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Thinking About Death

October 22, 2018

The first time I remember thinking about death was when I was seven years old. A page in the Golden Book Encyclopedia displayed drawings of all kinds of animals and the life expectancy of each. The dog was twelve years. The sea turtle was a hundred. And man was seventy. I sat on the floor and multiplied my own age again and again and again–ten times. In astonishment I said to my mother: “Life is long!”

I’m sixty now; almost sixty-one. I’m still astonished at how long life can be. So much has happened. I have done so much. I have raised children who are well into adulthood. I sometimes feel like I have already fulfilled the purpose of my life and everything now is bonus time. This bonus time may go on for quite a while–over thirty more years if I live as long as my dad did. But however long time remains for me, it is certainly growing shorter. My body is aging and aching. Every time I lay down to sleep, I think of the day I will lay down in death.

Ten years ago my mother died. Grief was not immediate, but took months and years to gestate. One day it suddenly hit me that not only would I die, but so would my children, and their children, and their children–on and on until all would be dead. Even the universe will be dead. There will be no one to remember us, no one to see what we have left behind. It will be as if we never existed at all. What is the point? Nothing mattered to me. Nothing I did mattered at all. On the surface I stayed engaged and did all the things a pastor and husband and father are supposed to do, but at a deeper level I was only going through the motions of life.

It took time and reflection for me to emerge from this despair until, one day, I could see a blade of grass and rejoice for the gift. Because that’s what life is: a gift. Once I did not exist. Perhaps I will not exist again. But in between I am alive, enjoying and giving love. Whether it lasts forever or not, whether it will be seen to have existed a million years from now, is beside the point. The now is a treasure. I do exist. I love.

The Christian faith, perhaps more strongly than any other religion, proclaims eternal life. At the heart of that faith is a risen, transformed, eternal Jesus who brings eternity to everything he touches. But the paradox that most Christians avoid is that the door to eternity necessarily goes through the giving up of our lives. If we are grasping for eternity, we get nothing. If we are following Jesus so we will “go to heaven,” we aren’t following Jesus at all. Jesus’ path goes to a cross. Jesus’ way is the way of self-denial and the acceptance of death. It’s not easy. It wasn’t easy even for Jesus. He agonized on that last night, pleading with God to let him avoid death if possible. It’s not possible. After being tortured, he was crucified. And death, when it came, was even more bitter than he had imagined. He cried out in desolation from the cross, abandoned by God.

That’s the real Christian story about following Jesus. Death is presented in a worst case scenario and as absolutely necessary and unavoidable. Death can be much more peaceful than that, but it doesn’t get worse. If, in spite of this, we can trust in God–committed to living lives of purpose and goodness and love despite the inevitability of death for us and everything–then we become utterly free and transformed. Jesus is risen only after fully accepting death. Now becomes eternity only when life is given away.

A life of trust in God means a life of no longer fearing death. We do not fear because we have already died. We have died to our egos, died to our grasping for eternity, died to our despair. We live gratefully and with self-giving. And if anything leads to eternal life, that is it.

I believe my death, and your death, is not the end. God is the end, and the beginning. I hold this faith lightly. I don’t grasp it. I let God be God and let what will unfold unfold. There is no point being anxious about it. I do not have any idea how to conceive it. The biblical writers used images of trumpets blowing, of graves opening, of a jeweled city coming down from a new heaven to rest on a new earth. But those are human images from this side of eternity. More modest are the words from 1 John: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.”

As we approach November 1st, All Saints Day, I trust in the spiritual inklings of Paul who reminds us that our maturity has hardly begun: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. … And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

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