DEATH is a bit of a pain. I mean, we try not to think about it. But every now and then, friend or family member dies. Or we drive past the scene of a fatal car accident. Or even, we just drive past a cemetery. And as the rows of headstones flick past, we try not to reflect upon the fact that one day, we're going to have one of those.
Well, except that for most of us they're going to be too expensive. More realistically, one day our ashes will be scattered and almost literally the memory of us will be gone with the wind. Taxes can be avoided, but the One Certainty is that death is coming for us.
And there is something numbing about it, when you try to think honestly and take the fact of death head-on. In fact, I'd wager that it's as though our minds suffer a kind of paralysis as though we are trying to think about something that we're not hardwired to think about at all. Sort of like a calculator trying not to tie itself in knots when the answer to a calculation is infinity, we struggle with the concept, and in the end it is unresolved.
And because it's too big, too deep, and too frightening, we simply put our mortality out of mind altogether. And distract ourselves with another toy, another experience, another handful of dust.
What are we to do? Are we well-and-truly snookered?
* * * * *
About fifteen years ago now, my motorcycle and I left the road in a style perhaps in some ways reminiscent of T.E. Lawrence and his Brough Superior. Unlike Lawrence, though, my number wasn't up, and for this I am grateful. But judging by the gravel graunch-marks on my helmet, it could easily have been my final day, and I would have left a young wife and a young daughter behind, some good mates and a grieving family too.
So maybe I should re-phrase what I said before: death isn't just "a bit of a pain" it is the Great Pain, especially for those we love and leave behind.
I clearly remember my first suspicion that there might be more to our existence than meets the eye. I was probably only 10 years old, sitting by a dam with a fishing rod in hand. Not a fish was biting. And I had this crazy idea, this daft hunch. So I did something new for me: I prayed. It was pretty simple, pretty selfish, and (fitting for a 10-year-old) pretty childish: "God, if you're there, please help me catch a fish."
[Now these days, with the wisdom of hindsight, I don't recommend this kind of thing at all... it's known in the Bible as 'testing God' not the sort of thing any creature should entertain.]
Almost immediately the line gave a jerk. Slightly startled, I reeled in a respectable-sized redfin. 'Hmm,' I thought, 'how about that!' And walked back up the hill to the house, fried the fish, and thought nothing more of it.
Until the next time I was down fishing at the dam, of course. Waiting for those fussy redfin to wake up and get on with it. As the time passed, the pressure was building to try that prayer thing again. Feeling a touch spooked, I gave it another whirl: "Dear God, if you're there, please help me catch a fish."
Very soon I was pulling in another one. But on the inside, interesting sets of dominos were toppling, and I was starting to wonder just who was in control here. Could it actually be the case, I was starting to wonder, that a God exists who has the time of day to listen to the selfish little prayers of a 10-year-old boy sitting beside a dam?
Now at this point you're probably thinking that what the young lad did next, was turn all religious, take a set of monastic vows, and head off into the wilderness for a lifetime of silent contemplation. Well, no. That's not the way the dominos were falling in the back of my head. Not the way they were falling at all.
Instead, a determination gripped me. A determination that I would live my life, my way. And no 'God' whoever or whatever he/she/it might be was going to get a look-in on the act. I had my plans, and I was going to chart my course, thankyou very much. And this 'God', well he/she/it would cop no flack from me, so long as he/she/it stayed over there and minded his/her/its own business, and let me get on with mine. My religion, I very consciously decided, was going to be Me.
[Interesting, isn't it. I set out to test God... who condescended, it appears, to my snooty little request... the snootiness of which was immediately laid bare by my response to God. How corrupt my heart was, even at that tender age...]
It seemed like a good idea at the time. But let's fast-forward the video ahead to October 1980. And the scene is, I'm afraid, as depressing as it is pathetic. The 16-year-old boy is lying on his bed late at night, in despair. In fact, he is weeping. For in the dog-eat-dog world of the High School, all his insecurities and immaturities and foolish actions, have landed him in a very dark psychological hole.
In my heart, I was at a dead-end. There seemed to be no left or right, no up or down, no way around and certainly no way through this set of walls hemming me in. Caught like a rat in a cage.
So I did something I hadn't done for years: I prayed. And like the prayer six years previously, it was a remarkably simple affair. But instead of an appalling attempt to treat God like something at my disposal, this prayer was entirely different: "Dear God, please help me to believe in you."
Now to this day, I cannot say why I chose those particular words. But I can tell you what was going on in my mind. Because for the previous six years or so, it was like I had been holding God off at arm's length: "Keep out. Stay away. You mind your own business, and I'll mind mine." (Pretty rude, when you think about it.)
But with this latest prayer, the arm came down. If God wanted a look-in into my miserable little mess, he was quite welcome. Now people who isolate themselves can expect to be left alone, and so quite frankly I did not really expect anything from God. Certainly, I did not expect what happened next.
For in a split second, as the last word of that simple prayer left my mouth, it was like the lights came on. In fact, it physically jolted me. But instead of the pain that you get with an electric shock (I'd been zapped by the electric fence enough times to know what that felt like), there was something new. And maybe this is going to sound a bit flakey at first, but I am telling you the truth about what happened. For in that instant, I was filled with an overwhelming joy.
The problem with the word 'joy' in English is that it is a weak-sounding word. It has no guts, no substance, no real body to it. It is the kind of word we use to describe a child's feeling at being given a stick of fairy-floss. So I thumb my way through the thesaurus, looking for other words, but they all fall short... 'ecstasy' is high-minded and fragile, 'rapture'... nah, it's daggy. (Note to self: time to get a new thesaurus. Or write this in German, 'coz the Germans have no shortage of strong words.)
So I'm going to stick with the word 'joy', but I want to make it clear that there was nothing wimpy or weak or trivial about this joy. Quite the opposite: this joy that filled me had a strength to it. It was overwhelming, comprehensive. It was a driving current like a flash-flood that might pour down a valley towards a derelict stone-walled house, it was in command, filling every room, pouring in through the windows, and emptying the old broken furniture and rubbish of the years out the other side.
* * * * *
I got up early the next morning (it was a Saturday), and I wasn't quite sure what to make of the experience that was only a few hours old. I knew that life was different, but I had no idea what this really meant, and what the implications were. So, having nothing better to do, I went for a walk. I wandered out of the house, up the hill behind the shed, and sat down and looked at the familiar sights of the 20-acre hobby farm where we lived.
Except that, in a strange sort of way, the sights were no longer familiar. They were new, that is the only way to describe it. For it was like I had new eyes, and I was seeing everything differently, in a new way. The sheep, yes they were the same dumb old sheep that grace any Australian paddock but what now stood out to me as obvious as anything, was that... well, God had made them. It was like I could see his fingerprints on everything. It was the same when I looked at the cape weed flowering at my feet, or the tired old eucalypt trees further down the paddock, or indeed whatever else I looked at that morning. The most ordinary things a beetle, a leaf held my attention like never before.
And what added to my astonishment, was that I had never noticed these 'fingerprints' before. I used to look at the natural world around me, and I would never have concluded that God was there, and that he'd made it. It would never have crossed my mind. But now when I looked out at the world, nothing could be plainer. If you'll forgive the worn (but Biblical) expression, it really was just as though scales had fallen from my eyes.
As I sat there marvelling and thinking, one question started to push all the others aside: Who was this God, who had broken into my life and surprised me out of my wits? And filled me with a joy that had come from outside myself, and had poured into my life? Who? I needed information. The immediate question was where to look for it.
So I did the next thing I knew best: I started reading the Bible. Now my family wasn't at all religious; Mum & Dad were lapsed Catholics and there was nothing visibly religious about our family life at all. So apart from a couple of old Spanish Bibles, all I had access to was a small red-covered New Testament that I'd been given at school by one of those travelling Gideons representatives.
I flipped it open and started reading Matthew's account of the life of Jesus. And the first thing that impressed me was the miracles that Jesus did.
Now how gullible is that, I hear you think. But what struck me was the matter-of-factness of the way Matthew and the other three Gospel writers (Mark, Luke, & John) related these miracles, and their account of Jesus overall. In other words, there is an inherent sanity to the way they tell the story of Jesus.
Now look, as a 16 year-old schoolboy I wasn't any great literary critic, and I hadn't read anything much deeper than the English texts assigned by my teachers. But this sane and matter-of-fact quality of the Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus, was something that impressed itself on me, and it has only stood out to me all the more over the years. The four Gospels of the New Testament simply do not read like invention.
This has only become clearer to me, as I have compared the New Testament accounts of Jesus, with the mass of invented, contrived religious material from the early decades and centuries after Christ.
Because the thing that hits you between the eyes as you read all this material (and there is lots of it I have two thick volumes of it on my shelves), is how 2-dimensional and 'plastic' it is, when you compare it to the accounts of Jesus we have preserved for us in the Bible. The Jesus of the non-Biblical writings, is so predictable that you soon realise you are looking at exactly the sort of Jesus someone would invent.
The Jesus-biographies of the Bible, however, are anything but 2-dimensional, for they contain the kind of things no one would invent.
Things like Jesus spitting in the dirt, making it into a mud paste, and smearing it onto a man's eyes to heal him of blindness (John ch.9). Or Jesus showing a Canaanite (ie. non-Jewish) woman respect for giving him an answer that demonstrates that, outwardly at least, she has outwitted him (Matthew ch.15). These are simply not the sort of things that charlatans and hero-inventers, invent. And as a first-time reader of the Bible's accounts of Jesus, it was this quality of truth in what I read, that drew me in.
[And of course, the last thing that anyone would concoct about God's King sent into our world, is that his ultimate mission was to die the degrading death of crucifixion. Who would invent that?]
* * * * *
But anyway, is it all really true? Especially that most stunning claim of all: that Jesus rose from the dead. It's a question that has preoccupied me quite a bit at times my 'conversion' has not been a case of blindly swallowing things, but there have been times of serious re-evaluation when I have been quite prepared to give it all the royal toss, should things not stack up. After all, the amazing experience of a depressed boy on his bed being surprised by joy might be only that: an amazing experience. So what the world is full of such experiences.
But the end result of all my questions and investigations, is that yes, it is true. Today I'm more convinced than ever that Jesus rose from the dead. It isn't merely a 'projection of human hope', or that the disciples felt that Jesus had been 'raised in their hearts', or anything nebulous and arty-farty like that. There is simply no better explanation for the fact that out of the ashes of defeat and death, the first Christians were prepared to face the sword for their claim that Jesus had been raised. As one writer has put it, "When a hole the size and shape of the resurrection has been ripped in history, with what else will we fill it but with the resurrection of Jesus from the dead?"
The implications of Jesus' resurrection are huge. For starters, it means that death is not a dead-end. For every funeral in the history of the world, has been a one-way affair. 58 people might go out to the cemetery, but only 57 will come back. Every funeral procession since the beginning of human history, has suffered from that relentless arithmetic: one body stays behind in the cemetery, and merges into the dust.
But Christianity makes the breathtaking claim that one day, there was a funeral that was different, that broke the relentless rule. That a dead man, came back to life. That God cracked his chains, and he rose from the dead. And that three days after the funeral, for once in all of human history, death was followed by Life. And so death is no longer a one-way street for Jesus made the breath-taking promise that all who follow him, will one Day be raised into the New Creation with him (for just one example, see the quote from John ch.11, below).
Make no mistake, I love riding my motorcycle. Next to the Hawker Harrier jump-jet, it's the most interesting form of transport known to man. And, from a human perspective, I just might die riding it. Equally, I might die of cancer in a hospital bed. Or of a heart-attack. Or of mesothelioma, or a car accident, or... the list of possibilities is endless. But the mode is irrelevant; the certainty is that death has me in its sights.
However it is the words of Jesus which have lodged in my mind:
"I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die." (John ch. 11)
Look, I don't pretend to have all the answers. And if what I've said here is like water off a duck's back, well, that's just the way it's going to be. But next time you're driving past that cemetery, you might like to ask yourself (along with Jude Law's Alfie)...
... what's it all about?
Checking things out further...