Apr 162018

Death, Thou Shalt Die

The eight o’clock service was over.  I had gotten a cup of coffee and went into my office when the telephone rang.  It was a familiar voice on the other end of the line.  But the words that were spoken suddenly became abstract, almost incomprehensible. “Stephen is dead.”  Silence and a few mumbled responses finished the conversation and I set the telephone down.


Stephen is dead.  I had known Stephen in the university where I was last employed.  We weren’t old friends, but we were good friends.  A year and a half before his death, he discovered that he had AIDS.  This was in the days before “the cocktail”.  He never spoke of how the disease had been transmitted and I never asked. I cannot tell you whether Stephen was gay or straight, or whether he had received a tainted blood transfusion, or what happened.  What I can tell you about Stephen is this: he was an athletic and handsome man of about thirty-five; he was at church every week; he took his degrees at Northwestern and at Oxford; he taught in the English department and we shared a love of poetry.  He had a keen sense of humor and he took very good care of his elderly parents.  He had a steady girlfriend named Christine.  He was my friend and now he was gone.

Desolation. Weeping. Despair.  It is often the reaction to loss.  Ezekiel, the prophet, stands overlooking a valley – not a lush, green valley with a gently flowing stream which we might see in our mind’s eye – but a desolate, dry and barren valley where practically nothing lives.  On the floor of the valley are human bones, perhaps the remains of soldiers who had been slaughtered in some terrible ancient battle and had been left unburied.  Dry bones on every side.  Carrion perched on nearby rocks and the sun beating mercilessly down.  That is the kind of vista which Ezekiel sees.  It is a scene symbolic of the nation Israel now in exile.  It is a vision of utter desolation and of terrible hopelessness.

Mourning. Recriminations. Anger.  Lazarus is dead and his sisters, Mary and Martha, are beside themselves.  This young man, who was obviously the life of the household and a friend to so very many, including Our Lord and His disciples, is gone.  As was the custom, Lazarus is placed in the tomb on the day of his death, professional mourners are hired for a week and the high-pitched Middle Eastern sound of wailing is heard throughout the village.  Our Lord, having arrived late, is met by the veiled reproach of Martha, “Lord, if you had been here earlier, my brother would not have died.”

The question comes naturally to the participants in both situations: Where is God in the midst of death and the loss of hope?

That question is ours as well.

In the valley of desolation, Ezekiel hears a voice: “Son of man, can these bones live?”  In other words, “Do you think it’s possible for these dry bones to become living, breathing human beings again?”  The prophet is a little dumbfounded.  He replies, “Lord, only you know the answer to that.”  Ezekiel is told to prophesy to those dry bones, that is, to share a word of life in the midst of death.  I can only imagine that Ezekiel must have felt somewhat foolish, but he started.  In a modern translation this is his sermon:

O dry bones, listen to the Word of God, for the Lord God says, ‘See I am going to make you live and breathe again! I will place flesh and the muscle on you and cover you, and I will put breath into you and you shall live and know that I am the Lord.’

Something very mysterious begins to happen.  There is a rattling noise all across the valley and the bones of each body start moving and joining themselves together.  As the bones connect they are covered with muscle and flesh.  Suddenly, the four winds come and breathe new life into the bodies and they once again become a great army.

The message to the prophet, and to us as well, is that there is so such thing as a hopeless situation… even for a defeated and scattered nation in exile.  Even for a diminished and scattered Church in exile…

We see it again in the story of Lazarus.  Our Lord comes late into a hopeless situation.  The sisters are completely overcome with grief.  The process of grieving is played out in full.  There are harsh words, anger, bargaining and resignation.  These are people like us.  Yet somehow there is also a sense that now that Christ is among them, something remarkable might happen. It does. First, however, Jesus weeps with the family and shares their grief.  Then, He does something more.  Against strident and practical objections, He orders the stone to be moved away from the grave of Lazarus and shouts the command, “Come forth.”  And again, almost as in the vision of Ezekiel, the dead man rises from the tomb and comes into the light of day.

For us as individuals, for us as the Church, God enters our places of despair and brings hope.  In our places of death and grief, He brings life and joy. “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.”

All of us have times of desolation, of loss, of discouragement. None of us are exempt. We all share the “human condition”. Sometimes we need to be reminded of God’s presence in the shadows and dark places of our lives which we all experience. 

Often, like Mary, the sister of Lazarus, we simply believe that there is little to be done in an already hopeless situation. After all, Lazarus was dead and in the tomb for four days. According to Jewish lore, his spirit had departed after the third day.  Although they believed Jesus to be the Messiah, He had simply arrived too late to do anything. The tragic situation was beyond remedy. 

Beyond remedy – like the career that has crashed and burned… like the marriage that has failed… like the medical diagnosis at the last examination… like the child who has broken our heart. Beyond remedy… and God seems distant.

Even worse, why did God let this happen to us?  When Martha says, “Lord, if only you had been here earlier, my brother would not have died”, we understand her frustration. As Eric Berne has written, many people spend much of their lives playing the game of “If only…”

“If only my parents had been different. If only I had been born someplace else.  If only I were rich. If only I were married.  If only I were not married.  If only I didn’t live here. If only I could get that other job.  If only, if only, if only.  If only somehow I could get all the circumstantial furniture of my life and my past arranges in just the right way… then things would turn out right.”

Christ, however, comes to us in the reality of the “now”. He comes to us where we are.  He weeps with us in our sorrow, He nails the “if only’s”  of our yesterdays to the Cross and in the face of despair and death promises us resurrection and new life. You see, the death of our dreams, or the death of our bodies, is not the end, for death has been swallowed up in life… His life.

Some, however, know this better than others.

The last time I saw Stephen was in the Autumn of the year.  He was obviously very ill.  He looked as though he had aged thirty years in a matter of months.  His skin, scarred by lesions, hung loose upon his frame, but his eyes, now set very deep, still sparkled.  We sat and talked, not about his illness, for that would not have been like Stephen, but about the English poet and priest, John Donne.  Stephen must have sensed how upset I was to see him so ill.  I turned to leave the room having said what I almost certainly knew would be a final farewell.  As I reached for the door, Stephen called me from his chair and said, “He was right, you know.”  I turned and said, “What do you mean?”  “John Donne,” he replied, “he was right”.  From memory he then recited some familiar lines, with a half-smile as though he knew something that I could only guess at…

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…

One short sleep passed, we wake eternally

And death shall be no more.

Death, thou shalt die…

Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD

The Project

  27 Responses to “Death, Thou Shalt Die: Dr Duane Arnold, PhD”

  1. Such a good article, Duane, thank you.

    Are you familiar with the Ezekiel “Bones” reading (dramatically sung) that happens on the Good Friday service in Orthodox parishes? It’s the passage you referenced. It’s the high point of the whole year, almost.

  2. If only I didn’t live here.<<<

    I knew a lady, a real Eeyore type, who was very discontent. She always claimed that if they could just move to Oregon (or was it Washington?) she would be happy and her family would be happy, etc. They did in fact manage to move to this Promise Land of Oregon (or was it Washington?) and with a few years she was divorced, remarried, divorced again and her family dispersed.

    I know it's a trite saying but I believe in blooming where you are planted, where God has planted you.

  3. Great article…especially for those of us living among dry bones.
    Thank you, Duane.

  4. Xenia and Michael,

    Many thanks. Xenia, yes I know of the Good Friday reading. I always thought it a proper application of the passage from Ezekiel…

  5. Beautiful….and true. I’ve been struggling since my husband passed. But I have been angry at God for not answering my prayers and healing him. After all, the kids and grandkids and I still need him here. Help me understand.

  6. Vicki,

    First of all, please know that you will be in our prayers as you deal with such a devastating loss.

    There are no easy answers. It seems sometimes as though some prayers are answered and others are not, and we are left with asking, “Why?”. What I can say to you, is that God knows your heart and the pain, grief and loss that you are experiencing; that he loves you and weeps with you in this terrible time. While the pain will never go away completely, God will be with you and your family and will, I hope and pray, bring you to peace on the other side of this time…

  7. Vickie,

    Our condolences at your loss.
    The only way I make sense of all the pain is remembering that God didn’t write a book about suffering, He came and suffered with us.
    It doesn’t address all the “whys” but it gives me hope that no loss is permanent.

    I get angry with God at times as well…He can handle it.

  8. we will be marking our son Drew’s death shortly–two years ago May first–and your article dovetails nicely with our experience thus far.

  9. #8 filbertz

    I’ve marked the date on my calendar… you and your family will certainly be remembered in my prayers…

  10. fil,

    You were the first person I thought of when Duane sent me this piece…my heart is with you and yours…

  11. Duane, this is a beautiful article.

  12. Many thanks, Kevin…

  13. I know that God’s perspective on death is a little different than ours, but i know too that our pain and grief matter to Him far more than we can understand down here …

    No easy answers for us indeed…. Amen to #6

  14. “He never spoke of how the disease had been transmitted and I never asked. I cannot tell you whether Stephen was gay or straight, or whether he had received a tainted blood transfusion, or what happened. What I can tell you about Stephen is this: he was an athletic and handsome man of about thirty-five; he was at church every week; he took his degrees at Northwestern and at Oxford; he taught in the English department and we shared a love of poetry. He had a keen sense of humor and he took very good care of his elderly parents. He had a steady girlfriend named Christine. He was my friend and now he was gone.”

    God makes people. He does it fearfully and wonderfully. May we learn to love as He does. Thank you sir. Well written and thoughtful.

  15. #14 Tom

    Indeed… many thanks.

  16. This is such a beautiful article that I will hang on to for the rest of my life.Thank you especially for:

    “Christ, however, comes to us in the reality of the “now”. He comes to us where we are. He weeps with us in our sorrow, He nails the “if only’s” of our yesterdays to the Cross and in the face of despair and death promises us resurrection and new life. You see, the death of our dreams, or the death of our bodies, is not the end, for death has been swallowed up in life… His life.”

  17. #16 JoelG

    Thank you so much. So often when you write, especially personal experiences, you can only hope that they connect with a reader. I’m pleased it connected with you.

  18. This wonderful article is spot on, and comes at a needed time in my family’s life.
    I was fired from my job last summer. I’m in sales, it happens. By September I had another gig lined up, we were just finishing the details of salary, commission, start date, etc
    Then I go in for a colonoscopy, 56 and hadn’t had one yet, wife made me go. Good thing. I had a 4cm, that’s like an inch and a half polyp in my large intestine. Two biopsies and no cancer. But I have to have major abdominal surgery to remove it. That’s scheduled late in October, and recovery will take me to at least Thanksgiving. There goes my new job. They aren’t going to wait for me that long.
    Five days after the last biopsie (end of September), I start bleeding internally and spend the next 4 days in the hospital.
    Laying in the hospital is where I first said, “Really Lord?”
    Then I had the surgery. Very successful and I’m healing nicely. I go in for my 2 week after surgery follow up and the surgeon tells me upon post operative inspection of the 8 inches they removed; a malignant 2mm tumor was discovered and further tests showed the cancer had spread to 1 lymphnode. My prognosis is good, my oncologist is confident, this chemo treatment has a very good success rate.
    “Really Lord?”
    I start a six month chemo treatment regimen the week before Christmas.
    Three days before Christmas we get a call from Washington State, where my wife’s mom lives and is in the last stages of mesothelioma. It’s hospice and they say if you want to see your mom you better come. I can’t go because of my chemo treatment, so our oldest daughter takes her and they spend the Christmas holiday there. Her mom makes a come back and is stronger when they left than when they arrived.
    They return the day after Christmas, also my second chemo treatment.
    Then by New Year’s weekend my wife feels like she is getting a cold. By New Year’s day she is running a 101 degree temp and is having a hard time breathing. A trip to ER, where she is admitted while still trying figure out what’s wrong. She is diagnosed with bilateral pneumonia, human Neuro virus and because all this is putting stress on the heart, congenital heart failure. A week in the hospital, she is sent home with oxygen and can’t work the rest of the month. My unemployment ran out the end of December and she was our only other source of income.
    “Really Lord?”
    My three kids step up and if it weren’t for them and a couple of friends, I don’t know where we would be right now.
    My wife is now off oxygen completely and is working full time from home. I just finished treatment 10 out of 12 and the end is in sight.
    Then we get the call Sunday that my wife’s mom has passed into heaven.
    “How much more Lord?”
    Throughout this whole ordeal, right after I think, “Really Lord?”, I then pray, “It’s all in Your hands and I trust that You will provide just what we need when we need it.
    Rent and utilities get paid and we have food on the table. How? Sometimes I just don’t know.
    Duane, your article came with words of wisdom at just the right time. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

  19. Bart–those are hard-fought words of wisdom and insight. Thank you.

  20. Duane, filbertz and Bart, I feel like I should say something profound and helpful. But I keep hearing, “Kevin, be still. Be quiet.”

  21. Cap’n Kevin,
    Just knowing you have us in your thoughts and prayers is enough.
    Thank you.

  22. #18 Bart

    You and your family will be much in my prayers in the days to come. There is no apparent answer to “Why?” It seems to me, however, that Christ has been present in this wilderness journey – present in giving you strength, present in the love of your wife, present in your children and friends, present in your faith… Thank you for sharing this. I think it provides a perspective that many of us need. God bless…

  23. Praying for Bart, Duane, filbertz, and Vicki

  24. Thank you, Dusty…

  25. FWIW… I am a bit simple minded and whenever i get hit with an “unfair” trial or sorrow for some reason a picture comes to mind of satan before the Lord saying, in so many words, “I’ll bet I can destroy your servant Job!” Captain K’s instinct was better than Job’s friends.
    I was blessed to read both Dr. Duane’s post and Bart’s.
    Joining in the prayers for those here so in need of God’s mercies and strength now…
    The devil seems to be increasing his activity, but at the risk of wearing out a truth, greater is He that is in us than he that is in the world

  26. #25 Em

    “Captain K’s instinct was better than Job’s friends.”

    Yes, indeed! We have too many “Job’s comforters” around these days…

  27. Captain kevin, you are such a kind friend!
    I pray for you often.

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