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DEATHS IN SUMMER: Lessons Learned or Lost?

This year, it particularly feels like August’s “Dog Days” became summer’s “Death Days” — not just from headlines of bloody genocide, gunned-down-in-the-streets violence and missile-attack casualties shrieking from Iraq, Ferguson, MO and Israel/Gaza respectively. The recent passings of actors Robin Williams and Lauren Bacall — he by his own hand, she from advanced age — have to be factored in. Then there’s American journalist James Foley’s from-the-pit-of-perdition execution at the hands of ISIS ghouls; and the much less gruesome, but still regrettable, loss of Oscar-winning filmmaker Richard Attenborough. 

And lots of other deaths, obviously — additional “notable folk”, but most under the national radar. A few demises garnered only a passing blip, nevertheless speaking volumes for those who noticed them — and have “ears to hear”. 

The bizarre, accidental fatalities of Corey Griffin and Brad Parker, for instance. 

Griffin was the 27-year-old philanthropist who imaginatively spearheaded fund-raising efforts to battle ALS  (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis/”Lou Gehrig’s Disease”). Designated by USA Today as “co-founder” of cyberspace’s ubiquitous ALS “Ice Bucket Challenge”, Griffin had reportedly raised $100,000 for the cause mere hours before perishing in a Nantucket, MA diving accident. 

To the Boston Globe, Griffin’s father described him as “the happiest guy in the world”, commenting, “He called me last night [August 15] and told me he was in paradise.” The obit continues, “”[F]un-loving, athletic … [a] generous young man … He was patient, funny, a good role model” 
Serendipitously, later that same day, another grimly poignant incident: veteran rock climber Brad Parker plummeted to his death hours after proposing to his girlfriend. The thirty-six-year-old Sebastopal, CA outdoorsman had popped the question to Jeinee Dial — who accepted — after the pair summitted Yosemite’s Cathedral Peak . He’d next headed off solo to attempt nearby Matthes Crest,  on an established route he’d managed “with ease on several occasions”.

Then — tragedy: alone and without ropes, the seasoned yoga instructor, surfer and mountain biker fell to his doom. 

In words eerily echoing Corey Griffin’s valedictory sentiments, Parker’s father relayed his son had told him it was “the happiest day of his life”. 

One of Griffin’s mourners volunteered, “We texted everyday, planning and scheming ways to raise [ALS] funds and plan events.”

Parker’s fellow mountaineer Jerry Dodrill noted he and his longtime friend had scheduled to take on the High Sierra the weekend following. Instead: attendance at his chum’s memorial.

A bitter cliche I don’t like, because it misrepresents our loving Creator, insists: “Men plan, God laughs.” Again, I rebuff the sentiment because my Heavenly Father is no sadist taking pleasure in wantonly scotching peoples’ hopes and dreams. I suspect, however, He does shake his head disappointedly — and regularly —  as frail and fallible men plunge headlong with their ideas, often well-intentionedly, sometimes commendably; but heedless of life’s fragility, brevity, gravity. 

We hear the lecture at funerals our liveslong, but it maddeningly fails to penetrate the multitudes: someday this earthly stretch will expire for us all — and then what? The biblical injunction is that something — glorious or ghastly — awaits everyone of us when our heart finally stops its pulsing. 

“What does it profit a man,” pressed Jesus,  “if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Mk 8:36) That question’s cut-the-baloney frankness has earned it a measure of familiarity even among those otherwise unversed in Holy Writ. 

Following this sojourn? Judgment Day — and either everlasting reward or punishment. How did we live? What did we do with the years lent us? How have we addressed our inevitable and manifold outrages against God’s unimpeachable standards?

He’s made incomprehensible provision for our forgiveness and salvation through the sacrifice of His Son. So, how’d we respond to that? 

Whatever our breezy expectations, who knows how many tomorrows actually remain to settle those issues? The moment to be prepared for the instant they fizzle out? Already upon us. 

Through frantic busyness or momentarily pleasurable diversions or abject denial, men convulsively keep at bay that acknowledgment, waving it away into the gray recesses of their awareness. But reality unappeasably persists: not one of us gets out of here alive. Death becomes the great leveler. There’s a reckoning for everyone. Wise individuals look that settled axiom in the eye and make ready. 

Plainly, the most insistent concern is the “heaven or hell” determination. But don’t be mistaken, it isn’t the only one. 

To this last point, 1992’s Dead Poet’s Society springs to mind. That movie, of course, coincidentally starred the aforementioned Robin Williams, whose August 11th suicide shook the globe. An early sequence, known popularly as the “Carpe Diem scene”, features Williams’ Professor John Keating challenging his students: ” ‘Seize the day. Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.’ … [W]e are food for worms, lads … believe it or not, each and every one of us in this room is one day going to stop breathing, turn cold and die.” 

I know, for the Bible-believer the “Carpe Diem” philosophy leaves lots to be desired. Still, remembering “Life is short” does hold a measure of ineradicable merit — because, from an eternal perspective, it is. Our chunk of the ticking clock, to profligately waste or conduct fruitfully as we choose?  Definitely not unlimited. 

Life is a gift, a stewardship from the Life-Giver. We’ve only so much time, so many opportunities to build a lifetime that matters; that mattered; to leave our beneficial and perdurable stamp on the ages.

“What we do in life echoes in eternity!” quoth Gladiator‘s pagan General Maximus (ironically, bellowing a robustly Christian fundamental). 

Contrary to materialist dogma passed along in biology class, human beings aren’t just another species of brute beast: Animals eat, sleep, scratch themselves, defecate, procreate — not much else —  then die. Men and women are beyond that. Made in God’s image, they have the capacity — and obligation —  for so much else: talents discovered and sharpened, heaven-sown aspirations fulfilled, solutions developed and problems vanquished, nasty situations made better. 

The One Who’s entrusted this bounteous potential to each individual will demand each one answer for what he/she did with it. 

Marvin Olasky recently wrote about World War 2 British POW Roger Bushell (basis for the fictional “Roger Bartlett” in 1963’s The Great Escape). Addressing his conspiratorial comrades-in-breakout, Bushell declared, “Everyone here in this room is living on borrowed time. By rights we should all be dead. God allowed us this extra ration of life.” 

Every human being ultimately has that finite “ration”; to get right with His God, to capitalize the most on what that God has granted him. Too frequently, that’s blithely forgotten; these past few weeks, a heart-rending handful of reminders have cropped up to get our attention, once again.

Lessons learned? This time, prayerfully.



Steve Pauwels

Steve Pauwels is pastor of Church of the King, Londonderry, NH and host of Striker Radio with Steve Pauwels on the Red State Talk Radio Network. He's also husband to the lovely Maureen and proud father of three fine sons: Mike, Sam and Jake.

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