Being Dead – or Not – That is the Question

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 “We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars . . . everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.”   
                                                                          Stage Manager, Our Town
                                                                          Thornton Wilder
                                                                                                                                                             

I am eternal – so are you. I don’t mean eternal in God’s way – no beginning and no end. We’re just creatures and we had a beginning.

I began in the hallway of the Catholic hospital in Norfolk, Nebraska. That’s where my soul met up with my body. My father was still in the Philippines – it was 1945 – and the nuns thought my mother was bringing a bastard into the world and treated her accordingly. She was still angry when she filled out the birth certificate – mad at being left in the breezeway to give birth, and mad because she had just received a letter from my dad demanding that she name me Deanna – no explanation. She had planned on Karin after my Danish great grandmother, so she took the anger out on my name, misspelling it on purpose. I’ve been correcting people about it for over 60 years --- 67 years, to be exact and the older I get the surer I am that the real me will always exist. I have evidence:

Some days my right hip feels like a gravel-filled mortar and pestle. My face leaks – eyes water, nose runs. I’m well aware that my occasional efforts with a box of Nice n’ Easy only covers the grey, not the wrinkles.  But, I don’t feel old.  Wise, sometimes cranky, but not old. I loved teaching in a high school because it never occurred to me that I wasn’t 17. It seemed perfectly natural that I’d never left 11th grade. Some part of me hadn’t.

I’m always surprised when that hip stabs me, astounded at the slowness with which I emerge from my car, amazed when Aunt Martha’s name won’t come when it’s called, but, the more my body petrifies, the more I am aware of It as separate from Me. I think most old people will tell you that, the ones whose souls haven’t shriveled.

I’m not intimating that I won’t someday die. I will, you will, just as sure as I’m sitting here typing and you’re sitting there reading, and I have to admit that I have some misgivings about that process. I’d prefer quick, painless, and surprising – I’ve never been the roller-coaster type, a coward all the way to the bone. But the process of my body dying aside, I am going right on living.  I have no doubts about that.

Mankind hasn’t always dealt with immortality honestly; it is, after all, a pretty scary thought – living forever. That’s such a very long time, and the life we’ve known has been fraught with stress and anxiety, heartache and heaviness. It’s much easier to just assume that once you’re done, you’re done, and that in spite of your non-existence, you’ll feel good somehow at crossing that one off your list. Cleaned the house – check. Raised the children – check. Lived – check. But note that assumption – that there will still be, however briefly, a You. I submit that if we don’t feel old when we are, that we won’t feel dead either.

We try explaining away that feeling of eternality biologically by saying that we will return by “pushing up daisies,” a circle of life scenario. That’s true enough, but it sidesteps the body-soul dichotomy. This carcass I live in may return as a field of dandelions, or a festival of blowflies, but that has nothing to do with Me living forever. My body isn’t Me. Thank heaven. Marching around Manhattan last spring in the wake of my fashion model granddaughter was enough to make me realize the dumpy and archaic nature of this support mechanism of mine. It no longer has the right apps and ones it has get blisters. But what a memory she’ll have – Times Square at night, the top of the Empire State Building, the Prada exhibit at the Met. Is that what I mean by immortality? No.

We try pretending that our immortality is connected to what we create for ourselves. I will live on in the hearts and minds of those who loved me. It would seem that I might, just as well, hang around for spell annoying those who hated me, but either way that’s only hubris, not eternal life. If you didn’t exist you wouldn’t be around to enjoy the fruits of your labor and eventually folks will stop saddling your descendants with your middle name, your portrait will end up in some stranger’s attic, and they’ll tear down the elementary school they named after you (I’ve always worried about those old ladies, hard-working principals no doubt, whose life’s work ends up just a hollow, darkened shell. Ruth Pyrtle Elementary – who was she, anyway?). Cassio, mid Othello, bemoaned the loss of his reputation – “Oh I have lost the immortal part of myself!” No, he hadn’t. He was just being dramatic, but it was Shakespeare, so we can’t really blame him.

No. Eternality is living without the limitations of time and space -- the way God lives. Oh, the wonderment of that. Can you imagine? – no clocks ticking, no end to the day, no exhaustion. Actually, we can’t imagine that very well; time and space is all we’ve known. But considering that most of my life’s miseries have been due to time, too much or too little, or space – same problem, too much or too little, I’m looking forward to life without either. But what right do I have to do that? Aren’t I talking about heaven? Living with God?
           
Yes. I am talking about heaven and none of us have the right to expect eternal life will look like paradise. I know of other locations that don’t appeal to me at all. Eternity in a lake of fire? ETERNITY? All the suffering I’ve ever encountered had an end. I can remember a bout of meningitis that I thought would never pass, but it did. What would awareness be like if misery were the only possibility – forever -- not even a suicide option available. All horror stories start with that deep-seated fear – that the terror and the pain will never cease.

So, if that’s a possibility, why aren’t I scared of being “dead”? As close as we can tell from the Bible – the only book claiming to be the actual Word of God – we are all eternal, but we only get to spend that eternity with God – no more sorrow, no more tears – if we accept His offer of a free ticket out of the misery. Pain and suffering is the default position. We can’t earn heaven by being good. “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” Even if we improve, nothing of our own doing can erase the imperfections we already carry with us. We can only access that escape through believing God’s promise of life through His Son. “ For by grace you are saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. “  And that should not be hard to do – Christ died in full view of hundreds of people and three days later walked out of his tomb and was seen by hundreds of people. History shows the savior alive even though he was dead. So will we be; we just have to choose where we will be – with Him and joy or without.

I am eternal. I shall spend forever as part of Christ’s royal family. Not because I earned it; I couldn’t earn that if Buddha gave me a trillion tries. I couldn’t get to heaven on my own any more than I can swim to Hawaii. No one can.  So, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved.”

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