All our times have come
Here, but now they're gone
Seasons don't fear the reaper
Nor do the wind, the sun or the rain
I recently took another step in maturity, though not one to brag about. It commenced with sharp and relentless neck and upper back pain. One’s infirmities aren’t particularly interesting to anyone but the sufferer, but to the point of this piece, it involved words that I (always fairly strong and healthy) never before had to hear in conversation about myself—words like arthritis and age-related.
I suppose I knew this time of life would come. But I didn’t know it with much conviction. How astonishing it is that, in one continuous life, we live through ages that have so little emotional communication with one another! One would think that in this arpeggiation of young to old each part of life would remember or anticipate the others. But a life takes too long to feel like a single flourish. So the two ends of the same life are ignorant of one another. Or even resent one another, like a snake biting its own tail.
I have pictures and memories, but there’s a lot I can’t recall (if I ever knew) about that young man with long hair—why he liked the music or fashions he did, why he made the choices he did—even though he was me. I do remember that he said some remarkably stupid things, that young man, and made some idiotic decisions. (Though there’s little satisfaction in looking back: there are things I’ve said and decisions I’ve made within the month that I can’t take pride in. The old tree grew from the young root, in its native soil, and has much the same silhouette.) There are things I could do back then that I can’t now. There are other things I attempted but that never matured, potentials that never potentiated. Some of those dreams are still lying about in my soul’s closets, and there are times when I imagine I could pick them up again and make them come true, though I know it is too late for most.
I suppose I knew back then that I would eventually turn into someone like my grandfather. I opined on aging and death when I preached funerals, which people were kind enough not to tell me were sententious and uninformed. I had little foresight about the gray-haired guy at the end of my own process. That is to say, I thought it would happen, but I didn’t expect it. And death? That was so far off that it wasn’t a possibility.
What the church had to tell us about death revolved around our evangelistic concerns. The first thing you would have heard, had you asked, was Ecclesiastes 9:5: “For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten.”
Soul sleep is a good doctrine, perhaps the best of our distinctive beliefs. There is no more elegant way to account for all that scripture says about the nature of the soul, the end of life and the resurrection. Oddly, to support it we’ve relied upon a text that shows no evidence of having been meant as doctrine or even metaphysics. Ecclesiastes is self-indulgent ennui by a cynic who believed that life amounted to nothing. There’s no consciousness in The Preacher’s death, but there’s no resurrection from it, either. (What preacher now could give a sermon this pessimistic?)
One reason for soul sleep was the fear that we might think dead people were talking to us. It’s worth wondering what position we might now hold about the state of the soul in death had it not been for Hiram Edson’s neighbors, Leah, Margaret and Kate Fox. Stories of rappings, disembodied voices, levitating tables and floating trumpets alarmed us. During their lifetimes the Fox sisters admitted to being frauds, and séance phenomena repeatedly exposed as trickery. We Seventh-day Adventists insisted it was genuine. Grandma was dead, and Satan was pretending to be Grandma. It spawned a rich and stimulating narrative about demonic presences and ouija boards, a gift that has kept on giving, especially for speakers who want to hold the attention of adolescents. Seventh-day Adventism seems at its most effective when it backs up our hopes with vivid, high-dimensional fears.
The other thing they told us: “You’re not going to live long enough to have to worry about old age and death. Jesus will come long before that. Probably even before you grow up.” This worried us. Here we were just starting out in life, and Jesus wasn’t going to let us live it? One friend said she’d been afraid Jesus would come before she got old enough to drive. Her husband said he only hoped Jesus would hold off long enough so he could sleep with a girl. Both their dreams came true. Now she fears losing her license because of eyesight, and he’s just glad when he can sleep (in the literal, not the euphemistic, sense of the word) with her through the night without having to get up to pee.
For me, I never had as strong feelings about Jesus’ return as I did about the prequel: the torture our Roman Catholic neighbors would visit upon us. I watched the Catholics I knew very closely. That’s what kept me awake at night, until I got old enough to realize these stories were just elements of a religious thrill show, not meant to be taken seriously. I wonder sometimes if those who told us how short the apocalyptic horizon was really believed it themselves. One pastor told me not to worry about saving for retirement, that time wouldn’t last long enough for me to need it. He retired, and bought a new beige Buick. Since I’ve not yet retired, who knows if he may yet be right? But as of right now, I’m glad I didn’t believe him.
I know you young people won’t understand what I am about to tell you. You may believe me, but you don’t, you can’t, know it. But here it is, anyway: life is short. That young man I told you about who I don’t understand anymore? Well, it seems like yesterday that I was him. That’s the irony of it. Life is so long, so spread out, so disconnected age to age, yet it passes in the blink of an eye.
Perhaps the apposite lesson from Ecclesiastes 9:5 is in the first part of the text: “The living know that they shall die.” It is a truism, but one that isn’t pleasant to think about, which may be why 55% of Americans haven’t written a will. Yet there it is: death, as much denial as we have about it, shouldn’t be a surprise. We’ve been warned.
We Seventh-day Adventists deny death in all the usual human ways. We do chemotherapy that’s certain to fail, and we say things like “you’re only as old as you feel,” which is true if you mean that feeling optimistic and energetic adds quality to life. (It’s not true for the self-deceived old codger who feels like chasing women a generation his junior. That’s repugnant, no matter how he feels.) But we’ve added some additional ones. I have an acquaintance who follows every Ellen White diet counsel, even the silly ones. There’s a sort of desperation about it. I give him credit for amazing discipline: he’s so scrawny that he looks like he couldn’t stand up to a strong shout, like all the ballast has gone out of him. When he’s not starving himself, he’s pleadingly predicting that Jesus is coming next week. It’s all very self-centered. He’s terrified of dying, and all of his energy (what’s left of it) is used trying to thwart it, even if it makes living a misery.
Whatever works for him, I suppose. I like health, and I hope Jesus returns soon. But it seems to me that life is impoverished by devoting it to dodging death. The writer of Ecclesiastes is right: it’ll get you sooner or later. Isn’t the essence of the gospel that you needn’t worry about death, because your resurrection and salvation is assured? So you can live a happy life, doing your best, but without worrying about everything? That’s how I see it.
The Victorians wrote about “a good death”, the central requirement being having lived a good and happy life, so that you could die without regret, surrounded by people who love you. I like that. For now, my back pain is gone. But it’s reminded me of the trajectory I’m on. When my time comes I hope to be able to leave you in peace, knowing resurrection is just an eye blink away.
Loren Seibold is a pastor in the Ohio Conference, and co-contributor (with Monte Sahlin) to Faith in Context, a blog about the intersection of religion and culture.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/5883