Death Be Not Proud
- Written by Jody Vickery Jody Vickery
- Published: 14 April 2017 14 April 2017
What would you like for the preacher to say at your funeral? I think it would be nice for my eulogist to say something like, “We will really miss this special man.” Or maybe, “I can’t believe more people didn’t read his blog.” Better still, “Hey, look! He’s breathing!” I have an old friend who told me once that when she died, she wanted everyone to exclaim, “Oh Lord! Whatever shall we do now?!”
This post’s title comes from a 16th century poem written by a man named John Donne. He’s the guy who wrote, “Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” Donne thought about death a lot, but you really can’t blame him. His father died when Donne was only four years old. He lost a brother to religious persecution. Five of his twelve children died before the age of ten. And his beloved (and frequently pregnant) wife, Anne, died at 33.
Yet with all that personal loss, Donne still taunted “poor Death.”
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
The gall it takes to patronize so fearsome a force as death! Five centuries later, even with all our medical, scientific and technological advances, we don’t come anywhere close to that kind of courage. In fact, in the last five months at least three major, secular publications have wondered what to do about our fear of death.
The December, 2016 issue of New York Magazine cited a study that said the best way to overcome a fear of death is to go shopping. I know a few folks for whom death would be preferable to a trip the mall, so maybe that strategy works.
“Wanna go shopping?”
“I’d rather die.”
Boom! Fear of death handled.
Newsweek’s February issue quoted an expert who said that millennials were more afraid of death than other demographic cohorts. That same month, The Atlantic titled an article, Eating Toward Immortality – Diet culture is just another way of dealing with the fear of death. Which makes no sense to me at all because every time I diet, I feel like I’m one skimpy meal away from slipping the surly bonds of earth. Why do you think they spell it die – t?
In poking fun at death, I’m tearing a page from John Donne’s playbook. That’s relatively easy for me right now because, if actuarial tables are correct and I don’t suffer any disease or disaster, I’ve got a good number of miles left on my odometer. But I know and love people who are genuinely afraid of death. They know the years they have left are a mere fraction of the years they have already lived. Some are facing critical diagnoses and an uncertain outcome. Others have recently lost loved ones.
So let’s get serious.
Looking to the future, the prophet Isaiah (25:7, 8) anticipated a time when God will “destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever.” The shroud Isaiah was talking about is the fear of death. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul connected Isaiah’s prophesy with Jesus’ resurrection, then writes, “But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Along with many other blessings, the empty tomb confers to us “a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade – kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power.” (1 Peter 1:3).
Shielded. That’s the word Peter uses to describe the security you and I have because we belong to God. The resurrection of Jesus means that death, as far as you and I are concerned, has been defeated. It is not the period at the end of your life story. It is at most a semicolon. It is not The End. It is The Beginning. Or, as John Donne put it, “One short sleep past, we wake eternally, and death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.”
I was talking about this with a colleague at work when he told me about how his mother faced death. She had been diagnosed with cancer and when it was clear that they were all out of treatment options, he mustered the courage to ask her about her spiritual condition. She laughed and waved his question away. “Don’t worry about me. I know where I’m going.”
In the months that followed, at least three people told him how his mother’s faith had sustained them when they faced a grave diagnosis. One person even said, “She taught me how to die.”
Come to think of it, that might be the greatest thing someone could say about you at your funeral. If you can teach someone how to die, you knew how to live.
Poor Death indeed. You want to slink up to our houses, kick in the doors and send us running for cover like frightened children. How silly you must feel when, in the power of the resurrected Jesus, we greet you not as the monster you wish you were, but as the messenger who brings us the good news that an eternal morning has broken and it is time for us to get up.