I spent some time over the holiday weekend watching a show on t.v. that featured a guide at the Gettysburg battlefield giving his talk about the great three-day battle that claimed more than 7,000 lives in the War Between the States. The t.v. was on in the background as I did some other work, and now and again I’d focus in on some of the guide’s words: “…sixteen year old soldier,” “…charging, fearlessly across the field,” “Cannon fire.” “Artillery.” “Bodies.”
Upwards of 7,000 lives lost with the total of those killed, wounded or missing more than 50,000.
It is an awesome experience to tour Gettysburg in person. I’ve done it three or four times in the past two years. I will never forget the very first time that I saw the field where Pickett’s Charge took place- it was a warm day in March. The field was covered with patches of snow, the sky was grey, and fog hung over the ground. I felt that if I listened hard enough, I would be able to hear the shots and the cries echoing through the years. It was eerie and sacred.
Last weekend my husband and I attended the funeral of a man whom we never met.
This man died when his car struck a tree in our neighbor’s yard. It was 3: 08 AM. He was speeding on his way home from work, lost control of the car and slammed into a peach tree on our neighbor’s lawn. We were the first to arrive at the scene, having been jolted out of bed by the crash. The man in the car had died instantly. Within minutes the street was filled with EMTs, fire trucks and the State Police. We stood for a while in the driveway with a number of other neighbors in our pajamas, slack jawed. And then we went home. For a week we tried to understand. And there were no answers.
Today, my husband and I will drive to Hartford, CT to attend the funeral of an old friend. This friend died at the age of 72. I understand that it was a heart attack. He was not a well man; he suffered from a number of ailments. But was he gifted. My friend was a musician. A church organist and ‘cellist. We worked together for a decade and shared a small office at the church that raised me. He retired just last year from that church after serving for 30 years. His death did not come as a shock, but it was a surprise to receive the message from the parish rector on Sunday night.
And so it comes to this.
Death is an equal opportunity experience. Sixteen-year old soldier taken by musket fire. Stranger-Neighbor propelled into a tree. A gentle soul reaching the final bars of his earthly song. We will all get there.
In some cases, the end makes sense. It is “natural,” and “timely.” And, all of us can count the “untimely” deaths that we have known in our circle of friends, classmates, colleagues, and family.
As Christians, we have a framework for how to understand death. This framework is given to us in the death of Jesus and, more importantly, in his resurrection. We claim eternal life for those who believe and have been convicted by the Christian call in their hearts. It is through this lens that we understand death: “For to your faithful people, O Lord, life is changed, not ended; and when our mortal body lies in death, there is prepared for us a dwelling place eternal in the heavens.” (BCP pg. 382) We rehearse these ideas again and again in the poetry of our burial rite, and at our baptisms when we learn that in the water of baptism we “are buried with Christ in his death… share in his resurrection… (and are) reborn by the Holy Spirit.” (BCP pg. 306) As children we learn that he place where we go after death is called Heaven. And we learn that Jesus, himself, has gone ahead to prepare a place for us. (John 14:2)
In spite of the reassurances of our tradition, there is still something at my core that tears at my faithfulness. Life is so precious. We get but one chance (I believe) to walk in this place and to live and love and enjoy the beauty of God’s creation. One chance that lasts eighty-some-odd years, if we are lucky, to find meaningful work, create beauty, appreciate the beauty in others, raise children, travel the world, cook and build and paint and sing and dig in the earth to bring forth growing things. One chance to swim in icy salt water, to lie on sunbaked rocks, to watch sunrises and sunsets, to master a Bach ‘cello suite, to read Moby Dick, and to care for the lost, lonely and those in need. One chance to make an impression in this world that leaves it a sweeter, more peaceful, stronger, more beautiful place.
That’s so precious to me, that one chance. And so it is so sore when that chance expires. For a young soldier, a neighbor, a friend. Or anyone else, for that matter.
Some of us live inside this one chance with a great, singular sense of purpose. Others discover many paths to follow in their time. And some struggle to find meaning, but all of it is precious and dear.
In the end, I believe, we transition into a new reality that is more glorious and brighter and absolutely divine.
But, until then, I intend on making the most of my one, earthly chance.
Here’s Mary Oliver on the topic:
The Summer Day
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?