In Ernest Haycox’s Western classic “Bugles in the Afternoon,” Sgt. Kern Shafter, the story’s main character, is stationed at Fort Lincoln, Dakota Territory, under Lt. Col. George A. Custer in the winter of 1875. He has delivered a mail pouch to nearby Fort Rice and is waiting for it to be processed so he can get the receipt and return to his post. While waiting, he spends a few minutes exploring the area. Now, the author shares the sergeant’s melancholy with readers:
“There was a cemetery lying slightly beyond the post on a small knoll with little mounds slowly losing identity as weather faded them back to the blank anonymity of the gray earth. In a short while the very mark of these people would be gone . . . For a short while they had lived, had voice and motion and were set apart from other living things; but now the shifting sands filled in the crevices which marked the oblong spot where they lay and the same wind which once had blown its fragrance against them now blew where they were not.
“They had occupied space beneath the sky and above the earth; that space was now empty. Somewhere, somebody still remembered the touch of these people, but in time, that remembrance would grow fainter until at last there would be no living thing that knew — and the great void of time would have absorbed them into its nothingness . . . He thought of this and it was a gesture of rebellion which made him draw his boot along the edge of one fading grave, to sharpen its outline and thus postpone that inevitable oblivion.”
Shafter may have asked the same or similar question as the patriarch Job: “If a man dies will he live again?” Job’s query comes in the context of horrible suffering, amid his pleading for God’s help and protection. Like Job, we do not have all the answers to the mysteries of life. Death, even for one who believes fully in the resurrection and eternal life, is still a “valley of shadows,” as it was for the psalmist David (Psalm 23:4).
We do not have to allow these questions to control us and darken our days with fear and apprehension. Many lose hope because of the seeming futility of life, the certainty of death and the lack of certainty of what lies beyond. But Jesus came to overcome death’s power. As the writer of Hebrews put it, “Since therefore the children [of God] share in flesh and blood, [Jesus] likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery (Hebrews 2:14–15, ESV).
Thank you, Lord, for such marvelous freedom.