Seeing Dead People

March 21st, 2013

An old friend of mine named Dave died recently. Cancer. He was my age, a great guy with a heart you could feel and a smile that made you believe.

Dave and I weren’t always close, just always connected. Every time we saw each other we would hug and smile and catch up on where we were heading in life. We were teenagers together in the same church and twenty-something college students together at the same university. We were also guys at some of the same parties, both of us uncomfortable in the shared knowledge of a God who knew we weren’t giving our best in those days.

Then some years passed, a few random encounters in between, and we were once again reconnected. We had both changed after going through our own personal apocalypses. His was much more severe, a tragic diagnosis that would ultimately prove inescapable. One beautiful summer morning we met up, and he was smiling. I wondered how sick he really was and if I might hurt him when we hugged. I asked him how he was doing. He told me God was good. Good. What is that anyway? We always talk about the good life. It used to mean something about money or status or at least a lot of people who thought we were cool. But a good God is not the same thing as a good life, to most people. And when someone who is dying tells you that God is good, you don’t forget it.

Sometimes life feels like a cosmic vending machine. There’s a lot of nice stuff in there like great friends and love, but there are also nasty selections like cancer and divorce. Sometimes we directly push buttons for some of the bad stuff, but other times we push the button for happiness and instead end up with our hopes and dreams stuck on the ledge like a teetering Snickers bar while something horrible, like a car wreck, falls to us.

Dave and I ran into each other again only a couple months before he died. He was leaving a youth football game that he had just refereed. He looked thin, but told me he felt OK. He told me God is in control. At those words, my faith strengthened and my heart broke at the same time.

A lot of people ask questions about the meaning of life or why I’m a “Jesus weirdo” or how a good God could allow so much suffering to happen. Answers to these kinds of tough questions often flip to autopilot, like some processor that computes objections and responds with appropriate points of logic and evidence. But lost in that is the emotion, the rawness of the experience of doubt. Part of being a spiritual zombie is hitting that autopilot mode, which is bad, because we forget what a struggle this business of faith in God really is. The best we can do most of the time is try to imagine what God’s perspective must be like.

During one climactic scene of The Walking Dead, a character named Andrea decides to end her life. She can’t handle the terror of existing among the undead anymore. The group is evacuating a government facility that will soon self-destruct, but Andrea decides to stay with a couple of others who have chosen a brief, painless death by incineration rather than fighting to survive the zombie apocalypse any longer. An older character named Dale cares about her and refuses to let her stay and die. He doesn’t fight her or get physical in any way but rather sits down next to her and says if she dies then he does too. He refuses to leave her side, so she escapes with him and lives.

And she hates him for it.

She won’t talk to him and treats him like dirt after that. When he finally confronts her, she lashes out in anger. She wanted to die. That was her choice, and he had no right to stop her. Stunned and hurt, Dale can only say, “I saved your life.”

If we get angry over terrible things happening on earth we can ball our fists toward heaven and yell, “How could you?!” What does that look like to the Creator of those balled fists? Maybe God just looks back at us and says, “But I saved you.”

The most heartbreaking part of the cross for Jesus was the full knowledge of every person who would ever choose death in place of his love.

A friend and I went together to the funeral home for Dave’s viewing. Mourners waited in line for hours to pay tribute to his life and family. We could see his body in the casket for the last fifteen minutes of waiting in line. There’s nothing right about looking at a thirty-three-year-old man in a casket. It was very sad. As we reached the front of the line, Dave’s parents were there to greet us. I hugged his mom, who was more comforting to me than I could be to her. My friend was visibly downcast as he spoke with Dave’s dad, staring at his clasped hands, not sure what to say. But Dave’s father put his arm around my friend’s shoulder and said, “No, look at that.” He directed our attention past the casket and pointed to a beautiful painted portrait in the corner of the room. It almost looked like a photograph, this image of Dave smiling back at us. “Doesn’t he look good?”

It was a beautiful moment. We were sad and thinking about the death, but Dave’s dad saw him as being alive and better than ever. We remember how people were in the good times so that we can block out the painful memories of weakness and death. That scene is a picture of the way it is with us and God. Jesus became the ultimate slate wiper for us. God puts his arm around us, points to a picture of Christ, and says, “No, no, no. That’s what I see when I look at you. I don’t see your sadness and failure and death. I see my Son. Alive.”

That’s why Jesus means so much to me, and I believe that’s why my dying friend could say that God is good. We don’t have to fear the face of death once we clearly see the face of God.

This is an excerpt from Undead: Revived, Resuscitated, Reborn by Clay Morgan, Copyright © 2012.

comments powered by Disqus