“In the midst of life, we are in death.”
I have lost count of the times I have read those words of committal at a graveside or crematorium. They capture the fleeting nature of human life very well.
The stark reality of these words came home to me on the last day of 2020. I was conducting a service of thanksgiving for an older man in our church. I used these words of committal at that service, and unbeknown to me one of the men in attendance would himself pass from time into eternity that same day.
As James put it:
“Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” (James 4:14)
Or as Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message version:
“You’re nothing but a wisp of fog, catching a brief bit of sun before disappearing.”
While the words of committal were being read that day, the pianist was gently playing the tune of the hymn ‘Abide with me’, (made famous by being used at our FA Cup finals each year). It contains the lines
“Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day. Earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away.”
Sometimes in the West it is easy to insulate ourselves from the frailty and brevity of human life. Living through a pandemic dramatically jolts us from our amnesia and reminds us of what our brothers and sisters in the Two-Thirds World experience on a daily basis.
The news presents a daily round up of the daily deaths that are related to Covid 19. In the past week those daily totals burst through 1,000-person ceiling, with the worst daily figures during the whole of the grim march of the pandemic through the United Kingdom.
How do preachers cope with this ripping away of the veneer that usually covers over the reality of our mortality?
Preachers need to come to terms with their own mortality.
We cannot talk about life and death unless we have wrestled with the reality that our days are “swifter than a weaver’s shuttle.” (Job 7:6)
Preachers must live with a healthy perspective on what is important in life.
The best book I have read so far in in 2021 is ‘The End of the Christian Life, How Embracing Mortality Frees Us to Truly Live’ by J. Todd Billiings. It is a moving book by an author who provides both profound biblical reflection of facing death that is combined with a poignant testimony of a family man who has incurable cancer. I have been helped by an ancient quotation from the book of some words by the Medieval mystic Bernard of Clairvaux.
“The heart has four duties to fulfil:
What to love, what to fear,
What to rejoice in, and for what to be sad.”
This sums up so well what helps human beings learn a healthy balanced way to explore and affirm the experiential contours of our lives. This is of course not merely a matter of getting ideas sorted out in our heads; it is also being aware that in the midst of change, including death, there is a relationship that can never be eroded.
“Change and decay in all around I see. O Thou who changest not, abide with me.”