"I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But as much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking." —Carl Sagan
There's a little stream over in Eastern Oregon near the Idaho border called Riley Creek. It was named for "Judge" Riley, a prospector who grubbed for gold there in the 1870s, largely unrewarded.
Early one morning his partner left camp and discovered a rich deposit of gold near their campsite. He raced back shouting, "Wake up, Riley. We're rich!" "Wake up, Riley. We're rich!" Riley, however, was unmoved. He had died during the night in his sleep.
We live the life of Riley. We, "grunt and sweat under weary life," as Shakespeare said, and then we die. Why go on, we ask ourselves, when every beat of our heart, like a muffled drum, is marching us closer to the grave? Why work and toil and face an endless sequence of frustrations in a world where everyone sooner or later ends up under the ground?
Yet there is an odd hope that springs eternal, a "thing of feathers that perches in the soul," a wistful, flighty thought that perhaps some "thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue."
Mary Trumbull Slosson, a last century author whose quaint and profound folktales give a "glimpse of Joy beyond the walls of the world," writes of that hope in a story about a little boy that was "scaret of dying."
Once there was a boy that was dreadful scaret o' dyin'. Some folks is that way, you know; they ain't never done it to know how it feels, and they're scaret. And this boy was that way. He wa'n't very rugged, his health was sort o' slim, and mebbe that made him think about sech things more. `Tany rate, he was terr'ble scaret o' dyin'. `Twas a long time ago this was,—the times when posies and creaturs could talk so's folks could know what they was sayin'.
And one day, as this boy, his name was Reuben,—I forget his other name, —as Reuben was settin' under a tree, an ellum tree, cryin', he heerd a little, little bit of a voice,—not squeaky, you know, but small and thin and soft like, —and he see `t was a posy talkin'. `T was one o' them posies they call Benjamins, with three-cornered whitey blowths with a mite o' pink on `em, and it talked in a kind o' pinky-white voice, and it says, "What you cryin' for, Reuben? "And he says, "`Cause I'm scaret o' dyin'," says he; "I`m dreadful scaret o' dyin'." Well, what do you think? That posy jest laughed, the most cur'us little pinky-white laugh `t was,—and it says, the Benjamin says: "Dyin'! Scaret o' dyin'? Why, I die myself every single year o' my life." "Die yourself ! "says Reuben "You `re foolin'; you`re alive this minute." "`Course I be," says the Benjamin; "but that `s neither here nor there,—I've died every year sence I can remember." "Don't it hurt? "says the boy. "No, it don't," says the posy; "it `s real nice. You see, you get kind o' tired a-holdin' up your head straight and lookin' peart and wide awake, and tired o' the sun shinin' so hot, and the winds blowin' you to pieces, and the bees a-takin' your honey. So it's nice to feel sleepy and kind o' hang your head down, and get sleepier and sleepier, and then find you `re droppin' off. Then you wake up jest `t the nicest time o' year, and come up and look `round, and—why, I like to die, I do." But someways that didn't help Reuben much as you `d think. "I ain't a posy," he think to himself, "and mebbe I wouldn't come up."
Well, another time he was settin' on a stone in the lower pastur', cryin' again, and he heerd another cur'us little voice. ` T wa' n't like the posy's voice, but `t was a little, wooly, soft, fuzzy voice, and he see `twas a caterpillar atalkin' to him. And the caterpillar says, in his fuzzy little voice, he says, "What you cryin' for, Reuben? "And the boy, he says, "I `m powerful scaret o' dyin', that's why," he says. And that fuzzy caterpillar he laughed. "Dyin' ! "he says. "I `m lottin' on dyin' myself. All my fam'ly," he says, "die every once in a while, and when they wake up they `re jest splendid,—got wings, and fly about, and live on honey and things. Why, I would n't miss it for anything ! "he says. "I `m lottin' on it." But somehow that didn't chirk up Reuben much. "I ain't a caterpillar," he says, "and mebbe I would n't wake up at all."
Well, there was lots o' other things talked to that boy, and tried to help him,—trees and posies and grass and crawlin' things, that was allers a-dyin' and livin'. Reuben thought it didn't help him any, but I guess it did a little mite, for he could n't help thinkin' o' what they every one on `em said. But he was scaret all the same.
And one summer he begun to fail up faster and faster, and he got so tired he couldn't hardly hold his head up, but he was scaret all the same. And one day he was layin' on the bed, and lookin' out o' the east winder, and the sun kep' a-shinin' in his eyes till he shet `em up, and he fell asleep. He had a real good nap, and when he woke up he went out to take a walk.
And he begun to think o' what the posies and trees and creaturs had said about dyin', and how they laughed at his bein' scaret at it, and he says to himself, "Why, someways I don't feel so scaret to-day, but I s'pose I be." And jest then what do you think he done? Why, he met a Angel. He'd never seed one afore, but he knowed it right off. And the Angel says, "Ain't you happy, little boy?" And Reuben says, "Well, I would be, only I `m so dreadful scaret o' dyin'. It must be terr'ble cur'us," he says, "to be dead." And the Angel says, "Why, you be dead." And he was!
Spring posies, trees and creaturs are hints that there is hope for God has planned it that way. But spring alone may leave us with Reuben's worry: "I ain't a posy and mebbe I wouldn't come up."
Spring's hope may be only an illusion, a thought poet Richard Le Galliene picks up in a poem entitled "When I am Very Old." He writes of April baring her flowering breast "In secret woodlands, and, with eyes of dew/Lies to the others as once to me and you." That's why T. S. Eliot, in his pre-Christian days, thought April was, "the cruelest month."
There is a truer word: Jesus' said: "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?" (John 11:25,26).
Who said this? One who rose from the grave. Talk is cheap, they say. It's one thing to make a bold assertion; it's another to back it up. But back it up Jesus did by rising from the dead, "the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep" (1 Corinthians 15:20). His resurrection is the guarantee that God can bring us up and out of the ground. If we believe Jesus he assures us that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of us will continue after we die.
Living again means living out the thought of eternity that God has placed in our hearts; meeting loved ones lost through separating death; living in a world without blood, sweat and tears; seeing our Lord who loves us so much he gave up everything to unite us to him forever.
But there's another meaning I see: since we go around twice we don't have to go for all the gusto now. We may live in broken and ruined bodies for awhile; we may endure poverty and hardship for a time; we may face loneliness, heartache and pain for a season—but no matter. We don't have to have it all this time around. There is a second birth.
From my series: “For Heaven’s Sake"