On Sudden Death
George Mylne, 1871
Death is always solemn; but doubly so, when sudden. To find the spirit fled — the body that had harbored it untenanted — your friend no longer there — that living, feeling, speaking thing, the soul, departed, and no warning given! Oh, who can tell the anguish and surprise!
"In the midst of life we are in death" — so we read in the solemn Service of the Burial. Oft have we heard it at the grave, and thought we had set our seal to it, as a truth most plainly realized. But in this, as other things, too often experience goes for nothing, and immediately we forget the tale of frail humanity.
We are told of the death of one well known and cherished. "Impossible!" we say; "I saw him but an hour ago — surely you are mistaken!" Straight to the house we go, to see if it is true. Ah! we need not bring the servant to the door — the darkened windows have their tale, and straight they tell it; they seem to say, "The wind has passed over him, and he is gone. The place that has known him, shall know him no more!" (Psalm 103:16).
Well, the first gift of life was instantaneous — "God Breathed!" How simple and concise! "God breathed into man's nostrils the breath of life — and man became a living soul" (Genesis 2:7). And can we wonder if God at times as suddenly withdraws the breath so promptly given? Yet life appears so firmly settled. From day to day the wheel of nature rolls so very ordinary. We think, "Surely, the lungs that breathe today — must breathe tomorrow, the eye that saw today — must see tomorrow's sun" — and so we reason in our blindness, and forget God's possibilities. Yet we have to do with One who knows our infirmities — He remembers that we are but dust (Psalm 103:14).
God will not judge us for the shock we feel on such occasions. Could it be otherwise? Say, is it possible to check the horror that comes over us — to drown the cry of anguish that escapes our lips, when we see life thus suddenly extinguished? Or when we are called to see what others have discovered, the pain is hardly less. And when the chilling fact is brought before us in its stern reality, how is the circulation checked, the breath suspended, life driven back upon itself with fearful shock to mind and body, leaving, at times, traces of lasting injury.
That man should die, is not a mystery. Simply it is God's appointment, in consequence of the fall. He has foretold us of it, and we see His word unceasingly fulfilled. Man is a sinner. He has earned the wages of his sin — death. (Romans 6:23.) What wonder, then, that man should die?
Yet practically it is a mystery, that life should cease, and that what was once so full of animation, should suddenly collapse, and be no more a living thing. The wonder varies, too, according to the circumstances. In extreme old age we are prepared for it. We do not think it strange that a machine worn out by use, should suddenly refuse to work, and cease its functions altogether; but even then we are surprised to find that all is over.
Or you may be told that your friend or relative will die very soon. Day after day you go, prepared to find him gone. Yet if a message come to tell you he is dead, you say, "Is it really so?"
But, at times, it happens that no warning has been given. Health may apparently be perfect, according to the physician. Your friend may have retained a marked alacrity, and gone his round of occupation with a vigor that seemed to promise a long continuance of life — and then, to receive the tidings of his sudden death, must ever be a dread surprise.
We have heard of preachers dying in the pulpit, judges dying on the bench, merchants dying in their counting-houses — nay, of the votaries of pleasure dying in the midst of their frivolities — thus summoned without a moment's warning of "prepare to meet your God!" Oh, what a fearful thing is sudden death. How solemn in its warnings! Alas! too often unobserved.
Reader, have you thus lost a relative or friend? Are you needing a word of sympathy? Gladly would I commune with your shattered sensibilities — gladly would I still their throbbings with sweet composure and meek submission to a Father's will. But what is man? He has no sorcerer's wand to wave, to allay the trouble — no voice with which to bid the winds and waves of your distress be still. But there is One who says, "Be still!" He has said it to the stormy sea, and it obeyed Him (Mark 4:39). He says it in His Word to every troubled soul, "Be still, and know that I am God" (Psalm 46:10). How many a mourner has received his consolation from those impressive words!
Believe me, reader, there is no quietus like fellowship with God. You find it soothe you to tell your sorrows into a human ear, and while you tell them, somewhat of your grief subsides. "Acquaint now yourself with Him, and be at peace; thereby good shall come to you." Open your heart to God — open your heart to Jesus. Fling wide the portals of your thoughts, that He may enter in and still their agitations. The startling shock of this your visitation was Jesus knocking at the door, asking for entrance to your heart; it may be that you discerned it not. The earthquake and the fire wrought no impression on the Prophet's soul (1 Kings 19:11) — and so, amid the tempest of the shock, you may not have perceived the Savior's call. But listen — is there not now, as with the prophet, "a still, small voice," inviting you? May you have grace to listen and obey the call! In gentle accents it appeals to you. Open your ear to hear; not only hear, but answer it.
What do tell a friend who comes to commune with you? You tell him what you feel. So must you do with Jesus. Tell Him the shock you have sustained. Tell Him your inmost feelings. He will listen to you patiently, kindly, feelingly, as He alone knows how you feel. Only make trial of it, coming as a sinner in need of pardon — as a mourner requiring consolation. Come in sincerity. You will not regret it — but find a calm come over you, unutterably sweet. Thus may your agitated heart be charmed to rest!
But there are many chapters in the book of sorrows — volumes, I should have said; and many a torrent from many a mountain side, combines to swell the river in this valley of tears.
Among those sorrows few are more trying than when a friend or relative dies at sea. The body cast into the deep ocean, appears a greater desolation than burial in the graveyard; no sod to cover him, but, in its stead, the restless ocean. We had rather heard "earth to earth" than of committing the remains to the uncongenial deep. We think, too, of the departed one, that he lived not long enough to see his native land once more, and that a stranger hand should close his eyes in death. This is indeed a sorrow, and much it calls for consolation.
But it is sadder still when shipwreck has occurred, and shroudless, coffinless, your friend met with a watery grave. True, death is death, however it may occur; and after death it matters not whether a man died in his bed, or made the stormy wave his dying pillow. But how different it seems (and justly, too) when there is time for preparation, compared with the awful suddenness and crushing gloom of death by shipwreck or foundering at sea! And then a thousand thoughts occur, the saddening results of human reasoning. Had the ship been better manned, less deeply laden, or steered more wisely — the danger had been averted, and your friend been saved. And thus we stem the tide of overruling Providence, and find it hard to swim against the stream!
But, saddest of all, when a ship is lost at sea, and it is never known how, when, or where it happened. What fluctuations of hope and fear, as afflicted relatives from day to day expect the tidings that never come! Such suspense is truly agonizing. It were almost a lesser trial to know for certain that the worst has happened, than to be kept alternating between hope and fear, as false reports arise from time to time, only to be contradicted, racking the mind upon the wheel of flitting, harrowing alternations. Deeply the mind is exercised, whether the ship was burned; whether run down by other craft, and both had perished; whether they struck on sunken rocks, or came into collision with an iceberg; whether they sunk at once, or lingered long between life and death, as leaks increased upon them, at last to sink to rise no more. How hard to stop such painful agitations, and not to toss the mind with suppositions never to be set at rest!
It seems injustice to the friends, thus darkly taken from us, not to dwell with fond, yet vain inquiry as to the nature of their unknown end. Nor were it wise or kind, harshly to check the exercise, as being a safety valve to minds ready to burst with rankling desperation.
Mourner, has the time elapsed that was allowed for the longest exercise of reasonable hope? And are you with painful effort brought to the conclusion that all is over, veiled in the darkness of an undefined crisis? Or are you still indulging a languid hope, unwilling to believe that the flame, now flickering in the socket, must shortly be extinguished by hopeless gloom? However that may be, I almost shrink from offering consolation, lest you should think I underestimate your woe.
But to all the class of mourners above alluded to, I would simply say, "Humble yourselves beneath the mighty hand of God." 1 Peter 5:6). Lie low before Him, and say nothing, if you will; you will find none so wise, none so delicately kind as He. He knows your sorrow — its immeasurable heights, its unfathomable depths. He knows that utterance fails you; that silence is the last refuge of your jaded heart. Lie low before Him, and say nothing still. He will wait for you to speak when utterance comes. Yet leave not the position. Seek not the return of self-possession in other presence than the Lord's. Lift your eyes in chastened adoration, in speechless prayer; and though it be with a listless, vacant gaze, look for relief to Him, if haply the pent up conflict of your mind may find a timely outlet. Yes, God is merciful, tender in sympathy, mighty to console!
"Still in the solitary place
I would a while abide,
Until with the solace of Your love
My heart is satisfied,
And all my hopes of happiness
Stay calmly at Your side."
— A. L. Waring
Mourner, take up your Bible. There you will meet with God, meet with the promises, meet with a bleeding Savior, meet with consolation, meet with a tender friend. Diligently, prayerfully consider what it tells you. Let it but have free course in you, and it shall comfort you indeed.
Death on the field of battlehas its woes peculiar to itself, in thinking of a friend laid low in gory sadness. What agonizing moments pass between the first reports of battles — the awful telegrams received, with harrowing silence as to the special dead! With what anxiety the list, at last, is searched, to know its dread contents! With trembling eyes, half-dimmed with dread suspense, half-questioning their information, you check, and check again, for the looked-for, would-be absent name. Yes, yes, it is so! The letters, in stark precision, taking no denial of their veracity, make up the identity too surely — and you go with faltering steps and sinking heart, to break the sad news to other beloved ones. For a time you are cheered by thinking that he died fighting for his country; but that does not, and cannot, allay the hurt — and grief will have its course, unvarnished by the air of faulty satisfaction, mocking your palsied sensibilities.
Forgive me, reader, if I have opened your wounds afresh. Yet full well I know I only speak in words long since familiar to your sorrow; and I have done it, hoping to bring before you the only healing for your wound. Distracting cares point to their own remedy with urgent claim — and so your anguish points you to Jesus and His Cross, as the only balm for your distress. Thought after thought arises of other remedies, but you must seek it at the Savior's hand. No wound is too deep for Him to probe it; no gangrene is too inveterate for Him to charm away; no train of circumstances is too harrowing for Him to tinge with consolation. You may think that your grief is incurable — that calmness is irrecoverable — that you can never view the past without cankering despair. Believe it not, my friend. Trust not your feelings; they are incapable of reasoning at the present time. Rather believe the friend who says, "Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light." (Matthew 11:28-30)
I have not touched on many grounds of sorrow — on many other ways of sudden death. The time would fail me to recount the many heads of such disasters — alas! how frequent in a bustling world! The head must fail from being "waters," and the "eyes a fountain of tears" (Jeremiah 9:1), through the demands enforced upon them with such sad persistency. But there is One whose sympathy is never exhausted, whose power to comfort never decays. In all the multitude of woes, He never fails. He is the abiding consolation. You mourning ones, smarting from this or that variety of woe, seek your relief from Him. He sends not one weary one away.