My mother is 83 years old. She resides in a nursing home, at the end of her life. Despite appearances to the contrary, all of us are in the same boat, since each one of us could be dead by the end of this day. In a very real sense, then, we are all at the end of our lives and we ought to live in this light. Foolishly, we make an unexamined assumption about tomorrow, that our feet will most surely land on terra ferma when our alarms sound off in the morning. In my mother’s case, though, it is clear that she does not have a future on this planet and we are preparing for the inevitable.
My wife has been working in our basement, sorting through a host of boxes of my mother’s belongings. Most of her material goods are serviceable and will be donated to Goodwill. A few days ago, my wife solicited my help in carrying several boxes to the car. For just a moment, I resisted.
Whoever said, “Parting is such sweet sorrow,” never watched his mother die in a nursing home. It is a sorrowful process for certain, but hardly sweet. Indeed, it is painful and the pain was focused like a laser by the simple act of carrying some boxes to the car. As I picked up the first of several boxes, I noted what was in it: objects that I immediately associated with my mother. To part with them was to part with my mother. Once those objects are gone, they are gone, and along with them, memories of my mother. Carrying a box of memories to the car almost seemed as if I were disposing of my mother herself.
By the time I reached the top of the basement stairs, I had come to terms with what I was doing. “It is good for us to have trials and troubles at times, for they often remind us that we are on probation and ought not to hope in any worldly thing. Keep yourself as a stranger here on earth, a pilgrim whom its affairs do not concern at all. Keep your heart free and raise it up to God, for you have not here a lasting home.”1
“Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” Certainly not a box of memories. Or a house full of possessions acquired over a life time. Or the chance to see another day. Or even the whole world and everything in it. Putting that box in the car was a step toward death to this world and an opportunity for life, real life.
In a twist that is so characteristic of God,2 it turns out that my mother, through her dying, shows the way to life. Real life comes about through death. “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. [You] can have real and eternal life, more and better life than [you] ever dreamed of.” And where did Jesus go, that we should follow him? “The Son of Man must suffer many things…and be killed, and after three days rise again.”
The threat promise of God in Genesis 2 that, “you shall surely die” is most certainly true. We are all going to die and it is futile to resist. In saying “take up your cross (an instrument of execution) and follow me,” Christ is advising us that death is the gateway to God, and that the process can be initiated here, on earth, through “death to self.” Whether by self-denial or by physical death, the result is the same: the world will disappear and the Real will come into sharp focus.
That so few choose the way of Christ is evidence of the blinding effects of sin and selfishness. We prefer boxes of the un-Real rather than having the Real, Himself. Thanks be to God that, inexplicably, He has not abandoned us. In the nearly certain case that we do not die to ourselves in this life, God will still fulfill his promise: “you shall surely die.” After pursuing us for a lifetime, He will one day rip the world from our clenched fists, and restore us to Himself, for not even life can keep us from Him.3
It is a certainty that we need a savior far more than we can even imagine.
1 Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ. Grand Rapids, Christian Classics Ethereal Library.
2 “Here it is again, the Great Reversal: many of the first ending up last, and the last first.” (Matt 20:16, The Message)
“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,” declares the LORD.” (Isaiah 55:8)
3 “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39) In these verses, the apostle Paul lists those aspects of the world in which we live that are extraordinarily powerful and dangerous from a spiritual perspective. These are the entities or events that could potentially separate us from God. The list is not terribly surprising, except for one item. That life should be mentioned amongst the factors that could do us harm is unexpected. The common sense perception is that life does not separate us from God; death does! Death cannot separate us from God. That Paul includes life in this list, though, suggests that, apart from the saving work of Christ, life itself could, very surprisingly, keep us from God. Most of us are so enamored with this world and our lives in it that God is completely out of focus, invisible even (cf. I Peter 2:11). Christ, by way of both his life and his teaching, assured us that this does not have to be the case. “Follow me, I will show you the way.”