Filipinos recently remembered their loved ones who have gone ahead to eternity through the annual celebration of Todos Los Santos or All Saint’s Day. November 1 has become synonymous with flowers, candles, and cemeteries. But it has also become a time for family reunions, food, and reminiscing. Perhaps our innate resilience as a people enables Filipinos to move on from the tragedy of a beloved’s death to living today through the joys of yesterday’s memories. A year after a loved one’s passing, laughter and at times even jovial music are heard at the same niche where weeping seemed to be ceaseless.
In just a week I received news of the death of three people. One of them was a church mate who had become close to our family. Another was a fellow homeschool mom who left behind four beautiful children. The third was a dear old woman whose prayers moved mountains for the people whom she interceded for. Once again I am reminded of how short life is. Sure, one died in her 80s, the other in his 50s, and the other in her 40s. But then again, I am almost 40, my husband is three years shy of 50, and my parents are in their senior years. Where did time go? How was life spent?
My dad, being a pastor, is often requested to officiate funeral services. When he delivers the exhortation he would usually say, “Life is not measured by its duration but by its donation.” That’s thought provoking. I like walking around cemeteries, looking at the lapida and the tombstones. I take time to read the words engraved in them. I pause to count how many years the persons lived. Then my thoughts wander and I ask, how was that life spent? What was he like when he was alive? Why did his family write those words on his epitaph?
War cemeteries are among the most poignant places to visit. I went to the British War Cemetery outside of Yangon in Myanmar on the week of my birthday in 2015 while on a tour. It was a good time to reflect as I turned a year older. Some who were laid to rest there were young husbands. Others were new fathers who never got to see and hold their infants. Others were teenage sons whose parents didn’t have the privilege of burying them. Others were unknown soldiers who were simply remembered as unnamed heroes.
Such is life. Some walk away from a near-death experience while others welcome death when eternity knocks on their door either reluctantly or as a friend. Others fight sickness with valor and win on this side of the battlefield; others win on the other side. We know of children who go ahead of their parents and parents who were gone too soon, long before their children could say their names. Such is life. Such is death.
Death gives perspective to life. It is ironic that we begin to think of living when we begin to realize we are dying. But think we must! I have come face to face with my mortality more than once. I realized I was afraid of dying. I was fortunate to have parents who helped me understand what dying means and what life should be like. They helped me sort through my fears and doubts. They told me about Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life, how He conquered death on the cross, and that if I believe in Him death is forever defeated. It was nothing fancy. Nothing religious. It was not a long sermon. They couldn’t give me the spiritual clichés and churchy jargon. I was only four years old! They just told me plain and simple under the summer night sky. Somehow it made sense to me. At four years old, I chose to believe. And as I looked up at the stars that night, I knew my eternity was sealed forever.
Fast forward to when I was seventeen, young and idealistic. I was a university student ready to conquer the world with my grand thoughts of justice, equality, and freedom. Who needs God when you can rationalize everything? For every action, there is an equal reaction. And if there is a God He must be really apathetic or sadistic because He sits on His high throne while poverty and suffering abound. No, I didn’t want to choose religion and second-hand faith from my parents. I chose to direct my own destiny.
But my intelligence had limits. My strength waned. My idealism was shattered. My life was about to end when I nearly took matters into my hands. “End it! End it now!” A deathly voice came to me, so cold, so dry, so destructive. I was ready to end it all. End my life. I almost succeeded. But just before I made that fatal step, I found one thing that I would never pick up: a Bible was on the floor. “Read it! Read it! Read it!” I heard the voice three times. It was a different voice. It was gentle and loving but firm and certain. I picked up the Bible; it was the Bible of my youth, with verses highlighted in rainbow colors. I opened it and the words seemed to leap at me: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” That shook me to the core! What is it about me that God would love me and save me from death? Nothing! I will never understand this kind of love. And I have since stopped trying to comprehend it. Then I remembered that summer night when I was four. Jesus took my childhood wish seriously and He was rescuing me from death and the fear of it again. I live now on a new lease on life and I choose to live wisely. I choose to spend my time on things that truly matter.
Death puts things in perspective. Now I see death as a reminder of how to live. It also tells me that there is an eternity to think about. Death, to me now, is just a passageway to the next part of my life. But before I walk past its doorposts, I want to spend my time on this side in a way that would make a difference. I am not talking about religiosity. But I am talking about a life well lived. I want to face Death and be able to say, “I lived well. I fulfilled my purpose. I pursued my passion. I am ready to go.” And when it is time for me to go, it will be a day of rejoicing, not because I am headed for destruction but because I am going to a better life.