Death comes to either the soul or the body. The soul cannot die, and yet it can die. It cannot die because its consciousness is never lost. It can die, if it loses God. You see, just as a soul itself is the life of the body, so in the same way God is the life of the soul. As the body dies when the soul that is its life abandons it, in the same way when God abandons the soul, it dies. To make sure, however, that God does not abandoned the soul, it must always have enough faith not to fear death for God’s sake. Then God does not abandon it, and it does not die. — St Augustine
I was walking through downtown Atlanta, Georgia, from a hotel next to the famous Apollo Theater on Peachtree, along Peachtree (but another Peachtree) to the Southeastern Synod’s office on, you guessed it, yet another street called “Peachtree” in some iteration. There are 33 streets in Atlanta that are named Peachtree in some form. It is Atlanta’s way to defend itself against outsiders. I was on my way to present myself to the Synod’s candidacy committee as a candidate for ordination.
Behind me were 12 years as a man who worked in iron and machinery. Ahead lay, well, I was not sure. I am not totally sure that after 24 years, even I could have explained it to my then 31 years old self. I am today not sure that the 31 year old could explain to me today why it was a good idea and how he got to that moment walking on Peachtree — the other one, not the behind me or the one I was headed to.
Ahead up on Peachtree, the third one, not the one I was walking on or walking from, waited 16 pastors and laypeople who wanted to know whether I was a good risk to send on this trip to pastor-dom. What does one say to these people waiting in that room?
What does one say to those behind, for that matter? What does one say to Ken who looked at me as I announced my departure at GM? “I wish I could leave like you are doing, I’ve wanted to, but they own me here.” He turned and walked to his desk in the corner of our group office. I could tell from his voice and face that he was fighting tears.
That afternoon on a street in Atlanta, Georgia, I became a friend to Luke 21:14-15. There are some things that are beyond words to explain or prepare, to justify or judge, and no, I had no idea what I would say to these people.
We walk into many moments in our lives without a map. Not all of them are dangerous or perilous. Some, on the surface at least, are joyous: The birth of a child is one of these. But, somehow even that event has a sequel. It is the moment when the realization strikes: This child, helpless and crying, is YOUR responsibility.
It might be a sad occasion: The last member of the generation of your father and mother dies. The realization hits you that YOU are now the elder. Perhaps it is the occasion when it falls to you to tell someone you care for that someone they loved dearly has died.
These moments in our lives are singularities. In a way there is no preparing for them, nothing will prepare you for them, no one can take care of them for you, no one else can experience them own your behalf. They are moments that linger in the mind. You will remember that you were on Peachtree — no the other Peachtree, the Peachtree perpendicular to Peachtree downtown — when the matter calls itself to mind and you do recall that something profound changed in you that moment. I expect that dying will be such a moment as well.
There is a certain helplessness in these moments. You know you will and must go this way, it is not a matter of choice really, this is it, you are it, it is this time, and this is the correct Peachtree and you are to be going west.
On the other side of what awaits you will no longer be you as you know it. The person is the same, the trajectory of life is irrevocably different and always will be. Call it a personal apocalypse if you must, we all have them.
I admit, the apocalypse Jesus speaks of is much more thrilling and probably makes for better movies. The destruction of the temple changed the life of an entire people just as much as the exile once had. Not a single one of them would be the same again and neither would the world. The disciples who would soon find themselves on the outs with the temple and no longer welcome in its courts had their apocalypse before the destruction when they got kicked out. What was Jesus’ words to them? “When these things begin to take place, look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” (Lk 21:28)
This is really the lesson in the apocalypse according to Luke: When you see sudden, seismic, explosive, irrevocable changes, look, look to God, your salvation is in this.
My favorite Peanut cartoon, probably a knock off of modern origin, has Charlie Brown say: “Some day we will all die, Snoopy.” “But,” Snoopy answers, “on all the other days we don’t.”
Drastic changes in life that we live through, our personal apocalypses, can teach us something eternal. So many times, the “end” has come but it has not been our “end.” Somehow, the end brought something new. Did we embrace it? Did we receive it from the gracious hand of God? (Bonhoeffer WoV 736) Did we look up and see the beauty of new possibilities that only God Almighty could work? Or, did we protest and hang our head in dark places to lament our loss and pain?
Is our world in the hands of a gracious God or is it not? I guess all of us have to answer that somehow and we answer it with our lives.
“When these things begin to take place, look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” (Lk 21:28)