By Sean Palmer
In the middle of Vacation Bible School, I got the news that Sue had died. That night I was supposed to act in a skit. I hate skits. However, I would have preferred to be in the skit than to visit a grieving family who had just lost a wife, a mother, and grandmother.
Driving to the house, I flipped through mental notes, reminding myself of all the words to say and not say when someone has died. Don’t say anything stupid like, “God must’ve needed her.” That’s unhelpful because God already had her.
As I walked into the house, I was stunned. I didn’t expect to see Sue just laying in the living room. Her head was tilted back, hair undone—which she never would have allowed while she was living. Her frame was thin, cracked, and wrinkled. Her skin had surrendered to gravity, dangling lifeless from her emaciated bones. Cancer.
The family was wealthy. The hospital bed she died on was the Rolls Royce of hospice care. It boasted more bells and whistles than her Lexus in the garage.
There she was, all the same, mouth hanging open in the middle of the living room. Dead.
Seeing the Dead
Contemporary Americans aren’t used to seeing dead bodies, though that’s a recent development. There was time when someone died, they likely died in the house.
“In her bedroom. Where else?”
As Ebola raced through parts of Western Africa last year, medical professionals searched villages looking for dead bodies. Many denied having dead bodies in their homes because custom requires families to personally prepare the dead for burial, which only helped the spread of the disease.
In our culture, people find dead bodies repugnant. We use morgues and funeral homes instead.
In Pelahatchie, Mississippi, there’s a tiny Baptist church with a rotting cemetery next to it. Dozens of cracked, splintered tombstones litter the slopping hill that runs away from the church, and every name on every tomb says PALMER.
That’s where my grandparents and their grandparents are buried. You can’t worship in that church without being reminded of death.
We don’t live like that. A cemetery is a place we visit. We think about death before going to the cemetery and while we’re there, but after we leave we think about something else as soon as possible. Death isn’t something we stub our toes on. It’s not part of the furniture of our lives.
But this deathbed—in the middle of that living room—was part of the furniture. When I ambled into the house that night, even if I could skulk off to another room, I couldn’t escape death.
99 Problems and Death is #1
We were born with a problem: We are all going to die. And we don’t like it.
Good people have told us that our greatest problem is sin, but sin is a byproduct of our deeper dilemma. Our greatest problem is death.
The writer of Hebrews captures it best: “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Hebrews 2:14, 15).
We are slaves to the fear of death.
We overwork, hoard, and hide because we fear not having enough. We wrap ourselves in positions and policies and make unholy alliances with parties and politicians because we fear for our rights and privileges.
Why do we lie and cheat and steal? Why do discriminate and hate? Why do we embrace violence and suspicion?
We are scared to death of death, so we try to out-
Breakfast with Death
Every morning we meet the fear of death in the kitchen for breakfast. She arrives at the table, toting a thousand reminders that she is always lurking—aches and pains, less hair here and more weight there. Death whispers to us during medical checkups or as we enlarge the font on our cellphones. We reach a point in life when ibuprofen becomes a basic food group.
Death murmurs through kidney stones, frail bones, children grown, and the sobering knowledge that no heart beats forever. That’s why we are slaves to the fear of death. Sane people don’t wish for death. Instead, we press against it.
Some folks try to eat healthy, exercise, and lift weights. Others stockpile pleasurable experiences, whether it’s vacations or relationships or food or drink. Some of us make idols of our kids. Others of us try to leave an inheritance, construct a career, or build bigger barns. Donald Trump puts his name on his properties, not because he can’t think of better names, but because he wants to leave his signature on the world. Steve Jobs wanted to make a “dent in the universe.” We are no different.
We’re all trying to bar the door against the encroaching footsteps of death. Don’t believe me? Start a stopwatch, mention death, and see how long it takes for someone to change the subject.
We are scared to death of death. And why shouldn’t we be? With all of life’s terror, disappointments, and grief, it seems like death has scored all the points. It seems like death has won.
That’s why we need the power and beauty of Easter—to remind us that seems can be a dishonest word. Against all appearances to the contrary, death has already lost.
If Easter means anything, it means we need not fear “death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation” (Romans 8:38, 39).
The cross takes care of our sin. The empty tomb takes care of our fear. Since sin entered the world, the one thing evil had been able to hold over us is the fear of death. On Easter, however, death is defeated.
Ask yourself one simple question: What would your life be like if you lived without fear?
I Had You the Whole Time
One summer while my daughters where still very little, my wife tore her left Achilles. I was a youth minister at the time, and since my wife could barely stand, both kids were subjected to going on multiple youth trips with me and the students.
After a while we were exhausted, and I begged out of our junior high camp, but I still had to drive the church kids to Abilene, Texas, from Houston. While I left my youngest, Katharine, who was just a baby at the time, with my mother-in-law, my oldest daughter, Malia, traveled to camp with me to drop off our crew, spend the night, and drive home the next morning.
Malia was 3 and more than anything she wanted to swim in the hotel pool. Hotel swimming pools are the French Riviera to kids, and although Malia had taken swimming lessons, she wasn’t quite competing to be the next Dara Torres.
We checked in, got dressed for the pool, and dove in. We had the entire place to ourselves. We splashed and jumped and played, all with her in my faithful arms, until I decided to see what she could do on her own. I let her go, but just a little.
She did great. Nothing could stop her jumping and splashing, until she realized my hands were absent. She panicked and began screaming. I reached out and grabbed her. She wrapped her arms around my neck, nearly choking me.
“Daddy, you saved me!” she blurted.
Inside I whispered, “Oh, sweetheart, I had you the whole time.” She never had anything to fear.
Easter reminds us that the worst thing that can happen can’t happen. Death has been defeated. You are no longer a slave to the fear of death. So go ahead. Splash around.
Sean Palmer is Lead Minister at The Vine Church in Temple, TX. Read more from Sean on Twitter (@seanpalmer) or at The Palmer Perspective (ThePalmerPerspective.com).