Some people have an aura. I’m not talking about spooky New Age weirdness here. Some people just radiate a vibe, and you don’t have to be a swami to pick up on it. Joe was like that. If you could take a picture of quite joy mixed with contented serenity, it would look like Joe. I am pretty sure Joe was not always joyful and serene, especially during his chemo treatments. But you would never know it from looking at him or listening to him, because I never heard him complain.
I was shocked yesterday morning when I opened the email that announced Joe’s death. I shouldn’t have been. Joe was past 80 and had been ill for a long while. But every time I thought of Joe, in my mind’s eye he was sitting in my class, always in the same spot four rows back on the end, with a steady gaze, a gentle smile and that vibe. He just never looked like someone who was about to die.
Having Joe in the class was pure joy. I encourage the class members to speak up (I won’t call them students, because I’m sure I learn more from them than they do from me). Joe didn’t speak often, but when he did he always gave us a gem. Joe was one of those people who, when he spoke, we were better people for having listened. I will miss him.
As I read the email yesterday tears began running down my face. I walked out to the living room where LK was holding the grandbaby on her lap. I told her the news and knelt beside her, and we wept together as I prayed: “Lord, say hello to Joe for me. Tell him we will be there soon, and we will join him in basking in your unspeakable light. I am sad, but my sadness is tinged with joy, because our friend Joe is with you.”
The Teacher says, “the day you die is better than the day you are born.” To those who are perishing this makes no sense. To them death is a horror, and many of them make up silly stories in sad efforts to stave off their terror. Stories like: “We gain immortality by living on in the memories of our loved ones.” I don’t know why anyone would spew this obviously false drivel. My loved ones’ memories of me are not me, so I plainly do not live on in those memories. And even if somehow I did, a moment’s reflection reveals the story is very cold comfort indeed. You have eight great great grandfathers. Quick: Do you know even one of their names? I’m pretty sure over 99% of people can’t say yes to that question, and even among those who can, they don’t really know anything about the man other than the bare vital statistics. A “living on” that evaporates in a couple of generations is meaningless.
In what sense then is the day of my death better than the day of my birth? For the Christian the answer to that question is easy. We are born into pain and grief. “Yet man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward.” But we die into glory. In his letter to his friends in Philippi Paul wrote:
to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.
Death holds no horror for the Christian. At best our attitude about it is ambivalent; we may even prefer it. Yes, we have work to do. But won’t it be wonderful when we lay our burdens down and go to see the King.
Joe is there now. I envy him that. But even as the tears flowed, my hope was buoyed and my spirit soared as I thought about an old song we used to sing. It begins, “soon and very soon, we are going to see the King!” Our life is a vapor; then eternity. That thought can be a horror or a joy depending on which side of Pascal’s Wager you have taken.