River Wissey Lovell Fuller

Anglican Newsletter -August

August 2013


August 2013 Newsletter

We don’t like talking about death, do we?   Not even thinking about it!   Not many of us, probably none of us, have had the experience of being able to be with someone at the time of their dying where we were all able to smile and be happy about it.   Death means at the least sadness, but as often as not, it also means pain – pain for the dying and for those left behind.   And so, we don’t like to even think about it for ourselves or for our loved ones.

It is in my mind because the last few days have had the initial news coverage of the two servicemen who died in the Brecon Beacons, apparently from heat exhaustion and/or dehydration.   Two young men in their physical prime, who died, without any warning either to themselves or their families and friends.  The shock for those who are mourning them must have been terrible.   Also, in my own family, we have had bereavements, which have left us who stayed behind to mourn and grieve.

I think of my own death from time to time.   Firstly I don’t actually believe that I will ever die.  I know I will, but at some illogical existential level, I don’t actually believe it!   Secondly, I can’t die yet anyway – because I am not ready.   Thirdly I don’t want to die – I am certainly afraid of the process and have no meaningful concept of the actuality of being dead – and the unknown is always terrifying to some degree.   In Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, Faithful arrives at the end of his life and as he approaches the river he can see the other side and his crossing is peaceful.   Faithful is not unique – there are many people who can approach their death like that.   I am not there yet, I am afraid, and I suspect that I am not alone.

I write as a Christian, or more widely as a believer in eternal life (not a belief confined to Christians).   When most of us use the word ‘life’ we usually mean the life of our mortal, physical bodies, which starts at conception and ends in death.   Actually, of course, the cells which combined to create that conception were alive before.   The cells which make up our bodies at the point of our death continue to move on and change after that death.   Each individual cell has a relatively short life however.   So, this all gets rather philosophical – the beginnings and ends of lives are actually metamorphoses – the ends and beginnings of other lives.   It is a continuing spectrum of changing life.

There is also another way in which the most ardent no-afterlife-believing pagan will accept that life continues after death.   The writings, artworks, music and so on of people long dead continue to inspire us as much as their conversations and love making may have done during their ‘lives’.   They do actually live on.   Reputations emerge and change after the deaths that ended the lives that created them.   Life in some sense appears to be eternal whether we like it or not, but there is no doubt that the personalities of the vast majority of people do seem to disappear – most of us know very little about our great-grandparents and what we know is often lifeless data – mere dates and events.  Individual lives get merged into on long combined life – what we call history, which is a process of moving forward not a process of looking back!

However, the scientists tell us that all life DID begin on a date in time – the Big Bang.   Members of the great religions will call that the moment of Creation by God, with no attempt by anyone to look before that point in time – indeed there cannot have been a ‘before’, if we believe that Time was created at that moment.   Again, this is too philosophical for me and I have to leave it hovering.

What is more interesting for me, in this discussion, is what is happening at the other end - the ‘end of time’.   I believe that there is a real me that is more than my body – that I have a soul or spirit, a life force that is wholly separable from my mere body.   In the context of facing my own death this is at the very least exciting.   It is also, yet again, terrifying.   Buddhists and others believe in re-incarnation – that is to say that the soul will come back to inhabit another body and that this process continues indefinitely until Nirvana (ie extinction) is achieved.   Nirvana is only achieved by living a life of such grace that you are not condemned to another one.   [I hope I have not too casually misinterpreted this belief and that I have given the basic concept reasonably correctly.]   Christians do not believe that we have this infinite number of chances to get it right!   Nor do we believe that the ultimate reward is extinction.   We believe that we need to get it pretty well right during this one mortal life and that the reward is Heaven or the punishment is Hell.   I don’t want to go into what those two words mean – there isn’t room here.

But what is most important is that I really do not believe that those two young soldiers have just had their lives cut short and that that is their end.   I do not believe in a just God, I believe in a merciful God, who forgives me for my mistakes, whenever he possibly can, whenever I give him an excuse for doing so.   I have to give him some cause (technically called ‘penance’, but that sounds like self-punishment, which it is not what it is meant to be) and he will take me in the right direction.

So, I am not ready to die – I have not sorted out all the secret messes that I need to tidy up, before my life’s work is laid bare to those who have to clear up my drawers and boxes.   I fear I will never be ready – I hope that I may be, but I fear not.   I suspect this is typical and yet the answer is to make some decisions – basically to be ready.   Not to get ready, but to be ready.    Whatever your baggage, it can be set aside by making it open and honest – again we have an off-putting technical term for this – ‘confession’.   But isn’t that what they try to beat out of you on CSI Wereham or Miami or wherever?   It’s a shame that we keep finding our vocabulary reduced negatively.

So, having talked to you about this, I now know what I have to do.   And in doing it, I hope that I will not reduce the fear of the process of dying, that is a natural instinctive reaction, but that I may face the being dead with more equanimity, even with joy.

I feel so sorry for those (who typically don’t want my sympathy!) who believe that it all comes to an absolute halt and that that is that.   There is nothing for them to weigh against the fear and possible pain of dying – the hope that a new life will emerge and that they will, not in time, but in eternity, meet again those who have gone before and those yet to follow.

Keith MacLeod

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