Tuesday, March 31, 2009

In the Midst of Death's Dark Vale

I had a job in high school working at a nursing home preparing food, delivering food to patients, and cleaning dishes. Most of the time was spent simply delivering large carts filled with trays for all the residents. The food was soft, chopped, and pureed for easy feeding and digestion. Prune juice came in abundance for the digestive track.

It was not an especially pleasant place. Human odors, the smell of bleach and cleaning products was mixed with the skin emissions of residents due to an inordinate amount of medications and various prescriptive drugs. Walking down the halls you will hear cries of pain, anguish, and unintelligible noises of distress. The faces of residents are often wrought with confusion, panic, and the look of complete terror. The process of dying and abandonment is not victorious. It is not pleasant. It is not inspiring, hopeful, filled with dignity and honor. It is not pleasant or cute. Most importantly, it is not natural.

These days with my visits to the nursing home I am no longer pureeing carrots or hamburger meat. I spend time visiting with the residents – socializing, praying, or singing a hymn. When an aged woman near death meets you with her tired eyes they often reveal an anxiety – eyes searching and questioning – what has happened to me? What has gone wrong? This is not where I want to be – this was not supposed to happen. Who is going to help me? There is little harmony in a nursing home where residents are cared for by strangers and await death. There is disorientation, complaints of abandonment, and physical pain.

Lutherans sing “In the midst of death’s dark vale Pow’rs of hell o’er take us. Who will help when they assail, Who secure will make us?”[1] Often times with our vain imaginations we have sought to secure ourselves on our own by trivializing and tranquilizing death. In our quest to naturalize and defang death we have partitioned it off from the youthful and more productive economic community – lest the elderly daily remind us of its unpleasantness. With the neglect of elderly we can keep our romantic ideas about death - its inherent honor and dignity – or simply ignore death altogether.

The bitter pangs of death are real and unsettling for all of humanity. It is a curious fact that most children are profoundly moved by their first encounter or experience with the death of a relative or acquaintance. They are affected and bewildered in the deepest of ways because they cannot conceive of death. It simply does not register in the human mind. Why did he go? Where is he now? There is an awareness that non-existence just does not sound reasonable. The idea of death is not naturally apprehended and requires an explanation.

The human heart naturally can detect an abnormality of one’s apparent departure from life. It simply does not sit well and is met with confusion and sorrow – the idea of death as simply non-existence seems preposterous – and it is. This is seen with ancestor worship which is commonplace in a variety of eastern or African religions. The living attempt to acquire the favor and presence of the deceased, asking for fortune and guidance. Shamans whip themselves into a drug induced frenzy to contact the spirit world and pacify the evil spirits.

In our universal frenzy to skirt death, we poke fun at it, laugh and joke, marginalize death, and make a mockery of those enduring it with the faith that has been granted to them in Christ. Deliverance is willfully sought through every avenue apart from the Father whose heart is truly moved with tenderness -this good and gracious Father who pities us in our distress. He grants us with the honor of being sons and daughters – a heavenly dignity which enters in from outside – from a source of which we can be certain – from the very mouth of God. Have mercy Lord.

[1] Martin Luther, “In the Very Midst of Life,” LSB 755.


  1. I might urge you to reconsider the idea of mocking death. As Christians, this is what a funeral really is. We gather at the tomb to mock death with our singing, and our praying, and our confident hope in the resurrection. We watch the body be laid into the grave and we know, "this is where we'll find John rising, ripped out of the ground by Christ to be taken to Abr'ham's bosom." Death has lost its sting. It can only end our sojourn in this world, end our suffering and pain of sin.

    For those in Christ, there is no condemnation. Therefore we laugh in the face of death, confident in the faith: Christ has overcome Death, and our resurrection is secured. For those without Christ, death can only be feared... postponed, shortened, ignored (which never works) or we can try to take control of it and end ourselves. Christ assures resurrection, making death an hallow fear for us in faith. As the hymn sings, "Jesus lives! and now is death but the gate to life immortal."

  2. My observation is that the idea of death has been naturalized as part of the "cycle of life" - and therefore is not truly meditated upon - that it is not considered the penalty of sin.

    The Christian of course, being held in the church, as you say, can mock death knowing that Christ has defeated death.

  3. I think Petersen calls this "dancing on the devil's grave."


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