Life is a Death-y Thing

“…the night comes…” (John 9:4)

Recently, three-time breast cancer warrior, and Atlantic columnist Caitlyn Flanagan, was interviewed by the notable skeptic, Sam Harris, on his podcast, “Making Sense” (this is not an endorsement). During the interview, she mentioned a plane crash that happened in January, 2000, in which all 88 passengers and crew lost their lives.

Afterward, she recalled, faith leaders from the community were interviewed by a local news station. They offered familiar cogitations. Some spoke of predestination. Some spoke of God’s mysterious hand.

Whether or not these things are theologically accurate or relevant is beside the point. Flanagan remembered what, to her, was the most simple and meaningful answer, which came from a Buddhist, who said:

The reason for every death, is a birth.

Irrespective of your belief system, this is true. It may well be one of the wisest statements you will ever hear on the subject.

Why?

Jesus said many things about the spirit of man, and the realm to which he goes when his body ceases to exchange oxygen for carbon dioxide, but perhaps none of them is more simple and profound than what the Buddhist said, just in slightly different language:

the night comes

Death looms over us like a cloud, surrounds us like a fog. We are reminded of this when we pass the funeral home, the cemetery, or, as the COVID-19 death count flashes before our eyes.

Some people say that, in light of our inevitable mortality, every day should be lived to the full. Cliches like, “We should live each day as if its our last” abound. Famously, country musician, Tim McGraw sung about “living like one was dying” in the wake of his own father’s brief and fatal battle with brain cancer. 

There is perhaps some value in this statement, but in reality, can we ever live up to that mantra? Who wants to try? Has anyone ever been successful at living every day as if they were dying? 

Moreover, who can afford do that? The sheer effort it would take to absorb everything as deeply as that statement implies is, to my mind, impossible. We will things for granted. We will have grumpy moments on the day that something bad will happen. You will probably get the wrong order at the drive-thru and throw a miniature tantrum and ask to see the manager.

We hear it at funerals all the time: “I wish I’d had another moment, another phone call,” etc. The refrain of regret is the poem of humanity. But the expectation is flawed. You simply could not do this if you tried. Because while you were busy not taking every other thing for granted, you would forget to call your grandma.

The fact is…

You will miss that phone call.

That project will go unfinished.

You will be too late congratulating someone.

The card will go undelivered.

You will hug someone one less time than you wanted.

You will run out of time to finish the landscaping.

So what is the answer to really living? The answer is to actually take the time to consider my own mortality. Not all the time. Not obsessively – this would be counterproductive. 

But, it should be considered at least once, and that, before it plops on our doorstep like that Amazon package.

Just once, but with gravity

We do not stress the whole morning and afternoon in fear of the sun going down. We are just aware that it will. The reason for every sunset, after all, is the previous sunrise.

The reason you are here is because you were born – which, as the Buddhist reminds us, is the same basic reason why you will die.

Irrespective of your religious inclinations, you will die. So you should think about it, seriously, at least once, for as long as it takes for you to accept its reality and make peace with its implications.

The sun is going down.

The night is coming.

You are dying.

In Flanagan’s interview, she said several times that a cancer diagnosis was a “death-y” thing.

Indeed, all of living is a death-y thing.

Which brings us back to the Buddhist, and Jesus. We wonder: what happens when the sun has set and the night has come? The Buddhist believes you are absorbed into the energy of the universe. In one sense, the Buddhist is correct. All of your atoms will randomize and form something new

But according to the Bible, there is another part of you: your soul (or, as C.S. Lewis reasoned, your soul actually is you). Your body is but your temporary shell. Peter and Paul both called it a “tent,” as if we were on a brief excursion in the mountains, and would pack up in the morning:

Yes, I think it is right, as long as I am in this tent, to stir you up by reminding you, knowing that shortly I must put off my tent, just as our Lord Jesus Christ showed me (2 Pet. 1:13-14, NKJV).

For we know that if our earthly house, this tent, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed with our habitation which is from heaven, if indeed, having been clothed, we shall not be found naked. For we who are in this tent groan, being burdened, not because we want to be unclothed, but further clothed, that mortality may be swallowed up by life.  Now He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who also has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. So we are always confident, knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord. For we walk by faith, not by sight. We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord.(2 Cor. 5:1-8).

The soul transcends the body and endures (Mt. 10:28).

In other words, you will still be.

The sun will set. 

The night will come. 

And you will die. 

But, you will still exist. 

Jesus offers hope for the soul there and then, as well as peace for both soul and body here and now. Jesus described this as “living, and that, more abundantly” (John 10:10). 

Yes…

The sun will set – because it rose.

And you will die – because you were born. 

But Jesus tasted the bitter cup of death for you (Heb. 2:9) so you can live abundantly, now, and eternally, then

In Christ, even death itself, is less death-y. 

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