Snow is falling here in Michigan, and I had some time alone this morning with my eight-year-old son, Josiah. This alone time with the lad mixed with the weather had my thoughts reaching both forward and back. They went forward to warm weather, to an extended family camping trip out west this summer, and to our silly little camper that for me signifies warmer weather and is crucial to our camping trips. It’s a 13-foot fiberglass camper called a Scamp. It was built in 1993 and we bought it cheap 4 years ago. It’s hard to say how many owners it has had prior to us, but trust me when I tell you it was junked-out and in need of some love when we bought it. In fact, I spent a whole year rehabbing it. Since then it’s followed us to Utah, Arizona, the Dakotas, Wyoming, Montana, and Michigan’s upper peninsula. If you were to see it in person you’d laugh at how small it is. In fact, it only sleeps three of the six of us—leaving another 3 (me and two kids) to sleep in a tent. But it hauls all of our crap all around this kingdom.
It’s this time with Josiah mingled with thoughts of the Scamp that takes me back three years to the spring of 2014. On a warm Saturday morning (mid-April?) Josiah accompanied me to the country fairgrounds to get the old Scamp out of its winter storage in one of the horse barns. Walking hand-in-hand with my then five-year-old across green fairground grass, I had a parental moment. Before my eyes I could suddenly see the years flip by to a spring when this boy and his siblings were grown and gone. In that moment I felt the full pleasure of being a parent (something we parents feel too seldom beyond birth-day), and I felt its wound, too.
And so with a fat tear in the corner of my eye I said, “You know, Josiah, things are not always going to be like this. You are growing up and someday things will be different.”
Without missing a beat, he replied, “Yeah, Dad, I know. You’re gonna die.”
I’m still laughing now as hard as I laughed back then. And the salve that he gave me in that moment still works some strange magic on me to this day.
Now don’t get me wrong, death is hellish. In fact, as a Christian pastor in a therapeutic culture I have found that one of my tasks is to give people room to let death be terrible. We tend to avoid it with euphemisms—passed away (cultural), went to a better place (vaguely spiritual), got his wings (just bad theology). Funerals have become ‘celebrations’ with militant overtones: we will not be sad today! In short, we avoid death like the plague even as death is the plague that hunts us all.
So why exactly would I laugh at my son’s answer? Why am I laughing to this day?
First of all, my laughter comes from the realm of kids say the darndest things. In this case my son said a very true thing. He cut through my sappy nostalgia which was tempted to call a good thing—the growth of my children in wisdom, stature, and capabilities—bad. He bypassed that fully and went to the bad thing, death itself.
And second, my laughter was also a form of delight. Hear me out on this. The spring in which my boy said this thing was the spring immediately following a very difficult winter for our little church. In the span of two weeks we had witnessed 3 deaths; a woman in her 80’s killed by the Alzheimer’s, a 51-year-old man killed by cancer, and a 30-year-old man killed in an auto-accident.
Even as I tried to serve these families in their grief with the certain hope of Christ, I was beginning to drown under the combined weight of their grief. The waves were crashing over. Only the certain hope of Christ’s resurrection as the first-fruits of all who trust in Him (1 Cor 15:20), and the love of the Christian community that holds fast to this truth in the midst of grief, finally pulled my own head above the waves. And in the midst of all of it, my own son had caught on to the fact that this is the way of all flesh.
This same son of mine is beautifully prone to call-a-thing-a-thing. He knows now and knew then that death is not the only thing. Concerning those saints I had buried just months before he had said to me one night, “You know, Dad, God’s not done with them.” That’s creedal Christianity on the lips of a 5-year old, people! It’s a life-forming confession that gladly talks about the death that stalks the living on account of their sin, and the life of Christ out of the grave that raises the living and the dead to new life!
And so we will mourn bed-side, grave-side, and couch-side with those who mourn. And we will call a thing what it is—death. But we will also laugh at death—the whole of it, and our own. For Christ has entered death. Christ has broken death. By his three-day rest in the grave, Christ has sanctified the graves of His saints. Christ is coming again to bodily raise all the dead, and gather together to abundant-life-eternal all who trust in Him.
When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.