Why “fear of death tomorrow” prevents “joy of life today”

I’m presently reading a book about the importance of opening oneself to direct encounter with creation, in preparation for a  40 day hike in the Alps this summer.  The author offers some of the best prose I’ve digested in a long time, but more significantly, exposes the frightful momentum in our culture towards a disembodied existence, spending most of our lives shielded by houses and screens from what God teaches us through cold and heat, wet and dry, light and dark, seasons.

David Abram  recalls his childhood of embodied movement, interacting with nature, wild eyed with wonder as he listened to frogs, waded in creeks, and got drunk on looking at the stars.  Then, in high school, he writes about hitting the books:  “The prescription for my eyeglasses  got stronger, while my skin wondered what’d become of the wind that used to explode past my face as I cycled the alleys and narrow woodlands…”  He continues:  “As I reflect on it now, it seems that my skin became less porous, less permeable to the abundant life that surrounds, as my conscious self steadily withdrew its participation from sensuous nature and began to live more in a clutch of heady abstractions.”

Why do we withdraw into walls, into our shells, into our heads?  Abram posits our fear of death leads to creation of sanitized worlds so that we won’t be reminded of  our impermanence.  We’ve worked hard to create an alternate, techno/industrial reality in which we’re shielded from the moment by moment truth that we not only eat food; our bodies are ultimately food for others.  Because this is terrifying to us, we build great systems to both stall death and hide it from our collective consciousness.  He says this so well:  “We cannot abide our vulnerability, our utter dependence upon a world that can eat us”.

Our attempts to avoid the truth, however, have come at a cost on several levels.  Withdrawal from nature cuts us off from a source of revelation that’s healing and life giving in its own right, but more importantly, invites us to lives of gratitude and celebration, ultimately inviting us to Christ himself.

Fear of death keeps us locked up.    Mosquitoes, ticks, bears, lightning, slipping on rocks, fast streams, cold, sunburn, heights.  They’re all a threat.  Why bother when you play Wii, stay indoors, and live to tell about it.   The homeless, financially shipwrecked, mentally ill – these too are perceived as threats to our so called secure lives, and so we stay away.   A bible study’s easier, in the comfort of the like minded.  Thus does the bigger world, which not only heals and delights, but also hurts and terrifies, remain distant from most our daily lives.  We’ve built a fortress and we’re hiding:  from risk and our own suffering and mortality.

This alternative comes at a great price.  Abram writes, “only now do we notice that all our technological utopias and dreams of machine mediated immortality may fire our minds but they cannot feed our bodies.  Indeed, most of our transcendent technological visions remain motivated by a fright of the body and its myriad susceptibilities.”  Or, to quote the bible,   “through fear of death (humanity) has been subject to slavery…”

I love it when people who don’t show signs of having my same faith are saying the exactly what Jesus is saying: Fear of death will kill you early.  You might live longer in terms of days, but surely not in terms of quality, because the reality is that everything worth doing in this life requires risk.

Crossing social divides requires risk, and we make the gospel real and visible when we take this risk because a core message is that the dividing walls are being broken down.

Living generously requires risk, because it means letting go of resources, whether time, energy, money, to be a blessing to others and as an act of worship, instead of storing them away for later or spending them on ourselves.

Getting out so that God can speak to you in creation requires risk, and this too has been a central reality in the lives of people who make the good news visible, from Abraham, to David, to Jesus, to Paul.  Only in very recent history has our world so elevated convenience and safety that we can now live in climate controlled comfort 24/7, bug free, dirt free, and ostensibly risk free.

Recognizing that you are part of a life cycle and that someday you’ll be food, even as today you enjoy food, requires courage, but of course we see that Paul considered dying to be gain, not loss, and so was able to live fully, freely, boldly.

That passage quoted a few lines up, from the book of Hebrews in the Bible, is set in a context which basically offers the remarkably good news that we ca be free from the fear of death, and hence free from  slavery to the Matrix that is our techno/industrial world.

How am I freed from the fear of death?

By entering eternal life now.  – The future of wholeness, joy, and generosity that God is bringing as the climax of history is already here for all who want it.  Embracing God’s reign now means that death is not a transfer of citizenship so much as a movement home to the fullness and wholeness of that which we now only know in part.

By embracing the reality of mortality.  I was chatting with a friend on Monday who said that his dad, when in his 90’s, skipped a surgery that would have prolonged his life a few months and in the end, his choice was rooted in the belief that life goes on.

By cherishing the gifts of each day for what they are:  foretastes of eternity.   Crossing social divides, loving unconditionally, giving generously, and sleeping under the stars are all cut from the same cloth called “abundant life” and all of its available by entering eternity now.

 

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