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Reflections on a Friend’s Death

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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.

Dionosio - thanks for giving the context. It shows my suggestion was wrong. Bob O'H
Bob O'H @8:
Another way this could be interpreted is that if one lives a good life, then the world is a better place on the day you die than it was on the day you are born.
The Bible says what it says and it doesn't say what it doesn't say.
"A good name is better than precious ointment, and the day of death than the day of birth." [Ecclesiastes 7:1 (ESV)]
Matthew Henry's Commentary:
In these verses Solomon lays down some great truths which seem paradoxes to the unthinking part, that is, the far greatest part, of mankind. I. That the honour of virtue is really more valuable and desirable than all the wealth and pleasure in this world (Eccl. 7:1): A good name is before good ointment (so it may be read); it is preferable to it, and will be rather chosen by all that are wise. Good ointment is here put for all the profits of the earth (among the products of which oil was reckoned one of the most valuable), for all the delights of sense (for ointment and perfume which rejoice the heart, and it is called the oil of gladness), nay, and for the highest titles of honour with which men are dignified, for kings are anointed. A good name is better than all riches (Prov. 21:1), that is, a name for wisdom and goodness with those that are wise and good—the memory of the just; this is a good that will bring a more grateful pleasure to the mind, will give a man a larger opportunity of usefulness, and will go further, and last longer, than the most precious box of ointment; for Christ paid Mary for her ointment with a good name, a name in the gospels (Matt. 26:13), and we are sure he always pays with advantage. II. That, all things considered, our going out of the world is a great kindness to us than our coming into the world was: The day of death is preferable to the birth-day; though, as to others, there was joy when a child was born into the world, and where there is death there is lamentation, yet, as to ourselves, if we have lived so as to merit a good name, the day of our death, which will put a period to our cares, and toils, and sorrows, and remove us to rest, and joy, and eternal satisfaction, is better than the day of our birth, which ushered us into a world of so much sin and trouble, vanity and vexation. We were born to uncertainty, but a good man does not die at uncertainty. The day of our birth clogged our souls with the burden of the flesh, but the day of our death will set them at liberty from that burden.
Reformation Study Bible provided by Ligonier Ministries:
For the godly, death is “far better” (Phil. 1:23) because they are with Christ.
My condolences, Barry. I know losing someone can be tough.
The Teacher says, “the day you die is better than the day you are born.” To those who are perishing this makes no sense.
Another way this could be interpreted is that if one lives a good life, then the world is a better place on the day you die than it was on the day you are born. From what you write, it is clear that this is true for Joe. Bob O'H
Jesus knows our deepest pain like no one else can know it. He became human and experienced it Himself. Perhaps the shortest verse in the entire NT is one of the strongest demonstration of Christ's perfect human condition that was unfathomably displayed along His full divinity:
Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw Him, she fell at His feet, saying to Him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, He was deeply moved in His spirit and greatly troubled. And He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to Him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept. So the Jews said, “See how He loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not He who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?”
[John 11:32-37 (ESV)]
"The outward expression of sorrow did not leave Jesus unmoved. He shed tears in sympathy for the bereaved." "The questions raised are what sort of power Jesus has and when He will choose to use it. Lazarus was allowed to die and the sisters to mourn, in order that God’s glory might be manifested [...]"
[Reformation Study Bible provided by Ligonier Ministries]
11:35 Jesus wept. The Greek word here has the connotation of silently bursting into tears in contrast to the loud lament of the group [...]
[MacArthur Study Bible (NKJV)]
Barry, Thank you for sharing with us your intimate reflections on such a deeply sad personal moment. The deep pain caused by the loss of a relative or a friend can't be compared to anything else. Perhaps that's a reason why this is one of the biggest stumbling blocks for the so-called "strong" AI. May Joe's relatives and friends find strength, hope and peace in our gracious and loving God. Dionisio
Barry, I know it is painful no matter what one believes in... Please accept my condolences. Q J-Mac
'“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.' Woody Allen would agree with you, Barry. He once quipped, I expect plaintively, if not querulously : 'I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.' Axel
I don't know if I understand you correctly, Mung, but according to the Catholic creed/faith, you are mistaken concerning our being separated at death - except in relation to our purely physical manifestation. In the Communion of Saints, whether dead or alive, through our baptism and the Holy Spirit, and through our prayers, we are in touch with each other in the different realms of existence, as well as with God in his own person. That is assuming we reach heaven. There, we shall be members of the Mystical Body of Christ, of which he is the head, and of which he spoke in terms of the true vine, thereby united in the Holy Trinity, not by our intrinsic nature, but by adoption, as his brothers and sisters. As bona fide NDEs indicate, only our bodies die, the life of our spirit and mind are not even interrupted. In fact, it is usually a while before the NDEer realises he is technically dead, according to the vital signs received by current medicine. It's interesting that, when reassuring Martha, Jesus expressed it this way : "Jesus said to her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live: and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die." - John 11:25 So, first, Jesus acknowledges our physical death, as mortals, then referring to the real life of the spirit, states that it does not die - except in the metaphorical sense in cases of damnation. So often, when speaking about particularly mysterious matter, he prefers to speak in kind of rhetorical declamations, another notable instance being when he speaks of our eating his body and drinking his blood - many then parting company, thinking he must have been referring to cannibalism. Those who remained would have thought well, he sounds daft now, but we've heard enough from him and seen such wonderful signs, it seems sensible to 'put it on the back-burner' and continue to listen to him and learn from. Yes, Barry. The 'family and friends' aspect of our faith is truly wonderful. To me, in the perfect circumstances (of heaven), that alone would be heaven, yet we know it is immeasurably more wonderful, beyond our imagination, particularly, it seems, in terms of love, but also ubiquitous beauty, moral, visual, auditory, olfactory and who knows what else? Ronald Knox, the Bible translator and a convert was said to speak of the notices in the vestibules of our churches to the effect that people should try to keep an eye on their umbrellas..... almost with a certain pride ! You know we're a great bunch of semi-nutters from all walks of life, sinners to a man, but we know we must keep trying ! In fact, I do like to think of our 'Catholic' God as being more like the Old Woman who Lived in a Shoe, than an austere martinet. Axel
Thank you for this reflection. Personal and very moving. Prayers on your loss of such a good friend - and good man. Silver Asiatic
Death teaches us that it is possible to be separated. Separated from those we love, and from those who love us. Death serves as a powerful metaphor then for relationship with God. I love your post Barry. But we have life now, even life eternal. "...and whoever lives by believing in me will never die." Amen Mung

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