The effort to form words audibly and intelligibly was beyond her strength. Mobility had long-since been arrested by her degenerative neurological condition As a Hospice chaplain, I had served others faced with her diagnosis and prognosis. As her pastor, too, I was in a position to remind others that while she could barely speak, and might appear to have been lost to dementia, “her ears are still connected, and she’s still processing. Go and talk to her, read to her, and remember: that’s still her in there.”
Encouraging others to maintain their relationships with her was especially important to me. I had been blessed to watch the care she previously provided to her sister over a period of years. But the sister’s disease process was as nearly opposite as could be. In one case, a mind trapped in a body was slowly, but finally cut off completely from demonstrating itself to surrounding friends and family. In the other, her sister’s robust physical health meant that she survived long after the last of the fleeting moments of apparent awareness, ultimately leaving a body intact and functioning long after any control, response, or even, as near as we know, thought within it.
Even when death is sudden and swift, it is almost universally preceded by disease, dysfunction, and/or disability. The world and the bodies in which we live are damaged physically, mentally, emotionally, socially, environmentally, and especially spiritually. In fact, it is the spiritual dimension that experiences the greatest trauma in considering any death. But when death comes far too early in life (the second-grader who fell from the tree she’d climbed so many times before, or the toddler left unattended just long enough to find his way to the creek), or at inopportune moments (coinciding with holidays or family celebrations, or on the brink of major life milestones)? Or when it befalls in such cruel irony as with the sisters above? It prompts questions that most often presume death to be a natural part of the created order. But I would question that assumption. In fact, I have questioned it. I have questioned it biblically and theologically (though these should be identical, they are not, due to the same damages described above), psychologically and sociologically, from the perspectives of biology and anthropology, and in most other ways you could name. I have struggled with why death was ever created in the first place, and have come to this conclusion. It was not. When I ask, “Why, God? How could you call paradise the world in which you included death?” And I believe the answer He gives is, “I didn’t.” I have pressed Him on this matter. I pressed to the point that I believe He clarified the so-called “creation” of death, saying, “I didn’t. You did.”
The Life-giver warned that even in paradise, the very garden of creation, that there was one, and only one, fragility. He gave humankind everything. He put it under our dominion. But we wanted to see what else there was. When you have everything, the only way to get something else is to break some of what you’ve been given. And so, we then had most of what we’d been given, plus the pieces of what we’d broken. That brokenness includes mortality.
“In the day that you eat from it, you will surely die,” He said. (Genesis 2:17)
Some have imagined that since Adam and Eve did not immediately collapse and expire at the moment of their first bite of that fruit, that there must be some other kind of death that is meant, and that physical death must have been a part of the original creation. Anyone who has lived long enough senses their own mortality, recognizes the gradual disabling of life, the dysfunction that will not be restored, and the reality of having to say, “There’s another thing I won’t ever do again.” There is little imagination required to sense, then, what the original humans must have felt in that moment when mortality gripped them.
Death has been, is, and will always be a terribly bad idea. It carries with it, even in its most romanticized settings, a stench that repulses us from contemplating it. Our denial is natural, since death is not. But while it is an infernal invention, it also continues to consume us. And whether traumatically abrupt, or interminably protracted, it remains to be reckoned as a part of life—mine, yours, and everyone we know.
But mortality, the fact of being a “human dying” as much as a “human being,” is not permanent. And so, neither is death. Most of us understand that there is something after this life. I believe that the Christian scripture gives hints about “the afterlife’s” nature, but declines concrete imagery. When Jesus’ disciples ask, “How can we know how to get there when we don’t even know where You’re going?” Jesus replies, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one come to the Father except through me.” This implies exclusivity, certainly. But in answer to the disciples’ immediate concerns, Jesus is telling them: “You don’t need a road map. When the time comes, I will be your guide.” (John 14:1-6) When the disciple who recorded that conversation writes again later, he notes that we don’t know what it is that we will be like. But he seems satisfied to understand that “we will be like Him, for we will see Him as He is.” (I John 3:1-3) What happens after this life is far more vague than I would like. But I am even less content with what is too very clear:
You, and I, and everyone we know: each one of us is going to die. (At some point I should explain how it is that I see the rapture as a form of death, so that I don’t feel neglectful for omitting “should the Lord tarry” from every iteration of this statement.) This demands that we take seriously the life we lead in this very moment. It also demands that we take seriously our need of the guide Jesus offers to be, and to live accordingly. Here’s one more reason why:
If all you ever allow yourself to experience of life is this degraded and deteriorating mess we’ve made of it, then I can’t imagine anything more tragic. The longings you and I feel to “fix it,” to bring redemption, restoration and renewal to the world around us, to the relationships we have, and to the socio-politico-economic structures and systems in which we depend upon one another…these longings are noble aspirations and should most definitely be pursued, even though we recognize that they will never be perfected. The damage to humanity and our environment is in many ways reversible, but ultimately incurable. We exchanged utopia for the fantasy of autonomy, and it is not within our autonomous ability to restore it. As much as we may move the mess around, the pile leaves a conspicuous lump under the rug where our denial sweeps it. Still, never allow the impossibility of perfection to dissuade you from the good you are called to do. Though the ultimate restoration and renewal is yet to come, it begins in the hearts of those willing to humbly admit that we need the guidance, assistance, and miraculous intervention of the author, designer, and builder who gave us the utopia in the first place.
If I may, then, given the shortness of your time and mine, and the dire realities of the hour in which many now live (and are dying), I would exhort you: Get with the program. Join the team. Share in the work. Not just because it’s good for you, but because of the good that others need to know, and see, and experience, and, themselves, join in promoting. It’s important to acknowledge the reality of death. It limits the time we have available. But the damage and degradation and deterioration we experience are only indignities if our lives have been indignities. Christ is not merely seeking to guide us to redemption once we’ve died. He wants us involved in reconciliation, restoration, and in spreading that redemption…once we decide to live.
I pray you do so today.