When you think about it, death is never more than one false step away.
One run red-light.
One moment of distraction while driving on the highway.
One minute a child is left unattended.
One tree that fell the wrong way.
One plane ride that fails to reach its destination.
One stray bullet in the bunker.
One unexpected hold-up at a grocery store.
One explosion at a fertilizer plant.
One shooting at an Elementary School.
One visit to the wrong place at the wrong time.
One doctor’s visit.
One CT scan.
One dial on the stove you thought you’d turned off but didn’t.
One case of faulty wiring in the attic.
One lightening strike.
One flash flood.
One heartbeat that doesn’t come when it should.
One breath you’d never thought you wouldn’t have.
It happens every time. Whenever there is a tragedy, a heightened awareness of our own mortality seizes us, a gripping recognition of the dangers that are present all around us, every day of our lives. Our response is to hug our loved ones tight, remember our days are numbered, and often, to take extra precautions, minimizing the risk in our daily lives. But as time passes on, we forget those dangers are ever-present and we resume our normal lives, for the most part oblivious to the perils that await us at every turn.
Whenever I hear of sudden deaths and contemplate the one fatal step between life and death I think of Moby-Dick and the whale lines.
Herman Melville writes:
“Towards the stern of the boat [the whale-line] is spirally coiled away in the tub…As the least tangle or kink in the coiling would, in running out, infallibly take someone’s arm, leg, or entire body off, the utmost precaution is used in stowing the line in its tub….[No] son of mortal woman, [can] for the first time, seat himself amid those hempen intricacies, and while straining his utmost at the oar, bethink him that at any unknown instant the harpoon may be darted, and all these horrible contortions be put to play like ringed lightnings; he cannot be thus circumstanced without a shudder that makes the very marrow in his bones to quiver in him like a shaken jelly.” (Moby-Dick, pg. 298, 299-300)
If we think we can so control our lives as to postpone death or make a premature death “less likely,” we are only fooling ourselves. Despite our most meticulous precautions, micro-managed diets, and minimal-risk lives, at any moment the proverbial whale-lines wrapped all around us could snap tight, our foot slip in the rocking boat, and the voyage prove to be our last.
The truth is, as Herman Melville meditates on in the character of Ishmael:
“All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with a halter around their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life. And if you be a philosopher, though seated in the whale-boat, you would not at heart feel one whit more of terror, than though seated before your evening fire with a poker, and not a harpoon, by your side.” (pg. 300)
Not one whit more of terror?
As Christians, can we share this conviction and if so, what is its basis? Ponder this story from Aesop’s Fables, called The Passenger and the Pilot:
It had blown a violent storm at sea, and the whole crew of a vessel were in imminent danger of shipwreck. After the rolling of the waves was somewhat abated, a certain Passenger who had never been to sea before, observing the Pilot to have appeared wholly unconcerned, even in their greatest danger, had the curiosity to ask him what death his father died.
“What death?” said the Pilot; “why, he perished at sea as my grandfather did before him.”
“And are you not afraid of trusting yourself to an element that has proven thus fatal to your family?”
“Afraid? by no means; why, we must all die: is not your father dead?”
“Yes, but he died in his bed.”
“And why, then, are you afraid of trusting yourself to your bed?”
“Because I am there perfectly secure.”
“It may be so,” replied the Pilot; “but if the hand of Providence is equally extended over all places, there is no more reason to be afraid of going to sea than for you to be afraid of going to bed.” (emphasis mine)
In a sense, all endeavors are equally dangerous–and equally safe. We ought not presume upon God’s Providence, engaging in foolish activities designed to test God’s protecting hand, pressing our toes to the cliff’s edge and daring God to send an angel to catch us but we shouldn’t fear the absence of God’s Providence either for “the hand of Providence is equally extended over all places”. God controls the sea but He also controls the worm; the pawn as well as the Queen. He is Lord of All, great and small. As the great Stonewall Jackson said to a fellow military officer, “my religious belief teaches me to feel as safe in battle as in bed. God has fixed the time for my death. I do not concern myself about that, but to always be ready, no matter when it may overtake me. That is the way all men should live, then all would be equally brave.”
And what does it look like to be brave?
In the midst of Herman Melville’s monologue on the dangers of whaling he says this:
“Yet habit–strange thing! what cannot habit accomplish? –Gayer sallies, more merry mirth, better jokes, and brighter repartees, you never heard over your mahogany, than you will hear over the the half-inch white cedar of the whale-boat, when thus hung in hangman’s nooses; and, like the six burghers of Calais before King Edward, the six men composing the crew pull into the jaws of death, with a halter around every neck, as you might say.”
“Gayer sallies, more merry mirth, better jokes, and brighter repartees, you never heard over your mahogany, than you will hear over the the half-inch white cedar of the whale-boat, when thus hung in hangman’s nooses…” –this image enraptures me: men wrapped in cords of death slapping each other heartily on the back, throwing their heads back in loud bursts of laughter, singing together an old whaler’s tune they learned as wee lads.
I smile as I see in them some of my favorite literary characters:
Brogal of The Epic of Karolan, once again riding laughing into the jaws of death on another noble quest.
Capitola of The Hidden Hand, grinning as though her life depended on it–and as it often did.
The Scarlet Pimpernel, laughing as he breaks through enemy lines time and time again to cleverly rescue French Prisoners.
Zaro of The Long Walk, escapee from a WWII labor camp in Siberia, a shining beacon of hope to his companions with his spontaneous clowning and fireside jigs even as they run for their lives through the Earth’s harshest lands.
Puddleglum of The Chronicles of Narnia, always the one to see the worst but “put a bold face on it.”
Merry, Pippin, and Sam of The Lord of the Rings–the ones that make you smile amid the tears and find laughter where you never thought to look.
[Spoiler Removed] of Harry Potter, dying in battle with “the ghost of his last laugh still etched upon his face.”
Hank the Cowdog–though containing little darkness of itself, the books famous for their wholesome, cleansing humor stand amidst books of darkness–sometimes literally shelved between them.
And my favorite Bible Story as a child: Paul and Silas singing hymns in prison.
When death comes, these men and women are sure to die with either laughter or a song on their lips.
And I think, what better way is there to go? –What better way is there to live?
Awareness of life’s dangers does not exclude laughter and singing because God holds the whale-lines. The Elves of Rivendell in Tolkien’s Middle Earth (not the grim, stoic elves of the Peter Jackson films but the wild, joyous elves of The Hobbit book) were known for their laughter. Jim Ware writes of them in Finding God in the Hobbit:
“Like them, we live under a shadow. We are exiles in enemy territory, hemmed in on every side by darkness and despair. Terrorism and tsunamis, hurricanes and floods, war and senseless suicide bombings–such things have become defining features of the contemporary landscape. That’s not to mention the desperate and subtle wickedness that lurks in the deepest region of every human heart. Can anyone laugh and sing in a world like ours?
The elves of Rivendell say yes. And they say so out of a context of hard-earned practical experience. More than any other people in Middle-Earth, the elves know what it means to fail. They have fallen from grace and tasted the bitter cost of redemption. They realize what it will take to defeat the Shadow and heal the wounds of the world. And yet they are not above singing in the trees. Indeed, they understand that a certain amount of joyful abandon is essential to life lived in harmony with the truth, however foolish it looks to small and serious-minded folk like Thorin. For to laugh in desperate circumstances and sing in the face of disaster is nothing less than an act of bold and daring faith. It’s a sign of salvation to the watching world, evidence of the hope that lies just beyond the fringes of the darkness.” (pg 30, emphasis mine)
This is bold and daring faith:
Acknowledge the monster lurking under your bed.
Stare the shadows in the face.
Look your worst fear in the eyes.
Laugh, for your Redeemer lives.
Sing, for He holds the future.
Go on, Dance, among the whale-lines.