Death comes in layers, bit-by-bit, closer to our center. As a child it isn’t conceivable. Fluffy the hamster mysteriously disappears and the dog goes to live on a farm far, far away. As a youth it is a concept, a reality for those far older. We lose a grandparent or a great uncle. Or maybe we lose a classmate in car accident. We feel the pain—one layer closer—but not the reality.
As adults, we pretend death is distant when really it hovers in the corner, not quite visible but obvious if we choose to look. Our parents age, and all of a sudden they are our grandparents’ age. A friend loses a child. A co-worker battles cancer. Suddenly, death has entered our lives. It has broken through another layer.
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Sometimes death breaches that layer in an unexpected way. For me it was hearing the news that Flip Saunders passed away from cancer last Sunday. Saunders’ name might not ring any bells for many of you, but he was an institution of my youth. From 1995 to 2005 he coached the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves, from my junior high years all the way through college. . . . Everyone liked Flip. Even players who shouldn’t like him liked him. The media liked him (and they tire of coaches quickly). He was a Minnesota guy, a community fixture, a beloved, one of us.
I didn’t realize until I heard the news of his passing just how much his coaching and quality as a man meant to me as I matured. I felt like I got punched. I never met Saunders; I just absorbed appreciation for him. And when he was gone I felt loss. Genuine loss, the erasure of something that I respected and appreciated and was connected to.
Every day we hear of people dying, but the human mind has a remarkable capacity to compartmentalize that news so that it doesn’t overwhelm us. It’s not callous; it’s survival. But sometimes the news slips through a layer and we feel it instead of just hearing it. We’re no longer able to keep death at bay, to ignore its presence.
Painful as this is, it’s good for us. I recently heard Brian Houston, pastor of Hillsong Church, talk about it this way: “Life is short; we’ve got to make it count. And life is long; we’ve got a long time to keep our heart right and keep our testimony.” When death comes a layer closer, we know the shortness of life.
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