As a pastor, death is part of my job. I've done more than 500 funerals in my time. Once, I did three in the same day.
Each death is different because each grief is different. I've done funerals where no one cried, because everyone was glad the person died. If you don't understand that, you've never watched your Momma suffer with Alzheimer's for 14 years. I've done funerals where everyone was in tears, because the person's work wasn't done yet, and everyone knew it. That's the reason people cried at my Daddy's funeral. Forty-two was too young for "King Kong" Smith to die.
There is a way of thinking that says, "When it's your time, it's your time." I understand where this thinking comes from. It comes from 100 years ago when the No. 1 killer in the United States was strep throat. We've forgotten in 1850, the infant mortality rate for whites was 22 percent; for blacks, 34 percent. A man could be cutting wood and get a splinter; he might be dead from blood poisoning in a week. Death was a lot closer back then.
We live in a different time, a time that is still new. Strep throat now means a trip to the doctor, not a death watch. Frying everything you eat really isn't healthy (even if it is delicious). Exercise really helps.
If a man smokes three packs a day, gets lung cancer and dies, do we say, "It was his time?" If a man overeats, becomes morbidly obese and dies from a stroke, do we say, "It was his time?" If a man drinks too much and drives, then hits a car and kills a family, do we say, "It was their time?"
I wonder if God grieves because some people show up in heaven too early. They might arrive early because someone took an assault rifle and fired on a crowd at a concert. They might arrive early because they were poor stewards of their own body, of their own soul.
No one, of course, knows the answers. Our inability to know means sometimes people say, "Don't ask why. Have faith." I think that's the wrong equation. The Bible is full of people who ask God "why," including Jesus ("Why, O Lord, have you forsaken me?"). It is OK to ask God "why."
The Bible also shows us that God does not always give a direct answer to "why." Sometimes he does, usually when people have sinned and want to know why God is punishing them (see the Prophets). God answers pretty clearly. When there is tragedy, however, God does not answer the questions. But he does show up. The point of the book of Job is not that God gives Job answers; it is that Job asked God to come and speak, and God did.
I think after you ask why and you encounter God, real faith begins. This is faith that is based not on human logic ("It was his time") but on a living God who walks with you, talks with you and loves you through every moment of life.
God wants us to know more than anything that life is a precious gift. Life is to be cared for, stewarded, treasured. Take care of your life; exercise, eat right, go to the doctor.
But above all, seek God. He gave you your life as a gift. Real encounters with him make life worth living.
Clay Smith is the lead pastor of Alice Drive Baptist Church in Sumter.
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