Fatal Death

Because I could not stop for Death —
He kindly stopped for me —
The Carriage held but just Ourselves —
And Immortality.

I like the poetry of Emily Dickinson, and not just because you can sing most of it to the tune of the Gilligan’s Island theme song. (Go ahead and try it with the lines above. I’ll wait.) She wrote fascinating things, and as someone with a taste for the macabre, I can appreciate her morbid death poetry more than most. (“Morbid Death Poetry” is a good band name.)

But I bring up Dickinson because that subject, death, has been on my mind recently. My church’s Bible study class is working our way through the gospel of John at the moment, and we hit Lazarus a few weeks back. While doing my preparatory study, I discovered something truly fascinating. The word in John 11:33 and 11:38 all English versions translate “deeply moved in spirit” . . . isn’t. It should say, “Jesus was livid.” Enraged. Furious. German translations seem to take that more literally, but English translations insist on an impassive Jesus who isn’t allowed to be human enough to get mad outside of the temple.

I believe it’s a grievous mistake in this particular instance. After all, just a few verses earlier in John 11, Jesus declares himself to be “the resurrection and the life” (v. 25). Three chapters later, he is “the way, the truth, and the life” (14:6), and five chapters earlier he is “the bread of life” (6:35). Repeatedly Jesus refers to himself as life itself. Here at Lazarus’ tomb, then, we see Life encountering Death. Life sees destruction, devastation, sorrow, pain. Life see the horrors of Death victorious, a world enslaved by its oldest enemy.

And Life. Is. Furious.

It was never supposed to be this way. Death was never intended to exist in our world. Mothers were never supposed to lose children. Sisters weren’t meant to mourn brothers. Sons weren’t born to bury fathers. But in this moment, Christ sees this playing out before his very eyes. He sees the Fall, feels anew the betrayal of our first parents, sees our continued rejection of eternal life as we prefer to wail at tombs, servants of Death who have refused Life time and time again.

And he is angry.

Angry any of this happened. Angry Death has won for thousands of years. Angry people will grieve and lament and die for thousands more.

And so, just this once, just for these beloved friends, with tears in his eyes, he thinks in his heart, “No. This will not do.”

It’s a clear call of command, raw divine authority infusing every syllable. “Lazarus! Come forth!”

Lazarus comes forth.

And Death loses the day after all.

It’s a victory repeated as Christ raises others, just as the Prophets had. And it’s a victory which will be completed on the cross and in an empty tomb, the power of Life on display, a God “born that Man no more may die.”

Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus is engaged in no less a divine showdown than Elijah at Mount Carmel as he takes on the prophets of Baal. It is a display of power, it is a show of righteousness, it is anger and truth and heaven on earth.

But it’s also a dramatic reminder of a deeper biblical truth: “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor 15:26). Death will one day die, cast into a lake of fire (Rev 20:14). Death is the enemy of Life; Christianity affords it no other place in the cosmos. It is never good, never a friend, never sweet release, never the will of God. It is a price to be paid, a blood debt owed for sin — the necessary consequence of a planetary rebellion.

I’m not entirely sure we see it that way, though. No one who has sat by the bed of a loved one struggling to survive has ever prayed the gasping and pain never ceases. If we’re honest with ourselves, most of us will admit we’ve begged God for people to die — not out of hate, but out of love. It’s why we turn off the machines in the end: we love them. We don’t want them to continue suffering in a body which feels nothing but agony. We want them to have rest, and death is sometimes the only escape. We love them enough to want that for them, because we all eventually stop being afraid they will die and start being afraid they won’t. It’s not cold, cruel, or callous. It’s mercy. Respect. Love.

But is it? Again, Scripture is clear: death is evil, an enemy to be destroyed. How can it ever be a welcome friend? I think we’ve always struggled with this, really. It’s why we converted the angel of death, slaughterer of the firstborn, to a guy in white in Touched by an Angel. Death, to Christians, stopped being the Grim Reaper and became a blessed escort into the afterlife, a mere psychopomp. Honestly, I feel it’s a natural progression of perception. The question remains, however: is it accurate? Are we correct to make the shift? It’s a question which keep recurring in our modern world as things like physician-assisted suicide and right to die laws become more and more commonplace. Do we force people to endure torment because death is an enemy? Do we let them kill themselves and pronounce God’s blessing upon the act? The world is asking these questions. Christians must answer them. Offhand, I’d say we’ll all devise different answers, too. It’s a complex issue, and there’s a lot at stake.

Death is a curse — the Curse. It is also a sometime blessing. How do you feel? How do we think about death? How does it matter for how we live our daily lives?

Memento mori.

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Empty Chairs at Empty Tables

Next week will be American Thanksgiving (I refuse to call it “Turkey Day” on principle). It will be a day of food, of family and friends, a day in which we, those who have been incomparably blessed by a magnificent and glorious God, simply say “Thank you.” It is a day in which we become living eucharists, and we would do well to remember the Great Thanksgiving and the whole of salvation history as we tuck in to our overflowing plates.

But this year, things will be different for countless families. They will, for the very first time, observe the holiday without a family member. A parent has died in the last year, a sibling disowned his or her family, a spouse did the unthinkable and the other was forced to end the marriage in a bitter divorce. Chairs across the country will be empty, and those who remain will remember the ones who once sat across the table.

They never really leave us, do they? Grandparents and parents in particular live on in their families. We share traits with those who have gone on, little quirks that always remind us they’re not truly gone. My sister buys raisin bran so she can pick out the raisins and have frosted bran flakes (like our grandfather did). I have a fondness for chocolate-covered cherries (like our grandmother). A cousin has her mother’s eyes, a father carves the turkey with the same knife his father used, and on and on and on. It’s those little moments of recollection which give us a twinge of memory, a faint smile, and the hope of one day sitting around the table with them in the age to come.

Others have a more difficult time of it. Families ripped asunder by divorce may sit in awkward silence, a mother dreading a child asking why a father isn’t home this year. A man who believed he had found “the one” sits alone in the only apartment he could afford and wonders why she suddenly stopped loving him. Holidays are hard days.

Regardless of the nature of the missing, those people will still be missed; they will be conspicuous only by their absence, but that absence will be felt. Even though they’re gone, they remain a part of us, and we carry them with us throughout our lives. I’m reminded of a Wordsworth poem, “We Are Seven.” It’s a bit long, but it’s worth the read.

“We Are Seven”

———A simple Child,
That lightly draws its breath,
And feels its life in every limb,
What should it know of death?
I met a little cottage Girl:
She was eight years old, she said;
Her hair was thick with many a curl
That clustered round her head.
She had a rustic, woodland air,
And she was wildly clad:
Her eyes were fair, and very fair;
—Her beauty made me glad.
“Sisters and brothers, little Maid,
How many may you be?”
“How many? Seven in all,” she said,
And wondering looked at me.
“And where are they? I pray you tell.”
She answered, “Seven are we;
And two of us at Conway dwell,
And two are gone to sea.
“Two of us in the church-yard lie,
My sister and my brother;
And, in the church-yard cottage, I
Dwell near them with my mother.”
“You say that two at Conway dwell,
And two are gone to sea,
Yet ye are seven! I pray you tell,
Sweet Maid, how this may be.”
Then did the little Maid reply,
“Seven boys and girls are we;
Two of us in the church-yard lie,
Beneath the church-yard tree.”
“You run about, my little Maid,
Your limbs they are alive;
If two are in the church-yard laid,
Then ye are only five.”
“Their graves are green, they may be seen,”
The little Maid replied,
“Twelve steps or more from my mother’s door,
And they are side by side.
“My stockings there I often knit,
My kerchief there I hem;
And there upon the ground I sit,
And sing a song to them.
“And often after sun-set, Sir,
When it is light and fair,
I take my little porringer,
And eat my supper there.
“The first that dies was sister Jane;
In bed she moaning lay,
Till God released her of her pain;
And then she went away.
“So in the church-yard she was laid;
And, when the grass was dry,
Together round her grave we played,
My brother John and I.
“And when the ground was white with snow,
And I could run and slide,
My brother John was forced to go,
And he lies by her side.”
“How many are you, then,” said I,
“If they two are in heaven?”
Quick was the little Maid’s reply,
“O Master! we are seven.”
“But they are dead; those two are dead!
Their spirits are in heaven!”
’Twas throwing words away; for still
The little Maid would have her will,
And said, “Nay, we are seven!”

 

Take time this Thanksgiving to offer thanks for another year with a family intact. Take time to remember those who face an empty chair but whose hearts still say “We are seven.” And give thanks to the God who gives us all things, the creator and sustainer of all which is seen and unseen.

If you still have time after that, go eat some turkey.

Thanatopsis

Now that the holidays are over, the blog returns!

On 29 December, my grandfather (my father’s father) passed away after a lengthy hospital stay following surgery. I officiated at his graveside service (he refused to have a full funeral), and it was undoubtedly one of the harder things I’ve done in my life. The family has many long days ahead as we continue to mourn and deal with the process of sorting my grandfather’s belongings.

All of this has me thinking a bit about death. It seems to be the one universal constant: things are born, then they die. Our possessions slowly decay or are used up until they are no more. The cycle of seasons devotes a quarter of the year to the slow, inexorable decline and slumber of the environment itself, which will then lie dormant for another quarter year before returning fully to life once more. As I write this, I can look out my window to see bare trees standing upon dead grass — the savage beauty of winter.

But is death really all there is? Is our immutable fate truly the end? Can death really have the last say?

Well, no. I don’t think so. I believe in an afterlife (which, in my opinion, is a bit of a misnomer; we’re still alive, after all, and our bodies will be again as well). With the historic confessions of the Church, I, too, believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. For me, and for all Christians, death is more of a parting of ways, a segue into something different and better. One of my favorite authors is the grandfather of science fiction, Isaac Asimov, who once said, “Life is pleasant. Death is peaceful. It’s the transition that’s troublesome.” Asimov was an avowed atheist, but he’s still right in this case. We love the living, we often forget about the dead, and we seem to worry about the transition a great deal.

The transition should be the least worrisome part to a Christian. As Paul writes in Philippians 1:21, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” And again elsewhere: “we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8), something often paraphrased as “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.” So if we live in this life, we serve Christ. If we die, we worship God “in-person,” if you will. There is nothing “on the other side” that should scare us, worry us, or give us pause. The abundant life we enjoy now comes to full fruition after our death.

Eventually, at the end of the age, the Bible tells us two things. The first is that we will inhabit a new creation, a place free from sorrows and pains and trials and heartaches. The new heaven and new earth (and new Jerusalem) is a land where God shall wipe away the tears from our eyes (Revelation 21). We’re also told repeatedly in Scripture that death will be defeated (Isaiah 28:14; 1 Corinthians 15:26; Revelation 20:14). Death is a defeated foe, and one day, the reaper will be reaped. The victory won on the cross will come to completion at the end of this age, and death and the grave will lose all power.

This should give us hope and remove from us the fear of death. God has already beaten it, and He passes on the victory to those who bear the name Christian.