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Friday, April 14, 2017

Whistling Past the Graveyard

For any number of reasons I’ve been thinking a lot about death lately.

I don’t suspect I’m overly morbid, nor is dwelling on the reality of death something I particularly enjoy. Nonetheless, the happy decades in which I attended mostly weddings are diminishing into obscurity in the rear-view mirror and ahead of me looms a rather dismal string of unwished-for funerals — with my own being perhaps the crowning conclusion.

What are we to make of this thing called death that awaits us all? How should we think of it? There are two broad strategies most people embrace.

Denial and Materialism

The first strategy is outright denial. Human nature is such that we will ignore the subject of death for as long as it can possibly be denied. Moses’ request of God in Psalm 90 is that he would learn to number his days and live with the knowledge of his own fragility. Apparently Moses felt that a correct assessment of his own mortality wasn’t innate, and that he needed God’s prompting and wisdom to see death accurately. Similarly, in Luke 12 we find the Lord himself sharing a parable that in part illustrates the foolishness of investing and trusting in a world that must come to an end — and often an unanticipated one. Denial is a strategy commonly adopted but always doomed to fail in the long term. Life thus far has proved to be virtually one hundred percent fatal. Any worldview that does not account for the looming reality of death is horribly flawed.

The materialist is — for his part — the ultimate denier. The eventual fate of the material universe, given enough time and given the absence of a transcendent God, appears to be a ‘steady state’ — all heat and all material evenly distributed into a cold, dark and lifeless near-vacuum. A place where no sun shines and no morning ever breaks; there is effectively nothing — just an endless monotonous emptiness. To the materialist, this state can be no different in value to our current one. Our lives, our consciousness, our hopes and fears — all of it is a trick, a mere illusion, for we are material alone and the eventual composition of that material, even whether it is alive or dead, is irrelevant and valueless.

There are no objective values at all so there is no meaning and death is the same as life. Or at least that is what the honest materialist must confess lies at the bottom of his philosophy. Personally I find no comfort afforded by such an outlook and indeed, no materialist I’ve met is comforted by embracing the logical outcome of his view. It’s all a dodge. It denies death any meaning but that denial brings no comfort.

The Circle of Life

When denial inevitably fails, the second and perhaps more common strategy is to diminish death by romanticizing it. In the softened and romantic view of things (including any number of formal religious services), death is presented as an expected part of a grand circle of nature. Death is not an unwanted interruption, not an alien or an odd thing; instead it is seen as every bit as valid and celebratory as birth. We are to take comfort in the thought that though we will physically decay and our consciousness will flee or dissipate, we will somehow “live on” in the hearts of our children or perhaps in nature itself. If you begin to look for this view of death, you’ll see it repeated in a thousand sources — but perhaps a single well-known example of one of the most popular obituary readings in history will prove sufficient to make the point:
“Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow,
I am the sun on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush,
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there; I did not die.”

— Mary Elizabeth Frye
The above words are intended to bring short term comfort. Perhaps for some bereaved, they have. But none of us — not the departing and not the bereaved — are ever truly satisfied with a vague and metaphorical “living on”. The wind, the snow, the autumn rain are no answer to empty arms. If there is any “living on” to be done, we all rightly prefer that it be an actual, physical, vigorous body.

It is only an absurdly romanticized view of death that allows us to imagine the ultimate oxymoron: “death with dignity”. As if, by putting our hands on the controls and choosing the moment of our own passing — with the assistance of drugs or with the voluntary withdrawal of care — we have somehow mastered death or could take the fear from it. It is not so. There is no death with dignity, there is only death.

The Greatest of Dreads

Wish death away if you will, deny it if you must, but death remains unmoved and unchanged by such devices; death is, as it always was, the greatest of dreads. No better summary could be offered than the words of Hebrews 2:
“Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death he might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.”
Did you catch that? Don’t be fooled by the wishful thinking of the poet or the empty “comfort” of the materialist. Despite what they too-loudly protest, humanity is enslaved by a fear of death. Christ came, in no small measure, to free us from that bondage.

Thinking and Speaking Clearly

And this brings us to one of the many things to love about true Christianity; it does not shrink away from even the toughest of subjects. I love that Christianity allows me — nay, encourages me — to think and speak clearly about death.

So I hate death. I hate the wretched stench of its approach. I hate its work and the devastation it leaves behind in its wake. I hate it with a pure hatred and with a passion and without a twinge of conscience. Death is an affront, an obscenity and an abomination. It is not beautiful, it is not welcome for even the most miserable of men and even in the noblest of us, it never can be dignified. I stand fully affirming and reveling in the character of a great God who said he takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked and that the death of the righteous is a costly thing to even him.

Whistle past the graveyard if you will. Comfort yourself with fairy tales about death but offer none of that comfort to me, for I don’t wish that sort of falseness. I’ll comfort myself instead with the sure knowledge that one day, death itself will die. I’ll comfort myself with the sure knowledge that my Saviour died — and rose in glorious defiance and defeat of death — so that my passing from this world will not be a passing into doubt, fear or loss, but rather into the presence of the One who loved me unto death, One who willingly embraced death though he never was subject to it, One who tasted death for me so that I would find myself unchained by fear of the tomb but rather utterly free to long instead for the soaring skies of heaven itself.

Romanticize death? Deny it? No, there is nothing there to be gained but disappointment. Instead, like Christ did one day in Bethany, I’ll stand at the graveside and weep at the wreckage that death has temporarily produced. In that same moment through those same tears I’ll catch a glimpse of a far greater day to come and my ears will hear the distant but approaching victory shout of One who has conquered death.

Even so Lord Jesus, quickly come.

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