Of Death and Grace

Cabbages and Kings

I am dying. Of cancer. This past Christmas was my last. Spring always has been my favorite season. At this writing, I hope to see the spring of 2008. Since childhood, I have loved baseball. Today my marvelous palliative-care physician told me there is a chance that I will watch my dear Detroit Tigers on television on opening day. But that I will not see the World Series.

To paraphrase a great English observer of human nature, Samuel Johnson, the prospect of dying focuses one’s thinking. What follows are some of my thoughts about death.

Primary among them is this: I don’t want to die. Even though I have lived 90 years, two decades beyond the biblical three score and ten, I want to live. There are things yet that I want to do. People to see. Sermons to preach.

Also, I’m scared. Does it surprise you that a minister of the Christian Reformed Church is scared of dying? As a Christian, I do not fear death; still, I fear dying. How much will dying hurt? On a chart of 1 to 10, my pain threshold is a -100.

And I’m scared of something else—the money running out before life runs out.

Most of all, I’m scared about what will become of Anne, my beloved wife, who can’t hear or walk or remember. For years I’ve asked God to let me outlive her, so I can take care of her until her home-going. Then, I have told him, I could go to my grave in peace.

But God has not answered my prayer in the fashion I have requested. My son says that God has, really, because so much of Anne already has been taken (although not her sweet disposition). I am not convinced by this line of reasoning and find but small comfort in it.

Those are the big things. There also are smaller things.

For example, I struggle with disappointment and embarrassment. Always having taken care of my family and myself, now others have to take care of me. My body is failing. My mind, too, is not as sharp as it used to be—particularly because of the medications for pain. (Still, even in this, I am forced to admit that I have reason for giving thanks. Our attentive children love their mother and father. And daughter Sue, upon ending her teaching career, has devoted herself to the care of her parents. And there is a special caregiver named Mary Ellen.)

Over my 63 years of ministry, I’ve been a pastor as well as a preacher. I’ve counseled parishioners, tried to comfort them, and conducted hundreds of funeral services. (I’ve always welcomed funeral services because, unlike at weddings, those in attendance actually listen to the Christian message, focused as they are for the moment upon their own mortality.) Now, however, it’s my minister who counsels me, comforts me, and plans with me the details of my own funeral service.

And I ask myself, why do bad things happen to good people? Why me? Why now? There’s so much for me yet to do.

Early in my ministry I attempted to answer that question, as it was posed to me by a grieving parent, a dying mother, a devastated family, a stunned congregation. But soon I came to recognize that my answers were unconvincing and maybe even misdirected.

Now I am older, I hope wiser, and facing my own death. I try to answer that question—Why do bad things happen to good people?—with three points. (Are you surprised?)

First is a simple admission: I do not know. “There you have it, plain and flat,” as poet John Greenleaf Whittier once wrote.

Second is a story that gives me just a tiny glimpse into an answer. I will be edified if it does the same for you. Here it is:

When I was a boy, I feared going to the dentist. My father took me there anyway. When I was sitting in the chair, my father near me, I begged my father to rescue me from what lay ahead. My father did not do so. Instead he told me that he loved me and that I would be all right. After that, all I could do was trust my father. My father knew what was above and beyond my understanding at the time—that I needed to go to the dentist.

In a similar fashion, tragedy and death are above and beyond my understanding. I pray for God to take them away. For some reason, God doesn’t answer my prayers in the ways I want.

But here’s the point: Above my understanding. But not God’s. He loves me, this I know, so all I can do is trust him, my only comfort in life and death. My father knew, and my heavenly Father knows, things that were and are beyond my comprehension.

Third is my main point: As important as is the question about why God allows bad things to happen to good people, it is not the most important question in life. The most important question in life—in all the world and in all the universe, for that matter—is, rather, “Why does God allow a good thing to happen to bad people?”

I am a sinner—a bad person. Yet my Father gave his only Son for me—a very good thing indeed.

During a lifetime of ministry, I have heard the last words of many of my parishioners. One does not forget such things. The person whose last words I’ve been reflecting upon the most these past weeks is William Harry Jellema, a professor of philosophy at Calvin College and arguably the greatest mind in the history of the Christian Reformed Church. His last words—simple but not simplistic—were, “It’s grace, Jake; it’s all grace.”

Think of it! The enormous intellect that was William Harry Jellema condensed the entire Bible, all of theology, and every last Reformed creed and confession into just one word: grace.

Thus the title of my last Banner article, my last “Of Cabbages and Kings” in a series stretching 40 years, is not “Of Death,” but “Of Death and Grace.” Of all the words I have shared with you over all the decades in these pages, dear readers, the ones I would leave with you are . . .

“May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”

Amen.

“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes—and ships—and sealing wax—
Of cabbages—and kings—
And why the sea is boiling hot—
And whether pigs have wings.”
—Lewis Carroll,
“The Walrus and the Carpenter”
From Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, 1872


“The time has come,” our Savior said,
“To show you many things:
The face of your Almighty God—
And Jesus Christ, your King—
And that the streets are paved with gold—
And angels do have wings.”
—Deanna Eppinga DeVries
“For Dad: Welcome to Heaven,” 2008

About the Author

Rev. Jacob D. Eppinga was pastor emeritus of LaGrave Avenue Christian Reformed Church, in Grand Rapids, Mich. He went to be with his Lord March 1, 2008. This column concludes his popular “Cabbages and Kings” series, which he wrote for 40 consecutive years. Watch for It’s All Grace, a collection of his best and more recent columns to be published in book form this fall by Faith Alive Christian Resources.
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