What About Death?
So, my wife asked me evening. ‘Do you ever think about dying? Hmmm. Good question in this day of pandemic pandemonium, uncertainty and fear.
I was somewhat evasive.. busy with something online - a video I was watching, I told her.
But then, and be honest, we’ve not yet had the discussion. ‘Yes, I think about it all the time.’
Here's me musing - thinking about death. The picture is of my father who died in 2007. He's making little birds out of balsa wood, a beloved hobby of his retirement years.
It’s April 2020 (can we just cancel this year, cuz we’re not impressed…). I’m 72 and I know I have fewer years ahead then are now behind me. I’m encouraged by the fact that my Dad’s oldest sister turned 105 last week. So that’s encouraging. But even at my most hopeful - that’s only 33 years off.
But the Corono virus offers(?) a possibly whole new scenario. I might not make it through the mess of these days. And you neither. The numbers stagger us - both about those who have the virus, mildly or dangerously, and those who are in ICU, intubated, many there within a few hours of contacting or being aware of this awful pestilence. And many unable even to say goodbye, or for their loved-ones to be with them, as they slip away into eternity. No time to mourn over the deceased ones earthly remains; no opportunity for a gathering of family and friends to remember, though we hope that a time of celebrating their life together may still come, hopefully in months not too far away. But who knows, just now?
Do you ever think about dying?
That question again. I’ve preached about it, read about it, tried to figure out as much as one possibly can - through faith and through science. But what actually happens? Where do we go, if anywhere? And if in a grave, awaiting the Resurrection - as Christian teaching has it, how long do we sleep beneath that cold dark slab, or in bits and pieces of bone on the ocean floor, or as scattered dust in the wind, having landed somewhere… dust to dust; ashes to ashes.
St. Paul wrote that to die, for the Christian, was to be with Christ - I think in the immediate Presence. That would be far better he notes, even than to remain alive in this world a while longer; though Paul clearly hoped in that too, for he felt God had more work for him to do before he was ‘called away.’
I’m not sure anyone is really ready to be taken. Everything in us fights to remain. There’s the fear, the uncertainty, the not-knowing that Death suggests. What’s revealed ‘on the other side?’ What’s it like to pass on, or to ‘pass through’ as some prefer - from this life to the next. It’s hard even for us to say someone died. (The Victorians talked about death a lot; they wouldn't talk so much about sex. Today, we're the opposite.... ) We prefer passed away, passed on, succumbed, was taken… and so on. The D word is what comes after the C word for so many. But now it’s coming after the word Corona or Covid19 and the end comes for some - many, after V (not for victory but for Virus).
I think that there is a God and that God created humankind to live in this-here world, to be his priests (pons, pontiff, i.e. bridges), representing our neighbour and our own humanity to God and God to us - in a relationship of service, worship and praise, and of love, protection and fellowship. That all went sadly wrong centuries ago: from the beginning it seems.
I think God made humankind to be stewards also, to look after the world, to explore, experiment and experience its richness and its fruit, for our provision and care, for our good - for our neighbour... for God's glory. Experience and enjoy - not exploit and extort. We’ve not been good at it.
My understanding of Creation (a la Genesis 1-3) is that iit's a kind of extended poem, written similar to how the ancients at the time told their stories of epoch adventures and recounting of how things of old came to be. It has rhythm, richness and an almost musical - and certainly poetic, cadence. In the same ways of how ancients told their stories, this one is likewise about the setting up of temple - a cosmic temple, where heaven (the unseen and spiritual realities of creation) and earth are joined as one (with all of its concreteness, and also mind and metaphysical wonders - the unseen and seen realities of the universe — all this stuff that is known and all the dark matter and more that we’ve not yet discovered nor fully or even perhaps at all accurately made head-to-tale (or head-to-tail) of.
Genesis 3 describes the building / the creating of a cosmic temple, with all its features and fixtures. And on the last working day: i.e. the sixth - as other story-tellers did, God created (set-up or set-forth out of the stuff of God’s creation) an image. It was an image of Himself - made as humankind - male and female. We were made in the image of God, that we might - well, image God, be his vice-regents with him as King and the world as Kingdom or realm. This was the true image of the One and only Real God - unlike that of other pagan deities that were set up as inanimate objects in other grand temples of the earth - albeit made of stone, or even of gold. But God’s image - the God Who is there - Alive - and the glory of the Creator - was to be revealed (at least on earth) in the fullness of man and woman and in all that they were called to be and do.
But that all went horribly wrong.
I think however that God, as promised, did not give up on the world, on the stuff, things, or people, or the whole place that we know as the beautiful blue and green globe… up-close and from a distance… That in a sense, again as promised God kept coming and revealing God-self and His plan for how things ought to be and yet could be. It was modeled first - this reneweed marriage, this temple/earth composition in the life of the Patriarchs (and Matriarchs) starting with Abraham, in the whole of the Nation of Israel, galvanized together (at Mt SinaI to be God’s People - a royal priesthood, a special, chosen and called out people… to live for Him, and to look and live like Him - as had been the mandate for the original humans.
I’m not saying that all they were to do and look like (say in the Book of Leviticus) should remain normative for us today, but in essence I think the the basic and core moral qualities (both of ‘don’t do this’ and ’do this’) remain for us - not to make God happy, but again to mirror, to image God’s plans for us and for our world. The best of what's to be; the best of what we're to be. And now we work on it, as best we can, God helping us.
Israel tried hard, least some of their kings and prophets and priests - and many devout people, did… time and again - though many did not. But no matter how hard they tried, they never did get it right, as none of us can - given the brokenness of the world and each of us deeply within, if we’re honest.
So again, and again as God promised, God finally came and did it Himself. He put it right by entering the world in the Person of Jesus (says Christmas - and the Bible), as Israel’s promised and long-awaited Messiah. God became a Human and lived among us for awhile in Jesus of Nazareth. His life looked like God but also was a full-revelation of what true-humanity could and did look like. But we know that in the end, He was despised and rejected, just as Old Covenant prophets like Isaiah had foretold he would be. .
And then they did Him to death - those Romans and even His own people, most of whom didn’t understand what He was on about, and found themselves strangely mad at Him, rather than embracing who He was and what He was on about. O, some did - great multitudes at times… but at last only a small but faithful band of men and women. And then they too - the men at least, left Him alone or watched from afar, as close as they dared, as He was put to death on a Cross.
I think He really died. And, I think He was really raised from the dead by God the Father. He did not raise Himself. He did not burst the bands of death. He was raised up by God’s Powerful Self, God’s Spirit - and thereby revealed and acknowledged to be Israel’s Saviour, her Messiah, and the world’s Lord. Our Saviour and our Lord too, if we can but believe it.
The way God got it done - this deliverance, was through a bloody sacriice - a lamb - the Lamb of God, whose sacriice made all other sacrifices now redundant. But having said that, re the formal sacrifices of ancient Israel, suffering and death is even now the way in which God's will gets done on earth, and the Kingdom that is coming in fullness one day shows even now the presence of God and of His coming reign among us.
This is the path the Master trod
Should not the servant tread it still?
The promise and the reality of the New Covenant as the early Apostles and the early Church told it and believed it, was that God had come in Christ and had really started a whole new way of being, a whole new creation, that Heaven and Earth had now been fully reconciled now in the person and through the finished work of Jesus. His seeming defeat had been a victory, and had seen and sealed the doom of all evil and opposition. Left to wander about and make messes still for awhile, relatively speaking their time is short.
That doesn’t seem to have really or at least fully happened - that victory. it would appear some days that it hadn't worked; it hadn't taken. Okay, most days. But Christians believe that something real, lasting, in time-and-space history really did happen, that has set everything flowing in a whole new fresh way. The clock to doom started running the old way... ticking toward life, new life, eternal life.
If not evident yet, it will be one day - and perhaps quite soon. Just as the landing and victory of D-Day in WWII though blood-bought was the beginning of the end of the Nazi powers, though there remained a lot of battles, skirmishes large and small - the mopping up of the enemy and all, so the death of Christ was the beginning and will be (and is already as good as) the End for all Evil and all who contribute thereunto, unless their hearts are challenged and changed by God’s Spirit, through God’s Word that not only spoke creation into being, but can also raise the dead to new life.
It’s not that I long to escape this world, believing it’s so bad that God will wrap it up like a ball of scrap paper and throw it in a garbage can. I believe God is going to remake this old world - fix, reboot, utterly change and transform it. But it’s still this world that is being - and will be worked on, and changed. God loves the cosmos - ie. people and places and things… and God is going to recreate and renew all things and all places and all things. I don’t now about the stuff and the places but the Bible clearly teaches that even though changed, we shall know each other, just as we have been known in this life.
I do genealogy and my Barber line is back into the 1400s. I feel like I know some of them, just a little I admit. But I think I'll know them better when I meet their very own selves one day.
C.S. Lewis writes somewhere about the reality of evil and of radical goodness - the potential in all of us. He says (and I’m majorly and maybe even wildly paraphrasing) It’s like if you meet somebody who was allowed to be the worst they could be in life - and would be without God’ intervention (common grace holds back the worst in any of us - sometimes but not a alway, as God providently works)..., we would see a monster as of the Pit of Hell. But if we saw one who has been blood-bought and changed by the grace of God through New Birth to become a new creature in Christ Jesus, then they would be so beautiful, so handsome, so radiant, so glorious, that we would be tempted to fall down and worship them. The potential in each of us, re: who we may possibly become without and with God’s grace, enabling, changing power, is staggering.
I think when I die, I’ll enter into a state of rest (of how long and where - God only knows). That's one metaphor the Bible uses - even of 'sleep.' We tend to think of that place as ‘Heaven’ but I don’t see where the Bible teaches that. Heaven is not so much a place but the way and realm of God, that could be anywhere and might just be nearer than we think. The Celtic monks thoughts so when they talked about thin spots, where God seemed particularly near...).
Some think that ‘believers’ sleep until the Great Day of Christ’s return. This ‘resting’ may be a metaphor of experience and reality we cannot yet comprehend. Likewise, other metaphors and parable/stories… where the departed are still 'alive' (though dead - hmmm) certainly. But they are also fully awake and aware. In Revelation, those who were martyred cry out for God’s vengeance - ‘How long!’…. It’s a kind of a lament, as is found in many Old Testament Psalms. 'What's going on?! When are you going to fix things, make things right for us and our world.
Jesus talked about a Rich Man and a poor man named Lazarus… and about Abraham - in the afterlife. These examples again may be not actualities (though still about realities) but are given as parable and story and sometimes with apocalyptic ‘licence’ to describe not what death is like, or where or how, but about aspects of different truths in their respective contexts.
I like the metaphor that may explain the time involved between death and the bodily resurretion of the believer on the Great Day of Jesus’ return. Our spirit and body will come together, just as earth and heaven come together, and as Jesus, Spirit and Father comprise the Trinity of One. The metaphor or simile is this: You know how some people stay up and work all night while others of us are sleeping. I worked like this as a security guard, the summer after I had just graduated from college. I remember how long the hours seemed, how slow in passing. And while I was walking and patrolling long corridors and checking doors to see that they were still locked, others were snug in bed, dreaming, warm (or wonderfully cooled by air-conditioning) with no sense of time (dream-time can be so inaccurate).
What seemed like long hours to me, seemed like mere moments when’s head touched pillows and then for many, when the the alarm sounded. You know time has passed; you have to check the clock to see if, and actually believe that it’s time to get up. It's the same when having an operation. You count back a few numbers and you’re out cold, and then the next thing you know you’re coming 'round - revived, resurrected in a sense… Several hours may have passed. But it’s past. All over. Time to rise and shine, or at least start to heal.
So, I think it may be like that in death. We pass through into the dark and it may seem like almost immediately - what?!!! - light, brightness - the Great Day.
Even if it’s a long-while, it’s not for ever - and it’s beyond pain, in the fellowship of our Saviour, resting from our work, from our troubles - at rest in Him. RIP.
But who really knows - yet, or ’this side’…? Another metaphor of course is the gestation period and then the birth of us all. It hurts the mother, and most babies cry. Shocked, squeezed, warm and then clammy-cold, we leave the darkness of the mother’s womb. We’ve been safe, nurtured, relatively comfortable, with no sense of what’s coming next. And then we’re thrust out into the cold, the light, the harshness and then the bliss of new reality - into a new way of being loved, nurtured, care for. The tunnel of death may be very much like the tunnel of birth as we pass from the old to a new way of being.
One catarpillar having a chat with another noticed a butterfly floating by. Its comment: — ‘You’ll never get me on one of those!’
But the catarpillar too will ‘die.’ Or not really. But certainly it will seem dead. Tieing itself by a thread of its own self to a leaf or a stick, it will hang there, maybe for weeks. (Throw that thing out,’ my Mom said to me when I was a boy. I began to think too that like the Monty Python parrot: 'this catarpillar is deceased, moribund, gone to meet its heavenly reward'. But one day it stirred, and the dark, death-wrapped coccoon shivered and cracked till out came this beautiful black, yellow and blue swallow-tail butterfly. I know too that if you help it open its wings, the’y’ll never properly open and develop. They need the time when juices are pumped into the wings (and maybe that’s painful, who knows?) as they wait for the full redemption of their body, the fullness of the promise that didn’t look like promise when earlier they shrivelled into that small black sleeping bag.
So, we’re not to escape to Heaven somehwere far off and far away and leave this old world in all its mess, to be finally and fully destroyed. It like us (and like any cocoon) is going to be changed. God will make all things new. Heaven will descend to earth. Jesus asked us to pray ’thy Kingdom come (here), thy will be done (here on earth) as it is in heaven. It’s not so much about two separate places - earth here -- heaven there..., but this one Creation of world and universe (the latter sill largely without form and void, perhaps, awaiting the cosmic reboot and rebuilding of the earth, for which too, says Paul in Romans, all nature - groaning yet, also still waits.
Wherever my Christ-believing Dad is now, He’s with Jesus, and He’s returning with Jesus on the Great Day. His body will rise from Greenwood Cemetery in Burlington and join His till-then disembodied soul (which after all has been the real result of the curse and death - this separation, this dis-unity and fragmentation…) We believe in the resurrection of the body. God loves stuff; He made lots of it. And he made us to have a body joined fully to our spirit (and vice versa), and that will happen upon Jesus return.
The old song got it wrong - viz. ’This world is not my home; I’m just a’passing through'…. And 'If Heaven’s not my home, O Lord what will I do?’
In fact, this world IS our home and always will be - even if we’re carted and carried away for awhile in death - to an intermediate space and time. We will return to this world, again joined fully in our total humanity, being like and looking like Jesus - who is the full image of the Father. We are created images by Him too, by this Word, this Word who was God, is God - and who came (says John 1), was made flesh, and pitched his tent (his tabernacl) just like us… for a little while. See how John borrows from and builds upon the Genesis story when He talks about Jesus, the same one who created it all and now is light and life for the whole newly redeemed world.
I’m just afraid that I’ll die in a way that hurts. Who wants it otherwise?! If we’re going to die - why not in our sleep, or at peace, or in a slow coma. When we die others should be able to say, 'How wonderful for him - for her… how awful for you!' -- for us who remain - who sense this so keenly this separation from those we have loved and lost awhile…'
I believe Scripture, but it’s full of poetry and allegory and parable and apocayptic language. And stories and illustrations, even as Jesus told them, that are about deep and real truths, but not to be taken literally. They’re not myth in that they’re make-believe and not real at all (like a chidlren’s fable), but neither are they ‘real’ in the sense that we can know things today by hands-on experience, experiement and discovery (that is, by science). Yet, these things are real and true - about the Real; but they are largely for us wrapped and sealed still in Mystery, so that we may learn to wonder and to wait, to be patient and maybe above all to relearn how to trust abd obey the God who made us for his in the first place.
This old world will be changed. We will all be changed. Believers in Jesus the most so - and I don’t want to think or dwell upon what happens to those who don’t know Him, or haven’t heard or had the chance to respond either way. God knows all about that, all about them, all about their ‘chance’ or not. And God’s mercy is greater than our comprehension.
I also know that it’s like a scary thing - or ought to be, to know a lot of this stuff, and to spurn it, ignore it, cast it off, mock it and those who hold these things as precious. Honest doubt's another thing.. .And then Jesus even on the Cross prayed for those who were ignorantly and deliberately putting him to death. And he forgave one of the thiefs who just asked him to - with no chance of his ever getting baptized or joining the church or doing a bunch of good deeds to show his love and the inner presence and working of Jesus’ Spirit.
So there’s that. Opportunity and warning - and an invitation to read and pray and check it out for oneself…
as the Psalmist put it, to: ’
Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed are those who puts their trust in Him.'