When I was interviewing at the first church where I would serve as Rector, I was told of a physician in the congregation who wanted to meet me. “You’ll be the person who buries me,” he told me when I called on him, “so I want to get to know you fast.” He was a middle aged man who had a severe form of cancer and he died a few months later. Before his funeral, however, there were a couple more: a suicide and a sudden onset of disease. In my first year there, I buried more people than had died in the past ten years in the parish’s history. Most of the deaths in my tenure there were untimely. There was the 16 year old who was killed in an automobile accident. I still dream about the night in the hospital with that family. There was the 18 month old who died of a rare lung disease. I can still close my eyes and hear the sobbing of that mother in the hospital. In that parish, there weren’t that many who grew old and died of natural causes.
Untimely deaths continue. So many memories exist for me; where I was standing when I received phone calls informing me of deaths; embracing parents who couldn’t understand why their child had been taken away from them; standing around beds in hospitals with families stunned by events spun out of control; car wrecks; suicides, even homicides.
More and more I have begun to include on the list of untimely deaths the people who have lived so long as to exceed any real quality of life. Modern medicine has found so many ways to extend life that now we often feel that we are just prolonging death. There are many people, even in my small circle, who feel they have lived too long. One of my favorite centenarians, Lucy Oliver Coleman, who died about this time of year in 2007, used to say: “Everyone tells me how great it is that I’m a hundred; there’s nothing good about it!” More and more of us are finding ourselves bed ridden in our final months, even years, unable to do any of the things that we love to do.
These untimely sorts of deaths, living or having loved ones live longer than minds or bodies are recognizable, are so difficult on everyone involved. People suffering are ready to die and want to die. They don’t pray to get better; they pray to be taken mercifully. Surrounding loved ones also pray for mercy and typically feel much guilt as they struggle with the issues of death taking so very long to occur.
Assisted suicides and forms of euthanasia are more common these days. Ethicists argue about the rightness or wrongness of such actions. We may understand them to be compassionate or blasphemous. To pursue such an end is an admission of the difficulty of untimeliness itself.
Untimely deaths, those occurring too soon or those taking too long, put us in such uncomfortable circumstances. We are out of control. Frustration, anger, sadness, despair, and panic become the landscape. There is little to do but adjust to things day by day, hour by hour. Inevitably we question God’s timing and we yearn for an easier path both for our loved ones and ourselves.
Some grow much closer to God in such times. They do battle with things beyond their control and they come to rest in their faith. Later they talk about how being forced to live with no answers helped them appreciate the quietness and steadiness of the creator. They embrace the mystery. Others grow cynical and lose their faith, coming to believe that God is either uncaring or unable to help us in our suffering. Some take untimely deaths so very personally. Others seem to accept them as further reminders that suffering is part of living.
The gospel offers hope. There we see struggle and death leading to joy and life. Going through hard times somehow leads us to a life that is better than it was before we struggled. We are deepened and made more compassionate. Patience and quiet strength evolves. As with other things in life, we find that taking what comes to us each day forms something within us that is beyond our making. As we do combat with the power we acknowledge to be higher than us, we admit that a higher power is real. That’s actually the first step in faith. First we acknowledge that there is something bigger than us. And over time we develop the sense that this higher power is kindly affectioned toward us.
The cross of Christ is an untimely death. You and I experience it as well. God doesn’t explain it all to us. But untimely deaths do not chase God away. Not everything that occurs is what God wants or when God wants it. But nothing that occurs can defeat God. That is the ultimate lesson of untimely deaths. Acceptance requires daily practice and we don’t have to do it perfectly. Those things that are bigger than us present us with an immovable force that lead us to acceptance. And in that messy process we find the arms of a loving God.
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.