Thinking about death…
Don’t ask me why I have the firm belief that I have to talk to you about death.
Is it because I read the words of Thomas à Kempis ‘Live as if you were to die today’ this morning? Or because an interview with novelist Jan Siebelink on TV caught my attention? Surprisingly open the writer told about his boundless unrest and his big fear of death – and fear for the Last Judgment. He literally quoted a Biblical text: ‘Once we humans must die and after that comes the judgment’.
Life on the edge
Some time ago I had an in depth discussion with students about the question: Would your life look different if you knew for certain that it would end within a week? And what if you knew for certain that something like a final judgment happened within one month? Should you throw your life a different approach? Someone said: ‘Frankly, I need to restore the relationship with my parents, I don’t dare to let it go any longer.’ Another remarked: ‘Then I should do all efforts how I could be prepared for such a judgment.’ And somebody else said: ‘I would use these last days to tell the Gospel to my friends- and acquaintances.’ Everyone felt at the same time: If you really mean what you say, you should start today. Because isn’t life always ‘on the edge’?
This life a ‘steady death’?
Death is an uncomfortable theme, especially in a university context with a lot of ambitious young people who expect a lot from life. Funerals are very rare here. A sentence like the one from a 17th century Baptism formulary ‘This life is nothing but steady death’ doesn’t land with us. And with whom does it really land? Even though this theme percolates in many literary novels and films and the known American psychologist Judith Viorst discusses the reality of death in her book ‘Necessary Losses’ in detail.
Especially in the last couple of years we have to face the facts of a ‘steady death’. Death has its special henchmen and they may appear just around the corner, like in the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels. Extremists kill ruthlessly in order to sow fear. You thought that your life was secure so far and you thought to enjoy freedom, prosperity, progress in your career and happiness. Now these goods shrink away. Terrorists force us, confident people, to face our fear. All fear is rooted in the fear of death, the fear to loose life and everything we are and have in life.
Don’t do other things, but do things differently
It is so recognizable what novelist Jan Siebelink puts forward in the interview: his unrest and dissatisfaction with daily life and the desire for something higher than himself. At the same time he doesn’t hide his fear, the fear of being weighed and still found wanting. The fear to be a flower that blooms today and is swept away and forgotten tomorrow.
In the discussion with the students we asked ourselves the question about that last week or couple of weeks on earth: Should we do other things? No, maybe not. What we do now matters. It is good to continue what we consider our calling today. Martin Luther said: ‘If the final day will be tomorrow, I plant a tree today.’ We might not do other things, but we might do things differently. With more humility, with a deep awareness that our future doesn’t consist of becoming rich, performing much, being a celebrated person, even not in securing our life. Maybe we do our work with more prayer for forgiveness and purification of our motives. Maybe to renounce our terrible tendency to fill our own little world with fortresses of security and towers of pride. Maybe showing more gratitude for what we can be and what we can have through God’s grace.
What death cannot take away
One day, my life was hanging by a thread. A sudden sever sickness surprised me. An ambulance transported me in all haste to the hospital. All of a sudden my life was sharply rolled out before me. There was nothing left but the hand of my beloved, a hand that said quietly: ‘It’s good. If we have to lose one another, we are grateful for what we have got. Everything, what needed to be forgiven, has been forgiven.’ Something like this the poet of Psalm 73 must have felt when he cried out in agony and doubt: ‘You hold me by my right hand.’ The hand of the Beloved: it’s well, it’s forgiven. Even death cannot take that away.