Recently, in preaching, I mentioned the case of Tini – an elderly lady in failing health. On one occasion things looked grim and the family were called in to say their goodbyes. As her pastor I was kept in the loop and since she was not expected to make it through the might I called in at the hospital. While struggling for breath Tini assured me that she was at peace and longed to be with her Saviour in glory. But it wasn’t her time yet and in the morning there was a remarkable improvement in her condition. I was there later that day when the doctor told her that she would probably pull through as things were looking decidedly better. I can still picture Tini’s look of disappointment. She really was ready to leave this life and she really did regret the turn for the better in her condition.
Some days after telling that story, in our family devotions, we were reading something Jesus said about the Kingdom of heaven. The Bible study book we were using pointed out how wonderfully glorious the life to come would be. Daughter-number-five commented that it didn’t appeal to her at all and that in her mind the life of the world to come would be boring. I must confess I was a little shocked.
Okay, I admit that there is a huge difference between an elderly lady in failing health and an adolescent for whom life is a great adventure that is really only just beginning. I could hardly expect a 12-year-old to look at the life of the world to come with the same eagerness of a dying 80+ parishioner. But boring…?
I suggested that the life to come would be even more exciting than this life here and now. How could we possibly be bored when we can go swimming with the dolphins on Tuesdays and flying with the eagles on Wednesdays? Well, okay, I’m using some sanctified imagination, but you get my drift. In the Bible there are images of the lion and the lamb feeding together and a little child leading them. There is that wonderful picture at the end of the Bible with a river and trees that bear fruit every month.
Later on I had some second thoughts. When I was twelve I don’t think I was particularly excited by thoughts of heaven and the new creation either. I don’t think I ever said that it seemed boring but I do think that I was also was rather too preoccupied with the here-and-now to think about what life would be like on the other side.
All this demonstrates a certain tension that we live with as Christians. We were made for life and God calls us to make the most of this life. He has placed us in a wonderful world where there is so much to see and do. Life is exciting. We want to live it to the max. But there is also pain and grief and when the misery gets too much we have some marvellous promises and some pictures painted with rather broad brush-strokes of the glories of God’s new creation. How do we resolve that tension? We can err in two directions. We can cling too tightly to this life but we can also be in too much of a hurry to depart and be with the Lord.
Recently I’ve been reading the book, “No such thing as over the hill”. It should be required reading for everyone who turns 60. The author, James Kok, has some very helpful things to say about aging and retirement. But he also addresses this tension that we live with between the importance of this life and our eager (?) anticipation of the life to come.
On the one hand there are those who give up on life. Some even go to the horrible extreme of ending it all themselves. For others a kind of death-wish leads to depression and an early demise. Life here is just not worth living anymore. James Kok tells of a lady who, in his opinion, too quickly chose not to receive medical treatment for a serious illness because she longed to be reunited with her husband in glory.
At the other extreme there are those who just cannot let go of this life. Sometimes it is the family who cannot let go. I recall the family of a dying man, who was already well into his nineties, expecting the doctors to take heroic actions to preserve the life of their Dad a little longer. James Kok says of such people, “Now and then Christians hang onto life longer than they should.”
Paul, in Philippians 1, has the right attitude: “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” For Christians it is always a win-win situation. Living life here in service of our Lord and Master is richly satisfying – even into retirement and old age, as James Kok so clearly shows. But to die is not a loss. It is an incredible gain to be with our Saviour in glory.