Monday, August 13, 2007

The Long Journey by Thomas Butts

The two most important events in human life are birth and death. The first we do not consciously remember and the second we can hardly consciously contemplate. Most of our life is spent wondering why we are here, until it slowly dawns on us that we are not permanent fixtures, and then we begin to wonder why we cannot stay. Loren Eiseley, anthropologist and writer, wrote the following epitaph for his wife and himself: "We love the earth, but could not stay." The Good Book reminds us that we are all "appointed once to die." (Hebrews 9:27) Ecclesiastes 3:2 tells us "There is a time to be born and a time to die."

How prone we are to forget that we are sojourners in the land. We are just passing through. Philosophically, we understand that idea, but we do not like the practical application of it. Most of us can identify with the candid statement made by American writer, William Saroyan, a few hours before his death. "Everybody has got to die, but I always believed that an exception would be made in my case." We know there are no exceptions, but hope springs eternal.

Is there something in the nature of reality that prepares us to pass off the stage of this dimension? Famous American lawyer, Clarence Darrow, lived to age 81. Before he became senile in the last months of his life, he wrote: "Nature treats all of her children as she does the fields and the forests, in late autumn, as the cold blasts are coming on, she strips us for the ordeal that is waiting. Our steps grow slower, our efforts briefer, our journeys shorter; our ambitions are not so irresistible, and our hopes no longer wear wings." That is one way of looking at how we are prepared to take the "Long Journey."

In the course of 57 years in ministry I have seen many people approach the end of their lives. I have been with many people as they died. Most people seem to leave this life without fear and with a serene calm. I have always felt that there was something I could not fathom or name that gently took over the process. In death everything fades into mystery from this side.

The imminent student of death, the late Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, said there is no death. We simply move from one dimension of existence to the next. For most of us there is an undergirding faith in the teachings of Jesus on this matter. I love the little tercet by Robert Burns:
The voice of nature loudly cries
And many a message from the skies,
That something in us never dies.

We do know (believe) that death is the great "leveler." In life there are many distinctions, but there is absolute democracy in death. All the distinctions of wealth, power, beauty, fame, etc., fall away, and we leave this world as we came – empty handed.

Alexander the Great was once surprised to find the philosopher, Diogenes, examining a heap of human bones. He asked him what he was looking for, to which Diogenes replied: "I am searching for the bones of your father, but I cannot distinguish them from those of his slaves." With death distinctions fall away.

On those occasions upon which we are able to think about the reality of our earthly existence and the certain fact that we are not here to stay, perhaps we should read the 14th chapter of the Gospel of St. John, which is a source of powerful reassurance regarding death. It begins: "Let not your hearts be troubled..."

Well, read it for yourself. It will make you feel much safer about living – and dying.

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