Monday, April 1, 2013

Too much death

A few days ago my son wrote that he was upset by the number of deaths that have occurred within our circle of family, friends and acquaintances. Between us both, since December, I am sure that as many as eight people we know have died, one way or another. Within our own family, the two surviving grandparents finally passed away, my father in late January, my mother-in-law in early March. Two young people we knew of committed suicide, both young women, one of them being the mother of a six year old boy. It's one thing when the elderly pass away—two others were also aged grandmothers of friends—but when the young, or even the middle aged (like me!) pass away, it seems somehow tragic. In the case of the young because their potential was never realised, in the case of the middle aged, because they worked their whole lives and were cheated out of enjoying their ‘golden years.’

Of course, we can piously say, ‘God is in control, and He knows what He is doing.’ Of course He does, yet even God doesn't desire the death of anyone, as scripture says, ‘Death was not God's doing, He takes no pleasure in the extinction of the living’ (Wisdom 1:13). Myself, I have somehow escaped the feeling of grief when it comes to the death of my loved ones. I sometimes wonder, was it because I never loved them at all? That can't be it. It's quite possible that years of trusting in the promise of Christ that ‘If anyone believes in me, even though he dies he will live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die’ (John 11:25-26) has worn down any possibility of me feeling grief. Probably not. I think my prayers to God to protect and prolong the lives of my loved ones have been answered. To me, our God has been a truly gracious God, and though His blessings have sometimes contradicted my desires, He has never ‘left me lying in the dust of death’ (Psalm 22:15c).

I wrote my son that death doesn't have to be awful, that it can be beautiful, and that those who are truly alive have nothing to fear in death. That may sound alright on paper, and such an explanation may work for the dispassionate person, but I think, for most people it simply doesn't hold water. In fact, even for Jesus Himself, such an explanation doesn't work. How do we know? Because in the shortest verse in the bible, considering the death of his beloved friend Lazarus, scripture says of Jesus, ‘He wept’ (John 11:35). Yet this same God-man—though at the time He asked this question, no one knew for sure or exactly what or who He was—said to the sister of Lazarus, ‘whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ At the same time that He truly grieved and really wept for the death of His friend, He still knew that He could, and would, raise him.

Martha said, ‘I know he will rise at the last day.’ Well, to her that was no consolation, and by her words and tone she let Jesus know that that was not enough. She wanted her brother back alive, now, though she didn't say it aloud. Christ, knowing everything about her just as He knows everything about all of us, testified, ‘I am the resurrection,’ even though He knew that unless He demonstrated it, what He said was just words. People then and now had some kind of belief in the afterlife, though no one ever has a clear picture of it. Some say it's just an extension of life on earth, where we appear the same and know each other, and live forever, carrying on as we did on earth, only without end. Just as the resurrection on the last day was not enough for Martha, so this kind of imagination about the afterlife is not enough for me.

God is real. Jesus Christ the God-man is real. Paradise is real. Therefore, all that we can think about or imagine of the life hereafter is at best a kind of pill we swallow to keep our anxieties quiet. The fact is, we can't know, we can only believe, and so sometimes we let our beliefs carry us away into fantasy. Whatever else death is, it is without doubt the end of our lives on earth, all that we are and were is no more. We will be seen here no more. There is only one of each of us, and nothing about us or anything else in the universe really repeats itself or can continue forever as it was. I once wrote, ‘The perfection of anything solely human consists in the fact that it must end,’ and I meant what I wrote. We exist only to run our courses to the finish line. When we break through that line, our utter exhaustion from the final effort to finish sends us careening into ‘the great cloud of witnesses’ who catch us as we fall, completely out of breath and, if we were still alive, close to suffering a heart attack.

But we are dead—thank God!—and so a heart attack is simply out of the question. We made it to the finish, but we're no longer what we were, not at all. As we lie there dazed for a moment in the arms of the heavenly host, for a moment we remember what we were on earth as one almost remembers the figments of a waking dream, and then, as we come back to ourselves, we are as different from our earthly identity as uncreated is from created. Where once we were contained in our bodies, now our bodies are contained in us. It would not be an exaggeration to say we are no longer human, but only as we say that an oak tree is no longer an acorn. Lord have mercy! Here I go imagining the afterlife and what we will be just like the next guy! And after all I just said! What I really wanted to write was something I just feel, something I just ‘know in my knower,’ but there aren't any words for it. Holy apostle Paul writes something that gives me the same feeling, ‘We shall not all die, but we shall all be changed’ (1 Corinthians 15:51).

It's that word ‘changed’ that comes closest, without defining, to what it is that we are, after we have expired in the body of flesh. But, back to grief. We are right to be sad, to mourn, the death even of an aged parent or grandparent, just as we grieve for the death of a child or still-born. Why? Well, again, because He who created all, who knew us all before we appeared on earth, and who by knowing us after we have disappeared holds us forever suspended in a new and unknowable life, He too grieved, He wept, He was sorry that His beloved friend had to physically die. And did He weep knowing Lazarus was just dead, or even more so, because He must raise him temporarily again so that he must endure that same disembodiment and transformation again? Only God knows all, including the answer to this. ‘Memory eternal,’ that hymn with the haunting melody, tingeing the air of purply pre-dawn with expectation and transformation: ‘Awake, my soul, to the real life!’

God became man, that man might become God. We can say the words and even imagine, but there is nothing we can say truly, until happens to us what holy apostle Paul wrote, ‘No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love him’ (1 Corinthians 2:9).

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