As I write this, a member of my congregation is dying. I have spent the afternoon with her husband, who is bravely trying to prepare for news of his loss.
Our conversation has flowed widely, encompassing practical details of what he wants to do with his wife's body once she has died to more reflective moments in which he recalls past events of their lives together.
Members of his family join us both in person and by telephone, offering consolation and encouragement and much-needed help with care and communication. As we sit and talk together, both of us are looking out on the Youngs River, which flows by less than 100 yards away.
I recall the passage from the Bible that that is often quoted: "All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again" (Ecclesiastes 1:7).
Objectively read, the passage is not necessarily hopeful. There is much ambiguity both in the passage and in our conversation together as we gaze out onto the river. Is death an end to all life? Or is death, as we experience it here on earth, an end of one kind of life and the beginning of another? We agree that it is a transition, but where do we go from here? Why must it be?
Elie Wiesel, the Jewish author who has spent so much time reflecting on the horrors of the Holocaust through which he has suffered, gave words from the Ecclesiastes passage to the title of one of his books, "All Rivers Run to the Sea."
He concludes that his heavenly Father must have suffered from the deaths of so many of his children. He writes: "The barbed wire kingdom (of Auschwitz and Buchenwald) will forever remain an immense question mark on the scale of both humanity and its Creator. Faced with unprecedented suffering and agony, He should have intervened, or at least expressed Himself.
"Which side was He on? Isn't He the Father of us all? It is in this capacity that He shatters our shell and moves us. How can we fail to pity a father who witnesses the massacre of his children by his other children? Is there a suffering more devastating, a remorse more bitter?"
Another author, Joyce Hifler, uses the same words for the title of her book, "All Rivers Run to the Sea." But in a chapter titled "The Spirit Within" she finds hope in the sweep of the river down to the sea: "I need only to know that no matter if it glides downward again, I know now that it can shake off the negative attitudes and fly again to even greater heights and more freedom than ever before."
John Donne, one of my favorite writers, sees death not as an end of life, but as the flowing of a temporal life into the sea of eternity, where death no longer exists. In one of his Holy Sonnets he addresses death directly with these words:
"Thou are slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou, then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And Death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die."
I'm grateful for the thoughts prompted by the Youngs River as we both prepare for the call from the hospital. I don't believe it will contain only bad news.
Doug Rich is the pastor of Pioneer Presbyterian Church in Clatsop Plains.