Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Can you say, "O death, where is thy sting?" and mean it?

Within the past couple of weeks I have received news of the passing of two of my high school classmates. These aren't the first members of my class of about 500 that have passed through the veil. I am aware of several others, including one that died of complications related to Multiple Sclerosis, a disease that I have lived with for most of my adult life.

Although these recent deaths represent only 0.4% of my graduating class, seeing two classmates die in such a short period of time naturally causes me to reflect a little more seriously upon my own mortality. I attended elementary school and played little league sports with these two. Although I haven't seen them since high school years ago, I see a reflection of my own existence in their obituaries.

People have a variety of approaches to grappling with their own impending deaths. After all, each of us has exactly one lifetime to prepare for that inescapable eventuality. Sometimes death's door comes as a welcome release after a long health struggle. Other times it strikes quickly, leaving survivors feeling as if they have been punched in the gut.

Some try to ignore their future demise until it stares them in the face. Some spend years courting it. When I was a missionary in Norway I became familiar with the works of the famed Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, whose most famous work is likely his painting, The Scream. Munch's entire life and body of work seems to have revolved around a morbid fascination with and fear of death. Ironically, he lived to age 80, which was a fairly long life for that era. But that time can hardly be considered happy.

Most people, however, arrive at some kind of accommodation with the knowledge that they will die someday. Studies show that the vast majority of people do this through faith based belief systems. Many studies suggest that people of faith tend to live happier and healthier lives, and to experience greater peace in the face of death.

My personal approach to dealing with my impending demise is based in a lifetime of cultural, secular, and religious experiences and foundations. There are so many of these threads woven into my thinking that it would be impossible to tease them apart. Many of these bits surf only my subconscious waves. But several particular events stick out for me.

Nearly eight years ago my father passed away following about a year and a half of decline precipitated by a stroke. As I looked at his emaciated remains on the hospital bed, I was suddenly overwhelmed with "the peace of God, which passeth all understanding" (Philippians 4:7). I clearly knew in my soul that my father and I would someday stand together as resurrected beings. Some would say this was just a manifestation of grief. They would be wrong. They weren't there. I was. The experience was palpable and undeniable.

I later saw Dad in a spiritual dream. Most of my dreams are an odd jumble of things that flow like meaningless flotsam on a stream of uncontrollable unconsciousness. But every once in a while I have a clear dream where the Holy Spirit is present. This was one of those, and that's all I will say about it.

About a dozen years ago I was helping Boy Scouts build a snow cave when the structure collapsed on me. (I have since learned and taught much about snow safety.) I was panicked. I couldn't move. Snow crystals were filling my mouth and throat as I struggled to breathe. But the worst thing was that I couldn't expand my lungs to inhale the limited available air because my rib cage was immobilized.

At this moment of great alarm, I realized that my death might be imminent. Oddly, I was far less concerned about its effect on me than on my son and the other Scouts that were nearby. I silently prayed for help. Even as I struggled, I experienced a moment of deep clarity. This cannot be fully described in human terms. But knowledge and light from a source outside of myself was suddenly injected into me and I knew, absolutely knew, that if I died right then I would continue to exist as myself in spirit form. I knew that I would be alright even if my physical body died.

By this time Scouts were climbing all over the top of me, which I doubted was the best way to ensure my survival. But there had a been a thick crusty layer of icy snow that had broken apart upon collapse. Boys were throwing those chunks out of the depression. Suddenly one Scout moved a chunk that relieved the pressure on one arm. I was able to use that arm to clear away another chunk, and then I could sit up and get my head above the snow. I extracted myself and spent a couple of minutes on my hands and knees coughing up ice.

I walked away from that disaster with my physical body intact. But I also walked away with the undeniable knowledge that I would exist after death and that I would be fine. Several other experiences that I won't detail at this time have given me glimpses into the spirit world. Really, I will be just fine when the time comes to go there on a more permanent basis.

The final experience that I write about occurred during my service as a missionary. This one is too sacred to me to detail at this point. But it involved other senses than just internal sight. One afternoon I had occasion to study and deeply ponder 3 Nephi when this event occurred. Suffice it to say that I can — no I must — testify that the resurrected Savior Jesus Christ literally did visit with the Nephites as described in the scripture.

The resurrection is real. Not just for the Savior but for each of us, because of the Savior's Atonement, as Alma(2) declared in Alma 41:2.

I feel grief at the passing of loved ones. I mourn at funerals. But because of what I know to be true, I still feel to exclaim with the Apostle Paul, "O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?" (1 Corinthians 15:55). My prayer is that you will also know the truth of these words in your soul so that you can own them and say them with sincerity.