Late last Saturday night and into early Sunday morning, I witnessed a sad scene.
A young woman I knew, in her mid-40s, had died suddenly, after a short, acute illness.
Her parents, sisters and nephews are dear friends of mine who attend the church where I’m pastor.
Understandably, they and the rest of her family were in shock. As I sat with them, I felt shocked, too.
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In 2018, who in the prime of her adulthood dies of what appeared to be nothing more than the flu or some similar bug? How can it happen?
It just didn’t seem right. People aren’t supposed to die in their 40s, period.
True, my first wife died at that age, of cancer. Young people die in car wrecks. And by overdoses. And by the occasional heart attack.
Still, science has progressed to such a degree that the great majority of people now live out their full lifespans, into their 80s or beyond. Mainly, parents don’t bury their children anymore. Mainly, early deaths catch us unawares.
Our lives have become so protected that we’re lulled into an illusion of safety.
But in this, our era is the exception in human history, it is not the norm.
Exactly a century ago, a mere blip among the eons, a pandemic of Spanish flu killed 50 million to 100 million people worldwide, more than all the casualties of World War I.
It felled at least 500,000 in the United States and in its first year alone lowered our country’s life expectancy by 12 years.
That flu’s primary victims weren’t the very young or the very old or the very weak. It mainly killed healthy adolescents and young adults.
As I’ve mentioned, I’m exploring my family’s genealogy, which I’ve been able to trace back nearly 600 years. I hope to compile my findings into a book for my grandchildren.
When you search through historical records, one thing that stands out is that our forebears lived with the specter of death constantly stalking them.
My first American ancestor on the Prather side arrived in Elizabeth City, Va., from England in 1622. He was 18. When he got here, the entire English population of Virginia was about 1,200 men, women and children.
That same year, a coordinated attack by a confederation of Indians slew 347 of those settlers in a single day. (It’s not clear whether Thomas Prather arrived just before or just after the massacre.)
Until quite recently, infants and small children died routinely from lack of sanitation and lack of basic medicines. Families tended to be large, but it wasn’t at all unusual for a couple to bury as many kids as survived into their teens.
Imagine the grief those mothers and fathers carried.
Men might be married two or three times, because women so often died from childbirth complications.
People were killed by the hundreds by tuberculosis, typhoid fever, smallpox and cholera.
My great-grandfather passed away in 1900 of a brief intestinal ailment. He was 33. His widow and children were plunged into poverty by a bug that today likely could be cured with a regimen of antibiotics and a vial of Phenergan pills.
Some people speculate all this is where religion came from, by the way.
They say the earliest humans, threatened with annihilation every day of their brief lives, craved explanations for the universe’s capricious, merciless violence.
So they invented gods to explain the inexplicable.
That might be so. I can’t say for sure. I don’t pretend to know everything.
I do look at the situation differently, though.
I find that when people come face-to-face with their own death, or they’re watching the person they love most die, those with faith receive two transcendental benefits.
I saw this last weekend as I sat with the family of the woman who passed.
First, faith assures its recipients that death isn’t a meaningless tragedy that’s befallen them, but is part of a larger, epic plan. It gives their loss meaning.
Second, it gives them the greatest of all hopes: the hope that the end really isn’t the end, but indeed only a beginning.
A skeptic might say those benefits prove his argument; they’re precisely why the ancients invented gods, to salve their deepest fears and sorrows.
Yet when I watch the dying or the grieving draw meaning and hope right in the throes of the hardest moments they’ll ever face, I behold it as evidence of God’s actual presence there. He shows up in their time of need to put his big arm around their shoulders.
If I’m wrong, I suppose I’ll never know the difference. When my own time to die arrives, I’ll just lie down and go permanently to sleep, like a dog or a squirrel or a bird.
But if I’m right, that means I’ve already witnessed here and now, in this life’s darkest times, a foretaste of glory. And I’ll get to thank the Lord personally for it.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.