I have just lost a friend. I never met him. I knew him because he somehow heard of me and sought me out and we started an off and on again correspondence that ended just before I returned to the US. We had made plans to meet finally when I came to Tidewater later this month. And now he’s gone.
Mark was still a young man, in his 40s, the father of two children. He was a musician, much more accomplished than me, a composer whose works had been performed internationally. He had gone through the excruciating demise of his marriage, which ended in divorce this past year. I could relate. We talked about it. He was also a seeker after God. When his Baptist faith no longer could sustain the gravity of his questions, he turned east and started attended the Orthodox Church. Once again, I could relate.
In September, his femur snapped in the simple act of walking. Since healthy bones don’t just snap, further investigation discovered cancer. There was surgery, setbacks, infections. And then, this morning, I learned that he died.
|Random picture from the internet meant to serve as an illustration of the sort of thing Death does.|
My American culture puts a brave face on death by choosing not to deal with it. Christian America tries to paint death as a positive thing, where the deceased leaves this world of pain and suffering and goes to heaven to be with Jesus. I have officiated scores of funerals where we cope with death by celebrating the life of the deceased.
But even a cursory survey of the New Testament and the witness of apostolic Christianity will reveal that this idea of escaping this world and going to heaven when we die has more in common with a platonized gnosticism than it does with anything Jesus and the Apostles ever taught.
Jesus is doing something different, and it has to do with the coming of the Kingdom of God and the remaking, not just of humanity in His image, but all of creation, so that we become anew what God intended us to be. And so the Gospel is doing something different, and it has not to do with providing ‘fire insurance’ so that we can be forgiven and thus ‘saved’, but with calling us to repentance and reconciliation with one another and with God, thus laying the existential foundation for the Church as the countercultural Kingdom of God, the beach-head of the transforming reign of Christ in this world.
But there is a major problem with this and every attempt to make sense of this world, and that problem is death. Because as long as we die, it will not end well for any of us. Whatever controversy exists about what sin is and who is a worse sinner than whom, the fact that every single one arguing the point will die means that rightness or wrongness on the question is actually a moot point - we are all in more trouble than we can imagine.
In spite of the denial, in spite of the way our health care and death industries try to sanitize what death does, none of us can escape the fact that death destroys us. Already many of us are suffering the gradual breakdown of our bodies or our mental capacities, from which there is no climbing back out. And it doesn’t stop with the cessation of of our hearts and brainwaves. Death goes on to destroy our bodies. That would be horrible enough, but death robs us of our most valuable possessions. Some people might be thinking of the things that they are finally separated from at death - their clothes, their house, their bank accounts, their pleasures. But I’m thinking of those intangible possessions that are even more precious to us - our relationships. I will never again sit in my mother’s kitchen and have a conversation with her. I will never get to witness my brother-in-law's joy and pride as he holds his grandchildren. I will never know my own brother who died as an infant. Death destroys our relationships. And there is not only no more opportunity to enjoy the love we shared, there is also no more chance to fix the brokenness we might have inflicted that was left unmended.
It doesn’t end well. For any of us.
I have been privileged to meet an octogenarian priest and his octogenarian wife this past week, both of them still active, both of them still sharp. They had five children who are now my age, and now their children’ children are having children. It is a big, boisterous family, not without its share of drama, but about as close as I’ve seen to getting it right. And even this godly man and this godly woman will have their long life cut short by death. And the years will come and go, and then one day all that’s left are just names on someone’s genealogy, and then even they will be buried in the shifting sand of history yet to be, and forgotten.
As the Apostle Paul says, ‘If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied above all people.’ (1 Corinthians 15:19)
I grieve for my dead friend from a distance. I see so much of myself in the mirror of his life. And I am reminded how quickly it could all be gone.
Even this morning before I read the news, I wrote out my daughter’s name and phone number on the back of my business card and stuck it in the back pocket of my running shorts in case for some reason I didn’t make it back, a habit I started over 17 years of living in Africa. It is that kind of world, and we are not guaranteed tomorrow, much less the next stride on my run.
So here are my takeaways.
If my religion does not have an answer for my friend’s death, my spouse’s death, my child’s death, then it is not worth believing.
And if there is anything undone that I would regret leaving undone if I were to be called off the stage tomorrow, then get it done. Have that conversation. Try yet again to be reconciled. Do everything in my power to make it right.
Give thanks for the resurrection of Christ. Our problem isn’t simply that we need forgiveness. And I am grateful for the cross. But forgiveness is useless unless we also have deliverance from what Paul calls ‘the final enemy’ - death. The goal of our salvation is not some bodiless heaven. Our goal is the New Jerusalem, for which we shall be raised from the dead and made anew like Christ himself, who is the New Adam.
As the Apostle John says, ‘Dear friends, we are already God’s children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears. But we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is.’ (1 John 3:2)
This is my hope and prayer for my friend who just died, whose broken body could no longer sustain his life. The day is coming, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and will rise from their graves, however they may be scattered and lost and forgotten. And we will hear our Lord call us by name. And with new eyes we shall see him, and we shall stand and be like him, and we will live our new life forever in the new heavens and the new earth.
Death is terrible. And we are all walking through the valley of its shadow. But death will not have the last word.