But like a heart, we move and we move and we move the exact amount of times to stop. The next act is more scuffling across the stage, switching clothes and sets, until everything we do before the final scene demands that it happen. We beg for it to end our motion, hoping that we went through enough acts, that we had used up our rationed heartbeats.
Why do we close up so soon? From the womb, we want something solid to bite down on. We anticipate the coming change, like a rainstorm for a dusty farmer, but never expect how much work plenty requires. We rush into union, as if it is shelter from ourselves, and stay cuddled there, forgetting that we came into this world by ourselves.
I have never had the opportunity to stare death in the face. Strangely, I feel like my entire life has been dedicated to thoughts about death. It’s not that I am obsessed or frightened, or too platonic for my own good. I am convinced that my preoccupation with death is common. Who doesn’t think about it?
It’s not about who does or does not think of death, it’s about who’s willing to engage their thoughts. How often do we take our feelings down the Valley of the Shadow of Death? Our minds aren’t enough. We can rationally think about it as a natural occurrence. “Death? Yeah, it’s just a part of life. Now go to bed.” But when we take our reason down the path, we find that we don’t get very far. We can’t take our reason beyond ourselves. The proposition of our own death is entirely unreasonable.
We think of death like we think of gifts our grandparents give us. Isn’t that what death is? Before even knowing what it is, we put our hands out, receive it, and give them a kiss on the cheek. Once we start opening up the wrapping paper, we try to think of ways that we can appreciate it. Once they leave for the winter – travelling when it’s cold out is bad for the joints – we put it in storage.
And we think about it every now and then. We never go and open up the package or do anything with it. We can’t get rid of it, because they are who they are, but we don’t want to use it. Whenever they ask, we say it’s great. Each day grows more anxious, the fixation tighter, until that fateful day when you get the phone call, lament a few days, then joyfully throw away the George Foreman Grill.
Of course, all of this could be avoided if we simply enjoyed it for what it is; a gift. The only reason we don’t appreciate it, is because we refuse to let it change us. We refuse to die. I refuse to die. If he had just known me a little bit better, then maybe he would have given an acceptable gift. The last time I saw him, though, was when he gave it to me. I haven’t seen him since then and, as long as I mention it in my emails, I’m covered.
Nature and the Word demand that we let it change us. What is the entire book of Ecclesiastes for if not that? What is the entire point of Revelation? Death is coming and not only must we know that, we must feel it in our entire being.
“Remember your Creator
in the days of your youth,
before the days of trouble come
and the years approach when you will say,
“I find no pleasure in them”—
before the sun and the light
and the moon and the stars grow dark,
and the clouds return after the rain;
when the keepers of the house tremble,
and the strong men stoop,
when the grinders cease because they are few,
and those looking through the windows grow dim;
when the doors to the street are closed
and the sound of grinding fades;
when people rise up at the sound of birds,
but all their songs grow faint;
when people are afraid of heights
and of dangers in the streets;
when the almond tree blossoms
and the grasshopper drags itself along
and desire no longer is stirred.
Then people go to their eternal home
and mourners go about the streets.
Remember him—before the silver cord is severed,
and the golden bowl is broken;
before the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
and the wheel broken at the well,
and the dust returns to the ground it came from,
and the spirit returns to God who gave it.
Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the duty of all mankind.
For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil.”
We rationally accept that we have been given death, but we reserve a place in our minds where it can rest comfortably, untouched. We never get into it, we never allow our feelings to become entangled. We think of it like machines.
Fizzle. Error. Eject brain chip. Place into children.
We think of death every now and then to suspend the guilt. We remind ourselves that it will happen. But our reminders are about as effectual as our parents telling us that we shouldn’t date before college.
What is the benefit of rationally reminding ourselves, when death will not rationally come upon us? If we are lucky, there will be very little thinking involved once it happens (unless you’re the kind that likes to pray before a big decision). Death is pure experience, pure feeling. Before, it is pure understanding (not of what it is, but that it is). After, it is intense understanding and experience until no end.
Most of you are alive right now. I have to make some concessions to those no longer with us. I know, my credibility is soiled by my warmth (I needed to wash the pants, anyways), but I assure you, I’m doing the best I can. Yes, you’re thinking that I am completely missing the mark. Some of you might say, “Idiot! Embrace life as much as you can! Use it up! Burn at both ends!” To them, I say, “I would rather not continue that lifestyle for an eternity.” For those who say, “Well, yes, it ought to change you, but recognize that there is no conceivable way to really experience it before it happens.” To them, I say, “I agree in part. Wait a moment and I’ll explain.” Finally, there are those who are either saying nothing, or are speaking in a language I can’t quite decipher. That’s all right, we all drink some blood in the end.
At the age of nine, I had an existential crisis. I had entirely forgotten about it, actually, until I mentioned it to a good friend.
For an entire year, I lived in fear. At any sign of mortality, I would shrivel up and become useless. The days went better, because of the sunshine and people. But the nights? Thank God I shared a room with my brother, or the feeling might have been unbearable. I would physically shake in bed and cry. I vividly remember going into my parent’s room late at night to be with them. In that moment, they were the only thing that stood between me and eternity. They were the essence of life and they felt strong.
The thought of death never got out of my head. It stayed rattling around in there, until the intensity gradually faded and I either forgot or used up my feeling. I don’t know what caused the entire thing, but I am grateful for it. In that year, I held the gift in my hands every day, setting a schedule around it. And every night, I would try to expel it, but it wouldn’t let me go. It had me by the throat.
I haven’t experienced death quite like that since. I felt a bit of death last week, when I went to the nursing home and sang with some friends. As we sang a hymn, an old woman rolled up to me in a wheelchair and kicked her feet, oblivious to the fact that we were performing. Her pants were up to her chest and her head was below them. She kept pushing her no-hair behind her ear and had this smile on her like she knew something I didn’t.
I melted and I’m not quite sure why. It was almost frustrating. There were all these old faces looking up at me and saw me crying because of them.
She rolled down the hall.
Once we finished singing, we got to meet them and talk to them. There is Calvin, the old farmer who is a master at the accordion and nervous about dying (my brother shared the Gospel with him). There is Laura (I think), who speaks quietly, but coherently, and loves every song we sang.
Then, there was Claire, the woman in the wheelchair. To my delight, she wheeled back down the hallway. I put the stops on her crazy wheelchair (she didn’t stop kicking her legs), pulled up a chair, and introduced myself.
She was entirely deaf. I resorted to hand gestures, then finally a pen and napkin. She spent about a minute trying to decipher the words, “What is your son’s name?” After a wonderful concert by Calvin, we said our goodbyes.
And I found out her name was Ruth.
It was such a fruitful experience. I got to stare at my future. And my future is cold, blind, deaf, scared, weak, smelly, irritable, disfigured, quiet, painful, and slow. My future is falling apart and losing its hair. And it’s coming quickly. Calvin had a full life, full of dancing and farming. No matter how much we fill our lives up, they still get completely poured out. Lord, protect Calvin and may we still be a blessing to him while we can.
And although I don’t have the audacity to ask God for it, I expect that death will creep up on me around more street corners, peeking its head, and seeing if I’m ripe. There is plenty of death before death. It is upsetting, because it is not what we were made for. We were made to live, not to die. I refuse to die!
But it doesn’t even have to object. It stays silent. It doesn’t give us reasons. It just does. It feels us out, experiences us, grows around us, then strangles us…
and it wants us to scream and bellow. It wants us to explain it away, to think about it rationally, to never feel it. Calculated. Thoughts.
Every day, I am becoming an idol. I feel my skin turning into stone. When I cross my arms, I put my fingers into my elbow and they get stuck in the solidifying flesh. In Christ, we are built up, like stone walls, towers, cities. We are being made out of stone. Death has threatened to burn us up, but it cannot prevail against those who are made out of stone. We build, create. But the city of God isn’t made out of straw. It’s made out of precious stones. Fire cannot harm it, because it is already burning with light. It is burning with deification. The city of man is burning with destruction. The Lord is preparing us for the future, building us on top of a stumbling block.
We cannot think rightly about life, if we do not begin at the end. The end of times is destruction of flesh. If that’s the case, why would anyone want to give into it? Give into something melty? If we do not know that this life is preparation, why would ethics matter at all? If we don’t know the end, we cannot begin.
One of the most liberating things that Creation teaches us is that every end is a beginning. There is nothing in reality that exists which does not become something else. Leaves die, but they turn into ground. Animals die, but they turn into ground. Humans die, but they turn into more real flesh.
When God created everything, He created everything without end. What is there that will stop? Will God let the story end? Even if time ends, I would argue that we carry it into eternity. If we were not vessels of time for eternity, we would cease to be creatures and our perfect bodies would be no miracle. God is outside of time, but we are not and we never will be.
And we will never end. Death really is the beginning. The proof of this one end is in the parts.
In this life, when we say goodbye, we are always saying hello to something else. When I left for college, I said goodbye to a state of mind, to a place, to people.
But what did I get? I got a different state of mind, I got more place, I got more people. Everything that happened before has not stopped existing. It has just turned into something else. The people, the place, the state of mind…
And this is exactly why we cannot afford to be scared of change. And we cannot afford to look at ourselves in the mirror. And allow ourselves to be empty. And wish about things we wish we could have. And stare at our feet.
We are running through a thousand different passages. And we are running fast. This is a race and the person most likely to win is the one that doesn’t see himself. He sees the light at the end of the tunnel, he sees his certain death. And he runs to it. He runs to it, knowing that it is just the beginning of a longer race. He runs to it, because he loves how the wind feels. He runs to it, not paying attention to his own image, but paying attention to the person he reflects. Life is glory, because death is humility.
There is nothing that prepares us more for this life than knowing that we will die. And who is going to stop us from having a fascination with death? We were born with it in our souls.
Children share a very important trait with old people. They can’t stop thinking of death. It’s curious to them. They don’t entirely understand it. Most of all, it terrifies them. They think that it is antithesis to their being.
Children and old people are the closest to where we actually came from. They bookend each other. We are born into this world, with a head full of curious and indescribable knowledge, and leave it with a thirst for the same knowledge. Why do you think children are so curious about this world? It is new to them. They are used to something else. All they know is death, but we might call it birth.
And old people, they have the reflection of this exploration. When they leave this world, all they are used to is life. They must relearn what they forgot. They must remember that life is a dream.
The reason people in the middle part of life are so stressed and worried about earthly dealings, is because they have eaten up the lie; that this is all that’s true. We catechize ourselves into believing that this is it. We forget where we came from and where we are going. And because of that, petty things become the most important. We fall deeper into sin. We are more prone to end our lives, because, well, if this is it and this failed, why should we keep going?
I am not saying that children and old people are holier and wiser. But, I am saying that they are the most likely to understand what this is all about. They are here to remind us of eternity. And when we ignore them and only spend time with our peers, we will certainly be led to more earthly pursuits.
I am also not saying that this life is only a dream. It is a dream, certainly, but it is not a false one. None of this is illusion. Life is real, just as much as death. But, compared to the eternity of perfection that we come from and where we go, this little game we are playing right now is a mess. It is confusion, foggy, difficult to remember, dangerous, beautiful, uncontrollable (unless you’re one of those elect who can control dreams), and brief. A dream.
But dreams are real. Dreams actually happen and dreams actually happen for a purpose. They are provoked by what we do and where we come from. Dreams don’t just come from nowhere and then go to nowhere. They affect what we do and how we think. They can disturb and delight.
But, the longer we spend in a dream, the more we become attached to it. If a dream is going especially well, we begin to thirst for it. We long for the thing that threatens us. Dreams are real, but they are not as real as the thing that makes them.
The great lie is that death is the dream, that once our life is over, we are sleeping and we’ll never wake up. People want to paint the afterlife as a mystical journey into cosmic LSD-induced colors. It’s not. The afterlife is actual reality. It is only mystical to us now, because we are brain damaged and sin bruised.
This life is wonderful, but like many ancient Christians suggested, dangerous. It can lead us astray. Creation is here to delight us and for us to use but, if we don’t come at it knowing that it is a creation, we will die. And that will be a frightening beginning.
There are so many reasons to run. I am always wary of advising someone to take more risks, but sometimes I don’t know what else to say.
When and where are we ever commanded to pitch a tent? To take a rest? Why should we ever stop running? To be “cautious”? Where in Christ’s – or any of the Apostles’, in fact – mission was caution ever a goal? Christ demands of His followers to stop settling here. He wants us to be eternally-minded, to forgo all concerns about food, clothing, housing, and money. He wants us to run, God bless it! The temptation is to build a city here, as if that’s okay.
Stop sitting down. Get up, stretch, run. As far as you’re concerned, you have no image. You are made in the image of God. Work on His image. Start thinking of your death. And run to it.
You may be a parent. You may be a pastor, or child, or elder, or engineer, or teacher, or student. Whoever you are, everything you do ought to be preparation. Prepare yourself and prepare others.
Sometimes, this means enjoying a cup of tea and building a house for your family. Creation was built for us to use up, because it has an end.
I have so much death ahead of me. I need to die to self, I get to stop being so conceited, I can care more about others, I can run faster and farther towards my end. And I get to move on from the past, allowing it to propel me through the present and into the finished future.
Funny thing too, I’m pretty sentimental. I was cleaning my room the night before I left home and I came across a picture of my mom. One of the many things I struggle with is laying down and looking at pictures of the past, or drawing them. I take a seat too often. I get to keep going.
And so do you.
No matter who you are, we will meet each other again. Our relationship will begin again, although I don’t know when.
What I’m saying here is not perfect and I’m not saying it perfectly. Please, though, hear me out and rejoice.
Go to the grave of Christ and weep and contemplate it. Christ wept at death, the Son of God. Weep with Him. Leave the church with darkness and silence around you. Let death howl down the aisles. Then on Sunday, bring a pan and spoon. Open up the doors of the church. Sing and dance and laugh. And we shall march out of the longest night together and withstand the death of death and become perfect stone idols of God.