Finding Beauty in the Face of Death
My dad, Larry Locke, died a few weeks ago. He was 76. It's been an emotional roller coaster, but I'm okay. I honestly thought I'd said my final farewell at least a dozen times over the past two years. His decline was shocking to all who knew him well. He had preached and ministered for 40 years at the College Hills (Street) Church of Christ in Lebanon, Tennessee. He was a lifelong runner, always full of optimism and humor, ever hard-driving, never lacking in enthusiasm.
He was all those things and more until illness took a heavy toll. In his last weeks and months, he was merely a shadow of his former self, lacking the personality and energy that so clearly defined him. At the end, we were thankful he found release.
Is it possible to find beauty in the face of death? Can your heart be full of peace even when you know death is knocking on the door?
Jan Wiener was one of the most fascinating men I ever met. An emigrant from Czechoslovakia, Jan spent much of his adult life teaching college-level history in the US. I had the chance to spend many hours with him in Prague, listening to his tales about history and life.
When he recounted the story of his father's death, it was unlike anything I'd ever heard. During World War 2, Jan's family suffered at the hands of Hitler's thugs. After the Germans took over Czechoslovakia, his family soon realized the danger they faced because of the Jewish blood in their veins. Jan's father escaped to Yugoslavia. His mother ended up in the Terezín concentration camp. Jan, who was 20 at the time, fled and found his father in Zagreb. When the Germans took over Yugoslavia, Jan's father didn't want to run again. He wasn't well and had no fight left in him.
One day, he showed his son a small bottle of poison and said he intended to take his life. Did Jan want to keep running or join him? Jan still wanted to live, and he couldn't imagine his father dying.
That evening, his father drank the poison. He asked his son to stay with him until he was dead. His father then said, "Let's play one final game of chess." As the poison coursed through the elder Wiener's system, they played chess for the last time. Jan said it was eerie. And beautiful. He cried as he told the story.
That night, Jan's father went to sleep and never woke up. Jan fled to Italy and on to the UK. He joined the Czech resistance fighters in exile.
In the face of death, can you find beauty? Can your heart be full of peace even when you know death is knocking on the door?
I'm not sure if Mary knew that Jesus was going to die. But when she broke open the valuable jar of perfume to anoint his feet and wipe them with her hair, she was in essence preparing him for burial (John 12:1-8). The entire house filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
Judas was unimpressed. He complained that this ointment should have been sold and the proceeds—it was worth a year's wages—given to the poor. Judas didn't actually care about the poor. He was a thief who kept the disciples' common purse. He took whatever he wanted.
Jesus scolded Judas and praised Mary. "You'll always have the poor," he remarked. "But you won't always have me." Valuable things are good to have of course. But if you don't use them up with the ones you love before they're gone, then what good are they? There comes a time when you have to pour out the perfume and enjoy the moment with your loved ones. All too quickly, those moments are gone.
When we first checked my dad into the hospital about two years ago, we honestly thought it was the end. His health seemed so broken and his situation so hopeless that we really couldn't see a way out. But by the grace of God, he came back. He was slower, but he was close to his old self. This improvement would last about 6 months before the downward spiral irreversibly set in that removed his old personality and drive.
I had planned that fall to meet my sons for a weekend trip. We were going to meet up in our old stomping grounds of Morgantown, West Virginia. I'd lived there as a kid back in the 1970s, and then I ministered for a church there in the 2000s. It was home for both my sons. Now students at Lipscomb University in Nashville, they were going to fly up to Pittsburgh. I would fly from Fresno and meet them. We'd go to the West Virginia v. Kansas State football game and visit our old church family. It would be a father-son outing to cherish.
As the trip neared, I suddenly had the sense that I should invite my dad along. This was the 6-month window when he was better. At the time, we had no idea if he would hold steady or cycle downward again. Inviting him felt risky. He'd once lived there, too, but I worried that he might not do well or that he'd slow us down.
I took the gamble and asked him along. And I'll forever be grateful that I did. It wasn't necessarily like the old days, but it was a beautiful experience celebrating a place we all treasured together. We had one, final weekend before he lost his vitality for good. Even now, tears are in my eyes as I share the story. It's a beautiful memory.
Judas whispers in your ear, "Hold on to your treasure. Don't take risks. Keep it for the future."
Mary exclaims, "Release your grip. Let go. Pour out your treasure for those you love."
Whether it’s a final game of chess or a last trip to the old hometown, releasing the things most precious to you is the only way to experience beauty and peace in the face of death. As long you hold tightly to the things of this world, you can never experience the true beauty that comes from knowing the Lord’s peace.
You obviously can't live every day as if it's your last. But like it or not, there is a last chance to pour out your valuable perfume for those you love. Death still stings, but the beauty of shared moments—no matter how costly—can last forever.