Sudden, premature, Death is the great equalizer. Both for those who die and those they leave behind.
For those who die, suddenly, everything they were, or weren’t, did, or didn’t do, is finished. Their dreams, their opinions, their loves, their hates, their things and their family, all stay behind. The prince and the pauper meet the same fate. None is greater than the other and the earth swallows both.
For those who live, suddenly, everything that meant something now means less. The world stops. Priorities change. Things that didn’t mean so much, like small conversations, hugs, “I appreciate yous” or the game of golf you skipped for work…now take precedent over work, money, or any problem you thought mattered before your loved one passed away.
Death makes us all equal and it equalizes all things. It crudely displays the valueless nature of our system of values and the value of things we once took for granted.
Here, at the arrival of my father’s death, two main questions began to emerge.
First, how can something this unjust happen to someone who didn’t deserve this fate now, given all the work he still had to do? How can I process such an unjust death? It simply isn’t just and there are no theological jumping jacks that can make it so.
My dad had no vices, relatively healthy, in good shape, and no medical history of cardiac issues. The very thing we never thought would kill him did, while people who abuse their bodies, cannot move due to obesity, and are walking diabetic laboratories get more time on earth.
My father’s death is a miscarriage of cosmic justice.
Some people say it’s because God has timing that we can’t understand. I heard this from many folks during the weeks following his death.
Me? I call that stupid. If it sounds stupid when you say it, it probably is.
God had nothing to do with my dad dying. He was human and had an unfortunate internal chemistry that led to a tragic event. These other people that are alive and shouldn’t be? These walking diabetic laboratories or people who have abused their bodies with vices for decades…these people? They are just lucky. Somehow, I don’t think God kills the good ones and leaves the negligent ones as if to reward their abuse of creation.
And if God does do that? Well, when I get to the pearly gates I’ll say “thanks but no thanks” because I couldn’t stand to be around a being that capricious for eternity. When Ecclesiastes tells us that it rains on the just and the unjust that is simply what it is. There is no reason for it. Its life, even in a world created by God.
The second question I asked, however, was concerning meaning. It is almost laughable how death turned me back toward those foundational questions of religion and philosophy: What is the meaning of life and what is my role in it? Furthermore, how do I know my answer to these questions is true once given?
Before my dad passed, I thought I knew the meaning of life; I thought I could give someone a satisfactory answer to the question if they’d asked. Afterward…immediately afterward? I was left without a good answer. What meaning is there? Where is meaning to be found if in an instant death can rupture creation and render all meaning endowed with life meaningless? We give the world meaning by what we invest in and love, yet all our investment and love can come to an abrupt end without warning! In an instant, the meaning maker that is the human being can be made meaningless.
Through my father’s death I came face to face with the meaninglessness of meaning. When he died, suddenly, the meaning I had endowed with work and the problems at work were whisked away. The meaning I had ascribed to my education, my fitness, my calling, my professional life, etc., all mattered no more than a pile of manure. Human resource problems, customer complaints, goals for the new year, my to do list for the week, papers I wanted to write, pursuing my Doctorate of Ministry, reading any books, caring about ministry, having fun, etc., etc., it all disappeared and didn’t matter.
Everything that I thought meant something…now, meant nothing, thus leaving me to ask, “Did it all mean anything to begin with then?”
I know, I know, some people will say this is grief, depression, the low water mark of dealing with loss. To an extent, I agree.
However, as I have now had nearly 8 weeks to contemplate the sudden death of my father, I have come to realize that it is not simply his sudden departure that makes me feel this way. It’s not that my melancholy leads me to these conclusions. Rather, it is the revelation that just as he died, so could I, and without notice, and in that moment, all the things I am doing become meaningless. All my cares, worries, , loves and accomplishments can be just as suddenly buried…and within months or years my family will move on without me…living. Within days, most of the general public will no longer care I am dead.
To pass away is to be dead to the world, our terminal condition revealed for what it is.
This is what death is: it is the cessation of existence in time, the loss of consciousness, the death of what makes us an “I.” To echo Robert Jenson here, to think otherwise is to cheat and think death as not death…in which case it isn’t really death we’re thinking and I’m not sure what we are thinking about death if we don’t truly think of it as being dead.
This is what makes the ant hill of human civilization and society meaningless: that all our striving and loving all ends the same and could do so without a warning.
How does one get excited about anything knowing this Grim Reaper lingers so close, even closer than those of us in our youth care to imagine? How can one invest time reading complex theory or engaging in banal political or theological discourse knowing that none of that can change the place we are all going? How can we be stupidly consumed with sports and entertainment when it all mounts to nothing more than a distraction of our pending death? It’s as if we are simply wasting our time to simply pass the time until it is our time.
As I have pondered both these questions (the injustice of my father’s death and the meaninglessness of life), I have found myself in Ecclesiastes. Like the Psalter, prior to my father’s passing, Ecclesiastes was a book to be studied, something to be understood with the mind, not felt with the heart. I could ascend to what the author says by simply knowing what the words and phrases meant…yet after this tragedy I now realize I didn’t know then what I know now. Now, I get it.
Myself and the Preacher are blood brothers.
We all know the famous phrase the Preacher uses, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” The message is simple: one day we will die and all our toil is for naught. Everything turns out to be as a vapor, here for a moment, and then gone. Human life is no exception.
There is no better time to read Ecclesiastes than after a tragic loss because the Preacher is saying what many of us our thinking, and thankfully, his piety doesn’t keep him from saying it or our forefathers from making it Scripture.
Thus, as I revisited him I began to know for the first time what he was saying and I began asking him, “Then why do anything? If all is vanity, why act at all?”
Then, I came to chapter 9. He paints us this bleak picture:
For I have taken all this to my heart and explain it that righteous men, wise men, and their deeds are in the hand of God. Man does not know whether it will be love or hatred; anything awaits him.2 It is the same for all. There is one fate for the righteous and for the wicked; for the good, for the clean and for the unclean; for the man who offers a sacrifice and for the one who does not sacrifice. As the good man is, so is the sinner; as the swearer is, so is the one who is afraid to swear. 3 This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that there is one fate for all men. Furthermore, the hearts of the sons of men are full of evil and insanity is in their hearts throughout their lives. Afterwards they go to the dead. 4 For whoever is joined with all the living, there is hope; surely a live dog is better than a dead lion. 5 For the living know they will die; but the dead do not know anything, nor have they any longer a reward, for their memory is forgotten. 6 Indeed their love, their hate and their zeal have already perished, and they will no longer have a share in all that is done under the sun.”
In this passage, the preacher and I are speaking the same language. I get it. This makes complete sense. In the face of complete hopelessness there is simply more hopelessness, especially with death the fate of all, the fate of the one who tries their hardest and for the biggest slacker on the planet. For the Holy man and the indulgent sinner.
What I find most amusing is that one of the most famous passage in Ecclesiastes, the kind of verse that make its way on desk ornamentations and in Pathway Bookstore pictures, Ecclesiastes 9:10, isn’t near as cute as it seems. In an apparent betrayal of how it is used, however, we find the answer to complete meaninglessness and vanity.
9.10 reads, “Whatever your hands find to do, do it with all your might.” This is usually where the verse stops and we like to use it as encouragement to do our best for God, you know, gird up that Protestant work ethic and work hard. If God wants anything, it’s a hard worker.
In fact, when I had shared about how sudden death had made life purposeless and meaningless, I was told by one person, “well, that’s one way to look at it. The other way is to see that life is given meaning by doing everything for God.” I get it. I understand the sentiment and why you need to tell yourself that…but that didn’t suffice for me. It didn’t sit well with the Preacher of Ecclesiastes either. I needed an earthier answer.
Why should you do with all your might everything your hands find to do?
The answer is in the second half of 9.10, “for there is no activity or planning or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol where you are going.”
No wonder the whole verse isn’t sold at Pathway. Verses 11-12 further impress the message:
I again saw under the sun that the race is not to the swift and the battle is not to the warriors, and neither is bread to the wise nor wealth to the discerning nor favor to men of ability; for time and chance overtake them all. 12 Moreover, man does not know his time: like fish caught in a treacherous net and birds trapped in a snare, so the sons of men are ensnared at an evil time when it suddenly falls on them.
When read in context, the flowery passage of doing with all your might what your hands find has a very dark connotation: You will one day die and then you can do nothing. Further, even if you do heed the advice of 9.10 it really doesn’t matter, for the battle does not always go to the one who does it with all their might. Life is fleeting. Random evils overtake us all. Use your hands while they can be used because your righteous life will end just an evil life.
My father did not know he was going to die. I suspect he never knew what happened to him. When he stood before God he was probably as shocked as anyone to find himself there. He was hit so quickly by an unknown force he could do nothing to stop it. Like Ecclesiastes says, “Man does not know his time…time and chance overtake them all.”
The night my father died he was that fish caught in a net, unsuspecting, yet still caught. Living life, swimming, yet death was lurking in the shadows.
Where is meaning in this? Why care? Why go on? Why learn, why act, why be, when Ecclesiastes (and life itself!) teaches us that righteous men and evil men have the same fate…and the just are done unjustly while the unjust are dealt justice?
Why? Ecclesiastes answers: Because to not live, to not do with all your might what your hands finds to do, is to already be dead. We are alive. We are creatures. We must do with our bodies the most that we can because one day our bodies will do nothing. We should live because we are alive. There is plenty of time to do nothing when we are dead.
Our doing is our protest against death.
Yes, we are stuck in a universe that is random. We are blips on the universal screen, here only momentarily, yet we are here. We are alive. We are not uncreated but God thought it worthwhile to create even if every created thing also has a created end. For only something alive can “fear God and keep his commandments.” (12.13)
Scripture says that death is the final foe; it is not a friend. It is not something we should run toward but should deny as long as possible by engaging in life vigorously and unabashedly.
I know many of us look for grandiose answers to our simple questions, but sometimes, the answer is just as simple: Live now for when you are dead there will be no activity. Embrace life while you can embrace it.
There is no feeling like suddenly losing a loved one without any preparation. It is a special kind of hell. I never understood how a tragic event can suddenly render the world obsolete until now.
Ironically, however, in losing one world I have gained another. I have been given a new love for my family. I deeply hurt over the loss of my dad and I hate that he is not here. I literally hate it. I still go back and forth between acceptance and denial. Waves of grief still hit when I think of all he’ll miss, of moments when I want to talk to him, of time I wish I had been a better son. I hate that I did not get to say goodbye.
But now, I cherish my family more. I hug them more. I kiss my kid’s goodnight more often (even though a couple are 11). I let my 2-year-old girl drag me around the house and play silly games that I really don’t have time to play because I really don’t have the time to not play with her. I am more kind to people. For the few men in my life that are my best friends, we tell one another we love each more frequently. I am not as angry and frustrated with work as I had been before his death even though work has now become more daunting. I am reprioritizing my life around what I value the most when all values lose value. I am making an effort to be more loving, more empathetic, more understanding. With the help of God, I am trying to be an incarnation of love to those around me and I am trying to give myself to others, my friends and my family, because one day I will be dead. I am trying to live as if tomorrow will not happen…and if it doesn’t I want to leave it all on the field, so to speak.
I am trying to do with all my might what my hands find to do because that is all I can do as a creature and as one that with each moment alive must tell death, “not yet.”