In the bright light of the resurrection, I am moved to complete these reflections I began months ago.
Last summer, death came to several people in my circle and got me thinking hard and deep. These are the ones who died:
Bobbie Fossum — my mother, Mom. The last days of her 91 years began in late March with a major stroke, and she died June 28. She and I had the blessing of time to tell each other everything we wanted to. Hers was a long life, well-lived.
Clementa Pinckney — pastor, state senator. He was shot and killed with eight others in Charleston, South Carolina the week before Mom died. I had become acquainted with Clementa in 2007 when I wrote a feature article about him for the Lutheran seminary in Columbia where he was a student and I a staff member.
Timothy Gentry — my next door neighbor in Columbia. A fine young man, “a shining soul,” who was shot and killed on our street returning home in the middle of the night in late July.
Phyllis Tickle — prolific Christian writer. This energetic, widely-known woman of faith who died in September amazingly extended a professional kindness to me even though she didn’t know me, even though she was in the midst of treatments for terminal cancer.
Douglas Gissendaner, Kelly Gissendaner — He was a good man, by all accounts, murdered in 1997 in a plan devised by his wife, Kelly, and her boyfriend. In October, the state of Georgia executed Kelly. We from Jubilee Partners held vigil in Athens in ongoing hopes of ending capital punishment because, as children of God and members of the Body of Christ, we believe firmly in the miracles of repentance, forgiveness, grace and redemption.
What has become of these people? Have they ceased to exist, living on only in our memories? For the last few years, I had entertained the possibility of nothingness after this life. Fervently hoping that was not the case, I could confess with integrity each Sunday a belief in “the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come.” With Mom’s death, and then these others, plus my sister Robin’s a few years ago, my conviction that there is indeed a world to come has returned, much strengthened.
Death breaks my heart, even though I accept aging and physical decline and the inevitable end of life as natural in this present world. The grief of death affects how I hear the daily news, how I look at my grandchildren. Death affects how I live each day, even while I revel in joys and pleasures and count my many blessings. And even if there were nothing to come after this life, I could still say, “Thanks. It was a great ride.” My heart, soul and mind, nevertheless, believe there is more. Much of this belief is beyond reason, unexplainable and mysterious, but I can articulate three thoughts.
First of all, I consider eternal life central to Christian beliefs. Defining resurrection is a far-reaching discussion. I will simply say here that I see and experience resurrection daily. I realize there are people who love and follow Jesus without benefit of believing the resurrection, but I find meaning in Paul’s statement in 1 Cor. 15:19 that, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” Let’s not squander a resurrection, for heaven’s sake, for God’s sake, for Christ’s sake.
Secondly, believing in life after death, I live each day in anticipation of a richer, fuller existence. This outlook tinges the day-to-day with hope and joy. I resonate with this description from Frederick Buechner: “…now and then, even in ourselves, we catch glimpses of a New Creation, which, fleeting as those glimpses are apt to be, give us hope for this life and for whatever life may await us later on.”
Thirdly, I embrace the mystery of the new world despite the human tendency to define it according to my own preferences. In that regard, I like Madeleine L’Engle’s “heaven dream” poem, Star Light marvelous in scope and theologically sound, but beginning and ending with the word ‘perhaps.’ We have no idea what lies ahead. “Now we see in an enigma darkly…” to quote Carol Zaleski in her book The Life of the World to Come. She also says, “…the narrow ego-self…will not survive the transition to eternal life intact.” This thought coalesces for me with Jesus’ image of the seed falling into the ground bringing forth a plant which is nothing like the tiny seed. “We need to imagine a faraway state of consummation…shot through with the radiance of divine energy.” (Zaleski)
The 19th century hymn Abide with Me, even with its archaic metaphor, expresses well my current conviction about the life of the world to come:
Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away’
change and decay in all around I see;
O thou who changest not, abide with me.
Hold thou thy cross before my closing eyes,
shine through the gloom, and point me to the skies;
heav’n’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
in life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.
Please, friends, share your thoughts on the life of the world to come (or not) by posting a comment. Let’s chat…