Midweek Reflections

Midweek Reflection 20th January 2021

Insights from a pandemic – Mortality

 

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As we consider the things that this pandemic has brought to light, one thing is for certain. Right across the globe, societies and individuals have been forced to face up to the reality of human mortality, vulnerability and frailty. The pandemic has dramatically demonstrated that no human being can take life for granted. If we did not realise it before, we know now that plans made for years or even months and weeks ahead, will not necessarily come to fruition. In naming this and in writing about fragility and death, I realise that I am treading on risky ground. Whilst in some parts of the world death is an ever-present possibility, in our society, it has for most of us, over at least a generation felt quite remote. Whilst that was so, it was perhaps easier not to think about death and uncertainty, but the pandemic has changed that. Today we are probably dealing with situations, thoughts and feelings that we have not had to deal with before and so it might be painful to embark upon this reflection at this moment in time. I believe though that the hope and assurance we can gain from doing so might help to carry us through.

Pause to reflect on the feelings and thoughts that the pandemic has raised for you.

In order to make sense of our mortality, we must first acknowledge that the greatest certainty for us all, is that one day we will die. For me, as for many, that is not an issue. I know that it will happen. What the pandemic has done though, is sown the seed in my mind that it could happen suddenly and possibly, even soon. That of course is always a possibility, pandemic or not, it’s just that in a pandemic the chances of it happening are higher. Am I afraid of that? To a degree, yes but I cannot let the fear of death govern my life. Whilst it is foolish and I might say, ungodly to be reckless with my life, especially when if I catch the virus, I am likely to give it to others, I have to be prepared to take reasonable risks. Some apprehension about our personal safety is inevitable and I might say beneficial, but it must not be allowed to turn into a crippling fear that imprisons us and prevents us from doing good. To help us live without such fear, we need evidence and assurance that all will be well and an indication about what might be needed on our part to secure a safe destiny beyond our deaths. I believe that we have that assurance from Jesus. He gives us a sound theological perspective to help us face our mortality in confidence and at peace. Having said this I’m not sure that the church has always communicated that perspective in the best way. Elements of the church have I think, been guilty of promoting worry about whether or not we have done enough good deeds, said the right prayers or understood our religion sufficiently well. Such anxieties are not helpful either during a pandemic or indeed at any other time for it turns our hearts inward. We become pre-occupied with self-protection and our ability to take calculated risks is stifled. Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan is a good example of this.

Pause for a while now to read John 14:1-6.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You trust in God; trust also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going. Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.  

Our confidence in our destiny is reached when we realise that there is nothing we can do to ‘fit us for heaven’ as the Christmas carol goes. Only Jesus can make us fit for heaven, and he has done what is required to enable that. At funerals I often refer to the words of Jesus recorded in John 14:1-6. The section starts with the words ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. You trust in God, trust also in me. Jesus intends for his friends then, and for us now to be at peace about our destiny. Jesus through his death and resurrection, does indeed prepare a place for both them and us to be eternally in the place where he is. Thomas protests that he does not know the way to where Jesus is going. Jesus simply replies ‘I am the way, the truth and the life.’ Thomas was still probably trying to work out what he had to do, to get to where Jesus was going. The fact was that Thomas could do nothing, but he did know the way, for the way is Jesus himself and Thomas knew Jesus. He and the rest of the disciples could be assured that Jesus had things taken care of because they knew and trusted him. They’d lived alongside him, saw his ministry and care for the poor and sick in the face of adversity. They knew he was trustworthy. We too can have greater assurance about our eternal destiny the more we live alongside and get to know Jesus.

I finished my last reflection with Stuart Townend’s worship song ‘There is a hope’ The song eloquently presents the Christian perspective that there is a certain hope that Jesus is with us in all the trials of this life, as well as the hope that in him, we can be truly at home in the next.

Listen again to the worship song ‘There is a hope’ and spend some time using the lyrics to pray and seek assurance from Jesus.

There is a hope that burns within my heart,
That gives me strength for every passing day;
A glimpse of glory now revealed in meagre part,
Yet drives all doubt away:
I stand in Christ, with sins forgiven;
And Christ in me, the hope of heaven!
My highest calling and my deepest joy,
To make His will my home.

 

There is a hope that lifts my weary head,
A consolation strong against despair,
That when the world has plunged me in its deepest pit,
I find the Saviour there!
Through present sufferings, future’s fear,
He whispers ‘courage’ in my ear.

For I am safe in everlasting arms,
And they will lead me home.

 

There is a hope that stands the test of time,
That lifts my eyes beyond the beckoning grave,
To see the matchless beauty of a day divine
When I behold His face!
When sufferings cease and sorrows die,
And every longing satisfied.
Then joy unspeakable will flood my soul,
For I am truly home.

Stuart Townend & Mark Edwards Copyright © 2007 Thankyou Music (Adm. by CapitolCMGPublishing.com excl. UK & Europe, adm. by Integrity Music, part of the David C Cook family, songs@integritymusic.com)

 

For any of us to be at peace about life and death it helps to simply know, that in Jesus we will be safe, but further reflection may help us to consolidate the trust we have in him.

We start at Genesis 2:7, ‘Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.’ I like this image of the man being formed from the dust of the ground. I like it because it signifies something of the connection between human beings and the earth on which we live. It is also an accurate image. Biologically, human cells are made up from the very substances that make up the earth. Scientists regardless of any faith position would support that view. Where some might differ though is that life only comes through connection with God, and the breath of the Holy Spirit.

Death comes into the picture only at the point of human sin – Following the disobedience of Adam and Eve God tells Adam, ‘for dust you are and to dust you will return.’ Genesis 3:19

This definition of death as a return to the dust of the earth is repeated frequently throughout the Old Testament. eg. Psalm 90:3-6 and Psalm 104:29. Yet even in the Old Testament hangs the hope that our return to dust is not the end of the matter.

Firstly, the scriptures affirm God’s love for all that he has made, including humankind. Psalm 8 states ‘what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them.’ The writer of Psalm 139 speaks of God’s intimate presence. Psalm 103:13-17 goes further stating, As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; For he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust. The life of mortals is like grass, they flourish like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more. But from everlasting to everlasting the Lord’s love is with those who fear him and his righteousness with their children's children.

Secondly there are statements throughout the Old Testament that directly illustrate belief in the possibility of life following return to the dust of the earth. Job 19:25-26 is a good example. The text even goes as far as to point to the means through which that life would come, namely a redeemer from God. ‘I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes - I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!’ Isaiah looks ahead to the resurrection of all God’s people. He writes, ‘But your dead will live, Lord ; their bodies will rise; let those who dwell in the dust wake up and shout for joy; Your dew is like the dew of the morning; The earth will give birth to her dead.’ (Isaiah 26:19). The Psalms also speak of life beyond the grave, perhaps the most famous being Psalm 23 which concludes ‘Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord, forever (Psalm 23:6).

The road to eternal life though, doesn’t become explicit until Jesus arrives on earth.  He is clear that there is life beyond our physical death and that he is the means by which it can happen. In an argument with some sadducees who did not believe in resurrection, Jesus refers to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as people that are alive and tells the sadducees that they are in error on the matter (Matthew 22:23-32).

Jesus frequently speaks about losing our lives to save them, and in one respect that refers to our current lives. In order to find genuine freedom, we must let go of much that is important to us. The statement though is also relevant I think, to our physical deaths. In order to fully enter the kingdom of heaven we must be without sin. Sin has no part in the kingdom of heaven for it contravenes God’s righteous rule and reign. In this life we only get glimpses of the kingdom, in the next, set free from sin we will experience it in its fullness.

I believe then, that our physical death is necessary, to finally do away with the sinful, rebellious self that holds us back from the fullness of the kingdom of heaven. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul throughout the whole of chapter 15 expands on this idea in a complicated and lengthy, yet convincing argument that resurrection is reality not just for Jesus but for all people. He uses an analogy from agriculture to explain the process. A seed when planted, has to die to its original form, yet when it does so it grows up in a new way. In many ways it is the same life, yet it is also a new and transformed life.

Jesus makes a similar analogy of a grain of wheat that falls to the earth and dies. Referring to himself and then to all people he concludes ‘Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.’  John 12:23-25

I’d like to think that every person will benefit from Jesus gift of eternal life. I am convinced that this is what God most desires and that in love he will do everything possible to make it happen. He takes no pleasure in the death of anyone (Ezekiel 18:32). It is why Jesus came, but I do not think that life in God’s kingdom is completely guaranteed for all . Scripture seems to suggest that there will be some who in loving their worldly lives and insisting that they cling onto those lives, forfeit the eternal destiny that Jesus has prepared for us all. Furthermore, there is the issue of free will to consider. God does not force anyone to do his will. All human beings will I’m sure be persuaded by Jesus to receive the good life of God’s kingdom and I’m convinced that most will gladly accept it, but in the end, it must be their choice. It seems to me then that we can be disqualified from our rightful eternal destiny but only by our own refusal. C.S. Lewis’ book ‘The great Divorce’ offers an interesting and helpful perspective on this. In the end I believe that regardless of how we have lived, Jesus will make himself known to every person at the point of death in order to make them the offer to take them home. All we need to do is acknowledge that we cannot enter the kingdom by our own merits, accept Jesus’ offer of eternal life and allow the Holy Spirit to remove from us the wilful rebellious nature that we struggle with throughout our earthly existence, but has no place in God’s kingdom. 

Finally, I want to affirm that how we live in the here and now is important. Life for all is much better the closer we can get to the ways of God. The process of spiritual transformation is open to us in this life. That is central to much of Jesus’ teaching. Followers of Jesus are called to be a sign of the age to come, a glimpse of the new era. In this way we demonstrate to others and prepare ourselves for the goodness of the age that is to come.

Conclusion

The suffering and loss of life that this pandemic has caused is shocking in every way. Even though in Jesus we have the certain hope of a better future to come, every death is tragic for that is not how things are meant to be. We therefore lament and mourn with those who grieve, empathise with those who suffer, and support those who care for the sick. We pray for every one of them.

The pandemic has caused all of us to recognise our vulnerability. That is uncomfortable and the pandemic itself is indeed catastrophic, but facing our vulnerability has some positives, even though at this time we might find it hard to see them. Knowing that we are mortal helps us to be humble. Since the pandemic started, I for one, am more grateful for each day that I am given.

I hope that the pandemic will also prompt societies to live in a more sustainable way. In recognising that no nation or society is immune to catastrophic events we might be better inclined to take steps to minimise the threat of such events. I hope that all the suffering, the lives lost, and the grief that we have been through will not have been in vain. Maybe we will learn that we are better placed to live safely and well if we treat the planet and other people with greater care. From a theological standpoint, maybe we will recognise our need of God to direct our ways, rather than attempt to take his place. In everything though we must remember, that whatever comes to pass, all the evidence tells us that it is safe to put our trust in Jesus.