two gunshot wounds through her back; a two-year-old boy dying despite every effort to resuscitate him, eventually realizing a piece of furniture foam was stuck in his throat; these deaths and others like them taught me, as words in a book never did, that every day is a gift and none of us knows the day of our death. Returning home after such calls I would tell my daughters— live every day like it’s your last.
Said Rabbi Eliezer: Repent one day before your death. Asked his disciples: Does a man know on which day he will die? Said he to them: So being the case, he should repent today, for perhaps tomorrow he will die; hence, all his days are passed in a state of repentance.
Moses was called to serve Yahweh at 80 years old and continued in that service to 120. He saw the death of a generation as Israel slowly trod, and died, through the wilderness. His take on life, and death, in Psalm 90 is helpful:
3 You turn man back into dust And say, “Return, O children of men.”
5….In the morning they are like grass which sprouts anew.
6 In the morning it flourishes and sprouts anew;
Toward evening it fades and withers away…
10 As for the days of our life, they contain seventy years,
Or if due to strength, eighty years,
Yet their pride is but labor and sorrow;
For soon it is gone and we fly away.
11 Who understands the power of Your anger
And Your fury, according to the fear that is due You?
12 So teach us to number our days,
That we may present to You a heart of wisdom.
Moses said that coming to terms with death, with its inevitability, its finality, its awful reality, was the means to living wisely in the short time we’re given on this earth. The truth is that a life that spans one year, or ten, or one-hundred-and-ten, is in the longer view of things as brief as the life of a blade of grass, abruptly and disappointingly short. In light of that brevity, wisdom means coming to grips with the God Moses recognized as being in control of our days and our breaths.
Like Moses, Solomon also considered life in its brevity and left us similar words to frame our thinking:
Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth… the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it…. when all has been heard: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil. Ecclesiastes 12
Our sympathies go out to our friends and their family in the face of this abrupt loss. But we also have a certain hope with them that death is not the end of this story, or ours. Jesus promised his friends that those who believed in Him would have a hope that transcends life on the earth and it’s brevity—
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?” John 11:24-25
Hearts of wisdom recognize both the awful brevity of this life, but greater, the glorious reality of the eternal day Jesus has instituted in His resurrection and our future in it, when all tears are wiped away and fullness of joy replaces all earthly sorrows.