The Shock and Sting of Death
A prominent American pastor – Eugene Peterson, died today. He was 85, and suffering from dementia and heart failure in hospice care. It was not a surprise, and yet death it seems is always a shock.
Death intrudes uninvited into our lives. Death rudely interrupts our life – even when we expect it. Death shocks us. It silences our joy and hope. It leaves those of us left behind numb. Even though it is as natural as birth, it feels unnatural – a disturbance, a perversion of our existence.
Most of us are not good at saying goodbye, almost like we have been hardwired to not know what to do with departure. We were not created to deal with death, so we are utterly lost when it is thrust upon us.
As Eugene Peterson breathed his last, his family reports that he looked joyfully toward heaven saying, “Let’s go!”
As unnatural as death is, longing to experience it seems even more perverse to most of us. Why would Peterson anticipate death?
To know the answer, one must know the man.
And to know the man, you must know his message.
Peterson was a pastor. He was a professor. He was a poet. His legacy on Earth will always be his words. And his words always pointed to the Words of Another. His Message was actually not his message at all. He gave his life to share God’s Words, to Share God’s Message, and to present the Words of the Lord in a way that are not archaic, or Shakespearean, or irrelevant, but fresh, modern, alive. Peterson was a man obsessed with listening and repeating the words of God, in the language of today, that his neighbours and his friends may hear clearly and understand God Himself speaking.
Why did Peterson feel a book - The Book - the Bible was worth giving his life and his considerable brainpower to share in a fresh way?
He writes, “The Bible is not a script for a funeral service, but it is the record of God always bringing life where we expect to find death. Everywhere it is the story of resurrection.”
Flipping the Script
Peterson believed the Bible tells a story that the world needs to hear. It shares the narrative of God bringing life wherever we find death. In this way, it is good news, because it shares the secret of the universe: that eternal life is available, even when death is an unavoidable reality.
Peterson paraphrases the most famous verse of God’s story this way:
“This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again. Anyone who trusts in him is acquitted; anyone who refuses to trust him has long since been under the death sentence without knowing it. And why? Because of that person’s failure to believe in the one-of-a-kind Son of God when introduced to him. (The Message, John 3:16-18).
This is a story worth knowing! This is a story of life and joy and peace, contrasted to the narratives we see around us of death and sorrow and turmoil. The story the world invites us to hear is a story that offers us everything, but in the end fails us in every way. We are promised happiness through selfishness, meaning through pleasure, security through possessions, and yet the story always ends in sorrow – in death and departure and desolation.
Living in a New Narrative
Again, Peterson puts it so well in his paraphrase of God’s Words:
So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you. (The Message, Romans 12:1-2)
The story the world tries to sell us is a fraud - it gives us none of the things it promises. God’s story offers us life. True life, full life, never-ending life. And true, we must give up our worldly life to live within God’s Story, but if we do, then what lies before us is resurrection – eternal life – with God our Father forever.
Peterson saw himself at the nexus of two narratives: The stories of the world which promises big but at the end leaves us with nothing, and the Message of God, which invites us to enjoy His life and joy and friendship forever. The choice before Peterson and before us is so obvious.