by Glenn Fairman 8/15/16
A female on my running team spent the last few months caring for a father who had been a peripheral character throughout her entire life. By every measure of earthly justice, she should have turned her back on him – as her sisters eventually did. Nevertheless, every day before work she would arrive at the nursing home and prepare his oatmeal (because the staff did not do it right), and every evening she would sit with him so that he would not die alone. During his final days, I sincerely do not know whether the old man had that epiphany that Hollywood loves to sugarcoat death with — that “Come to Jesus” moment where a selfish and bastardly life is transformed with a quivering lip and a palsied grasp of the hand. For many who pass out of being, the strings do not crescendo as the camera pans away and the screen fades to black.
But for Socorro, despite all the cold heartache she had received from this blank cipher throughout the half century of their shattered glass relationship, she had determined in her soul that she would expend herself and redeem in a small but courageous way what no one else would. What can we learn from such an action? If not here, where are we to show mercy? If not at the nexus where our personal pain and the commandment to love both coalesce and resolve, where can the power of the Christian witness find its traction?
It is at the crossroads of death that not only our theoretical, but our existential religious convictions are put to the test. For some, having long rested in the comfort of superficial platitudes not wholly thought through or wrestled with, our impending death or the death of a loved one can be viewed as an obscure footnote or a terrible ordeal by fire. Of all the tribulations that humanity is heir to, it is suffering beneath the shadow of that vast “Unknown Country” that ultimately jars us from our soulish lethargies like a cold hard slap in the face. On more levels than one can grasp, it is in death that we encounter our great awakening.
When mortality’s icy blast of reality seizes us with its grim necessity, we discover, to our astonishment, how much of our belief was centered in the head and not in the heart. It is here that nature and revelation are instructive in mankind’s ascent. It is here, in the crucible, that we discover why the evils of death and suffering are so integral to the Christian life, and why temporal happiness is by no means the goal of a believer – but a stumbling block. Our fragile mortality reveals in a categorical manner what Reason cannot teach: that we are pilgrims – anxious strangers wandering in a familiar but foreign land. Indeed, if truth be told, the absence of death and suffering in our depraved states would be the most profound horror imaginable, for it would thwart the stratagem of Heaven to redeem and transform us. Living forever apart from the Divine Source would literally set our souls in the concrete of eternal misery – the very definition of Hell.
To the mature Christian, in contrast with the natural man, the deaths of believers and the unsaved are measured not by degree, but by kind. The Christian knows that the believer, following his temporal life, will behold the face of God and receive the glorious welcome: “Well Done…” Conversely, that same believer knows the curse that awaits those who could not be bothered to turn from adoring the shadow of self and face into the light. The unbeliever will approach death on the continuum from stoic resolve to indifference to utter horror, depending on the cast of his mind. The hedonist will certainly lament the end of pleasure, and every man will mourn his transient idol(s) that he pursued in the darkness of his own understanding – all to the exclusion of what he was created for.
Attending the funeral of a transformed Christian brings forth a bittersweet sadness that is tempered with the glory of hope. We mourn as we do a beloved friend whose journey takes him from our arms, with the knowledge that we shall not behold him again on this bank of the river. But implicit in that hope is this: as he has forded death unto life, so shall we — and the corresponding reunion shall be accompanied by unspeakable joy.
Yet, from the perspective of the unbeliever, death is an absurdity at best. It calls into question every lesson and dilutes into nothingness every meaningful exchange. Those who would find solace in a divorce from consciousness, to the exclusion of love and light, would seem to have been composed of the thinnest of desires. For those who found a beastly contentment with eat, drink, and sex, it is as if nothing higher had been quickened during one’s lifetime to forestall that surrender to annihilation.
One who would wish to view the healthiest of attitudes (and most counter to the spirit of our age) regarding death should look no further than the Apostle Paul. Having long died to self, he counted his happiness in Christ and ceased to worry about the question of eternity. In truth, he was already partaking of its glory and was only awaiting God’s finishing touches when he stood before Nero. In his walk with the Deity, Paul understood without equivocation what C.S. Lewis wrote about with such clarity:
We are to be remade. All the rabbit in us is to disappear – the worried conscientious ethical rabbit as well as the cowardly and sensual rabbit. We shall bleed and squeal as the handfuls of fur come out; and then, surprisingly, we shall find underneath it all a thing we have never yet imagined: a real man, an ageless god, a son of God, strong, radiant, wise, beautiful, and drenched in joy… Nothing that you have not given away will be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.”
The Christian faith is filled with such wonderful paradoxes, but to fully understand the Cathedral of Faith, one must first enter in. The mind awakened realizes that what at first appeared alien and formidable from the outside, eventually answered every significant question and quenched every longing. To push past the stronghold of self, by opening what can only be unlocked from the inside, will forever be man’s greatest decision — for in truth, our shadows give an elementary comfort that satisfies and deadens as surely as any narcotic. And like the self-imposed prisoner in Plato’s Cave, the projections of those specters on a rock wall, lit by a fire wrought with our own hands, will suffice as long as the fear of abandoning control is dominant within us. It is only by the prompting of Heavenly Hands that we stand up, repent of our darkness, and step out into the Light.
In the same year that my father took ill, I met a 95-year-old black woman in the same facility in which he was convalescing. She had been there for nearly two decades and I found her to be such a blessing that I continued to visit her periodically until she passed last year at the age of 100. But despite her beaming spirit and vitality, the last several years had not been kind to her. Even more, the once bubbly personality rapidly deteriorated to the point where she no longer knew me, and even screamed in terror at me on my last visit. I used to wonder why the Lord would keep her alive in this twilight life of torment, but then I would reflect on the effect she had on the staff who would caress her and tenderly call her Mama. I have no idea how many people – folks who enjoyed her just as I did, could claim that Jessie Douglas had enriched their lives. How many throughout the decades would contemplate the ragged state of their own souls, and because of her positive faith, reassess?
The characters of men and women firmly anchored in the world are surprisingly mundane, but a transformed life like Jessie lived is as a rare pearl. When she left the outside world for the last time, she threw open her home and gave every earthly thing away – making peace with her losses and forging on ahead in hope. I did not know till after she died that she was a beloved teacher with a Master’s degree. What endeared her to me was wholly invisible by the reckoning of this age; that, and the fact that she kissed my hands whenever I would call on her. How happy she made me — knowing that there were people on Earth just like her. In my spirit’s eye, I can see her standing incandescently as a bride: a luminescent pillar in the Living Temple of God – where a life’s suffering and death were but mere momentary preludes to that great adventure that stretches out beyond the reach of forever.
Glenn Fairman returns from the wilderness and writes from Highland, Ca.
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