“The world seems a smaller place and less of it is mine.” I heard that in a song somewhere once. It speaks of growing up and looking back and realizing that as one gets older there are fewer possibilities. This is simply a product of living in a world of time, of the drip, drip, drip of moments come and gone.
From the moment we are born, the possibilities ahead of us contract. Each moment sets one on a path which eliminates all other possible paths. Life is one giant contraction. To decide to go one way means one can never go on the other journeys available at that moment. If one decides, at age eighteen, to go to NC State University, to use an example, one eliminates all the other roads for life and spouses and jobs and experience which would have led through, say, UNC-Chapel Hill or Duke or Clemson. This is true for every single day of our lives.
As one ages, this awareness becomes particularly acute. The contraction becomes palpable. One begins to see in one's sights the pinpoint toward which all our days are converging. The number of decisions one still has to make in the future dwindles. The contraction continues until at the moment of death the self becomes a single point of consciousness. One must at the end let go of all family, friends, and all outside experience itself so that one becomes a solitary self. Finally even that point of light is darkened. The almost infinite possibilities present at birth end at that one dot.
This awareness of mortality is not simply the awareness that somewhere in the distant future there will be an end. We experience the loss every day. The contraction is continuous. The passing of time is nothing other than the experience of death. Loss and memory and longing are a form of the grave. We feel it when we look at baby pictures of long grown children or see a snapshot of a movie theatre in our youth that was torn down decades earlier. Nostalgia is mourning. Death is not a moment one encounters at the end of life. It is a condition one lives in. Mortality, the condition of being subject to death, pervades our creaturely existence. It is the sea in which we swim.
As a pastor of a church, of a congregation full of mortal people, young and old, I have noticed that this truth underlies much human behavior. It pushes us to the bottle, to the jogging track, to the arms of the mistress and the wife. It is also a prime reason we go to church. This is a theological truth to be sure. The law proclaims to us that we are empty, the walking dead.
So we go to church to get eternal life, to be connected to the God who is eternal, who took flesh, who forgives sins, who offers heaven. But it is a practical truth as well. Though it is mostly unconscious, this continual sense of loss we feel pushes us on a search for transcendence, for meaning, for something that lasts and is permanent. As life contracts around us we feel a desperate need for wide open spaces, for possibilities.
Death chases us to the sanctuary and when we get there, we are looking for something beyond death. Events such as the birth of children or the death of parents often arouse in otherwise indifferent Christians or even pagans a desire to be in worship. This is often a fleeting notion but it is nonetheless real. It is these markers of time passing, rites of passage, which make us feel how temporary we really are. Feeling small, we grab for something larger.
But here is where things get can get frustrating. So often, church is the very place filled with pastors and leaders anxious to avoid the very subject which drives people to look for the eternal and spiritual. Many churches want to talk about and deal with anything but death. They market to healthy twenty and thirty year olds, many of whom have never attended a funeral or been to a graveyard. Super-happy music, parenting advice, biblical uplift, financial seminars, strategies to ease and improve life, physically and emotionally and spiritually, fill the time spent in church. But in seeking to make us happy and fulfilled at all cost, the churches ignore the gaping monster at the end of the road gobbling us all up, that tiny serpent balled up inside of us scaring us and making us nervous.
So much of our life is filled with avoiding death or dealing it with indirectly. The church ought to be the place of truth telling but frequently it isn’t. Recently, I attended the funeral of a young man in his early twenties who had died suddenly and tragically. The family, the community, his large circle of young friends were all devastated. They were face to face with death. They carried to his funeral a huge need to face this thing they were feeling, which they could not express or understand. But what they got was a “funeral” in a church that is all too common these days: a behemoth church designed to serve every need we can think of from coffee to aerobics to inspiring music. At the service there was a praise band and many smiles and an “uplifting” message which almost entirely avoided the subject at hand: death in all its awfulness. This church was unable to face that one thing that must be faced.
A few days after this funeral I received in my email a song in mp3 format from an old friend. It was a recording his teenage son had done. His son was in a rock band. The band played a sort of music known as Norwegian death metal, related to thrash metal and other offshoots. I was unaware of this particular type of music but I chuckled via email with my friend at the musical taste of the young and listened to the song and sampled some other examples of the genre. I was immediately struck by the fact that obscure teenage bands tackled head on the very subject that the praise band and popular preacher at that funeral had avoided: the darkness and reality of the mortal life we lead. The Gothic strangeness and epic noise such bands employ should not obscure the fact that lyrically and musically they are speaking of death, in fact, seem to be obsessed with it. They know the great contraction that is life and are talking about it, really, really loudly. If the happy clappy church in the suburbs will not face death, the death metal thrash bands do.
It is a strange world where heavy metal bands are brave and truthful and churches are escapist and irrelevant. It hasn’t always been so. The liturgical and hymnic inheritance the church has bequeathed to us is full of forthright, strong expressions of what it means to live in the midst of death. But the realistic tones of such hymns is balanced with the hope of faith, vaccinated with a streak of New Testament proclamation. The liturgy of the church both East and West offers a glimpse of life in the midst of death, of heaven on earth. The church does not need to offer a weekend seminar on death next to the ones on parenting and finance. It does not need to put out powerpoint lectures on mortality and its meaning. It only needs to live out its gospel and liturgical and sacramental witness of resurrection that points to and shares the Living One who is in her midst.
Dying people are hungry to live. This is the beauty and the secret of the church’s worship. While death is its ultimate subject, the church’s worship teaches victory over death quietly, subliminally, week after week after week so that a culture of eternity is inculcated in the hearts and minds and, yes, the bodies of those who attend. We are prepared incessantly to die while we live. And though we are dying, everyday in the church, we live in the presence of the eternal God.
Martin Luther once wrote a hymn that asked the question: In the midst of earthly life, Snares of death surround us; Who shall help us in the strife? It is the eternal question and but it is one that cannot be answered if it is not asked. Churches today must hear this question in the experience of those they seek to serve and answer. It is, finally, the only question worth answering.
Paul Gregory Alms is Pastor at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Catawba, North Carolina.