Today, Sunday, was a day of funerals.
Our family gathered at the family church near Nauvoo, Alabama, and laid to rest my 41-year-old nephew, Russell McKeever, who died last Thursday of pneumonia and heart failure.
Two hours later, the convention center in Beckley, West Virginia, was packed as families and friends of the 29 miners killed in Coalmont, WV three weeks ago gathered for a memorial service. President Obama and Vice-President Biden spoke and did well. The most touching part of the service may have been the president simply reading the names of all 29. Then family members walked by the 29 miners helmets and turned on each of the lamps.
I sat there taking it in, feeling as though I had an apple stuck in my throat.
When a man sang “Go Up High Upon the Mountain,” that did it for me. In 2006, that Vince Gill song played a prominent role at the funeral of my youngest brother, Charlie, the father of Russell. Charlie had for a time been a coal miner, too. When he left the mines, it was to drive trucks on the open highway, an equally hazardous career.
Raleigh County, West Virginia, is where we lived when my dad and all his brothers worked in the mines just a few miles from Coalmont. Dad’s father, George McKeever, and all his brothers were miners too. George died of a heart attack in his mid-40s. All his brothers died too young, including one named Joe McKeever, who barely made it out of his 40s.
Furthermore, all my dad’s brothers with the possible exception of the youngest battled emphysema–black lung–the rest of their days.
When we no longer had a family member inside the mines no one shed a tear. It’s a cruel, scary life. Many a night as a child I lay awake, praying for God to keep my dad safe down inside that mountain.
After working inside the mines for 35 years, Dad took disability when he was 49, then lived into his 96th year. I’ll never quit thanking the Lord for that.
The Coalmont miners ranged in age from young adults to nearing retirement.
Russell hardly made it out of his 30s.
“Life really is fair,” someone said after the unexpected death of his wife. “Sooner or later it breaks the heart of every person.”
Recently, while reading “Appetite for America,” the story of Fred Harvey’s restaurant empire across the southwest in the late 1800s and the first half of the 20th century, I was struck by how young these people were when they died.
Harvey’s co-worker, Byron Schermerhorn died at age 56, leaving a wife and two daughters.
Jay Gould, believed to be the richest man in the world, died in 1892 at the age of 56.
At the same time, the head of the Santa Fe railroad, Allen Manvel, died at 55 from a kidney ailment.
In late 1893, another colleague of Harvey’s, George Magoun, died at the age of 53.
The author of the Harvey book, Stephen Fried, was not making a point of the ages of these men at their deaths; he was just telling the story. I wrote in the margin, “I’m beginning to see a pattern here.”
The pattern throughout the 19th century was short lives. I was not able to put my finger on the exact numbers of life expectancy then, if they’re available at all, which they may not be. Wikipedia says the life expectancy in this country for the early 20th century was between 30 and 45 years of age.
Today, 2010, the figure is somewhere around 79 years. Worldwide, the average is 67 years.
Why did they die so young back then?
They knew so little about what constitutes good health–eating right, exercise, and avoiding disease, bad habits, tobacco.
They knew so little about what constitutes good medicine–from the inner workings of the human body, to germ warfare, to successful surgery. Readers will recall that more soldiers died in the Civil War from disease than from gunshot. People kept dying of cancer and went right on smoking tobacco, without ever seeing the connection.
Ether began to be used in the second half of the 19th century to anesthetize surgical patients. Until then surgery of any kind was another form of execution.
The story of Louis Pasteur and Ignaz Semmelweis is a fascinating and often tragic tale of the fight to convince the medical community that the culprit causing so many deaths in hospitals was something invisible to the naked eye: germs.
I daresay you and I have not given thanks lately for the advances in health, medicine, and the knowledge of what constitutes a healthy body.
On the other hand, I’ve decided to stay away from some medical websites that purport to offer helpful guidance on what to eat and what to avoid. After an hour on one of these blogs, you come away feeling nothing is healthy, everything is deadly, and anything you do is going to turn out badly. My solution is not necessarily one I’d recommend: quit reading that stuff.
We’re told that the life expectancy of people in this country will continue to climb as advances in medicine are made. Both my parents made it well into their 90s. My mother will be 94 this July. That’s not a guarantee of my own longevity, of course, since their youngest child died at 62.
But still. We’re living two decades longer than people did in the late 1800s.
Twenty years longer than my mother’s grandparents.
The question then becomes: what will I do with my twenty years?
Shall I piddle them away, wasting the precious gift of time my forbears were not given? Shall we sit down and wait for death, as some oldsters seem to do?
“Lord, teach me to number my days,” David prayed, “that I may apply my heart to wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).
What is my life expectancy, not in terms of years, but in terms of productivity and investment? What shall I do with 20 years?
I turned 70 less than one month ago. This is a good time to answer that question.
This is my answer:
I will continue to grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. (II Peter 3:18)
I will work to stay balanced spiritually, intellectually, physically, and socially. (Luke 2:52)
I will stay active in body. “Use it or lose it” applies in a hundred areas of life, but nowhere more than in the use of our physical bodies.
I will work to stay fresh in my preaching and writing. The bane of retired preachers is rehashing and recycling tired sermons from ages past. I will work to avoid this pitfall.
I will have as my goal to preach and teach and mentor and write as long as the Lord enables. As anyone who knows me has observed, this is not work. This is the air I breathe.
I will spend time with children and young people. They bring energy into relationships, noise into rooms, ideas into meetings, and laughter into everything they do. They excell at breaking up fallow ground (Hosea 10:12).
I will do all in my abilities to prepare myself to meet my God, and to assist those I love to do the same. And this, I emphasize, is not some ghoulish event somewhere out there in my future. For the believer, death is not a grim reaper dressed in hoods and robes with a scythe over his shoulder.
To the believer, death is a homegoing and a homecoming. Everything about it will be glorious. Believe me, it will.
Believe Jesus. It will.
Not long ago, I was the young preacher making waves; these days, I am the old veteran trying to be taken seriously. I had black hair back then and could jog 6 miles; I have white hair these days and jogging is a distant memory.
But that’s all right. You will hear no complaints from this quarter.
When the chaplain in this afternoon’s West Virginia memorial service spoke of the promises of Jesus Christ for eternal life, my spirit soared. Every Christian who has ever faced death, his own or a loved one’s, knows how precious are those promises.
Paul wrote, “For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain…. I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body” (Philippians 1:21-24).
“Lord, keep charge of the calendar please. Let me live every day here for Thee by serving your people faithfully and well. Then, when those days are completed, gather me to my people. Through Jesus Christ, who by His death and resurrection blew out a hole on the other side of the grave so that as we enter from this side we exit through the other into the land of the free. Amen.”