I experienced a great sorrow and privilege over the last couple of weeks. The sorrow was the loss of a dear nephew, Matthew – the son of my younger sister, Mary. At the age of just 33, Matthew died suddenly from a virulent strain of cancer following a brief illness. All of us remain devastated. None of us can believe what on the surface we’ve experienced as a great tragedy. Our tears are not yet dry. They won’t be for some time to come.
Nonetheless, I found myself also experiencing Matthews death as a privilege. It took the form of an urgent call to stop my hurried and harried routine to ponder and appreciate the significance of this exemplary young man’s brief life. Even more importantly, Life itself gifted and summoned the entire community of those who love Matthew to reflect on death and its meaning in the light of the faith that formed my nephew. I share that faith with my sister, with Matthew’s family, his Methodist church community in Riverside California, and with many of his dearest friends.
My own fondest memories of Matthew are of his playing with our youngest son, Patrick when they were small children of approximately the same age. They both loved video games. Then, there were the several Suzuki music camps our families shared in Steven’s Point, Wisconsin. Like Patrick and my other son, Brendan, along with my daughter, Maggie, and, of course, Matthew’s sister, Amanda, Matthew was a musician – the son of a dedicated Suzuki mom (and only Suzuki parents know how they can be!). Back then, Matthew was doing piano. Later on, he switched to drumming. He played in a Jazz band, though I never heard him perform. Those summer times in Steven’s Point were memorable.
Afterwards, my connections with Matthew came through Mary. She told me of his studies at the University of Kansas, where he majored in business and finance. She’s described to me his work as a sports agent and with the Special Olympics organization. After Kansas, Matthew taught in Spain. He loved that country and its language. Mary visited him there three times recording it all in lovely artistic photos. She treasured every minute of her time with her son.
Mary told me of Matthew’s marriage to Emily Ann whom he met through their shared work with Special Olympics. Everyone said they were a perfect match. They bought a lovely home near Emily’s parents, Patti and Bob. Matthew loved both of them and considered Bob a father-figure.
Then several years ago, our paths crossed again at his sister, Amanda’s wedding. My wife, Peggy, and I came away from that experience as enthusiastic members of the very large Matthew Setlik Fan Club. We were completely won over by his out-going spirit, his light-heartedness, and his desire to make everyone feel comfortable and welcome. He was a complete joy. And afterwards, we bragged about him to everyone who would listen.
And now, all of a sudden, it seems, his life has been cut off at just 33 years of age. As I said, and like everyone else we found ourselves confused and moved to tears.
And somehow that brings me to a deeper dimension of this turn of events. I’m reminded that faith was important to Matthew and remains so for Emily, his bride of just two years. To begin with, Matthew’s tragically shortened life reminds me that in our Christian tradition, Jesus himself died at that very age. His life too was cut off just as it seemed to be getting started. The same was true of Martin Luther King whose life ended at just 39 years of age.
Those numbers remind us that the length of time we’re given here on planet earth is all relative. The examples of Jesus and Dr. King tell us that in the big scheme of things, the number of years we spend here is immaterial. I mean, time itself is relative. It’s actually an illusory construct that is nothing but a measure of motion. Einstein himself said something like that. He called time “an illusion – albeit a persistent one.”
The fact is that all of our life-spans are incredibly brief. Outwardly, we’re born, go to school, get a job, some of us marry and perhaps have some children. We buy and sell a few things, accumulate a truckload of trinkets and then die.
All of that is on the outside. Inwardly however, there’s so much more going on, isn’t there? Quite early on, we begin to wonder what our lives are for. What should I do with mine?
Why are we here? Where are we going? Am I wasting – have I wasted – my life? Is there a God? And what happens after we lay our bodies aside?
Surely those question occurred to Matthew. And the choices he made during his all-too-brief life indicate the conclusions he must have drawn. Instead of focusing on money, power and prestige, he and Emily joined forces to become elementary and middle school teachers. As we all know, what an important vocation that is. Yes, it’s a vocation. No one chooses that path to become rich. Instead, the choice is made out of a sense of calling, service, and responsibility for others. Each of us, I’m sure has a special place in our heavens for our dearest teachers.
As for what happens after death . . . None of us really knows. Hindus emphasize one thing, Muslims another. Life after death has been described as a Great Banquet or a great family reunion. Some believe in reincarnation. Then there’s the approach of Dante Alighieri in his Paradiso. It centralizes the “beatific vision” and the “resurrection of the body.” It’s important to note that for all those ancient traditions, the afterlife, for virtuous people like Matthew, is something joyous and fulfilling. The fact that all traditions across the world agree on that point should give us great comfort.
For followers of Jesus, death has a dreamlike quality. It’s not an ending, but a beginning. We fall asleep in the Lord and then wake up. And there’s a reason for that dream connection. Genesis 2:24 tells us that the Lord caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam. But nowhere does it say that Adam woke up. Instead, what we have in effect throughout the entire Bible is the dream of Adam.
He dreams that death is somehow a punishment (GEN 3:19) as is his relationship with woman and nature. He dreams of a war-God who demands the slaughter of thousands – men, women, and children. He dreams of restrictive laws and of a God who severely punishes breaking them. He dreams that his ethnic group is special, and that all others are God’s enemies worthy of death.
But then come the prophets; then come Jesus and Paul to save us from that nightmare. They correct all of that. They call us to wake up from Adam’s dream. God is not a war-God, they tell us. God is not a punisher, but a loving father. Even the holiest of laws are meant to be broken when human welfare is at stake (MK 2:27).
Death is nothing more than falling asleep and waking up to fullness of life. Jesus demonstrates that by raising Lazarus to life (JN 11: 1-44). He does the same for the daughter of Jairus (MK 5:26-43; MT 9:18-26; LK 8: 40-56). (Everyone was convinced that she was dead. No, Jesus says, she’s only sleeping.) Above all, Jesus’ own resurrection – the center of our shared faith – teaches that death is not the end but a glorious beginning. Reflecting on Jesus’ death and our own, Paul asks triumphantly, “O, death, where is your victory; where is your sting?” (I COR 15: 55-57).
As followers of Jesus, we share that faith. We’ve awakened from the dream of Adam to realize there’s nothing to fear in death. Despite our present overwhelming feelings of severe loss, death is not tragic. It is an inevitable part of life. It is a bridge leading to what Jesus called “fullness of life.” For Matthew and the rest of us, it represents a promotion. Our faith tells us he is better off now than any of us. Yes, that’s our faith.
As for our feelings of loss . . . Eckhart Tolle tells the story of a Zen master who communicated to his student the secret of dealing with such pain.
The student was about to leave on a year-long journey. Before going, he asked the master for a practice he might use while on his trip. He complained, “Look, I’ve been here in the monastery for five years. I’ve been a good monk and have done everything according to the book. But I still haven’t achieved enlightenment. Help me.”
“Well,” the master said, “here’s something I’d recommend. . . No matter what happens to you during the coming year, simply accept it with the words, ‘This is good. It could not be better. Thank you. I have no complaints whatsoever.’”
The student was surprised. “You mean that’s it?” he asked.
“Yes,” the master said. “No matter what happens to you – good, bad, or indifferent, wonderful or tragic – say, ‘This is good; it couldn’t be better. Thank you. I have no complaints whatsoever.’”
With that, the student left on his trip.
A year later, he returned completely frustrated. He said, “Master, I did what you said. No matter what happened to me, pleasant or unpleasant, I always said, ‘This is good; it could not be better; thank you; I have no complaints whatsoever. But nothing has changed. I haven’t yet achieved enlightenment.’”
The master replied, “Hmm. . . This is good; it could not be better. Thank you. I have no complaints whatsoever.”
The student heard that . . . He pondered . . . And at that moment, he achieved enlightenment.
Do you see what the story teaches? It means that even in the apparently tragic situation of Matthew’s death – keeping in mind the relativity of time, the dreamlike quality of all our experiences, and given what Jesus taught us about Adam’s dream and the triumph of life over death – there is something extremely important for us to learn. It’s that all of life is a gift. And in the light of that gift, the proper faith response to absolutely everything – even this apparent tragedy – is “Thank you Lord. This is perfect and could not be better. I have no complaints whatsoever.”
So, if you can, join me in saying that prayer now – but perhaps in the following form:
“Dear Lord, thank you for the gift of life and for the experiences we enjoyed with our beloved Matthew. Each of the moments we spent with him was infinitely precious. But so is this present one. All our lives are incredibly short. We thank you for Jesus’ teaching that death is merely a bridge to complete fullness of life. We are happy that Matthew has crossed that bridge and is now happier than he ever was here. Yes, we believe he has received a promotion and is now happier than he ever was here. We know that it’s only a matter of time before we each join him in that better home. So, thank you, Lord. We know this present moment could not be better. It is a complete blessing. We have no complaints whatsoever.
And so, it is; we all pray, ‘Amen.’”