Life happens and things change and plans and people and perspectives shift. And all of that is okay. Life goes on. But amidst all that life happening, so often we find ourselves wondering what happens when life stops. In the back of our heads, there’s that ever-present and heavily looming threat of death and doom and demise. You know, the typical questions you ask yourself on a sunny afternoon with the dogs playing outside and an acoustic guitar in your hand.
I started this blog the week I accepted a cross-country non-profit position. I had plane tickets in hand, a few things already packed, and I’d even begun my first round of goodbyes. I was ready to move, to live in a new city with new people, to do something good and great and fun. And then, like it always does, life happened, and my plans died right there in my thin, tattooed little arms, barely a few weeks before liftoff and training. The tyranny of capitalism, my allegiance to family, and a slew of other issues sprung up over the course of a few short days, and while my heart hurts, my wallet has suffered, and my mind is still reeling, the reality is that I didn’t move to Los Angeles and I wasn’t able to start an exciting fellowship with a literacy program. In the back of my head, I keep singing that lyric by The Front Bottoms that “there’s nothing in California that you could not learn to hate here, the questions would all still be waiting for you, the answers would all be less clear.” Hollywood, man – who needs it, amirite? Exploration is in my veins, and as trivial as it may seem, the loss of Los Angeles has been a personal tragedy for me for many reasons. Job websites, resumes, and cover letters are once again my reality as I try to trade the suburban refuge of my parents’ home for the excitement and creativity of Atlanta, and those of you who have kept up with the situation know that I’m tired and frustrated and disappointed by the happenings of the last six weeks.
But I’m still alive.
And so, in my living life, the present tense of now, I’ve got to keep on keeping on. Sooner or later, something will come through, I’ll be riding my bike on the Beltline on a daily basis, and I’ll be marking things off my bucket list. In spite of the metaphorical death of my plans and the real and present possibility of my own death, I’m still alive.
Yet, in our living lives, the question or threat or promise of death seems so often to hang over our heads, the blade of the proverbial (and literal) guillotine inches from our necks. It’s hard to get away from, with everything from Scully and Mulder’s adventures to the cable news networks to religion to our very own lives constantly reminding us that this life is short and that ten out of ten people will someday die, without a doubt. Sure, they say that someone alive today will probably be the first person to live to 150. Sure, modern medicine and the relative safety and comfort of most modern American lives mean that sicknesses and hunger and infection no longer pose the immediate threat to many middle- and upper- class Americans. Illness and poverty and even death are all diseases that could theoretically be treated and cured, but on a long enough time span, every vampire gets a stake driven through their heart, every genie gets set free, and even the Elves ask for mortality. We’re all going to die. And I’m totally cool with it. Immortality has proven itself to be overrated, and considering the fact that at 22 I already have trouble keeping up with today’s new trends and technology, it’s pretty clear that I will have no place in the world in a century or two. So death and dying can’t be all that bad. And I look forward, not necessarily to dying, but to that release and that escape, that one day I won’t have to bother with breathing and digesting and circulating blood.
But I’m still alive.
One of my favorite stanzas of poetry are those made famous by Frost:
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
Those last lines remain with me (and there’s an awesome use of it in a really nice song too). I have miles to go before I sleep. I’ve got to keep moving.
And so, I don’t really care about what happens when I die. Of course I hope very much that I don’t have to deal with that question all that soon. And I hope very much that once I do face death, that there’s something out there, and I tend to believe that there is and one that looks a lot like the narrative of a mystical and mysterious Christ defeating the very death that ends all life. But even then, I have no idea what that looks like. I’m convinced that it has nothing to do with pearly gates or angels with harps on clouds or giant banquet halls where all of our vies suddenly become holy because we’re sitting at an infinite table with a big, bearded white guy. I’m convinced it won’t look much like Beetlejuice or The Corpse Bride or The Walking Dead, as partial as I am to all of those as art. I’m convinced there’s something, but I’m not quite there yet, and I guess I’ll deal with it one day, as will we all.
Maybe we merge with some holy infinite, becoming one with the Universe. Maybe we reincarnate depending on how responsibly and respectfully we lived. Maybe we are resurrected and restored to perfection as we hold community with the divine. And maybe there is nothing at all.
Again, I tend to think that there is something, but I just can’t know. And it’s of no use to me to tremble in fear and to scare others into believing this or that or acting this or that way because of danger of missing out or the threat of punishment. While I am alive, I plan on living fully and completely, not in a constant prophetic anxiety (the world, after all, has been ending for thousands of years), and of course not in a constant state of nostalgia. Ultimately, there is no tense but the present, and I can do nothing but live now, planning and redirecting and learning as much as I can in relation to that which was and that which will be.
As a follower of Yeshua of Nazareth – and there are many who don’t likewise consider that way as the way and probably don’t care much of what I have to say from here on – I think that all we can do is join in that movement of life-affirming and kingdom-bringing that the divine has called us into. The history of the Church, especially in the West from today on back to the Puritans and Luther and on back to the Catholic Church, is one that is oddly body-hating and earth abandoning. I have met and fellowshipped with people who could not wait to die so that they “could be with Jesus.” This would be comical if it weren’t so dangerous and heartbreaking, and I lament this exit theology that turns the sentimental cliché (and falsehood) of “everything happens for a reason” into something that at its best is misdirected and at its worse shoves “turn or burn” signs in people’s faces and points up, away, and eventually, when we should be present, here, and now. Our bodies are not our enemies – your God apparently was born into one and even rose back from death as a body. Here, ecofeminism sounds much more like the love of the Lord for his creation than does the history of pietism and the Puritanism that has embedded itself into our culture and made all things – sex and pleasure and music and education and life itself – evil and dangerous. The Nicene Creed – the uniting feature of Protestantism, Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy – affirms a bodily resurrection and restoration, but somehow I was brought up in a culture disregarding my body and this life as evil and tainted and wrong. I love CS Lewis, and I think that it is a tragedy that one of his most popular quotes is, in fact, made up. He never penned those famous words: “You do not have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.” And thank God he didn’t. How wrong that sentiment is, and yet we seem fixated upon it in the Church, scared of our bodies despite the body’s holy createdness, despite Christ’s own incarnation, despite the resurrection. Matthew Lee Anderson puts it well: “You are a body. But you’re a soul too. And your human flourishing is contingent upon being a soul-bodied thing.” And while I am alive, I plan on flourishing as that soul-bodied thing. Bodies are beautiful and fun and really neat, and the world is likewise a beautiful and fun and neat place. Stop hating, guys.
Christ did not die so that we could also die and be with him. That’s gnosticism, that’s dualism, that’s so many other things that teach that the body and this world and “the flesh” are bad, and while the world is full of horrible things, I am not going to sit and wait for “the next world” so that all can be made well. Bad things happen, there is heartbreak and danger, and I want so much to solve that, not to close my eyes until it doesn’t matter anymore because it ultimately does matter whether or not I want it to. I don’t know anything about the next world, but I know at least a little about this one, and right now, it’s all that I have. I can change this world, this life, bring God and light and love into this existence, and everything else is speculation. Again, I think and hope that there is something else, but I have strong doubts as to using language about “then and there” about heaven or the afterlife. I will die some day. Absolutely. Two years ago, I was convinced I was dying when I was smashed into the pavement by a distracted driver and got up bleeding, disoriented, and in shock. I don’t really want to die anytime soon, and I absolutely hope that something good exists on the other side of that inevitable happening. In The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf tells Pippin, “No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it,” adding that it isn’t all that bad after all. That sounds wonderful. Beautiful, holy, hopeful. I want very much for that to be the case. But it does me no good right now to waste this life waiting around to die.
I’ve been blessed and lucky enough to not have to deal with death close to me very often. Distant family members and a few teachers in school are the only funerals I have had to suffer through, and while the unexpected loss of my dog Emma last Fall was unbelievably heart-wrenching and has me tearing up even now as I think about it, I know very little about the workings and dealings of that beast, despite the ever-present truth that I could die at any moment. But I’m not really afraid of that, and it’s not because I’ve made death a magical escape. Dying right now would suck. My heart breaks for all the senseless deaths in the world and no amount of heaven will change the fact of their senselessness. But we’ll all face death one day sooner or later, and I hope and pray that we can all go peacefully and comfortably and with dignity, with as little fear as possible and without all the escapist goofiness. Death, just like life, is a weird and holy thing, and I want to treat it as the weird and holy thing that it is – not by strapping people to chairs or shooting families who fly a different flag than I do or in some constant unhealthy fear or sick excitement. We’re all going to die. Hell yeah. But let’s focus more on making this life as pleasant an experience as possible because in all of its weird holiness, death is a fantastic mystery we can’t really do much about.
Not knowing what happens after we die doesn’t make death scary though. Funeral language tends to hunt at that, even if it becomes cliché in our culture. We try to and absolutely should celebrate the life of our loved ones once they are gone, and while we take hope in their postmortem salvation or security or peace, we tend to focus on their life, on their memory and message and the joy that they brought during their time living. The refuge of religion is great and I would never discourage it, and again I affirm my own belief in something else, some postmortem union with the numinous, but I hope to make my life matter as much as possible, not because of “where I go” when I die but because of the Love I brought when I lived.
And this why we need to focus more on living. We need to focus on the Kingdom, here and now, not there and then. Salvation and the afterlife are important, surely, but they are also immensely personal and particular and unknowable. We can change the world though, we can bring heaven to earth, and that after all is the true Gospel, the true message of that Jewish rabbi from Nazareth, that Messiah God who came into this world. Where he came from, I don’t know, and again, I think the semantics of “where” fall greatly short of what the Kingdom is and what God is, and while I know there are people who will battle over verses to tell me that I’m wrong, I quite frankly don’t care about the “where” or “when” except that the God who is Love is here and now, mysterious and mystical, a nothingness, a no-thingness, something that is all and ever and more and transcends any of our attempts to rationalize and explain and debate. The true message is indeed one of heaven and salvation and a Kingdom-come, but to limit that to post-death and in some weird cloud off in the sky is silliness.
Heaven is transforming and active, here and now, alive. The faith community I was involved with in college has started a year-long series called “Join The Movement” as they trace the history of the early church, and I have simultaneously started attending a new ministry in Atlanta called The Movement, and while I tend to be skeptical of “signs” from God, I think that this must be far more than coincidence in this time of perceived stillness and stagnancy in my own life. These two communities of faith are made up of wonderful people with great hearts and open arms, and I adore both of these “movements” as part a larger commitment to present movement, to bringing the Kingdom here and now, to action and compassion and Loving as a lifestyle and not just as a word and cliché. I am so thankful for these people and for so many others who keep me moving, who remind me that I’m not static and settled in mediocrity. I was supposed to literally move after all, from Atlanta to Los Angeles, but I didn’t, and I can’t help but feel stuck while I try to rebuild that momentum and bring it to Atlanta and the community here. I’ve felt dead in the water. Lifeless.
But I’m alive, and I’m moving.
I’m far less concerned about the afterlife than I am about this present one. Heaven and hell are ideas that deserve thought and contemplation, but here and now are realities that require action. Decision-making. Change. Hard work and dedication and patience and grace. Movement. If you follow Jesus as King, I urge you to stop all this nonsense with an exit theology of escapism and irresponsible selfishness. Not just the silliness of the Rapture or the frightening portrait we paint of “Armageddon” or the vengeful God of wrath, but ultimately all of this debilitating and stagnant concern with what happens after we draw our last breath. With so many people dying and living in hell here and now today – in the sweat shops that stock the stores we frequent, in the sex slavery that happens in our neighborhoods, in the cyclical poverty we accuse people of choosing, in the tyranny of our own comfort-driven Christendom that has so hurt so many in the name of the God of Love – my heart breaks that the message gets reduced to a children’s fairytale about St. Peter standing at the gates.
Right now, hundreds of thousands have been displaced by the conflicts and civil war in Syria, and people are literally converting just so people will help them. What kind of message of Love are we sending when the desperate and needy feel that their only option is to convert or die, an accusation we freely pin against others but so conveniently take no responsibility for? Love needs to happen here and now, and we need to stop this weird death fetish. When this mentality of “turn or burn” or “convert or die” finally transforms into “Love others as you love yourself,” maybe then I’ll be content with dying. Until then, I’ll happy abandon all cares of what happens after I die, pouring my soul into making this world, this life, this present one filled with Love and life and goodness.
Surely, I do take comfort in believing that something exists that is bigger than me, but so often people say that “what happens after you die” is “the most important question of you life,” that there must not be a point to life if nothing happens when we die. I think the very opposite – my afterlife means nothing to me if I don’t make the most of this present and very real one. The truest nihilism is the one that makes this life nothing and meaningless and overshadowed by a heaven we are probably very wrong about. Despite ultimately declaring life utterly purposeless, Nietzsche, the ultimate nihilist and a man who declared the death of God and opposed religion and faith as silliness and slavery, had much to say about affirming life. He was all about living in the moment and being fulfilled, not even just in some hedonistic and pleasure-seeking way, and somehow I think that he was right about many things that people who claim to follow the Way are not. He affirmed laughter and self-love and happiness in an apparently meaningless world, but the Church so often seems so dry and self-effacing and depressed in spite of its apparent meaning and message. One of my favorite albums of all time is Showbread’s No Sir, Nihilism Is Not Practical and George Romero references and Refused tributes abound as my fellow Georgians parody the view on the pointlessness of life, but it seems that Christianity has fallen into that very same impractical irrelevance, a nihilism of pointlessness dressed up with a blue-eyed, American flag touting Jesus. It’s goofy and stupid, sad and risky. If the greatest commandment is to Love – to Love God and others and ourselves – I find it inexplicably confusing that life apparently is such a burden for believers when only in life can we perform those acts and spread that message of holy Love. Let’s spread laughter and joy, peace and compassion, patience and wisdom, and let’s stop giving serial killers catchy jingles or celebrating war or making fun of the sick. We can all learn to love life, recognize death as a necessary inevitability, and ultimately remain patient about everything else.
Frank Turner’s whole life-affirming album Positive Songs For Negative People deserves a mention here, but especially that lyric, “we can get better because we’re not dead yet.“
Death and the afterlife are weird things to think about. I tend to think that only through love can we truly live and therefore die with purpose. And I believe that we can only truly love with the help of the Divine, and I think that that Divine looks most like the Christ recorded in the Gospels. Others disagree, and I love those conversations and I feel most alive when I’m figuring out those answers, even when all I really want to do is finish the X-Files and write songs. I’m learning Love and living and I will forever continue to until that death thing stops me. But in my striving, I give my life and I hope to give my death the ultimate meaning a vague doctrine or belief cannot grant me. Yeah, I hope that those who learn and practice Love are granted a peace and understanding after our time on Earth. But on top of all that, I admit my lack of knowledge. I’ll debate you on the nature of heaven and hell, challenging the cloudy literalism of pop culture, but that’s not all that important to me. I happen to be a hopeful universalist, ardently believing in and definitely hoping for the restoration of all things, all people, and all purposes. But hey, I might be wrong. And I think that even if there is some sort of retributive (and not restorative) hell, that it is temporary. Again, I might be just overly hopeful about that too, though I pray that I am not. Yeah, these are important conversations to have surely, and I hope very much that all people can one day know the message of a Divine that Loves and forgives and transforms, one that restores all things and brought a present and pervading Kingdom for all people. But ultimately, I do not know, and all I can do is live as best as I can. Death is weird and holy, and I don’t know all that much about it. People wave books and signs and guns in each others’ faces over it, but in my humble ignorance, I can do nothing but live and live as well as possible.
In the face of death and life, all I can do is Love. Embrace the transformative power of the Kingdom here and now. Love, love, love. Because without love, life isn’t really worth it. And in love, there is no fear. So stop being afraid of dying, stop yearning for the afterlife, and embrace the only life you know you’ve got.
Because we will certainly die, but we’re still alive.
We’ve got to keep moving.