My friend, Matt Fitzgerald, has an absolutely terrific article in the current issue of The Christian Century titled, “Shaping My Mind To Die.” (Probably behind a pay wall, but access to this and other articles is worth the modest on-line subscription cost.)
Matt’s article was prompted by an app on his smartphone. That app is called WeCroak. “Five times a day WeCroak sends an alert to its users. They arrive at random moments but always say the same thing: Don’t forget you’re going to die.”
WeCroak is the creation of someone named Hansa Bergwall who works in public relations, is into Sikh meditation, and has been influenced by the Buddhist practice of meditating on death.
I’m a generation older than Matt, which means that WeCroak-like messages tend to be coming without signing up for an app. Several different friends have exclaimed recently on the growing incidence of mortal illness among their similar-aged friends. Others have said, “People in our cohort are dying. It’s shaking us.”
Beyond that it’s the dying time of year, at least in the Northern Hemisphere. The leaves have shriveled and dropped. The grass has stopped growing. The days are shorter, the nights longer and darker. Winter approaches.
Moreover, at this time of the year the church’s reading of Scripture tends to turn to “the last things.” There are parables of judgment for several weeks. Then the liturgical year comes to a crashing culmination on November 25 with “Christ the King” Sunday. Alpha and Omega.
This is a long run-up to say that I’ve been pondering writing about death, what I think about it, what I believe about it. It’s a topic we mostly avoid, even in church, unless you are in the kind of church where the question is regularly and bluntly — too-bluntly — asked: “If you die tonight, where will you spend eternity?” As if to say, “Have you made your room reservation?”
Calvin thought such a pre-occupation with one’s personal salvation to be un-Christian in its self-centeredness. Agreed.
So, what do I think or believe about death? A passage of Scripture that speaks to me is Romans 14: 7 – 8. Here’s the apostle Paul:
“We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” That pretty much says it.
What I believe about death is that it is not the end. God is. We die, as Paul puts it, “unto the Lord.” And Paul was right, in this respect life and death are the same. Life is lived before an unto a mysterious, gracious God. We die, at least I believe we do, in and unto this same Holy One.
I also find meaning and comfort in the idea that, as the Apostles Creed puts it, that “Christ was crucified, died and was buried.” That means to me that our graves have been hallowed by his presence. He has gone there before me/ us. He has lain there, sanctifying my/ our graves. There is no place where we go that is beyond his knowing, beyond that love.
Now, perhaps this all sounds both incredibly pious and predictable, given that I am an ordained minister and all. You may wonder or ask, “Don’t you ever have doubts?” Of course, I do. Some days I can be a complete materialist and think death is just decomposition of a used up organism. Period. Natural. Nothing more.
But I don’t really believe that. I believe, without proof because there is none to be had, that we came from a mysterious, loving God and we die to the same mysterious, enduring love. I hope I’m able to hold to that, and be held by it, when the going is rough.
What about resurrection? I don’t find myself particularly interested in predictive pictures or heavenly visions. Sitting on clouds with angels and harps sounds pretty dreadful. No offense to harpists (or angels).
It seems to me that resurrection is betrayed when turned into a signed and sealed deal made available for true believers or your personal room (suite? mansion?) reservation for the next life. See above re Calvin.
Resurrection is poetry not prose; vision not prediction. It is not reducible to concept, dogma or even words. It is song and hymn, symphony and art.
It is Paul shouting furiously, “O Death where is thy sting?” It is the shocking, some would say “insensitive” word, to the grieving at the tomb of Christ, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here.” These are, however, only extensions of what I said earlier, “death is not the end. God is.”
Death is a shock and surprise, always in my experience; that’s true.
But the greater shock and surprise is life, a God who won’t quit on us, whose new life breaks in upon us when we least want or expect it.
My friend, Matt, found real meaning in the WeCroak app’s reminders. As he put it, “A microdose of mortality can make the day glow.” It’s true, awareness of our mortality makes life more precious. It provides perspective.
But, he writes, “In the end, it comes down to this: WeCroak thinks death is natural. Christianity says death is obscene. Worse than this; WeCroak can make you happy. The risen Christ can give you joy.”
The conventional wisdom today, at least among many of the affluent and sophisticated, is that death is natural, nothing more. The end. So go for it in this life.
Me, I’ll take Paul, “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is thy victory? Where, O Death, is thy sting? . . . Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”