Sunday, 16 August 2015

Death and Laughter

This time last year I saw a dead body for the first time. 

It was in the middle of the summer holidays, so I was at my parents' house, filling up my summer with reading, napping and eating- in equal measure.

It was about midday when I opened the front door to a small, frail, elderly man I didn't recognise; he was clearly very anxious. My dad's a GP, and so fairly often people pop round to ask advice on various aches and pains- so it wasn't unusual. Dad was at work, I explained, but could I help? By now my mum had come to the door too. 

She recognised him as a neighbour, Donald. He was confused and agitated, but said to us that he thought his wife Peggy might have died. He'd been out shopping, and having finished the morning routine returned home to find her lying on the bedroom floor. 

Mum and I followed him around the corner to his house, and quickly went upstairs to find her.

There was no doubt whatsoever that she was dead. In fact, never having seen a dead body before, I felt profoundly struck by just how dead she looked. The room seemed so very empty- more empty for the body being in it, and her form was remarkable in its total absence of vibrancy, movement, hope. My grannie was in the last few weeks of her life at the time, but though she was weak and frail, she was comparatively so alive: spark darted in her eyes, warmth glowed, however faintly, beneath her aged skin. Dead and alive are so very different from each other. 

This, undoubtedly, was death. 

As mum and I phoned relatives, made Donald tea and booked an ambulance (not in that order!), I looked at some photos in the living room. But I couldn't pick out Peggy. Even in a still picture, too much of her aliveness had been captured for me to see any parallel between her and the void shell on the bedroom floor. I've since wondered whether Donald's earlier confusion, "I think my wife has died", was less about whether the person in his house was dead, and more about whether that body really could be his wife!

Seeing death up close made the bizarre reaction of the little girls' family in Mark 4:40 make a lot more sense. Jesus says to them as they grieve, "do not weep, she is only sleeping"- and they laugh at him. It seems odd for them to laugh at such a time, but I get that now: to the family it's an outrageous misreading of the blatantly obvious. It's offensive, it's absurb: death in a dead person is one of the most firm certainties you will ever encounter. Of course they laugh: their laughter is the fruit of cynicism, of despair. It's like the laugh of Sarah when she's told she'll have a child when she's been barren all her life (Genesis 18). Cynicism and disappointment harden to dry, disdaining laughter: no, durr, that is categorically and obviously and bitterly impossible. 

Death is here. 

And it is the unequivocal end of the road. It's an authoritative full-stop at the end of all our most cynical sentences. It's the central argument for every reason we've ever had to give up, to despair. It's the ultimate disappointment and it's there: an inevitable, immovable expanse of cold stone. 

And so this is the outrage of that morning all those years ago. 

In the shadow of death, a group of women weep on their way to a tomb- faced with their own immovable expanse of cold, unrelenting stone. It's a reminder of their hopelessness, their helplessness, the resounding "no" to all of their hearts' hopes: death is here. 

And yet. And yet! 

They arrive and discover the stone effortlessly rolled away- and human history and experience- and hope- is never the same. 

There's this verse in 2 Timothy (1:10) that blows me away every time I read it. Paul writes,

"Christ abolished death, and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel." 

It's outrageous! It demands a response!

I expect many people would read it and laugh with the cynicism of Sarah. A laugh that says- "abolished death!?" Have you seen death? Have you looked it in its brutal, uncompromising face? Have you seen how fundamentally it shapes (and mocks) human experience? How its influence permeates all of our greatest desires and accomplishments? Really, Paul, this is the claim you're going for? Christ abolished death? Are you sure you don't want to tone that down at all? 

And yet.

It's the claim Paul is willing to die for.

When Sarah has had Isaac, she laughs again. A different laugh: God's promise and power has proved true, and she says, "God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me." (Genesis 21:8)

Christ abolished death is a reason for our cold, cynical, hopeless hearts to fill up with joy, until they bubble over in delighted, liberated laughter. Christ has abolished death! Death! That immovable expanse of cold stone? Christ burst through it. That trump card of despair? Christ Jesus obliterated it! The bottom line justification for despair and misery and hopelessness? It's had its foundation blown through: He's alive! 

And because of His triumph, if we have Him, if we are in Him, we too have life (1 John 5:12). He has risen from the grave; all of God's promises find their resounding YES in Him (2 Corinthians 1:20)! We take refuge with the One who explodes the hopelessness, finality and coldness of death in to infinite pieces, the One who is risen with healing in his wings, the One who is warmth and joy and creativity and newness and redemption and hope. And hope and hope and hope. 

I don't know whether Peggy had the Son, and therefore life. As I walked away from the house, I hoped so. Death humbles us in the shade of its power and its reality. What humbles me more than death, though, is Jesus, the Living One. 

In Mark 4 he was able to wake the girl from death as though she had just been having an afternoon nap. He lifted her to life from the darkest of nights: no wonder those who saw him do it were seized with fear. Today, Jesus still plunges his hand in to the darkness to bring life and immortality to those who are dead; to lift them up in to His own life and light and delight and warmth and power and kindness and joy and  hope. Staggeringly, He will not let his grip go, until he's brought his children all the way through life, through death and in to his glorious presence. 

This, I feel, at least merits a smile. 

"Because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ, even when we were dead in our transgressions... And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus..." Ephesians 2:6-7

"If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. But, Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep." 
1 Corinthians 15: 14, 20

"Christ abolished death, and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel." 
2 Timothy 1:10

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