This past Sunday morning, before driving to Church, I received two emails informing me of the deaths of two different men that were Smokejumpers with me. Back in our smokejumping days we all joked about “cheating death” every time we made a successful parachute jump into a wilderness to fight a forest fire. I will get back to that in a moment.
I read the obituary of one of the men and looked at his picture. It was hard to remember his face and to recall our times together. We were a small, tight group of 39 that had trained together and received our “wings” as Smokejumpers, but I couldn’t seem to remember a specific time with him. Amazingly, in the middle of last night I awakened with Bernie and a jump we made together.
It was a small fire, so only two of us would jump. I had jumped first and was already on the ground (having cheated death once again…and if you knew my parachute landing skills, you might be in awe of that fact!). Bernie was in the air, spinning 360’s and hollering like a wild man (we were all a bit crazy back then). As he approached the ground, I shouted out for him to watch out for all the big rocks and downed timber. He seemed rather oblivious of it all and kept circling me with his 360’s. As he neared the ground, suddenly his parachute caught a tree and like a giant pendulum he swung out straight toward me and then straight back to the tree. He crashed right into the trunk of the tree and was suddenly hanging limp about 30 feet in the air. I began yelling: “Bernie…Bernie…” But he just hung there limp. The jump plane kept circling waiting for us to indicate all was well, but it wasn’t well at that moment. Finally, after what seemed an eternity, his body moved and his first words were something along the lines of: “Where am I?” Once he established that he was hanging in a tree, he made his let-down, we put up the “all’s well” signal and went off to put out a fire. He had a bit of head-ache, but worked hard without giving it a second thought…at least to me.
Now I share that story for a couple of reasons. One is of course to remember my friend and my jump partner in his death. What amazed me was the detail of my memory. It was like I was right there, reliving that moment like it was yesterday. Psalm 130:14 says: “I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made! What a mind God has given us that such memories could be brought back on such short notice. I was longing to remember Bernie and suddenly there he was…in vivid memory.
Sadly, his obituary stated there would be no service. Instead, he asked all his friends to sit down with a beer and tell a story or as he put it, listen to someone else’s story. Now that is a great idea. I think all of us would benefit from that, but to have no service means to me that Bernie likely had no Church…perhaps no faith…perhaps no belief in God…and perhaps, sadly, no hope in life after death.
This brings us back to that whole concept of “cheating death” and what that really means. No matter how much I may have joked around with my Smokejumper buddies about “cheating death,” the truth of the matter is that it seems like none of us can truly cheat death. Sadly, many folks try not to think about it (the ostrich approach to death) with the hope that it won’t ever happen. But in the history of humanity, only a couple of people have ever had that not happen, such as the Holy Prophet Elijah who was taken up by a fiery chariot.
As much as I would like to have that fiery chariot arrive for me one day, the truth of the matter is that it will likely not happen. I too will face death one day, just as Bernie did. How I face it is a daily decision I need to make.
The greatest enemy of mankind is truly death. But it need not be so. Here is the hymn that Orthodox Christians sing in celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ: “Christ is Risen for the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs, bestowing life.” That greatest enemy has been defeated and we can look to Christ for our own victory over death. Wow…Death does not have to be the final chapter of our lives! Christ has trampled down death by His own death! Listen carefully to these words from Romans 6 in the Holy Scriptures: “Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God.”
As Smokejumpers, we thought we had an “S” on our chests, like Superman, and that we could “cheat death” with our invincibility (well at least some of us thought that). The reality is that there is truly only one way to “cheat death” for all of us. That way is through Jesus Christ. We will all have to go through that “portal of death” to the next world…but with Jesus Christ, it no longer has to have dominion over us.
May the Lord grant you His peace each and every day!!
St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church 1010 Spruce St * Pueblo, Colorado * 81004