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Facing Death’s Question

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my-bright-abyssDeath is one of those things that hangs around us and our world reminding us that we should enjoy the day while we still have it. At least that’s what I have been getting from some of my reading recently and a short listen to the radio. It is also the subject of many major stories on the evening news day in and day out.

The first book that got me thinking was Christian Wiman’s book My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, reflections on being a Christian after years of being “agnostic”. A diagnosis with a rare, terminal illness led him to ponder, as great poets do, great matters as personal as they are cosmic. I was struck by an incredibly deep understanding of the paradoxes of faith and life, death and belief, church and religion. Hearing him on public radio’s wondrous show On Being only added to my respect for his insights and challenges of having a living faith.

The second book is John Green’s “young adult” novel, The Fault in Our Stars, where two teen cancer patients reflect on life and fall in love. It is a remarkably full and wondrous book that is honest, open, and unflinching. We don’t often think of young adult novels as being for young adults. I think it is time to set aside that stereotype once and forever. (If The Book Thief didn’t already accomplish that, this book should!)

In Green’s novel the two teens bring some of Wiman’s reflections to flesh and blood. Not the least of these is the power and place of love in our human existence. It may even be the answer to what eternal life looks like.

Death visited my family early in my life. Both my parents died while I was still an adolescent. Both grandfathers and an uncle died. All these occurred between my 11th and 17th birthdays, and I never met one of my grandmothers who died eight months before I was born.

In my more melodramatic moments I tend to say I discovered an intimate relationship with death at an early age. I’m not sure that’s accurate. I actually came to know the emptiness and loss that death brings, but not death itself. As a result I spent many years offering comfort and a place to grieve as a pastor. A professor in seminary once gave me the compliment of noting that I got him to reveal something in a class role-play about his first wife’s death that no one had ever done before. I attributed it to my own personal experiences.

What got me through those years was community, people caring and supporting, just as Wiman describes. I realized in looking back that without other people – community, love – it is hard to keep going.

Then I faced a metaphorical death. I faced alcoholism and the possibility of getting sober. I saw the first three steps of AA and I realized there was a deep and eternity-related question in that. “What is the meaning of life if it ends in death?” Death is the ultimate powerlessness; the paradigm of fear and unmanageability. I have spent the last nearly 25 years working through that one.

Again, it was community that made the difference, the community of friends in the 12-Step programs and the community of the church that loved me enough to let me stay as pastor for 11 more years after I got into recovery. The two of them together, and they overlapped in many ways, proved again and again that life is supported best in community.

So here I am now, a little more than two months before my 65th birthday. I am getting what we used to think was “old.” (Isn’t that who Medicare was for – Old People?) While death is truly never metaphorical, it is now becoming more realistic. A greater possibility. Not in a morbid or pessimistic way, but based on the odds, I am closer to it than its opposites.

Or am I? One of the things I have learned is that all we can count on is today – or in truth this very instant. Whether it be monster tornadoes or terrorist bombs, car accidents or heart attacks, we live on today-time. No, it’s not borrowed, it’s given to us for this day and time and place. John Green’s protagonists discover all this by the time they are 18. It is here that we find who and what God means for us. It is here, Wiman reminds us, that we find what Jesus’ death and resurrection were all about. It is here that we answer the question “What IS the meaning of life if it ends in death?”

The answer is what you make of it. The answer is simply who you are today. I have discovered that if the day is not answering that question then I am stuck back in myself. If I am not being honest and a person of integrity in the here and now, I am ignoring the hope and promise of life.

We are not to do this simply for the “right” of getting into heaven. We are not to do this so some “Santa-like god” will bless us or give us more than someone else. We are not to do this for any reason other than it is the right thing to do – it gives meaning.

To do otherwise is to live in despair and hopelessness.

With writers like Christian Wiman and John Green on my side, I don’t have to live like that.

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