Nearing the end of Christian Believer, we are entering the realm of the last things. The lesson plan for Christian Hope, like much of the rest of the course, was uneven. It seemed to lack focus. Yesterday afternoon, I talked with Lisa about my concerns. Lucking out, the video presentation, from Dr. Will Coleman, was excellent. My prior decision to concentrate solely on the series of questions at the end of the Study Guide for the week paid off.
Since it's eschatology, a major topic is death. One of those questions we considered was our possible experience of those who had faced their own deaths in and with faith, and how that might have impacted us. One member of the class is a cancer survivor, and offered eloquent testimony on how her faith allowed her to deal thoughtfully and honestly with the very real possibility that she might well die.
It has long been my fervent belief that far too many Christians are scared of dying. The eventuality of our own demise becomes a matter of increasing concern as we get older. We begin to lose loved ones. Then, older friends or people who had been important in our lives are gone. Then, reaching middle age, Our peers might die, leaving us trembling not only in grief at our loss, but in the fear that death is no respecter of age or persons. All the same, we who confess faith in a crucified and risen savior should regard that only universal human experience (beyond birth, of course) without any fear or trembling. The grave should have no hold over us as we rejoice that this life, for all its joys and sorrows, is only part of our experience in and with the God who has defeated death.
Not fearing dying, however, does not mean we should not fear death. I want to make a clear distinction here. As I'm using them here (and as I understand them), dying is a physical process through which our bodies move until, at some point, they cease to function. Death, on the other hand, is the emotional experience shared by those who have lost a loved one. For many people, the most grievous experience of death is the loss of a parent. Some, alas, lose siblings. I know a surprising number of people who have lost children. Then there are dear friends, some who die in sad circumstances, others because of illness (either physical or some other kind). As I said last night, while we Christians shouldn't be afraid of dying, we should both fear and respect death, because death is a monster.
If we aren't careful, death can devour people, whole families even. It can destroy marriages and relationships. It can enter homes and never leave, making ever-present not the life that was loved so dearly, but the lifeless corpse that mocks our love, knows nothing of our pain and sorrow. Death can even take over whole communities, even nations. Consider the Tulsa race riot of the 1920's here in the United States, the madness in Kampuchea during the 1970's, or Bosnia in the 1990's. This was death stalking lands, casting its pall as far and wide as possible.
When the Bible says that the wage of sin is death, I firmly believe this is the referent. Not our physical ending, which is both inevitable and little more than our time coming to an end. Death, as I understand it and have tried to describe it here, is this creature that robs our lives of light and joy. It is a creature that demands sacrifice, always hungry, always looking to feed on our desire for it to hear our plea to return to us those we have loved and lost. Its promises are false, its joy in our sorrow and despair creating a never-ending cycle that, if we aren't careful, will swallow us up, leaving us physically alive yet dead in all the other ways that count.
We Christians are not to fear dying; death, however, we should understand as something else entirely. It is a beast that, if we aren't careful, will carry us off before our time. We should never dismiss the pain and grief and loss dying brings; these are the cracked doors and windows through which death enters our lives. The only effective defense is being with those who are experiencing loss. Not saying anything, not doing anything other than reminding them that, in their pain, they are neither forgotten nor alone. This is the fortress that death cannot destroy. This is power of love that is stronger than death. Rooted in the love we have from God in the risen Christ, we can face death together, without fear perhaps, but certainly always respecting its neverending demand to make its way in to our lives and destroy them.