Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Great Awakening

“One short sleep past and we wake eternally.”

—John Donne

I have a treasured memory of gatherings with family friends when our boys were small. We adults would talk into the night. Our children, weary with play would curl up on a couch or chair and fall asleep.

When it was time to leave, I would gather our children into my arms, carry them to the car, lay them in the back seat and take them home. When we arrived I would pick them up again, take them to their beds, tuck them in, kiss them goodnight, turn out the light and close the door. In the morning they would awaken—at home.

This has become a parable for me of the night on which we “sleep in Jesus,” and awaken in our eternal home, the home that will at last heal the weariness and homesickness that has marked our days.

Poets, philosophers and raconteurs have often compared sleep and death. In sleep our eyes are closed, our bodies are still, our respiration so slight we seem not to be breathing at all. Ancient writers, in fact, referred to sleep as a “little death.”

The New Testament writers picked up the symbol and gave it new meaning. While secular Greek poets and other authors referred to death as “perpetual sleep,” or “everlasting sleep,” the sacred text speaks of a “sleep” that leads to a great awakening.

Early Christians seized on the symbol. The catacombs in Rome, which were first constructed and used by the early Christians for burial sites, were called koimeteria (our word, “cemetery”) or “sleeping places,” a belief reflected in numerous inscriptions on sarcophagi: “He/She sleeps in Jesus.”

These early Christians could extract the full meaning of the metaphor because they understood that death is exactly like sleep. We slumber and awaken immediately after. (We’re not conscious of time when we fall asleep.) Thus sleep is good and nothing to fear. Death, in fact, is heaven’s cure for all earth’s afflictions—“good for what ails us,” my mother used to say.

John Donne, whom I quoted above, has one of the best commentaries on death as sleep, or so it seems to me. He begins with his oft–quoted phrase “Death be not proud, though some have called thee / Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so.”

“Really?” we ask, “Death not dreadful?” Donne, a devout Christian, answers that death cannot boast because it cannot kill us. Death is mere “rest and sleepe,” and, he continues, there is great pleasure in sleep: “much more must flow”—a place to rest our weary bones. “Why swell'st thou then,” Donne asks of Death,  “One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally, / And death shall be no more...” This is the death of death and our dread.

I came across an Old Testament text the other day, a closing comment that ”Moses died…at the word of the Lord.“ The Hebrew text reads, ”Moses died…with the mouth of the Lord,“ a phrase ancient rabbis translated, ”With the kiss of the Lord.“

Is it asking too much to envision God bending over us on our final night on earth, tucking us in and kissing us goodnight. Then, “one short sleep past, wee wake eternally.”

We’re all getting closer to that great gettin’ up day.

DHR

Friday, July 1, 2011

Problems and Mysteries

“A problem is something which one runs up against, which bars the way. A mystery, however, is something in which I find myself involved” (philosopher Gabriel Marcel).
 
I have, on occasion, left the keys to my car in the ignition and locked the door.  I return to discover that I can’t get in the car, and I’m far from home. I have a problem. 
 
Problems can be amusing (like playing “Angry Birds” on my iPad), frustrating (like locking my keys in the car), or challenging (like solving a Rubic’s Cube). Problems call for the application of thought and technique and most can be resolved in time.
 
But there are some issues that do not yield to objective thinking and method. These are the big questions, the deep mysteries of life: Is God good? Does he love me? What will happen if I give myself wholly to him? Can I know his love and acceptance?
 
These are not problems that can be solved by calculation; they are mysteries. They demand “involvement,” a choice, a commitment, a childlike leap of faith.
 
In George MacDonald’s novel, The Golden Key, he tells the story of two child, Mossy and Tangle, who possess the key to heaven (Jesus), but who struggle with much uncertainty and doubt along the way.  At one point Mossy asks the Old Man of the Earth, (the symbol of deep wisdom): “Tell me the way to the country whence the shadows fall (heaven).”

The Old Man of the Earth stooped over the floor of the cave, raised a huge stone from it, and left it leaning. It disclosed a great hole that went plumb-down.
 
“That is the way,” he said.
 
“But there are no stairs...“
 
“You must throw yourself in. There is no other way.”

DHR





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