I attended the Memorial Service for the fifteen-year-old son of a member of a congregation I was serving. A soccer player, ROTC cadet, just proclaimed “most physically fit” at an ROTC leadership camp, he literally fell dead of heart failure during a training exercise. The day before, a young member of our congregation told me he has been diagnosed with lymphoma. These intimations of mortality come shortly after reading Philip Larkin’s poem “Aubade,” in which one wakens in the small hours to the terror of death–

Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

Later, the poem says that being brave about death doesn’t help much. “Being brave,” it says,
“Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.”

Having emerged from some months of something less than death-defying illness myself, had I fallen into morbid obsession with death? No; but neither, I insist, morbid nor obsessive, “unresting death” has not been far from my thoughts. I have thought what form faith takes–or its sister, hope–when faith will not include a happy–yea, happier–carrying on, immortal consciousness, eternal spirit.
I think of that Dylan Thomas Poem with it’s insistent, “…rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Thomas, it would seem, takes a view contrary to Larkin, demanding that death withstood is different. Death whined about or simply unresisted, going off gently led, is for Thomas a meaner, in the sense of smaller, kind of death.
The Memorial Service for that young boy was, for the most part, a humanist “celebration of life.” There was almost a denial of death in it, a repeated insistence through that pale proffering of succor we liberal ministers call “the immortality of influence,” that “he is not dead.”
Counterpoint to the more humanist “death happens” approach of some in the service was the largely-unconscious denial of mere happening in the recurring theme, “We don’t know why this has happened.” Not, then, “mere” happening but with purpose, with meaning veiled. To admit ignorance of the meaning of death is to assume there is some meaning, is to assume some ongoing, higher purpose than Alexander Pope’s abrupt “We cease.”
From the mixture of cultures represented in the Memorial Service there came also the songs which promised answers by-and-bye, when Jesus would answer why. Those whose hearts warm to these songs can live with the questions in the conviction that the answers are only a lifetime away.
The effect of all this, for me–the message conveyed to me–was, “We are not bowled over by this boy’s death. We are sad, yes. But we are not stopped. We are not stupefied. We are not frozen in a world bottomed out, senseless.” I couldn’t help thinking as I left, “Why not? Why not be stopped, stupefied, flat-out struck dumb and likely to remain so? The child was fifteen years old—and he died before your eyes.”
As I drove away from the church, I came behind a car with a bumper sticker which read, politely, “Incidents Happen.” Yes. Incidents like stopped hearts. Unstopping trucks. Slips. Falls. Death happens. I haven’t a faith to respond to it, whine at it or withstand it. I’m a plumber without a wrench. A dentist without a drill. A minister without a death-defying answer. I am myself gripped, scared incidentless, …”by the dread of dying and being dead.”
I have only one halting, most often barely-adequate response to these startling reminders, harsh intimations of mortality–and that is life. One day at a time life. This butterfly. This hand. This breeze. This–even this, dread, this pain. To say that isn’t faith or that it isn’t faith enough is to come from somewhere else, of course. One whose faith proffers so much more than mere appreciation of this moment’s grace can say that isn’t enough. I could wish for so much more but, somehow, it eluded me at this boy’s death and leaves me just this, this day. As the good book says, “Look well, therefore, to this day.”