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Life and Death in the Same Frame

Congregational life is, it seems to me, a sort of concentration of family life. Events that would be separated by months or years in a biological family get concentrated into hours or days. And the pastor gets a front row seat.

For example, last Wednesday my secretary told me that a young couple in the congregation had just had twins. I went to the hospital to see Alex and Nathan: so tiny, so beautiful. I felt clumsy holding them, just five pounds each, feeling their squirming, whimpering fragility.

The room was filled with women—aunts, cousins, friends—and I was impressed (again) at how at ease women are in this setting, how confidently they handle the babies, how untroubled by all the pains and complications and responsibilities that occupy the room with us, and that leave us men feeling mildly embarrassed and quite out of our depth.

There was a soft joy in the place, and I thought how glad I am that I live in a time when we can celebrate new life entering the world without the fear that the mother’s life might end at the same time, which was true for much of human history.

On the same day, I got a call that Matilda, an eighty-eight-year-old church member, was dying after two sad, senile years in a nursing home. It was the kind of news one receives with relief. Her life had long since ceased to be worth living (an audacious judgment to make, I know, though I’ll stand by it). I can remember—one of the advantages of a long pastorate—when her husband was alive, when they were part of our church family, when they’d greet at the church door, served as deacon and deaconess, and baked homemade bread to share with friends.

Matilda’s niece called me to make the arrangements. And it occurs to me that here, too, at the end of life, I’ve often found women, even in grief, more intuitive than we men. They seem to know what’s needed—a casserole, a hug—and what to say, what not to say, when to be silent, with a naturalness that one can’t learn in school.

(I didn’t mean this to be a paean to the other gender, though it does make one wonder why women still aren’t quite allowed full access to my occupation. I suspect ministry would be quite a different thing: less positional and acquired, more unaffected and artless. And the church quite a different sort of place, too.)

It does something to you, to see life beginning and ending in such close juxtaposition. I can’t help but remember that Matilda was, decades back, someone’s precious babe in arms. And Alex and Nathan, decades hence, may be old men in a nursing home, sick, broken, senile.

It’s like watching the end of a movie and the beginning at the same time, and it makes life seem, not necessarily longer or shorter, but progressing, continuous, beginnings and endings endlessly repeating—different names and faces, but continuing, like a chain smoker lighting a new cigarette from the consumed one.

One of our favorite Adventist texts is Ecclesiastes 9:5: “The dead know not anything.” Though we have a specific point we’re trying to make when we quote it, it does sound dark and fatalistic taken by itself. As long as we’re in a melancholy state of mind, then, I’ll go farther and suggest that we take just as seriously the first clause of that passage: “The living know that they shall die.” The two go together, and apparently, to Ecclesiastes’ preacher, the unconscious state of the dead is no more important than the warning that life as we know it now is of limited duration, and never far from its terminus. Perhaps in that light we’d travel life’s track with a touch more urgency, and as the Psalmist recommends (Ps. 90:12) number our days to apply our hearts to wisdom.

Over against those rather bleak reminders are two promises of life for all of us living who’ve now been warned what to expect: new spiritual life, and new biological life. The first, in John 3:3: “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” The second, in 1 Thessalonians 4:16: that in the eschaton, “the dead in Christ shall rise.” Both promises are precious. And both tantalizing: the new birth because it presents in unique ways in every life, making it hard to know precisely what to expect. The resurrection, because bringing life to dead bones is something we’ve heard of but not seen, and so in spite of the promise, death is still as unwelcome as birth is beautiful.

So right now I’m feeling a little like those old Russian writers, like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, who in their novels and stories placed life and death, happiness and sadness, achievement and failure, joy and gloom, all in the same frame, part of the same picture, never completely carefree or entirely despondent about this mortal span, but more honest for portraying a chiaroscuro of failure and redemption.

Loren Seibold is senior pastor of the Worthington, Ohio, Seventh-day Adventist Church. He also edits a newsletter for North American Division pastors called Best Practices for Adventist Ministry.

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