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Rest in Peace

Death has been on my mind a lot lately. Not my own, necessarily, although I do think about that more than I probably ought to. But just death as a phenomenon. Both of my grandmothers have died in the last six months. Several people in my orbit could well be approaching this threshold. I just returned from a pastors conference about death, funerals and the Christian hope. Death has been a hard thing to avoid lately.

For most of my life, I have stubbornly rehearsed the familiar Christian maxim that death is the final enemy to be defeated, the destroyer of human flourishing to be fought against with everything we have. Death is bad, full stop. I still feel like this most days. But of course death is also the most natural thing you could hope to find. Everyone dies. Everything dies. Christianity has always insisted upon the unnaturalness of death but we must acknowledge that this is, on the face of it, a thoroughly counterintuitive claim in light of observable reality. It’s not hard to imagine how some would write off post-mortem hope as so much wish projection and fear assuagement—”projecting our paltry selves ad infinitum,” as Christian Wiman puts it.

At the conference this week, a friend commented in one of the forums that they don’t spend much time thinking about the post-mortem component of the Christian hope anymore. Who can say what, if anything, lies beyond? Maybe what comes after death is something like a sabbath rest—the cessation of struggle and pain and conflicted pursuits. Maybe death is when we finally get a really long break from our tormented selves. We Christians tie ourselves in knots trying to do enough, believe enough, think clearly enough to prepare ourselves for eternity. What if it’s all a bunch of puritanical striving toward nothing. What if, in the end, we are destined to simply rest in peace?

A theology reading group that I’m a part of has been reading Dale Allison’s Night Comes over the past few months. It’s a book about death—about what might become of us, what we might hope for, and what death might mean. In keeping with the theme of the book (endings), I skipped to the end of the book even though our group is still in the middle. Allison’s last few paragraphs caught me off guard, initially. And then, after a few more readings, they began to resonate a bit more deeply.

UnknownAlthough some might find this a tad morbid, part of me, with a sort of reverent curiosity, now looks forward to [death]. Most of the time, to be sure, life is full, and I’m all for staying with the familiar as long as possible. On the usual morning I eagerly anticipate the coming day, and on the usual evening I return thanks for most of what’s happened.

On occasion, however, the adventure seems stale, and it’s not so easy to feel grateful. The world, which is ever full of wonder, isn’t the problem. It’s rather me. I repeatedly resolve to do better, and I fail. I set out to pursue the good, the true, and the beautiful, and my attention wanders. I aspire to love God with all my heart and soul and mind, and my neighbor as myself, but I get distracted.

My incessant failures are more than frustrating, and sometimes I grow weary of myself. My fatigue can be such that I long to quit this stage for some other stage, to wake up in a new and different world, to swap my current self for something better, to undergo whatever will turn Romans 7—“I can will what is right, but I cannot do it”—into nothing but a bad memory. As it became evident long ago that this isn’t going to happen in this world, I don’t always mind the aches and pains and the memory glitches that attend aging. They remind me that night comes. My hope is that light shines in the darkness.

Maybe all of us, in our more honest moments, feel this way. Or, maybe not. I don’t know. Perhaps it’s only introspective melancholic types who think along these lines. I admire those whose conviction about what comes next seems unshakeable. I really do. I have never been able to manufacture such certainty about the topography of the afterlife and I’m not sure I ever will. I take comfort in the fact that Jesus said a mustard seed of faith was enough.

But I, too, hope that light shines in the darkness. Desperately so. I long for life where the reality of Romans 7 recedes into a shadowy and unremembered past. And I am still convinced that the bare existence of this hope is itself powerfully suggestive of what might lie on the other side of death’s door. The good, the true, the beautiful—these cannot just be pleasant and useful fictions to keep our overactive prefrontal cortices occupied for a few decades on a chunk of rock hurtling through space. They somehow have to mean more than that.

They point, surely, to the God who has set eternity in the human heart and who finally offers rest, wholeness, consummation, forgiveness, peace and, yes, even life, unnaturally eternal and eternally unnatural.

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. mike #

    “My incessant failures are more than frustrating, and sometimes I grow weary of myself. My fatigue can be such that I long to quit this stage for some other stage, to wake up in a new and different world,…”

    Yes…. Such a powerful post,Ryan. Thank you for reassuring me that there are others who feel exactly as I do.

    February 15, 2019
  2. Paul Johnston #

    As it is with all things, love is the antidote. Existential angst, is a sign of self absorption, the antithesis of love. Perhaps a sign of unfinished business. A sign that you must complete a task. Grow to completion. Love yourself enough to finish your efforts regarding yourself. If you approach 50 and your gaze is still firmly fixed on yourself and your outcomes, something is wrong. You should be complete in Christ, sufficient within yourself and gaze firmly fixed on the needs of others. Your time to love is upon you.

    It is enough to know Christ. To be in His presence. It is impossible to overstate these facts.

    It is enough to know Christ, To be in his presence.

    When self absorption returns, return to Christ. Be in His presence.

    I am at a loss to advise non Catholic Christians other then to say that apart from the Catholic faith I know no of no sure way to be aware of Christ’s presence. I have simultaneously marveled and scoffed at those who purport faith and live outside the sacraments. Why do you ascribe to such a contradictory belief system. So often sure of Christ’s realities in your pronouncements, while resolutely determined to deny Christ’s presence in your rituals.

    As a Catholic I can say with conviction, “Here He is”. Present in the Eucharist. Present in the Blessed Sacrament. Present in contemplative prayer. Present in the recitation of the Most Holy Rosary of Our Blessed Virgin Mother. Present in the recitation of the Divine Mercy Chaplet….

    Once you experience Christ as real, the faith you can only, “know” never wavers.

    Love is better than self interest. Love is eternal. Love is rebirth. Death, is no obstacle to those who love. It is a means to a glorious eternity.

    And if I were a little more, “old school” in my observations, I might be prudent to suggest that, “Swiss Neutrality” isn’t an available option. There is no, “rest in peace”. You are an eternal soul. You will either work for love, or against love, for the rest of time.

    Maybe that is a better way to look at the future. Not so much whether we are, in or out, heaven or hell, but whether we are working for love or against love.

    Keep it simple. God be with us.

    February 16, 2019
  3. Maureen Ebel #

    Thank you for a challenging yet comforting
    read.

    February 16, 2019
  4. howard wideman #

    Exactly am I working for love or against love 💕

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    February 17, 2019
  5. Tanya #

    That last paragraph from Allison. Wow. I have read it a number of times now and I totally resonate with it. You know me Ryan. I am a fairly positive, joy filled, loves people kind of person. But I read those lines and there are days when my heart feels this so heavy. When I have failed again. Another sad headline. A broken family. There are days where my heart weeps and I long for the next journey.

    Many years ago after reading Isaiah 55 together, my brother, who loved Jesus so much, said to me… “I am so tired of this shit. I just want to go home…” He wasn’t clinically depressed, he loved life for the most part, he knew an abundance of love in his own life, he was handsome, smart, talented. But sometimes we long for the next stage. About a week later, he died in an automobile accident. I miss him so much but never question the fact that he is home.

    Thank you for this post Ryan. It brought reflection and honest comfort and hope.

    A light shines in the darkness. Amen and amen.

    February 21, 2019
    • Thank you for this, Tanya. I believe that our longing is both shaped and trained by what we experience here on earth—the “ordinary” suffering that is part and parcel of life and the wrenching agonies of tragedies like the one your family has experienced. How we need a light to shine given some of the darkness that people must face.

      February 22, 2019
  6. mike #

    I know this doesn’t exactly fit in here,but I thought it too good not to share with everyone.

    https://pittsburgh.cbslocal.com/2019/02/25/hospice-buffalo-death-dreams-study/

    February 27, 2019
    • Very interesting. Thanks for sharing, Mike.

      February 27, 2019

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