Facing our mortality

When beggars die, there are no comets seen; The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.  (Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act 2, Scene 2)

In any given population there will be a few individuals whose death will be reported by media and mourned by grieving masses. Some people make the news, not because of their life but because of the tragic circumstances in which they died. Many more will people die without even a footnote in the local obituary, and yet their death is as a real and the grief from loved ones as profound.

More celebrities will depart this world in 2017, and countless thousands of anonymous people will join them in the grave. This isn’t being facetious or morbid, but stating what is inevitable

As we have been assailed with stories of people dying we respond to death with revulsion, and rightly so, for it is a destroyer of life and friendship; death is our enemy. When we have witnessed someone suffer for an extended season, there can be relief in their passing, but it is not their life that wish to see ending but their suffering.

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Their mortality reminds us of our own, and it is wise for us to give due consideration to our beliefs and hopes over the grave.

It is not uncommon for people to sentimentalise and even trivialise death. Perhaps we do so in the hope of defying this great adversary.

Death is nothing at all.

It does not count.

I have only slipped away into the next room.

Nothing has happened.

(Henry Scott-Holland)

Another approach, and one that is probably more common, is that of rage and anger, as Dylan Thomas famously cried,

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,

Because their words had forked no lightning they

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright

Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,

And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight

Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,

Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

There is however an alternative to uncertain optimism and despair, and it is spelled out in the good news of Jesus Christ,

“Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.

“Where, O death, is your victory?

    Where, O death, is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

(1 Corinthians 15:51-57)

Throughout the life and ministry of Jesus Christ we see God who empathises with those who grieve. John ch.11 records the story of one of Jesus’ close friend, Lazarus, falling ill and dying. When Jesus reached the town where Lazarus lived and died, he mourned with the family and outside the tomb “he wept”.

Jesus not only sat alongside those in the midst of grief, but he has walked the path of death. He endured its full horrors, not because of sickness or tragic circumstances, but he chose to enter into death out of love for humanity and to face hell for us. Indeed, in the hours before his crucifixion he told his disciples, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” (Matt 26:38)

We are all approaching death, faster than we imagine; it is the great wall that cannot be avoided. But it does not have to be journeyed alone, and it does not have to endured without certain hope of resurrection. Imprinted into the fabric of the deathly world is the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead; real, historic, physical, and forever resurrection.

We can choose to pin our hopes on imagined sleep-like permanence, or fight off all thoughts of death until the moment arrives and we explode with fearful rage, or we can place our confidence in the one who has defeated death and who promises eternal resurrection to all who accept him, to the celebrity and the unknown, the beggar and the prince.

Two Campbells and a Bird sat down to chat

Nathan Campbell has responded to recent articles written by Mike Bird and myself, criticising the tone and contour of what we said.

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First up, I want to say that I’d be happy to play the bagpipes and swap stories about the MacDonalds with my fellow Campbell any day of the week. More than that, I love my brother Nathan’s passion for the Gospel of Jesus Christ; his faith in the power of God’s good news is an example for Christians across the country.

I agree with so much of what Nathan has written: Yes, the laws are dumb, yes Christ is triumphant, yes Daniel Andrews’ policies are small fish in comparison with what many believers are suffering in the world. His reminders of the Christian hope are wonderfully important and refreshing in an age where we can get bogged down in some of the daily mud of life.

At the same time, Nathan has profoundly misunderstood our tone, and his critique of our alleged lack of Gospel-centredness is disappointing and off the mark.

First, he conflates voicing concern with fear and panic. I don’t feel afraid or panicked, and neither am I suggesting that we should feel as such. On the other hand, it is not unreasonable to express legitimate concerns over legislation that will impact religious freedom in Victoria. 

Second, I sense as though Nathan doesn’t appreciate the role of rhetorical devices when illustrating points for readers. Of course Daniel Andrews is not Henry VIII or Julius Caesar; but his disdain for opposing viewpoints and his desire to squash religious liberties is real enough, and that’s the point.

Third, and this one troubles me the most, Nathan has confused us expressing concern over a current issue with having a myopic view of God’s Kingdom, and of diminishing Christ’s victory over the grave.

I am happy to concede that if my latest blog piece was the only thing people ever read of mine, readers might misconstrue the reality which drives me; as they say, context is everything. But of course, this is only one of many articles dealing with multiple theological, social, and political matters. For the most part, the Gospel is front and centre, and when it is not, the Gospel is nonetheless serving in the background as the framework in which I express my views. Must every article contain an explicit ‘this is the Gospel’ clause?

Indeed, it is our confidence in the Gospel that give us courage to respond to current issues. We are not afraid to speak and even to lose these battles, because we know who has ultimately won.

Nathan wrote, “I capitalise this because we’re worried about a piddling little thing like the Premier of the State of Victoria; not exactly a global superpower”. 

That is easy to say if you’re not one of the 5 million piddling Victorians living in this State. To be honest, I think our friend from Queensland has on this occasion  denuded the situation in Victoria in a way that is a little unhelpful. Evangelicals should never put too much emphasis on our present circumstances, but neither should we make it altogether redundant.

As a way of outlining some Gospel perspective to the matters Nathan has raised, let me reiterate portions of a piece that I wrote for TGCA in June this year,

“We must concede that Churches no longer occupy a position in the middle, but we don’t want to evacuate the public space altogether. I want to argue that it is worth fighting for a voice in public discourse, but we do so with the belief that the Gospel does not depend upon it. So why should we defend notions of ‘freedom of speech’.

First of all, we have something to say. We have good news to speak and show our neighbours, and so why would we walk away from secular principles that give us freedom for speaking and contributing?

Secondly, we should defend the right to speak for the sake of those who speak against us. Is this not a way in which we love our neighbour?  Is it also not a sign of a mature society, one that is big enough to allow a plurality of voices, and to say ‘I disagree with you, but let’s hear you out and then talk it through’.

Thirdly, we are members of a democratic society, which in principle gives permission for Christians and atheists alike to speak and offer their opinion.

Our democratic liberties give Christians a platform and context for doing public ministry, and we are thankful for this, but the Gospel is not curtailed by the limitations or freedoms of liberal democracy. Indeed, history demonstrates that Churches have often flourished where they have been most resented. More importantly, Jesus Christ taught a theology of the world which lives in opposition to God and which hates those who follow Jesus. Why should we assume Australia is any different?

Are, as Greg Sheridan suggests, ‘churches in crisis now on all fronts’? It depends on how one defines the mission and role of the church.

Our aim is to love others, whether our convictions are affirmed by others or not.

Our goal is not relevance, for the Gospel we believe is not defined by a popularist epistemological current, but by the word of the cross, which is foolishness to the wise and powerful of this world. Instead, our purpose is to preach this foolishness for through it God works to redeem and heal.

Our mission is not to set up power structures at the centre of society, but to speak the Gospel and to love others no matter where we find ourselves situated in relation to broader society.

Freedom of speech has become the gordian knot of our day. Politicians, lawyers, and academics will ponder and debate and try to find a way to navigate through the many layers of twisted and knotted rope, and while their answers will have implications for Christian speech and life in public, our hope does not lay with them, but in the Gospel, a word that is sharper than a two edged sword. Our hope rests in the Christ who has promised that he will build his church and not even Hades can stand against it.

Sadly many Christians have sold their soul in order to buy a place at the centre of public life, and they are now being marshalled into following the lead of the social progressives, and others are instead holding tight to their conservative neuroses. There are however exceptions; across the land there are churches growing and people are becoming Christians, and there are Bible colleges in Australian cites who are training more men and women than in the previous generation. There are Christians serving in Parliament, teaching in universities, and working in a thousand different jobs. And to these men and women, keep preaching and living the Gospel, loudly from the centre or whispering it from the edge, and through it God will keep working his grace and growing his Kingdom.”