The Boundary of Death

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Having spent two-and-a-half years as a Hospice Chaplain, I had opportunity to be present to over 200 deaths (that does not include the many I have witnessed in my years in ordained ministry. As you sit with someone who is dying, there finally arises a boundary beyond which you cannot go: death itself. I can pray for the “departure of the soul from the body” (the priestly service done at the time of death in Orthodoxy), and I can pray and even know the fellowship of the saints and the departed.

Christ told His disciples, “Yet a little while am I with you, and then I go unto him that sent me. Ye shall seek me, and shall not find me: and where I am, thither ye cannot come. Then said the Jews among themselves, “Whither will he go, that we shall not find him?”

Christ has been where we have not and entered where we cannot yet go.

The experience of death, and the boundary it represents, also hides from us a reality we can only know by faith. And, according to Scripture, it is probably the greatest occasion for fear.

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he[Jesus] himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage” (Hebrews 2:14-15).

I sometimes think that most fears are really about death on some level. The loss of power over our own lives that we frequently imagine to be true during our healthy years. It is admitting this powerlessness that is inevitably the case that gives us pause, and engenders fear.

I had a cousin, about a year older than myself. She was diagnosed with Childhood Onset Rheumatoid Arthritis (a very virulent form of the disease) when she was only ten. In the summer I used to go and stay a week or two with her family near the South Carolina mountains to be company for her. We gained a closeness that never seemed to leave the relationship over the years. She was among the most honest people I’ve ever known.

I recall talking to her in the months before she died  (it was becoming apparent that this was the case), we were both in our forties. In the conversation the subject of faith, God, heaven, etc. came up. She spoke with great tenderness about God. I remember asking her, “How is that you’ve been in pain and crippled for the 35 years and yet speak so kindly of God?”

Her answer was very enlightening.

“I haven’t always felt this way about God,” she said. “There was a time when I would wake up in the morning and curse God.” But then her voice lowered and she added meekly, “That was before I knew He was good.”

It is among the greatest professions of faith I have every heard.

To stand at the boundary of life and death, and to stand without fear, we must know that there is a good God. In C.S. Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles someone says of Aslan, “He’s not a tame lion, but He’s good.”

This is the fear of death: that goodness does not win in the end. I believe it therefore to be utterly necessary in the preaching of the gospel to remind people again and again, “He is a good God and loves mankind” (the words of the traditional Orthodox dismissal).

In is only in Christ, finally, that we have the perfect image of the perfect God and can say, based on that revelation, “He is good.” I rejoice in that goodness, and pray to know more each day as we journey to Pascha and beyond.

10 comments:

  1. My mind lept to join:

    ”Yet a little while am I with you, and then I go unto him that sent me. Ye shall seek me, and shall not find me: and where I am, thither ye cannot come.”

    with:

    “I am with you always even unto the end…”

    a classic pairing of opposites and yet clear together. Paired also with everyone’s favorite Ruth quotations, the images are strong.

    Have to write a condolence letter today. Always seems harder to do with those who share our path, but not our faith. This helps set the frame of mind. Thank you.

  2. My best friend, Rod (Photios) Loudermilk, journeyed with me into the Orthodox faith from the world of Pentecostalism.

    After we had worked our way to Orthodoxy, unpacking all our previous theological baggae, he made a comment to me that has stuck with me since that day over 6 years ago.

    He told me in Orthodoxy he had discovered that he could love this God of ours because this God meant him no harm. He had found that God was, indeed, good.

    3 months after we converted along with about 20 families from the church I had pastored, Rod found out he had a brain tumor. He died 18 months later. He never lost his hope or his joy.

    Memory eternal

  3. Mr. Powell’s entry brought to mind Jonathan Edwards’ infamous sermon “Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry God.” This too was the way I saw God before finding the true faith in Orthodoxy. I could never reconcile the Saviour of the World with the concept of a God waiting to strike me down, waiting to hold me accountable for the “salvation” of another.

    Thank you Father for providing another opportunity to contemplate our faith.

  4. “How dreadful is the state of those that are daily and hourly in the danger of this great wrath and infinite misery! But this is the dismal case of every soul in this congregation that has not been born again, however moral and strict, sober and religious, they may otherwise be.” from “Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry God.” by Jonathan Edwards.
    Wowser, N-I-M-S, I looked that up after you mentioned it and it is full of the wrath of God.
    I spent the morning, I have no real idea why, looking at atheist blogs. They are enlightening to be sure but they left me feeling just a little bit queasy. To see that people would affirm themselves as “avowed enemies of God forever’ etc. almost leaves one without hope, I say “almost”. One interesting thing, the sites I was on, had no links to Holy Orthodoxy, but did contain ample go get’em links to Evangelical and Catholic sites.
    God is Love and we just cannot understand the mystery, but it is such a joy to accept Him for Who and What He is in our lives. Though I will never understand much of it, I am glad I at least accept His love of me as true.
    Glory to Jesus Christ!
    the handmaid,
    Mary-Leah

  5. Mary-Leah,

    In my experience the God attacked by atheists is very rarely the True God but a very poorly drawn caricature. If we have preached the gospel so poorly that we have brought God into ill-repute then ours is the judgment. Indeed, I cannot remember the verse at the moment, but in a certain place God voices his displeasure with Israel for making His Name a curse among the nations. May God have mercy on us.

  6. Fr. Bless, as I re-read my post, I sensed some complacency, so I fear that often it is a lack of how to approach people who are so firm in their resolve. There were some people trying but their efforts were disheartening…
    Thanks for the comment.
    Christ is in our midst!
    the handmaid,
    mary-leah

  7. I was listening to an interview with an avowed atheist scientist on NPR earlier today. During the conversation the interviewer asked him about a particular issue he could not resolved. The scientist said the issue was “his cross to bear…” I found this metaphor particularly interesting and I believe it demonstrates just how thoroughly Christ’s victory has permeated our culture and our language, despite the atheists’ best efforts.

  8. Fr.
    I too am convinced that it is the fear of death, the fear of that which is un-knowable to those of us living, that is the great undoer of the human race. After all, wasn’t it the twisted promise of the devil to Adam and Eve, that they would be immortal, that is “like unto God” IF THEY WOULD BUT EAT OF THE FORBIDDEN FRUIT? (cursed caps lock:>))
    In any event, it seems to me that death, particularly the death of a loved one, can be a great instructor, and as you rightly point out, need not be such a great source of fear for those who are in Christ Jesus,as he has truly defeated death.
    As Lazarus Saturday approaches, we can take hope that though we be dead, yet shall we live as Christ himself calls us to come forth from the grave, again demonstrating His dominion over death.
    Alas, I ramble, to your good words I add further only, Amen.

  9. Low and behold the Pope has come out with his affirmation of the everlasting judgement of hell. I heard it on talk radio on my way into town to go to Church. The callers, some, were having trouble with this issue and many atheists cited this as their problem with God.
    Christ is in our midst!
    the handmaid,
    Mary-Leah

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