By Guest Author: Matthew Kanitz
This last Halloween our neighborhood, just like many neighborhoods throughout the world, erupted in a cacophony of spooky ghosts, inflatable black cats, and the occasional spoof graveyard.
“What are those Dad” asked my son Caleb with all of innocent curiosity a 6 year old could muster.
“Those are gravestones. You see when someone dies they dig a big hole and put the dead person in it and then put a tombstone on top with the person’s name and when they lived on it.” I explained.
“You mean there’s dead people under there!” and his eyes grew wide.
“No, no, no!” I reassured him, “these are just pretend, they only really put dead people in a graveyard, not someone’s front yard.”
Seeming content with the answer my son left off of the topic for the evening. However a few days later Caleb asked me a question while we were in the car on our way home. “Dad, what’s the dying place look like?”
“What do you mean Caleb, what dying place?”
“You know, the dying place. The place where people go to get put in the hole with the big stones with their name on it?” he asked.
“Oh you mean the graveyard,” I said.
“Yeah, the graveyard. What’s it look like?” he asked.
Since at that moment we just happened to be passing a small cemetery just off the road to our neighborhood I told him “Well Caleb I’ll show you”.
So we drove into this small community graveyard not much more than about an acre. The scene there was quiet and befitting for a small country graveyard. We found ourselves alone in the small pasture turned memorial park. I instructed my son and his sister to be respectful and not to walk over the graves as we wandered about looking at the stones. As is usual in a cemetery there were men, women, beloved parents and children, young and old. As we walked across we noticed that there was a mound of fresh dirt near a tent set up with chairs as if prepared for a memorial service. So I took Caleb and his sister Rachel over to the open grave so we could see the hole.
Upon looking down into the open pit however we found we both were, and were not alone. At the bottom of the pit lay the body of a man lying upon a board. He was covered with a white death shroud pulled tightly about his body so that you could make out the hint of eyes, nose and mouth.
I had expected an empty hole, or at worst an innocuous featureless box; not this stark reminder of the certainty of rot, destruction, and decay. My bowels quivered with the same sensation one gets momentarily when you fear sudden disaster, like the jolt you feel when you wake from a momentary doze on the road and realize you’re in the wrong lane.
“What’s that?” my two little ones asked.
“That’s a dead guy, let’s go” I said.
“Can we go down there?” they asked, innocently not fully knowing that the man was beyond any help they might provide.
“No! let’s go” I snapped! However in my mind I thought, “Yes you can go down there. You are going down there, you can’t help but go there.” In that mind I took my kids and fled slowly back to the car while regretting the decision to bring them there the whole way.
I took them there at my son’s request for a nice clean life lesson. Sort of like the starving children in some third world country that I mention to guilt or scare the kids into eating vegetables. I wanted the vegetables eaten but didn’t want to actually deal with the huddled starving masses. I wanted a nice clean lesson, a far off notion of death, a something that happens to distant nameless people some ways off. I wanted a sterile talking point to use in discussions about why we look both ways in crossing the street and the like. What I got was more than I bargained for.
Ecclesiastes seems to me to be a book contemplating the patterns of life under the sun while standing beside the pit. I can almost picture the preacher much as I was standing at the side of the pit with my children pondering life in light of its inevitable end. The preacher has in view all that is done under the sun, all of the pleasures of youth, all of the pain of injustice, and the pains of the slow or fast descent into that pit. Meaningless, meaningless says the preacher but why? Because there is a time to die.
Death is a strange thing in our reckoning. We live day to day like we will live forever, like things will continue on without end. Yet we are so conformed to the curse of death that we fear those things real or imagined that don’t also conform to death. We call those things that don’t die monsters; they are vampires, ghosts and zombies.
We fear the undead monsters who feed on death, yet ignore the fact that we are just like them. Our whole existence is purchased at the cost of sacrificial death. Each day we purchase just a few more days of life by the death of other beings. My kid’s chicken nugget happy meal is purchased by the brutal sacrifice of some poor chicken who would presumably rather had continued being a chicken for a few more days. Even if we throw off meat, we like Cain offer up sacrifices of the fruits of the fields to buy life for ourselves one day at a time. Taken to an even grander scale we feed off of the slow death of our sun. Each gleam of light we see, each kiss of warmth we feel, each breath of wind we hear finds its birth in the irreversible consumption of a bit more of the sun’s lifeblood. Although it is a process of billions of years the sun slowly burns down just as a humble camp fire.
We know these things but still we marvel at Jesus when he says “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day” John 6:54. We are like little monsters living in a world kept alive as it revolves around a huge ball of sacrificial fire, eating our daily sacrifices to stave off death one day at a time. Then we have the audacity to wonder at Jesus when He claims we need His sacrifice to really be alive. Meanwhile, the whole universe around us declares life’s need for a sacrifice in order to continue.
In light of the testimony of the universe pointing to the validity of Jesus’ claim, why do we balk at what is made so plain? For many of us, if we are honest with ourselves the reason is we don’t like the manner by which we must accept Jesus invitation to dine on him. Jesus said “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me” Luke 9:23.
We have the same gut reaction to Jesus’ call to die as that reaction I had while looking into the grave with my kids. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t say this from some pedestal as if I have the spotless life of some cross carrying saint. Rather I am saying this more from a position of the prostitute weeping at Jesus feet; weeping for one more day, one more chance.
In reading that “there is a time to die” unlike the preacher we have the benefit of the message of Jesus from the cross. Jesus said “Whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it”. If I understand it right, it’s a choice to give in to every desire now and die having lost one’s soul, or to “kill” those desires now and find eternal life in Christ’s sacrifice. In a way it is kind of like quitting smoking. You can quit smoking now and live a healthy life, or you can keep smoking and die and quit smoking at your funeral. Either way you are going to quit smoking, but one way is a fast track to a painful end.
If one thinks about death in this respect there is probably a time to die coming up in just a few moments. Will you kill your desire to flirt with that hot someone in the office who is none of your business and go home to your spouse? Will you sacrifice your right to keep the money in your account and help your friend who lost his job to make his rent payment? These daily times to die come in big and little ways. For me there is a time to die that comes every night around 9:30 PM C.S.T.
Do I put to death my desire to stay up and have that precious decompression time, or go to bed so I can get up on time to make sure I am able to have time to be a responsible husband, father and friend? Moment by moment we are given little opportunities to die so that Christ may live in us. My guess is that here in a moment you will encounter your own chance to put to death some desire in reverence for Jesus. When that moment comes will you save your life, or choose to lose it for His sake?
We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. ~Romans 6:6-9
Author Bio: Matthew Kanitz is a long time fellow spiritual pilgrim and friend of heartbeatoftime author, Aliel Cunningham. He and his family reside in Texas.