Ever get a song in your head for days? Or worse, ever get cut to the heart so deeply by a song that feels like it sucker-punched you and ran away with your lunch money? For some it might be “Butterfly Kisses,” or maybe “Tears in Heaven.” For me it’s “A Hundred Years” by Five for Fighting. I just can’t seem to be able to get through those verses about the years of our lives flying by without getting choked up, never have. I remember hearing it as a teenager on some airline commercial about how you should go visit your mom more often, and just thinking they shouldn’t even be allowed to play stuff like that.
I heard “A Hundred Years” a few weeks ago, in a setting where I couldn’t change the station, and more than just making me teary-eyed for a few minutes, this time, for whatever reason, it haunted me for days. I just could not stop the lyrics from marching through my brain, especially the ones that pummel my heart the worst. I’d go to sleep and wake up and they’d still be the first thing on my mind. At one point I even stood staring out through the back door at the moonlit snow coming down, thinking about this song and my loved ones’ mortality with tears streaming down my face, hiding from my husband so he wouldn’t think somebody died or his wife had gone crazy (I’m normally not that emotional, I swear). I even tried drowning it out with choruses of “The Song that Doesn’t End,” and “Your Body is a Wonderland,” which someone told me a while back is “the ultimate palate cleanser” of the annoying song world. But alas, no luck. You’d probably hate me if I quoted it here, but I’m going to link to it so that, if you like to cry, you can go listen to it and understand what I was up against.
I don’t have any problem with having just turned 30 and it’s pretty young as far as milestone birthdays are concerned, but it was like the universe was trying to bully me into experiencing some existential crisis or something. I don’t typically feel uncomfortable with the idea of my own mortality. I do however, occasionally ache a bit thinking about the people I love having to die someday, or just the way time keeps stubbornly chugging along making everybody older. There’s no denying there’s a bittersweet sting when I pack away the newborn clothes, and then the next size, and then the next size. When my kid’s legs look so long there stretched across the couch and I’m headed to his first parent-teacher conference and soon my daughter will be done nursing and I know they’ll both be off to college tomorrow. When parents are dealing with diagnoses and coming to terms with aging and making real plans for retirement and every visit is over too quickly. When TV shows and real life stories of people I know remind me that any one of us at any age could be taken at any time.
How could some guy write a song about how our lives will be over soon, and can’t I just keep pretending I don’t know he’s right? When we let the urgency of life into our awareness, there’s a sweetness that comes with it helping us to appreciate this gift that we really have, right now. It can inspire us make the most of our time. But how to let the sweetness in without letting in the anxiety that can fill us with fear, a fear that generally pushes us right back into denial? How are we supposed to come to grips with all this?
The Bible doesn’t sugarcoat it either. Within its pages our lives are compared to wind, breath, dust, fading flowers, everything temporary and brief. That bittersweet pang, it’s felt there in Scripture. Jesus himself felt it deeply. He went through a lot in his thirty-something years on earth, but the thing that most visibly brought him to tears? The death of his friend, and the intense grief another close friend was experiencing because of it. It’s impossible to know exactly what Jesus was thinking in that moment as he wept, and it is confusing because he knew he was about to raise his friend from the dead. I had the chance to take a class taught by a well-known biblical scholar, and he believed that Jesus was weeping over death itself, because this wasn’t the way it was supposed to be. His people were not supposed to have to experience death, or need to come to terms with their mortality, or feel this terrible grief beside the graves of their loved ones. Death was a tragic turn in the story of God’s creation, and the Son of God himself knew that on a real level, felt it deeply. But, this professor suggested, perhaps he was also weeping because these people he loves so dearly, even the ones who loved him too, the ones closest to him, still didn’t understand who He was, still didn’t trust him quite as much as he wished they would. Because if they really understood who He was and what He was there to do, it would take away the sting. It would give them hope, and peace. No, the Bible does not sugarcoat death. But, oh there is hope, and peace. There is little room for anxiety when you understand and believe who Jesus is and what he came to do. It far exceeds the pat answers people give as they make their way through the funeral line, fumbling for words, often misguided ones, to make you feel better somehow. No, this, this is a hope only God himself could possibly give. It is a balm that heals the soul.
I thought about all this- life and death- for days. Couldn’t shake it on my own. Finally I prayed, just a quick prayer asking God to help me make sense of it, come to grips with it, or just get that stupid song and this haunting feeling out of my mind. I finally opened my Bible and a little devotional book I have. It has weekly readings for the whole year, and I hadn’t looked at it in months. But God’s funny, and good, and when I turned to the chapter for this week, it was about being A Resurrection People, and this is what I read: Psalm 90, Luke 12:35-59, Hebrews 11:32-12:2.
You can’t make stuff like this up. And later that day, as I continued to battle this song that was like a parasite in my brain, another song came to my mind, and I was so relieved to have another song to think about that it took me a few minutes before I realized what new words I was singing, how they paralleled the others but were so much less haunting. The song is called “Lay Me Down” by Andrew Peterson, and it’s about how this guy doesn’t really care where he is buried when he dies, he just wants his family to remember that when they bury him, they’re sending him off not to death but to life.
“I will ransom them from the power of the grave;
I will redeem them from death.”
It’s not just pretty talk. I know people who have this deep assurance and hope, and who live like it. Though I often fail to make the best of my days, I like to think I’m one of them. I haven’t faced my mortality up close and personal yet, and I can’t say that I won’t be sad or even somewhat nervous when the time comes. But when it comes down to it, I have peace. That’s what I hear in this song. Peace. There’s no trace of the anxiety that’s present in the first song. It is not haunting. It’s light, even joyful, like a guy going on a road trip just ahead of his family, saying “So long, guys, I’ll see you when you get there!”
There was a day or so that followed when I was followed around by both of these songs. They’d battle one another. But it was a welcome change from only having the haunting one. The sting was gone. Then a week or so later, though the first song still ran through my mind, I could finally think about the hardest lines emotion-free, with peace. The whole thing was just weird. But it’s like I was given a reminder of what life, and death, and the thought of our mortality is like for people who don’t have Jesus. And a reminder of the peace he brings. A peace that is available to anyone who wants it, to anyone who wants to be with him and will believe him and accept what he did for us.
“When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true:
“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” -1 Cor. 15:54-57
“The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” -1 Cor. 15:26
If these verses happen to remind you of Harry Potter, the secular and wildly popular series that deals extensively with the realities of death, it’s because both of these verses, and others, are quoted in the series’ final installment. This epic story, as it drew to a close, turned to the Bible to give meaning to life, and to death. Although author J.K. Rowling has said that she has wrestled a lot over the years with her faith and her belief in the afterlife, particularly while she was writing Harry Potter and simultaneously grieving the death of her mother, she shared after the series concluded that Christianity inspired the entire series as well as its ending, something she thought was pretty clear all along but had been quiet about so as not to give away the ending. There were some haunting moments in the Harry Potter series, as well. The deaths of some of Harry’s closest friends and mentors, and the parent’s he never knew. His own final choice to march to his death (a Christ figure, I should add) to save the ones he loved, and ultimately his emerging victorious over death. The final line of the book? “All was well.” The ultimate hope J.K. Rowling has, whether or not she always has the faith to believe it is true, is that Christ really did defeat death, taking away its sting. That this peace really is possible.
That weekend as I drove the kids to church, my son began talking again about how he doesn’t want to die, he wants to stay at our house forever. He and I have these talks weekly, at least. Some days he is excited about the prospect of going somewhere where there’s no more crying or scraped knees or death and where Jesus is building an awesome house for us and our family can be together every day instead of two states away and we’ll get to sing and dance and it’ll be so bright and beautiful even without the sun and moon because that’s what God is like and we will have everything we need. Other days, it’s just a very human, “Mom, I don’t want to die.” Talk about haunting, when you have a kid who thinks and talks about these things almost daily. But as odd and hard as it sometimes is to talk with him about it, ultimately I feel right about letting him wrestle with the reality of death and helping him find this peace while he is young. Wouldn’t it be nice to go through your entire life and even face the end of your life in old age having already found hope and faith and peace as a young child? So we talk about it, and we did this Sunday. Then we get to the church we were visiting, the very Sunday after my strangely plaguing week of songs about dying running through my mind, and instead of a typical sermon, they played this Billy Graham video about Heaven, and coming to terms with our mortality, and the real questions we must ask ourselves, and the hope that Jesus offers. It’s like the whole progression of things that week was all orchestrated by God. Yeah, it was probably an intense video for the kids to watch, and I’m pretty sure the church we usually attend wouldn’t show it. But it wasn’t the kids who were squirming in their seats. They were glued to that video, likely with a sense that there was actually something real and important being talked about in church. My three-year-old son had been wrestling with these very questions on the car ride there. The preteen boys sitting in front of us just walked their dad through cancer. There were others in the congregation currently dying of cancer. And they came to church this week and found people willing to talk about it. The kids thought the story of the firefighter was pretty cool, too.
When I think about my inevitable death, the only thing that haunts me is the fear that any of my loved ones might grieve in a way that causes them to reject God out of anger or pain. If anything, I long for both my life and my death to somehow draw people to him. Even as a teenager, I wanted my best friend to promise that if I died, she would share that wish with my family and encourage them to love God more, not less, because of me. And in the journal of letters I write to my son for him to read someday, a recent entry attempts to express this to him:
“When I think about what I would want you to know, and all of my loved ones, if I should die young, or when I die at any age, it is this:
Please do not turn away from God because of my death (or because of anyone’s death). Be angry with Him if you have to, but please wrestle through it with Him. And trust Him. Trust His Word. Trust his gift of eternal life. Trust that He himself and being with him forever is worth enduring any temporary pain. Trust that it is real! I know this is all real. I feel it in my bones. I’ve seen it in undeniable glimpses. His Word is true.
We are all going to die, whether now, tomorrow, in 50 years. Why be angry if it’s not 50? He owes us nothing. All is grace. He owes us nothing, but he gives us everything. Death is a consequence of our own choice to sin, but he defeated it for us! He has fixed everything for us! And soon the fixing will be complete! All is well.”
Just as I know that when I die I will be leaving behind people whom I long to be reunited with, and I long for them to keep loving Jesus more and more, we must remember that there are people we love who have gone ahead of us. Generations upon generations. They’re the “great cloud of witnesses” cheering us on as we run our race. Reminding us that this stuff is real. “Keep going! I’ll see you when you get here!” they’re saying. And as much as we might long to see them again, I think they want to remind us to keep our eyes fixed not on them, but on Jesus. He is the balm that heals and the One who brings life. He is the One who will fill the void in our hearts, and the only One who can usher us into heaven. But our loved ones remind us that it’s a grand story, God’s story. Death is not the end, and if we are at peace with God, we need not fear taking our place in this grand story.
“On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare
a feast of rich food for all peoples,
a banquet of aged wine—
the best of meats and the finest of wines.
On this mountain he will destroy
the shroud that enfolds all peoples,
the sheet that covers all nations;
he will swallow up death forever.
The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears
from all faces;
he will remove his people’s disgrace
from all the earth.
The Lord has spoken.
In that day they will say,
‘Surely this is our God;
we trusted in him, and he saved us.
This is the Lord, we trusted in him;
let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation.'”