A few years ago, in my work and wider church context, we seemed to be confronted with what seemed like an inordinate amount of death. Several people tragically lost infants in the womb. Colleagues and neighbours were suddenly struck down in the prime of their lives. Our church community was confronted by a young man taking his life – all in the space of weeks. Amidst the widespread shock and disbelief caused by this wave of sudden and unexpected death, I wondered at the time if we contemporary Christians have perhaps lost the habit of deliberately preparing for death?
Human societies have always been haunted by death. In the premodern world death was in your face in a way it isn’t today. The unavoidable, daily spectre of death cast a shadow over life that was managed by a combination of religious belief and frequently a fair deal of superstition.
In the modern West, our own form of underlying superstition typically takes the form of denial. As someone has put it, it’s like we are visitors to a Gallery or Museum rushing around from exhibit to exhibit fifteen minutes before it closes, desperately hoping not to miss out on anything. We cram our lives full of work ambitions, family and social activities, entertainment, holidays, and hobbies, for fear that without them our lives will amount to little. Of course, we complain about the pace of it all and wish we could slow things down. But it feels like we are simply being swept along in an uncontrollably frenetic tide. Even when a diagnosis or a bereavement – or, dare I say it, a deadly pandemic – comes along, often the panic is simply heightened.
I mean, how many others have been struck this past fortnight at how much busier life has become on “lockdown” (a state which has generated a cruel vocabulary of its own)? For some, lost employment or health has shattered livelihoods, creating a financial, mental, and emotional burden of sheer survival which is seemingly endless and utterly exhausting. For those of us fortunate enough to retain employment, there is a frantic urge to keep everything going online as quickly and “normally” as possible – all of which now takes that much longer – notwithstanding the fact that kids now need to be home-schooled, elderly family need special care, shopping is more complicated, holidays have been cancelled, plans derailed, and support networks cut, potentially for months.
Christian organisations and churches are certainly not immune to feeling this pressure either. We talk of God’s grace and trusting in his sovereignty, but it can feel like there are online services to be run, meetings to be had, classrooms to be taught, lost to be reached, needy to be cared for, or else.
In a context like this, technology is a mixed blessing of course. When isolation is enforced, it mercifully brings everyone closer. It helps us stay connected and informed. It entertains us and generates laughter. But its relentless presence easily generates unhealthy expectations, intruding on the precious space and natural rhythms that people need to survive (e.g., exercise and sleep, let alone prayer, or meditation on Scripture). It tricks us into the conceit of defying gravity.
Reading the Apostle Paul’s second letter to Timothy reminded me of the precious truth that enables Christians to be honest about gravity – our finitude and ultimate death – without any trace of panic or regret. Imprisoned, and facing imminent execution, death was undoubtedly on Paul’s mind. Even so, he doesn’t cease to be an apostle or disciple. There is no diminishment in his love for God and neighbour, no loss in zeal for the progress of the Gospel in the world. But there is also joy, calmness, and gratitude. He finishes the letter with a profound sense of liberty in his sufferings: “For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day.” (2 Tim 4:6-8). Paul leaves the world the way Jesus did: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). Or the way that Stephen did, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” (Acts 7:59). How many of us are prepared to face death like that?
It has been said that death is the greatest act of faith a Christian is called to in this world. It is utterly uncharted territory. Norman Greenbaum once confidently chirped, I’m “goin’ on up to the spirit in the sky.” And in the West, sentimentality readily chimes along: “When I die and they lay me to rest, I’m gonna go to the place that is best.” But who’s to say that’s not wishful thinking, or even a nasty sham? What’s to say death is not annihilation, or something worse – who’s to say it’s not some state of endless wandering? Who’s to say it’s not a state of universal misery, bereft of any comfort? No one can say. And so, there is widespread denial and panic.
But there is one, who in the face of its yawning void declares, “I am the resurrection and the life”. And he invites everyone now, and especially at the hour of our death, to trust in him, because “the one who believes in me”, he assures, “will live, even though they die” (John 11:25-6).
The inclination to give up our bodies to Jesus in death is the final and greatest trial of our faith, the last battle with the flesh, the climax of our mortification of sin. Every fibre of our being wants to hang on to our bodies, and so even Christians will find themselves franticly raging against the dying of the light. But as sudden and unexpected deaths remind us so forcefully, there is no way of evading this pall.
Now COVID-19 has stopped us in our tracks. And as it casts its deadly pall world-over, Jesus is calling us above all to trust him by delivering over our finitude, and ultimately our bodies to him in death’s final test. In the months ahead, every Christian would do well to drop a few balls and spend more time meditating on Christ and his promises. I realise this will take great wisdom, as half the battle at the moment is trying to figure out exactly what the priorities are – some ball simply can’t be dropped. But some can and probably should be. Writing to Timothy, Paul joyously speaks of the given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, now revealed in the appearance of our Saviour, who has “destroyed death” and “brought life and immortality to life” (2 Tim 1:9-10). Undoubtedly such confidence represents the tip of an iceberg of deep, patient, and prayerful contemplation of Christ – his person and his work – as he is revealed to us in the pages of Scripture. An earlier generation of Christians were much more deliberate at this than we are. Today there are so many more “urgent” things to keep us busy. And whereas Paul’s prison cell was a sanctuary that allowed meditation and prayer on the plans and purposes of God, today technology wires us up to the panicky world outside our solitary confinement. But it potentially comes at a great cost, because how well do we know the only one who can carry us through our moment of greatest vulnerability to life everlasting?