Loving the Stars Too Much to Fear the Night: Old First E-pistle 02.

I trust, even depend on serendipity –“the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way.”

I can’t exactly explain my confidence. Perhaps it’s because I believe God is more in charge of the world than any of us. And if we can stop believing we have to make all the connections ourselves, we begin to experience what God can do that we cannot…

Here’s an example of how serendipity works in my daily life. A couple of weeks ago, one morning, I was reading the paper on-line. Skipping around, first I read “Ashes to Ashes, But First A Nice Pine Box,“ the reflections of a surgeon who built his own casket as he was nearing the end of his life after a long battle with cancer. Second, I read “The Danger of Certainty: A Lesson from Auschwitz.” about the impossibility of humans having any absolute knowledge and the consequences of our failing to recognize our limitation.

The former referenced a line from the 19th century poet Sarah Williams’ “The Old Astronomer to His Pupil:”

“I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night,”

With that prompting, together these two articles former an elegy even bigger than either of them separately: promising that our finitude — though often the occasion of understandable and heartfelt grieving — is actually as much a cause for celebration and humility.

In a similar paean to serendipity, last week I had a conversation with a friend online. Also a pastor, he was telling me how positively giddy he was feeling at the prospect of being able to make a change in his life after feeling stuck for some time. I responded, “Not surprising, I guess, but new life turns out to be quite the promise.”

The next message I read came from another friend, upon the death of her mom after an illness of the last two years. She was thanking everyone for their love and support, their help and care for her mom through the days of her sickness.

Together, the two, seemingly unrelated messages, left me with a new insight.

I usually find the image of death as liberation from captivity in a lesser material world disturbing. Freeing a spirit from its limitation in a physical body isn’t a Christian understanding of mortality, no matter how often you might think so from funeral hymns. They can be misleading.

That’s not really the Christian understanding of life or death or life after death, because our faith doesn’t relegate the body to a second class status — something less than a more elevated or important spirit. That notion was an import from Platonic Greek philosophy. The earlier and, I believe, predominating biblical view — stated most clearly in the Genesis creation story — is that God created all things and therefore “they are good.”

But in the serendipitous order of messages from my two friends, I did see something I had not otherwise thought of before.

As we age and our bodies slow down and grow more frail, there can come a time when our spirit undiminished is severely limited by a failing body. And afterwards, that spirit can be said to be freed from the body that had come to limit it. In other words, we who are eternal outlast the finite lifetime of the bodies with which we experience this world.

In that sense, it’s not freedom from being trapped in one’s body one’s whole life. But one could see, even look forward to, a promise of living on even after our bodies have to die. The prospect of being able to make a change after feeling stuck for some time.

When the time comes, as it inevitably must, that our bodies are slowing down and slowing us down… could we, alongside of some sadness for the loss of physical capacity, also feel some giddiness… at the prospect that there might yet come a change that will get us beyond the ways that we have come to be stuck?

I hope that when MY time comes, when my physical existence has become frail and endangered, alongside of some sadness, I might remember and feel the giddiness… that there might yet come a change in my life, a break through beyond being stuck, that still provides the promise of new life…

See you in church,

Michael