Excess Deaths?

"Please pray that she will go home to be with the Lord soon." This unusual prayer request struck me: this was a prayer request for a young mother who would be leaving her grieving husband and three small children behind. Praying for death seemed particularly shocking after spending the last year in a country reeling from the impact of Covid-19.

Death has been very present. The number of people who died has been broadcast daily. The phrase 'passed over' has taken a back seat in the middle of the stark reality of 'deaths from Covid'. The government press conferences have warned us that careless behaviour could lead to more deaths. Our limited excursions to the supermarket with our masks and hand sanitiser reinforce the threat of a deadly disease ready to strike at any moment. 

Last April, I remember walking with my husband as he went to work at the local hospital, and both of us feeling he was putting himself at significant risk. When he returned, all his clothes went straight into the washing machine on a very hot wash to try and avoid risk to the rest of our family, including my elderly mother-in-law, who lives with us. Death was lurking. 

Time moved on, and the mention of deaths on the news became a neutral backdrop to our days. The new normal kicked in, and we worked out how to live our lives in lockdown without the fear of those early days. Then came the vaccination programme. The good news of defeating the virus brought hope: no more excess deaths, no more lockdown, freedom beckons, dreams of a great summer, holidays and celebrations back on. Death has been defeated. Except it hasn't. 

The concept of excess deaths is useful for statisticians, scientists and politicians but not for us if it reinforces that somehow death is unusual and can be avoided.

The preacher in Ecclesiastes shockingly says, 'it is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone: the living should take this heart.' Ecc.7:2. A funeral forces us to consider the brevity of life. When my father died, it was as though scales fell from my eyes. I looked at the world around me, thinking, "how can they all keep on living as though nothing had happened, how can they not realise that death is near?" But time moves on, and we suppress the knowledge of death and get on with living. Our society pushes death to the sidelines; people generally die in hospital away from the community. We expect to live to old age. Martin Luther said we should 'invite death into our presence when it is still at a distance and not on the move.’ [1] Preachers, like Spurgeon, talked about preparing to die because it is the greatest thing we have to do. [2]

The BBC programme Big Questions recently discussed if the church had let people down during the pandemic. They didn't address what they would like churches to do, but we will have let people down if we are seduced by our scientists' incredible abilities and forget life is fleeting, but God is eternal. No vaccine can defeat death, but through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, death is swallowed up. Our evangelism should be urgent - we have the best news to share. We are all born to die, but in Christ, the believer dies to live. It is why in the midst of grief, the prayer of faith for a young mother can be that her suffering ends, and she goes home to be with her Lord. 

 [1] Martin Luther, quoted in Philip Graham Ryken, Ecclesiastes:Why everything matters , 2010, Crossway, p.153

 [2] Charles Spurgeon, The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit (Pasadena,TX:Pilgrims Publications,1977), 54:3116

(First published in Evangelicals Now April 2021)

© 2022 Karen Soole