My good friend Norm Rhinehart has finally come to the end of his earthly journey, after 97 years of living a positive, meaningful life. He died peacefully, surrounded by his loved ones — the way we all hope to go. We will memorialize his life on Saturday, and we will share stories about him to keep his memory alive. But the next generation, his great-grandchildren, will have a blurrier recollection of his personality, his dry sense of humor, the faith that motivated his life. And then, he’ll fade into the background, part of the fabric of our shared humanity. We’ll keep photos and try to bring him back to life as we look at them, trying to escape the finality of his death, because it reminds us that we too will die — and be gradually forgotten.
Poet John Donne (1572-1631) knew about death and the loss of loved ones. He gave up a promising career to marry the love of his life, Anne More. Then, his wife spent the next sixteen years of their life together continually being pregnant or nursing babies, as she bore twelve children, two of whom were stillborn, and three of whom died before their tenth birthday. Finally, at the age of thirty-three, Anne died after delivering her final stillborn child. At that point, John Donne considered taking his own life. From his experiences of the reality of death, he wrote one of the lines for which he’s best known: “For whom the bell tolls.” The entire poem is worth thinking about:
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
No person — not Norm Rhinehart, nor John Donne, nor one of those stillborn babies — is an island. We’re all part of a larger continent: humanity. One person’s death may seem to be only “a clod washed away by the sea,” but the whole continent really suffers from the loss, because “I am involved in mankind.”
Who am I to edit John Donne’s poetry? But I want to change one line to express where I am right now. Donne wrote, “Each man’s death diminishes me.” I want to change one word, to make the line read, “Each man’s death enhances me.” * In anticipation of my coming death this is becoming a more and more positive conviction, emerging from my Christian faith. My life doesn’t have meaning just because of my own personal story, but it’s significance can only be seen in the context of my family, the community I’m part of, the whole of humanity that God is redeeming, every living animal or plant that is part of the grand design he has in creation.
I had an Aha! moment when an ant crawled across my thigh. My instinct was to slap the life out of the pest, but God’s Spirit stopped me. He caused me to think, as that insect might think: “My name is Anthony Ant, and I’m a scout ant, following scent trails to possible food sources. I’m a long distance from my colony, hundreds of ants clustered together under this building, staying close to the queen and carefully guarding the eggs and juveniles. I’ve got to find food; that’s my whole purpose in life. I’ve got a brain, blood in my veins and I breathe, just like the gigantic human I’m walking on. Actually, that big clumsy guy is struggling to make it through life just as I am. He and John Donne and Norm Rhinehart — they’re all part of a much bigger drama that God is creating and directing. I can’t wait to be involved in the final production!”
I believe God’s great drama includes and embraces death itself, so that Norm Rhinehart’s death enhances me, in some mysterious, spiritual, eternal way. So does John Donne’s death; and Anthony Ant’s death.
I believe in “One God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:6)
— Pastor George Van Alstine
* I thought of changing “Each man” to “Each person,” but that seemed to confuse the point I was making. Sorry.