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At no time during the year are we more pleasantly aware of the seasons of nature than in the springtime, when the dullness of winter begins to wear off and the landscape becomes green and alive before our very eyes. We trust the seasons of the year, and plan our lives in anticipation of change. The Master Architect of the universe has gloriously and intricately designed all that is made. Because of God's care we have the security of living in a predictable world. Whether we look through a telescope or a microscope, we see a predictable world. As far as the eye can see, as far as the probing fingers of technology can take us, and as far as the mind can imagine, creation makes sense. When the shades of night fall, we are not afraid because we believe that the sun will appear on the horizon on schedule tomorrow. We live in a predictable and trustworthy world where we move logically from day to night and from one season to the next.
In some similarity to the seasons of nature, there are seasons in the life of humankind. The medical and psychological technicians variously describe them. While the increments are not always the same, they are approximately described with such terms as: prenatal, infancy, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, middle age, and old age. We move almost imperceptibly from one season to the next, never being quite able during one season of life to anticipate what the next season will be like. In our prenatal state, we have absolutely no intimation of the kind of world into which we will be born. And if we could be consulted on the matter of being born, we would probably reject the idea as strongly as we reject the idea of death. In childhood and adolescence, we press eagerly toward adulthood in anticipation of its privileges and opportunities we see available to those who are living ahead of us. We want a crack at life under circumstances less restricted than those of childhood and youth. With most of us, however, the eagerness to press on to the next season begins to diminish in our middle years. We lose some of our sense of adventure as we know less and less about what lies ahead, and more and more about what is behind us. We become cautious and afraid lest our years run out and time for us will be no more. Keats spoke of this in one of his greatest poems: "When I have fears that I may cease to be before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain...". The fact is that we do not usually pass willingly into a season we cannot see and with which we have no familiarity.
Each season of life has in it certain inherent tasks which must be accomplished if we are to grow into the next, unimpeded and unimpaired. And, if by circumstance or neglect, we do not resolve the issues of one season of life, these unattended issues attach themselves to us and plague us from one season to the next until they are resolved in summer manner.
Deprive some young person of the creative expression of the normal upheavals and emotional turmoil of adolescence and you plant the seed of a problem that will grow and plague him from one season to the next. The farther he gets from the season in which it should have been resolved, the more troublesome it becomes, and the more difficult it is to resolve. It becomes a fearful specter, casting a shadow over more and more of life. Occasionally, I hear some parent remark: "My daughter was such a wonderful teenager, not at all like other teenagers. She never rebelled, or disobeyed, or exerted her will against me at all." I shudder, for the future years will exact a price. Some of the most serious problems with which a pastor, counselor, or psychiatrist must deal are problems which, if they had been faced in the season of life in which they arose, would not have been problems at all. When a 39-year old married person with children begins to act out problems and feelings that should have been resolved as a single 17-year old, the complications can be enormous. There are many attitudes and patterns of behavior which are normal for one season of life, but which become symptoms of sickness if acted out in later seasons of life.
Each season of life leaves some residue which is carried with us throughout all of life. There is something of a child in all of us which brightens and sweetens life, and which gives us a good basis for identifying with children. All of us, in some areas which we keep more or less secret, remain children. These remnants of the past are usually harmless unless they exist in too great abundance, or unless they exist around some unresolved problem. We enjoy an electric train we ostensibly bought for our child; or we promote a teenage romance allegedly in the interest of the young. More seriously, we become irrationally angry and throw things, as a child throws toys. It is possible to be "39 and holding," and still revert back to the age of five. There is humor to be found in it, in direct proportion to the infrequency with which it happens. If it becomes a pattern, then it is a very unhealthy sign.
St. Paul, in 1 Corinthians Chapter 13, speaks of the normal progression that should attend our way from one season to the next. "When I was a child I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child, but when I became a man, I gave up childish ways." [2 Corinthians 13:11] Here Paul refers to the plan in which persons move from one season to the next in order to suggest one's ultimate destiny ~ which consists of a fullness far more complete than anything we can possibly imagine. He suggests another season which lies around the bend in the river of life which we call "death" ~ a season about which we now know only by intimation, and in which there will no longer be a need for former things and in which there will be no lack of "knowledge" and no lack of "love." In these seasons, "we see through a glass darkly, ~ but then we shall see face to face ~ understand as we are understood and know even as also we are known." The writings of Saint Paul and the whole New Testament suggest that the full meaning of life is not attained in this world, but that beyond the dark veil of death, there is another season. It is a season which, by its very nature and quality, will not only have meaning within itself, but which will give meaning to the confusing parts of all past seasons of life, which presently we do not fully understand.
I do not mean that we can offer technical proof of everlasting life, for the power of God lies beyond the puny rationality of humankind.
While we do not presume to understand the full meaning of death, or what lies beyond, we do see that there are vast inequities in life and in death unless there is a season that lies beyond in which a just God will square things. There is almost a universal consensus that we live in a world in which good is ultimately rewarded and evil is ultimately punished. Yet, we see the wicked prosper and the good die young. This plain unelaborated fact can draw to any mind numerous examples of inequities in this life. If we believe that God is just, then there must be a season in which accounts are settled. Logic and justice will not let us abandon Socrates drinking the hemlock or Joan of Arc at the stake, and will not allow us to leave Hitler forever in the bunker in Berlin. Logic and justice will not allow death to end it all for the little child who died before life here could get underway. And, while we do not believe that God took him, we do believe that life received him.
When we see some life cut short just as genius was beginning to bloom, or some life end with death in the middle of a great and creative project, all the reason and logic that is in us cries out that "there must be more." It was said of Robert Louis Stevenson when he died that "he died with a thousand stories in hi heart." If death is the end of our being and doing, the Creator of this universe is a very poor manager of His world. It is not logical that when we are just beginning to get some grasp on the handles of life and just beginning to do our best work, we end up forever on the junk pile of death. There must be more.
There is a strange and beautiful passage of scripture buried deep in the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes. Listen to what it says. "God has made everything beautiful in its time; also put eternity into the human mind, yet so that we cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end." [Ecclesiastes 3:11]
This passage of scripture takes a quantum leap beyond its own time and setting. In a time when human understanding of any sort of afterlife was still dim; in a time when there was not theological formulation of eternal life; the writer of Ecclesiastes felt something in his bones that was not in his books. He wrote down this powerful statement, the details of which were not to be spelled out for hundreds of years. From the very beginning there has been some vague feeling in human beings that "once is not enough"; that there must be something more.
In his play, "Our Town," Thornton Wilder expresses this primitive prodding that God has placed in us all. He has one of his characters say:
"I don't care what they say with their mouths, everybody knows that there is something eternal. And it ain't houses and it ain't land, and it ain't earth, and it ain't even stars. Everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All of the greatest people that ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years, and yet you would be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There is something way down deep that's eternal about every human being."
Admittedly, there are those for whom life has been such an unhappy experience that the whole idea of eternal life of any sort seems to be more of a wicked threat than a happy promise.
But in spite of this anomaly, we want life, more life than we now see. The very nature of God, as He is understood in the JudeoChristian view of life, suggests life after death. The justice and love of God, the nature of humankind, and the nature of life itself, the heart of the teachings of Jesus and of the whole New Testament, call us to believe in life after death.
I do not ultimately believe in life after death because of any mind bogging philosophical arguments, as convincing as they may be. Any rational arguments, taken individually or collectively, leave enough unanswered questions about life after death to seriously impair a confident approach to the grave. I believe in life after death because Jesus said, "Because I live, you shall live also." (John 14:19) I trust the word and the promise of Jesus. I do not understand the mechanics of how this will be. My heart frames questions for which the mind has no ready answers. I do now know the way, but I trust both the person and the living direction of Him who said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life." I believe what Jesus said about life and death and life after death comes from God. He knows the answers to questions that I cannot answer. He not only knows the way, He is the way ~ and I will follow him to and through and beyond the grave. For the Christian, belief in life after death hangs finally, not upon any rational arguments that the mind can frame, but upon faith in the veracity of One Solitary Person, whom we believe to be the Divine Son of God, Jesus of Nazareth, who lived and died and indeed rose from the dead, giving final substance to His most radical promise and claim.
Jesus, in His teachings, assumes the everlasting quality of life. He admits no possibility that a person may escape from life by dying. What we have become in this life, for better or worse, we take with us into a new setting, the exact nature of which we do not know or understand. When we die we leave behind all that we have and take with us all that we are. It is a sobering thought to realize that with death we are not done with life.
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