Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Death:Some Reflections

As some may know, the last three weeks have been very intense for me. My dad had been in hospital to have his bowel reconnected after a bowel cancer operation and he aspirated developing a severe pneumonia. He was sedated, put on a ventilator, and after a protracted 17 day period, died last week. His funeral was on Saturday. He was 75 years old.

This is not the first time I have been in Middlemore for a long period with a family member. Three of my family have died there. Such times are intense and gruelling. You feel as if you are in some warp of reality. Sitting here on the other side, I feel like for three weeks of my life I was in another world. You go into some survival mode, all that matters is the sick and supporting the family. It is surreal. Then life goes on as if nothing happened. You go back to work, to your business whatever it is, and yet, there is a hole in the world; a void where once stood my Dad (or the other loved ones we can all name).

I find such times intense theological as I pondered life and death. Here are a few things I contemplated.
The first is the horror of death. We hear news of death every day. For example, today, Kevin Black of Radio Hauraki fame died. No doubt there are many who were very close to Kevin who are in great despair today—God bless them all in their grief. Death cannot be trivialised. To me, everything else is dwarfed into near insignificance before its immense power. It is without doubt, “the last enemy” as Paul puts it. When someone you love dies, you realise this as it tears you apart in your gut, it rips your heart out. You feel violated. You hurt in some spiritual way that transcends the physical. It is as if the universe is rent and torn. It is “wrong!” The thought of not seeing that person is too horrendous to contemplate. Yet you have no choice, that is your new reality. Yuck!

The second is the nature of death. As I drove to the hospital every day, an hour drive and walk each way, I looked at the vegetation I passed and pondered life. Whatever our religious view, there is some “force” that animates. It brings colour, verdancy and life. It creates something aesthetically pleasing. It is “right,” it is “good,” it is “true.” We can manipulate it, but we can’t generate it. This power is beyond us, from beyond in some way. It infuses the world we are in—I love it! Simply put, life is good. I looked at our cat and people, and saw life’s power, bringing not only life, but a desire for relationship—love and life are intimately connected, and we are bound together in life and love. Then I pondered death. Death is seen when that mystical power that animates is gone. In the case of my Dad, lying on the hospital bed, life was receding from him. Death is like a non-entity that is in reality the complete absence of life. It is like darkness, which is the absence of light. As we age, we feel life receding, as our bodies lose power, our minds are not so sharp, we slow down. We see it in others. We feel it. While we are young, we surge with that power of life. Sometimes this life is taken quickly, as in the case of a fatal accident or heart attack. We are so vulnerable.

Something brings that power of life, I believe it is God. It is his Spirit. It is sweet and good. It is his power upholding, sustaining—the power that created, bringing the best and sweetest thing of all, life. Yet there is in the universe something that erodes life, overwhelms it, it is death. It cuts short our life. It steals vibrancy. It humbles all the living world. I find it horrific and yearn for its end. I dream of the day when we can sing, “where O death is your sting!” When, “death has been swallowed up in victory.”

The third is the incongruity between an evolutionary world-view and life. Evolutionary theory argues that death is part of the construct of the improvement of life on earth, whether God-induced evolution, or a non-theistic chance occurrence. I find the idea of atheistic evolution unbelievable because life is so real and good and I can feel it. I simply can’t see how life can spontaneously occur unless that thing that is life was poured into an inanimate object; or indeed, reaching back how something can come from nothing. Some resolve the problem by throwing God as agent into the evolutionary construct. Yet God is a God of life and it seems incongruous in the extreme to see God using such events as the horror of my father’s death positively. If so, I ponder what kind of being he is? There is only one way I can imagine it might work, and that is if the power that would bring death was something that entered into God’s creation in some way before the creation of life. Then, knowing that death had already corrupted his world, God then created and used it positively, turning what is gross into good. I find that tenuous—why would God not then start again? Or did he, and it happened again? I don’t see it.

A fourth consideration is related. I find the idea of creation as “very good” and the idea of death with all its horror as completely incompatible. Paul seems to agree with me, believing death entered the world through sin and this sin has marred all creation (Rom 5, 8). I go with Paul. I am not sure how to explain creation and death fully in the face of the monumental edifice of evolutionary theory and the certitude so many have concerning the construct, but I cannot accept that death is good in any sense and that God has used it to create what is “very good.” I believe there is another explanation perhaps we have yet to fully understand; an explanation that involves the God of life bringing life and not death.

A fifth thought is hope based on Jesus. One understands the resurrection best when one sits with a family member as they die. One realises the enormity of the resurrection. It is the defeat of death. It is the reversal of the inevitable. It is a unique moment where life triumphs in a world where death seems always to win. It is the overcoming of the final enemy of humanity. Jesus’ resurrection is hope incarnate. It is what drives me. Jesus’ death was the first of a great harvest of human resurrection for those who yearn for eternal life and put their faith in God. We are assured that the horror of death is not the end, for life will flow back into these dry bones and we will live, eternally. What hope is there without the resurrection? I can see none. All that is left is to live well for the brief time on earth. Thank you Jesus for your life and painful death that led to your being raised. Hallelujah.

I yearn for a world without death. I hate it. It took my sister Nina, it took Emma’s Mum Brenda, it took my dad, it will take me, it takes thousands each day—I curse death! I cling to the man who was in the empty tomb and trust in him that I will live on, if I believe. When someone dies there is a vivid moment of realisation that they are gone. The “thing” that animated them, their being, their identity, their inner person, the cognitive, emotional quasi-thing that was them, goes somewhere. You feel it. It is what led my Mum to ask me on my sister’s death, “where is she?” The body that once housed them is empty—it is merely an empty corpse. Our hope is that it goes to God and will one day become fully human again—this time, never to die again. I love that hope; it is glorious! Even if I find that my belief was wrong, or I don’t find this if there is no consciousness after death, I prefer to live out of hope than despair or a satisfaction that this is all there is. Why? Because I see life, I feel it, I know it, and I love it. I believe life is greater than death and will win. I believe in Jesus life has won. Life will always win. Death goes on, but its end is nigh—bring it on! I want to know that life, that fullness and abundance of life that is “gooooood!” I want to drink of it. We call that the Spirit—and I yearn for more of it.

When you lose someone you love, it tears you up. We all face this, it is inevitable. To those who live in grief as I am at present, God bless you, you pain is unimaginable, worse than the worst physical pain. Yet there is hope. Cling to Jesus. He is the author of life, he is the resurrection and the life, he is the one who will raise us to eternal life. Don’t be misled, even if you don’t understand as I admit I do not in many ways, cling to Jesus. He will bring you through to a world where death will be no more, and that vibrancy that animates the created order will be unhindered and fully glorious. It will be unimaginably wonderful. I look to it. I yearn for it. Come Lord Jesus, Come.