Welcome to Week 12 of our devotional series on those common Christian beliefs that have been overlooked or misunderstood. This week we talk about death — or “Death,” as scripture often thinks of it. To do so, I’d like us to diverge from our normal format for a bit and move from prose to poetry.
To the One who is, who was, and who is to come — guide us today by your Word and your Holy Spirit, so that in your light we might see light, and in your truth, we might find freedom, and in your will we might truly discover peace. Amen.
Revelation 6:7-8 7 When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature call out, “Come!” 8 I looked and there was a pale green horse! Its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed with him; they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, famine, and pestilence, and by the wild animals of the earth. Revelation 20:11-15 11 Then I saw a great white throne and the one who sat on it; the earth and the heaven fled from his presence, and no place was found for them. 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, the book of life. And the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in the books. 13 And the sea gave up the dead that were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and all were judged according to what they had done. 14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; 15 and anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.
“Death, Be Not Proud” — by John Donne
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
As a pastor, I am often welcome at the bedside of those who are dying. It may not always be a comfortable place, but it is often a beautiful one. Memories float in and out, dancing in the air with grief, as if mimicking the light and shadow that flitter across the floor. Death and dying are strange that way.
When scripture talks about death, it’s talking about our greatest enemy, and yet, at the same time it’s also talking about deliverance and peace. How can this be? The Apostle Paul closes his wonderful litany on the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 with an assurance that Christ’s victory on the cross has “swallowed up” death. “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” So, we no longer need to fear death, it seems, because Christ has defeated it once and for all! “For God has put all things in subjection under his feet,” Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:27, and this includes even death itself.
The same can be said for the Book of Revelation. In Revelation 20, at the end of John’s great apocalyptic vision, both Death and Hades — the very place of the dead — are cast into the lake of fire. This “lake of fire” is nothing less than complete annihilation. Everything is burned up, destroyed, done away with, cast to the winds. Death, according to scripture, is no more, and so we need not fear it. But that doesn’t make it our friend.
Like John Donne, who can shout in the face of Death, “Mighty and dreadful…thou art not so!” because he knows that “Death, thou shalt die,” Doug McKelvey has a wonderful way of juxtaposing our fear of death’s reality with Christ’s promise of its temporality. Doug is what we call a “liturgist,” which is just a fancy way of saying he’s really good at writing prayers and powerful reflections for worship. The link below is to his “Exhortation Making Space to Speak of Dying,” and is excerpted from the second volume of his Every Moment Holy, a book of prayers and other poetic devotions I’ve enjoyed immensely and encourage everyone I meet to pick up. I hope you enjoy it, too, and find it as illuminating as I have.
Doug McKelvey’s “To Speak of Dying”