Strange Gateway to Our Future

19 Sep

Strange Gateway to Our Future


“We are facets of a work whose finished form we cannot imagine.” These words of Christian Wiman occur in the midst of his reflection on his own death, as he struggled with cancer. 

 What has death to do with this beautiful understanding of ourselves as facets of a work whose finished form we cannot grasp even in our imagination?  I am certainly not the only octogenarian whose thoughts turn from time to time to reflection on death and dying.  This is especially true for me today, which began with a phone call with the word that an old friend and former student, Tom Knutson, died this morning in his struggle with pancreatic cancer.  Tom, with characteristic generosity, accepted Neva and me into his own life while he was a student in seminary.  I participated in the ordinations of Tom and Karen, who would join him in marriage.  I was part of the liturgy when they were wed in her home church, the Jesus Church in Copenhagen.  There followed baptisms (Tim is our godson), anniversaries, Elizabeth’s wedding (she called with the sad news this morning), and the good times that friends have.  That we had not seen them much for several years has not weakened our bonds.

  In his reflection, Wiman disparages the preaching that speaks of life after death in terms of this life and as a perfecting of our experience in this world and a healing of all that has gone wrong in our earthly lives.  “Death is here to teach us something, or make us fit for something,” he writes, and one thing it should teach us is that our ideas of an afterlife cannot begin to uncover the strange and radical future that our lives enter into as we journey toward the form into which God will shape us.  “Refusing heaven (and by this, he refers to our conventional ideas of heaven) can be a form of faith if it’s done to give God his true and terrible scope.”  Denying conventional ideas of heaven and the afterlife are not blasphemy; they can be a way of honoring the deep mystery of our lives and of what they can become.

 This is heavy, and such serious and open-ended thinking about death is not welcome in many quarters of our society today.  Ernest Becker, years ago, spoke of the “denial of death” as a defining characteristic of our culture.  He has not been proven wrong in the years since he said that.  Three years ago, I moved into a very pleasant and amazingly well outfitted “retirement community.”  I recommend it.  In these years I have become better acquainted with what one might call, a “retirement community ideology” or perhaps an “AARP ideology.”  I exaggerate a bit, to make the point.  If one can judge from marketing strategies, this ideology is predicated on the assumption that death is something that will never happen; retirement years are an opportunity for a new life, a rich and vibrant life—a life re-defined, so to speak.  Let me be clear, I am all for rich and vibrant years.  I do not favor morbid obsession with death—“death” may sell cemetery plots, columbarium niches, and life insurance—but little else.  Nevertheless, death does approach—the older one is, the fewer years remain—and even younger people may fall to it much earlier than we would hope.  Tom was in his mid-sixties; friend Steve Kerschner was overcome by lung cancer in his forties—a man who never smoked.  And there are others—in my own nuclear family who have been where Wiman was.

 Realism is not on my mind right now, however.  Rather, death as gateway to our unimaginable future—God’s future for us—is foremost.  To deny death is to be distracted from the fact that we have such a future, to deny our destiny as facets of a work whose completion is more than we can imagine.  You say: “Many people have lost any faith that their lives are facets of such a work.”  Even those who believe that they will simply lie, as the song, “John Brown’s Body,” says, “amoldering in the grave,” should know that they have a future.  Every atom and molecule of the body that lies a-moldering (or has been cremated) has a future—atoms and molecules do not cease their behavior.  I recall two things:  (1) That God has created me out of the stuff of the earth (and that includes my brain and mind and personality—see my July 20 blog, “Can Spirit be a Verb?”) and (2) that God took more than 7 billion (that’s nine zeros!) years to create planet earth and more than 11 billion years to let us humans emerge from the dust of the earth.  Even those “moldering” atoms and molecules have quite a future ahead of them!  And what about our spirit? 

 All of these thoughts are but pale speculations—they do not begin to pierce the mystery of who we are and what our future is.  Tomorrow, I will attend a meeting of the group “Compassion and Choices.”  A glance at their web site predisposes me favorably toward this group—they speak of “good” and “bad” deaths, and offer “end-of-life consultations.”  They call for choices as we approach death and a certain amount of control over our dying.  Several medical students from the University of Chicago have interviewed me about my views of the “end of life.”  Living wills lay out our “advanced directives” for how we want to be treated in our last days.  All of these can be salutary, but we may be so focused on “good” and “bad” and “the decision to die” that we miss the mystery.  Above all, we may miss that death is the gateway to the unimaginable richness of what we are becoming.  It’s hardly possible to share all this to an end-of-life counselor or doctor, but we should try.  Francis Collins, former director of the Human Genome Project and now director of the National Institutes of Health, told an interviewer that it was precisely in such situations as a doctor that he came to faith in God.

 I tried—however inadequately—to hint at this in a poem that came to me during the funeral service for another friend Dick Luecke, just seventeen months ago. I dedicate it anew to Tom and Steve and all those other brothers and sisters I hold in my heart.

 Trail of Ashes

 “ashes to ashes

dust to dust”

grave dust, earth dust

stardust, big bang dust

on a journey

we are the journey

journey passing through us

the bang echoes still

in our bones

what pulls us forward

does it matter

 the journey is in company

earthy companions

a galactic trail

we commend our brother

to that trail

and in the act

mime our


being handed over

 we say it matters

 we say it is

God’s trail

 Written in the night of September 18-19, 2013

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