LOVE LIFE!… FOR WHAT LIFE IS ALL ABOUT IS DEATH
–Psalm 23, all
“Every call of Jesus is a call to death.”- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The Cost of Discipleship”, 1937
Sometime in 1966, about May, I think (can’t be sure; it was so long ago… and I was so young!), the Spirit poured into me the phrase that entitles this writing: “Love Life!… For What Life Is All About is Death”. At the time, I was a little frightened, perplexed, unsure of why I should be “preoccupied” with such a cryptic subject…or was it so cryptic? I’m pretty sure I was at Mount Hermon School in Massachusetts, a city boy from Harlem experiencing his first extended period of living away from the skyscrapers and the concrete playgrounds of the Big Apple, away from the housing projects, venturing out on my own. I was aware of the Spirit, but not yet really acquainted with Him. I had met Him when I was about 8 years old, upon which occasion I “joined” Sharon Baptist Church on 113th Street between Park and Fifth Avenues in Harlem. It was then that He “marked” me as one of His own (although at the time I didn’t fully understand the implications of this truth). As I went away to school, I started to learn how to “be still and know” that He was God. I’d take long walks in the woods surrounding the campus, or sit quietly by myself pondering the “whichness of the why”. Sometime during this sojourn, He “hit me!” (see here James Brown to get a flavor of what this term means) with this phrase. I knew “in my spirit” that it was important/significant, so I wrote it down in a ledger/journal my Dad, George Fuller, had given me and had encouraged me to keep.
I counted 11 articles (of about 35 articles) in the first section of our daily newspaper, the Chattanooga Times Free Press, that had death as a theme or subject (April 7, 2015). This pattern is typical, the ratio varies only slightly from day to day, month by month, year-in, year-out. Our culture is besotted with death. We are obsessed with thoughts about death. We deluge ourselves with reports about death: how a person died, how many people died, by what means they were killed, where the deaths occurred, who killed whom, for what reasons was death meted out, death, death and more death. Every Sunday, nearly the entire Region news section of our local paper is comprised of obituaries. No local news of life to speak of is reported. Death doesn’t care whether you are young or old, rich or poor, black or white or brown or yellow, male or female. Death won’t recognize your position in your company, how big your house is or what neighborhood you live in or how much money you have in the bank or your status in your church. Death cares not about what’s on your schedule, what time of day or night it is, or where you happen to be if it’s your time. When it is your time, you must answer death’s summons.
Why do we fear death? Psalm 23: 4 says, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for Thou art with me.” It is clear that David the Psalmist is talking about the circumstances we live in. Our walk, our life is lived in the “valley of the shadow of death”, clearly stating that death is a part of life and that we must face it someday. Yet, David does not equate death with evil, nor does he attach any fear of death to the life he is living. “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life…” Here the Psalmist makes it clear that at some predetermined moment in time, uncontrolled/uncontrollable by us, we will depart this plane of existence to “dwell in the house of the Lord forever”, the house of that same Lord who is with us at all times during our journey through this “valley of the shadow of death.”
Why do we fear death? We fear death because it is “final”. We have no “control” over it. It is physically irreversible by any means we know of, i.e., we all must eventually die and can’t come back (Ecclesiastes 8: 8; Luke 16: 19 – 31, focus, v.26). Sometimes, as noted above, death is preceded by pain and suffering, which complicate our view and intensify our fear of death. Here are a few familiar examples: Mark 15:15 (NLT): “So to pacify the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them. He ordered Jesus flogged with a lead-tipped whip, then turned him over to the Roman soldiers to be crucified.” Death is uniquely personal; it is not like a “disease”: etiological, epidemiological, communicable from one person to the next. When “we” die, it is the individual who perishes, no matter how many others may be taken at the same moment. Death is a singularly singular experience, one where the feeling of being abandoned is acute: Mark 15:34 (NLT): “Then at three o’clock Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”” The feeling of impending doom weighs heavily on those who are about to face death: “Matthew 26:38 (NLT): “He told them, “My soul (His heart/mind) is crushed with grief to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” The ultimate indignity is when death is visited upon us for no reason based on our behavior, based on our “walk”, the life we have lived: “Matthew 26:66-67 (NLT): “What is your verdict?” “Guilty!” they shouted. “He deserves to die!” “Then they began to spit in Jesus’ face and beat him with their fists. And some slapped him…”, heaping shame, disrespect and ridicule on top of the sure knowledge of one’s impending demise.
Life can be, and is, very different from death. Life, for one thing, can be shared. Life is communicable. It can be shared in the form of the spiritual gifts: “Galatians 5:22-23 (MSG): “But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely. Legalism is helpless in bringing this about; it only gets in the way.” These are all relational terms. They describe the sharing of life’s best aspects. They describe how we “love our neighbor as we love ourselves.” A second thing is this: just as we can share what we know (knowledge) without losing it, so can we share life without diminishing ourselves. In fact, there is no possibility that this can happen, as the process of living life fully guarantees that we are the better for it.
THE RESURRECTION OF LAZARUS: A SIGN POINTING TO…
In the Gospel of John is recounted the raising of Jesus’ friend, Lazarus, from the dead. There was some question raised by His disciples (Martha, Lazarus’ sister in particular) as to why Jesus did not come in time to keep Lazarus from dying in the first place, but Jesus was making a point: “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?” – John 11: 25 – 26.
Jesus’ raising of Lazarus is more important for its eternal implications rather than for its temporal implications.
Lazarus was raised into this life, but he died a second time: “The large crowd of the Jews learned that He was there; and they came, not for Jesus’ sake only, but that they might also see Lazarus, whom He raised from the dead. But the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death also; because on account of him many of the Jews were going away and were believing in Jesus.” – John 12: 9 – 11.
The life Jesus emphasizes and offers is eternal; but He also has authority in this life as well (John 11: 25). He raised Lazarus; He Himself is resurrected. “So Jesus then said to them plainly, Lazarus is dead, and I am glad for your (author’s emphasis) sakes that I was not there, so that you may believe; but let us go to him.” –John 11: 14 – 15. “Now if Christ is preached, that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain, your faith also is vain. Moreover we are even found to be false witnesses of God, because we testified against God that He raised Christ, whom He did not raise, if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.” – I Corinthians 15: 12 – 19. The seemingly mundane activities of life continue: we must eat and drink, “reclining at the table”, sleep and work. So we see the imagery of Jesus and Lazarus post-Lazarus’ resurrection: “So they made Him a supper there, and Martha was serving; but Lazarus was one of those reclining at the table with Him.” –John 12:2.
Eternal life in Jesus Christ is qualitatively different from our “life” on earth. This life is not the point, although we can experience everlasting life in the here and now, and also in the there and then, because He ‘came so that we might have life and have it more abundantly’ (John 10: 10). “Truly, truly I say to you, he who hears My word and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.” – John 5: 24. Living the “abundant life”, the ‘best’ life, entails so much more than the mere avoidance of death. Moses conveyed this principle to the Israelites as they were about to enter the Promised Land. In Deuteronomy 30: 16 – 20, Moses made clear what constituted life and contrasted that description with death, or “non-life”, the ‘living death’. The key in that instance is, and is true today, adherence to the principles of how to live as inscribed in God’s Word/word.
Love Life!…For What Life Is All About Is Death. How does life in this realm of mortality proceed from Psalm 23: 4?: “Thy rod (of correction, useful when I make mistakes, read, sin) and Thy staff (of security and guidance, useful to teach me the righteous way referred to in verse 3), they comfort me”. “Thou dost prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies (I can embrace life without fear because You provide for me in spite of my enemies’ presence, in the face of those seeking my death)”; “Thou hast anointed my head with oil (my spirit is enlivened by Your Spirit, my head is bowed to receive Your anointing and not bowed by my circumstances)”. In fact, “My cup (of blessings) overflows” so that I have, and have in abundance, not to hoard, but so that I may share this life with others. “Surely (or “Only”) goodness and lovingkindness/mercy shall follow me/pursue me/hunt me down all the days of my life. And (after this life on earth is over) I shall dwell/return to the house of the Lord forever.”We are not meant to live this life in fear. Jesus means for us to live this life joyously and joyfully. His directions are found in Deuteronomy 8: 3d: “…that He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord.” And again in Mark 12: 29 – 31 (NLT): “Jesus replied, “The most important commandment is this: ‘Listen, O Israel! The LORD our God is the one and only LORD. And you must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’ The second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these.” These two commandments/directions describe how we are to “love life”, how we are to “have life more abundantly.” These two commandments, put into practice in our daily walk, are how we can love life regardless of our circumstances, how we can share this time and space with others without fear, knowing that it is not so important that we have death in common, but that we can fearlessly share the joy of living with those around us. OK. The question is raised: is there a more practical guidance for living this abundant life? Can you refer me to a prescription that can be applied DAILY as I attempt to conform to the mandate God in Christ has set for me to live life successfully, to “have life more abundantly”? How can I do- I mean, really DO this?
Abundance usually implies sharing. It almost demands that the overflow you are experiencing be made available to those around you. It definitely suggests that you avoid hoarding as inconsistent with the entire concept of abundance. For me, a really comprehensive description of the ‘abundant life’, highly recommended for your consideration, is found in the third chapter of Colossians, to whit: Colossians 3:8-19(AMP): “But now put away and rid yourselves [completely] of all these things: anger, rage, bad feeling toward others, curses and slander, and foulmouthed abuse and shameful utterances from your lips! Do not lie to one another, for you have stripped off the old (unregenerate) self with its evil practices, And have clothed yourselves with the new [spiritual self], which is [ever in the process of being] renewed and remolded into [fuller and more perfect knowledge upon] knowledge after the image (the likeness) of Him Who created it. [In this new creation all distinctions vanish.] There is no room for and there can be neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, [nor difference between nations whether alien] barbarians or Scythians [who are the most savage of all], nor slave or free man; but Christ is all and in all [everything and everywhere, to all men, without distinction of person]. Clothe yourselves therefore, as God’s own chosen ones (His own picked representatives), [who are] purified and holy and well-beloved [by God Himself, by putting on behavior marked by] tenderhearted pity and mercy, kind feeling, a lowly opinion of yourselves, gentle ways, [and] patience [which is tireless and long-suffering, and has the power to endure whatever comes, with good temper]. Be gentle and forbearing with one another and, if one has a difference (a grievance or complaint) against another, readily pardoning each other; even as the Lord has [freely] forgiven you, so must you also [forgive]. And above all these [put on] love and enfold yourselves with the bond of perfectness [which binds everything together completely in ideal harmony]. And let the peace (soul harmony which comes) from Christ rule (act as umpire continually) in your hearts [deciding and settling with finality all questions that arise in your minds, in that peaceful state] to which as [members of Christ’s] one body you were also called [to live]. And be thankful (appreciative), [giving praise to God always]. Let the word [spoken by] Christ (the Messiah) have its home [in your hearts and minds] and dwell in you in [all its] richness, as you teach and admonish and train one another in all insight and intelligence and wisdom [in spiritual things, and as you sing] psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, making melody to God with [His] grace in your hearts. And whatever you do [no matter what it is] in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus and in [dependence upon] His Person, giving praise to God the Father through Him. Wives, be subject to your husbands [subordinate and adapt yourselves to them], as is right and fitting and your proper duty in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives [be affectionate and sympathetic with them] and do not be harsh or bitter or resentful toward them.”
And in the fourth chapter of Ephesians, the Apostle Paul also describes in very practical terminology how we can live abundantly. Ephesians 4:22-32(AMP): “Strip yourselves of your former nature [put off and discard your old unrenewed self] which characterized your previous manner of life and becomes corrupt through lusts and desires that spring from delusion; And be constantly renewed in the spirit of your mind [having a fresh mental and spiritual attitude], And put on the new nature (the regenerate self) created in God’s image, [Godlike] in true righteousness and holiness. Therefore, rejecting all falsity and being done now with it, let everyone express the truth with his neighbor, for we are all parts of one body and members one of another. When angry, do not sin; do not ever let your wrath (your exasperation, your fury or indignation) last until the sun goes down. Leave no [such] room or foothold for the devil [give no opportunity to him]. Let the thief steal no more, but rather let him be industrious, making an honest living with his own hands, so that he may be able to give to those in need. Let no foul or polluting language, nor evil word nor unwholesome or worthless talk [ever] come out of your mouth, but only such [speech] as is good and beneficial to the spiritual progress of others, as is fitting to the need and the occasion, that it may be a blessing and give grace (God’s favor) to those who hear it. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God [do not offend or vex or sadden Him], by Whom you were sealed (marked, branded as God’s own, secured) for the day of redemption (of final deliverance through Christ from evil and the consequences of sin). Let all bitterness and indignation and wrath (passion, rage, bad temper) and resentment (anger, animosity) and quarreling (brawling, clamor, contention) and slander (evil-speaking, abusive or blasphemous language) be banished from you, with all malice (spite, ill will, or baseness of any kind). And become useful and helpful and kind to one another, tenderhearted (compassionate, understanding, loving-hearted), forgiving one another [readily and freely], as God in Christ forgave you (see also Zechariah 8: 16 – 17).
From the Chattanooga Times Free Press Faith and Family Section (D), Saturday, April 4, 2015:
“Don’t Run From Death; Embrace It and Rejoice”, by Josh Woodrow, Planting Pastor, Bridge City Community Church, Chattanooga: “An old legend tells of a merchant in Baghdad who one day sent his servant to the market. Before very long, the servant came back, trembling, his face drained of color. In great agitation, he said to his master: “Down in the marketplace, I was jostled by a woman in the crowd, and when I turned around, I saw that it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture. Master, please lend me your horse, for I must hasten away to avoid her. I will ride to Samarra, and there I will hide, and Death will not find me.”
The merchant lent him a horse, and the servant galloped away in great haste. Later, the merchant went down to the marketplace and saw Death standing in the crowd. He went over to her and asked, “Why did you frighten my servant this morning? Why did you make a threatening gesture?” “That was not a threatening gesture,” Death said. “It was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I have an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.”
Pastor Woodrow concludes with these life-affirming observations: “Death is a mirror-filled room with no exit. We will all face death. We cannot escape it. We cannot run from it. We must embrace it.” Pastor Woodrow asks us the important question: “How will you embrace death? I will stand toe-to-toe like Pacquiao and Mayweather. I will confidently posture, not because I believe I can win the fight, but because the victory has been won for me. The person and work of Jesus gives me confidence and victory over death—the opportunity for rejoicing, not for fear.”
2 Corinthians 4:12AMP: “So physical death is [actively] at work in us, but [spiritual] life [is actively at work] in you.”
We must learn that this process of embracing death is more clearly and appropriately stated as how well we embrace life on a daily basis. To truly be “alive”, we must embrace the opportunities presented to us every day to love God and love our neighbor as we do ourselves. Jesus did not die so that we could live fearing death; doesn’t make sense, does it? God’s vision for His Son was the cross. God’s vision for His people is the empty tomb.
Hebrews 2:15AMPC: “And also that He might deliver and completely set free all those who through the [haunting] fear of death were held in bondage throughout the whole course of their lives.”
–Minister William H. Hicks, April, 2015