My question-that which at the age of fifty brought me to the verge of suicide-was the simplest of questions, lying in the soul of every man…a question without an answer to which one cannot live. It was: “What will come of what I am doing today or tomorrow? What will come of my whole life? Why should I live, why wish for anything, or do anything?” It can also be expressed thus; Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?
Leo Tolstoy – A Confession quoted in The Reason for God page 201
I just turned 40 and I think about this already. I’m a Christian. I believe in life after death and the maxim “right now counts for eternity” yet I still feel this nagging sense of nausea that all of the things that I’m stressed about today are the futile sound and fury of a life that ultimately will signify nothing.
This week I could no longer look away from these feelings. I found myself wandering among the small rectangular head stones at St. John’s Cemetery in Orange, CA. My Aunt Helen had died and I was here for her burial. I was struck by how small and numerous were the gravestones. Most had lived more than 60 years. 60 years of love, anger, work, vacation and everything else, boiled down into a small plaque amidst hundreds of other small plaques.
My Brother in Law said what I was thinking: “A whole life and all that’s left is a little sign.”
Adding to the sense of futility was my memories of Aunt Helen. She lived an obscure life by almost any measure. She chose to stay home and enjoy its comforts. She was never famous, not even for 15 minutes. She wrote no books. She traveled little. She taught dozens of school children for decades but remained in contact with none of them. She had few friends. She never married nor had children. I was the closest thing to a son and I did not know her well.
And now I stood with a very small group of family and caregivers to bury her body and commemorate her life.
Would I end up the same way? Even if I have teary hordes at my funeral, will it mean anything in 200 years? I’ve walked by countless statues of men in Boston-men who had far more stature than I will ever achieve-and neither known nor cared who they were. These figures are now monuments to forgotten glory, patronized by the indifference of those who must navigate around them.
What about all the dreams I have? What about all the things I said I would do when I was twenty and had it all in front of me? Even if I could do some of them, would it amount to anything more than self-fulfillment?
What about the things I know I could do if I had the time? I would like to write a screenplay, learn German, learn Latin, and learn as much about Shakespeare as can be known. I’d like to be the front man in a rock and roll band and sing bass in a barbershop quartet. Heck I’d like to play minor league baseball. It’s very unlikely that I will do some or all of these, and even if I did, will it make any difference?
My Aunt Helen was an artist. I recently saw sketches and paintings from her prime. She had talent and a passion for exotic people and places. These are reflected in her works. She studied Polynesian artistic forms in college. I saw one of her papers stored in cedar chest at her house. I imagined all of the effort and anxiety that it took to finish this paper. I imagined the faith of creativity that moved her pen and paintbrushes. What became of it?
It is clear that this early promise of her life was never fully realized. Not even close. Will it ever be?
It was thus in my mind as the Pastor put his hand on her casket to commit her remains to the earth until the resurrection of all flesh.
This I recalled to mind and therefore I had hope.
In a merciful providence, I happened to be finishing one of the best books I’ve ever read on the plane ride to CA for the funeral. At the end of The Reason for God, Tim Keller dwells on the meaning of Resurrection:
…Christianity is not only about getting one’s individual sins forgiven so we can go to heaven. That is an important means of God’s salvation, but not the final end or purpose of it. The purpose of Jesus' coming is to put the whole world right, to renew and restore the creation, not to escape it. It is not just to bring personal forgiveness and peace, but also justice and shalom to the world. God created both body and soul, and the resurrection of Jesus shows that he is going to redeem both body and soul. The work of the Spirit of God is not only to save souls but also to care and cultivate the face of the earth, the material world.
It is hard to overemphasize the uniqueness of this vision. Outside of the Bible, no other major religious faith holds out any hope or even interest in the restoration of the perfect shalom, justice, and wholeness in this material world.
The Reason For God, page 223
Burials are an obvious time to think about resurrection; I’ve just been to so few funerals that I’ve never had this much time. However, every time is a good time to think about resurrection because the resurrection of Jesus gives hope to everything in this messed up world.
If I understand correctly, Jesus resurrection means that all of my Aunt Helen’s gifts of artistic talent, all of her feelings of adventure and joy, all her hopes and dreams were contained not just in her soul but in her body. Her body never reached its potential in this life, but then I guess no one’s body ever does until resurrection. Someday she will fully realize her artistic gifts, just not yet.
Resurrection also means that even if I can’t learn German or perform Shakespeare in this life, I can do it in the next. These are good things that you do in the body. The resurrection of the body is so central to Christianity that they put it in the creed.
Where else can I go for a resurrection? I can’t find this hope anywhere else but in Christ.
But not just the body is made new in resurrection, but all that is good about the physical world. Trees! I love trees. Chocolate: My wife will be comforted by that. Jesus rose from the dead and then sat under a tree and had a fish breakfast. Probably I could have chocolate for breakfast when I am raised. And I am raised with him, but the time is coming and now is when I will know in whole, not only in part, about this resurrection.
I hope someday to see my daughter and my Aunt Helen together painting the loveliest of trees. I hope to sing and read Shakespeare. I hope. I have faith. I love the God who made the heavens and the earth and promises to make all things new in the one who is the resurrection, and the life.