A few weeks ago I mentioned that I was working on a post about death and Lent. I had written about half of a blog post on our experiences with death during this year’s lenten season, but I hadn’t had time to finish it. A couple of days after I mentioned it, I spent a night at the hospital with a dying woman and her family as they had to make the difficult decision to take her off of her respirator. As you might imagine, the experience sort of overwhelmed the post I had started.
Even before that night, death had been on my mind. I had the opportunity to give a homily on Ash Wednesday in which I focused on the phrase that we would pronounce as we anointed people with ash and oil, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It was a night where we focused on our own mortality – the fact that all of us will eventually die. After spending several days thinking about it and twenty minutes preaching on it, it was still somewhat shocking when a few small children came up to receive their ash, and I was called upon to remind them that even their fresh, energetic bodies would someday die and return to dust. That service put a certain tint on the entire Lenten season for me.
When I first began to write about it, I had been thinking about a few interactions I had with death as I pursued this farming thing. Our poor chick was really struggling with a hobbled leg, and neither Rachel nor I had the heart to put her out of her misery. She is still hobbling around, surviving, but there may still come a day when we need to “cull” her. Of course, I have probably eaten thousands of chickens in my life and rarely thought twice about it, but there is something different about killing something with which you have interacted. We don’t often interact with our food.
I was thinking about the difference between that chick and a mouse and gopher that I had killed in the same day. We got a mouse in a trap at our house one morning, and that day, as the farm was being tilled by a guy with a tractor, I saw a gopher pop out of the ground a few feet away from me. Without even thinking, I sprinted over and stomped the poor rodent to death with my heel. I stomped on it a couple of times, and when I looked down at it, it gave me a sad look with it’s arms almost in the air and its buck teeth hanging out of its mouth. I paused for a split second, and then stomped on it some more. It was pretty brutal. Almost immediately afterward, I was sort of shocked at how instinctual the whole thing had been. I really didn’t even think about it – I just pounced. Of course, the gopher was likely to eat some of our crops, and the chick is something that will hopefully produce for us someday, but I think there was more to it than that. Maybe it’s an “us” and “them” sort of thing, or maybe it was a matter of how helpless the chick is as opposed to how difficult gophers are to catch. I’m not sure. But it was so easy to kill that gopher, and it would be very difficult to kill our chick. In fact, I stomped another gopher to death today, and that chick is still struggling, but surviving in our garage.
Ultimately, I was prepared to blog about how natural death is. I was going to talk about how death is actually a part of our everyday lives despite the fact that we have become very good at distancing ourselves from it. And I was close to concluding that I was just going to have to get accustomed to being around death, and I was going to have to almost embrace it. But I was reminded last week by an N.T. Wright lecture that no, death isn’t natural. Death wasn’t a part of God’s original plan for this world. Death is unnatural. Death is something awful. Death sucks. And I would challenge anyone who thinks otherwise to spend a week in an ICU. Nevertheless, death is all around us. It is part of our everyday lives. Death is a powerful force in this world that has entrenched itself so deeply that we cannot imagine life without it. But instead of embracing death and trying to find a certain beauty in it, I think we should recognize what it really is – it’s a reminder of how deeply sin has entered into the world. The phrase we uttered over our parishioners on Ash Wednesday, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return,” comes from Genesis 3 – from God’s pronouncement on Adam after he has brought sin into the world for the first time. In scripture there is no separating sin and death. And the ugliness, the violence, the sinfulness of this world is as deeply rooted as death is. You can try to avoid it all you want, but it’s there. And no matter what you do, you participate in it.
But this ugly, sinful, dying world is not the world that God wanted, and it isn’t the world that will ultimately prevail. Neither sin nor death will have the final say, and as difficult as it is to imagine, we are promised that both sin and death will be overcome. In fact, we are told that they have been overcome.
So, I suppose, we will continue to participate in death at the farm. We won’t pretend that death isn’t a reality of survival in this broken world. But we won’t celebrate it, and we won’t romanticize it. We will let it be a witness to the depth of the sin that has infected our world, the sin that has infected us, and we will continue to pray and seek God’s coming kingdom where both sin and death have been defeated.