What the day was like, I don’t remember. I’m not sure how old I was either. I’d say it was a fair day, and I must have been in third or fourth grade. As I think back, I’m surprised at how much freedom we MK’s (missionary kids) had during the week our parents were in meetings out on Coaba Farm. We pretty much had the run of the mill. (I chuckle at my pun because at one time there were two or three mills on the farm. The old mill stones sat out on the lawns and the mill houses had been converted to lodging either permanent for the missionaries who lived on the farm or guest for families like ours who sometimes stayed an extra week for vacation. The water ditches that fed the mills were still operational and favorite venues for play.)
What made that particular day memorable was my encounter with death. No, it was not my near-death nor the death of anyone I knew, so the encounter was not that personal. A man who lived in the town of Cheje just up the hill from the farm had died. I didn’t know him, but I have a “photo” image in my mind of his friends carrying his rough wood casket on their shoulders and his family, most likely his widow, wailing as they followed along while they crossed the farm on the rock strewn path to the cemetery on the opposite side of the valley. The memory is clearly visual, but it is also emotional. I won’t forget the wailing and the tears, and I recall asking my parents about it later and wondering at the depths of the grief so vividly displayed.
Death has been no stranger in my life. As a young pastor, in my first year and a half of ministry, I buried twenty-one members of the parish I served. Deaths of grandparents, two brothers-in-law, a young friend’s wife, my wife, and a nephew followed. There are and there will be more. One day it will be my turn.
How close to death Pastor Paul was when he wrote to the Philippians is not sure. It would seem if death was imminent is was more likely to be of martyrdom than of age or desease. He was in prison for his faith and in his facing of death almost lamented that death was not close enough. “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain,” he confessed as he struggled between his knowledge that God’s work for him on earth might not be finished and his overwhelming desire to have completed his mission and be rewarded with the eternal heaven for which he so longed.
The grief of death is so real, and sometimes its power surprises me; but Pastor Paul seem to have no grief in his approaching death. What ever it is the earthly heart does, the reality of the Christian death is that it is freedom from the the griefs of this life, it is the final victory over both this earth’s life and this earth’s death. For the believer, the one whose life is found in Christ, to live is indeed Christ and to die is indeed gain.