Death or life?
Let’s assume Life.
So am I fully living life, or creeping along fearing the valley of the shadow of death?
We live our lives journeying through these different landscapes. Sometimes we hear the cry of the bird of prey and we become too aware of the shadow overhead.
An awareness of the proximity of death in life might give us the vigour to savour every moment, or we might start living half-lives; retreating, not daring; waiting for the danger to pass, the falcon’s shadow to leave our landscape, until we believe we can poke our heads out again without fear of being snatched. Most of the time we lives somewhere in the middle.
Jesus said, ‘in this world you will have trouble.’ He made no bones about it: no-one gets a pass. Some seem to get more trouble than others, but no-one gets away without a challenge or a choice. This is brave me talking. The other me just spent 10 minutes playing solitaire instead of braving the blank page. What was I afraid of?
Lately a couple of things have reminded me of that Victorian penchant for the memento mori, or a reminder of death. I’m definitely not festooning my home with gothic interior design, but I did find myself today perusing the Wikipedia list of people who had died so far this year, prompted by the notable pile-up of British celebrity obituaries in recent days.
On the same day I received in the post the alumnae magazine from my secondary school. Former students volunteer autobiographical narratives, with entries grouped by age. The magazine starts with women of great age and experience and relatively small daily round, who are counting their blessings that health procedures went well, that despite trouble of one sort or another they have loving relationships or an aspect of life they treasure.
As one turns the pages the stories are about those whose lives are starting to narrow, but mostly happy (or they don’t write in); surprise at the number of decades since graduating yet the feel no different; grandchildren and greats; charity work and retirement. Reading on, in remarkably short order the groups tick by and people record surprise at turning 50, on new careers, on fulfilling lifetime ambitions before it’s too late; and finally to my peers, our lives defined greatly by whether we have had children or not, a huge variety of choices of how we spend our time, but it’s mostly work or family, and a slow admission that we still haven’t worked it all out. But there are pages beyond mine: somehow there is a lengthening number of entries from younger women whose first career has been and gone, who are embarking on everything for the first time, or taking a break, marrying their long-time partner; and then there are the new graduates, fresh out of something; taking the world by storm, living life in the assumption that they couldn’t ever be one of those grey-haired ones whose page they flicked through at the beginning.
When we summarise these things briefly for semi-strangers we only see the highs and lows; daily life is a lot slower, and we can easily get bogged down. When we are going through that valley of the shadow of death, we need friends to make sure we keep putting one foot in front of the other.
When Jesus said, ‘in this world, you will have trouble,’ he added something else. ‘But take heart, because I have conquered the world.’ In this context, the ‘world’ is the world ‘system’ (if you like); everything that carries on oblivious to God’s loving, life-giving nature; life in all its challenges.
Living eternal life, or what we might call living in the light, or being ‘people of The Way’ (as Luke puts it), means we are following Jesus and are not actually subject to death at all. That’s a thought to dwell on.
But it’s easy to start living a life with one eye on the shadow overhead, the vulture just out of sight, the hawk after its prey.
As we being January again, lets allow ourselves to feel Jesus’ encouragement, as if he links arms with us and gives us a winning smile.
In the light of that, when am I going to be as kind to myself as I am to others?
When am I going to be as brave as others assume I already am?
Jesus has set me free to live life to the full.
God’s on my side. He’s bigger than any box I’ve imagined for him. If God is for me, what opposition is worth spoiling my confidence as I live life?
Describing himself as like a shepherd guarding his sheep, Jesus said, “the thief [the Devil] comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full”. (John 10:10). ‘They’ mean us, his sheep. As it says in Deuteronomy 30:19: ‘choose life’.