As the Taliban have taken control of Kabul we have been captivated by images of the airport and the thousands of Afghans attempting to flee their own country, afraid that they may be caught and killed. Their fear of death driving them from the land that was their life.
It is heartening to hear of our country’s response; of offers of sanctuary for the scared and refuge for the refugees. Our common humanity allowing us to share their fear of death and to open our homeland and our hearts to offer some the chance of a new life here because we know that life should be held on to with everything we have and dying deferred until it comes by natural causes.
In our culture, and in many like it, we strive to live longer and longer as doctors and scientists and the charities and foundations that fund them, research relentlessly for the breakthroughs that will preserve life and postpone death for everyone. The facts however remain unchanged.
No matter where or when a human child is born only one thing is certain and that is that one day they will die. The truth is that all of us are dying. Every day lived is one day nearer the end of our time on earth. Some of us know that our time is short. A doctor’s diagnosis, the circumstances in which we live, our age and infirmity may point to a reality that death is not far away. Perhaps we know this for ourselves. Perhaps the new perspective this insight gives has changed the way we now view each day we live.
Of all the awesome, mind-blowing things that make this world so extraordinary maybe top of the list should be life itself. That collections of organic chemicals, surrounded by water formed into the most incredible shapes and carrying out the most complex chemistry, can fly and run and swim and breathe and grow and reproduce, is a miracle that most of us take for granted. Life is the ultimate gift, the most precious commodity, the greatest good. Life is sacred. But life is also fragile, tentative, and that which takes it away is always close at hand.
The darkness of death, the despair we feel when someone or something once living, dies is universal. We all celebrate birth, but we mourn death. We, therefore, tend to focus on one but close our eyes to the other. Over these last months, the daily death toll has described our path through this pandemic. Life is that which must be saved and kept safe, death the reason why we stayed home and distanced ourselves from others. The fear of death has changed our lives, it has changed the world itself.
My heart broke and breaks a little more when I think of just one life passing, alone in a hospital bed, without family or friends beside them. So many lives have ended this way as we have strived to protect the living from dying. So much fear and pain experienced and deep wounds carried by those who live on. As much as death is a fact for all that live, then the act of dying, of leaving this life behind is of much greater significance than these recent restrictions suggest. Perhaps our culture can learn something from other cultures and other times when dying is or was a daily reality that could not be escaped or ignored. Perhaps we might learn, not only how to live well, but also how to die well too.
When we stop and consider the impact we or others have made on this earth, our first thoughts go to how we have spent our hours alive; the time we have invested in our children, our careers, our communities; what we have given to others, what we have left to those who will come after us. We give little or no thought to the impact that how we die will have. But when we look at the news or read history, we all want to know how someone died. Whatever we think now, actually it does matter. Perhaps how we view our own death is as important as how we choose to live.
The fact that Jesus lived is simply an historical fact but it is his death that is of the utmost significance. That he died, how he died and that he chose the circumstances of his own death all matter a great deal. There was intentionality in his death yet he did not die at his own hand. His death was violent but he caused no harm to others. His death did something that living could not do. It was his choosing death that changed death for all who choose to follow him. His dying that makes living better and dying a way from death to life.
The historical book known as The Acts of the Apostles is the second volume in the ancient Greek history that records the life and death of Jesus and the beginnings of the Christian Church. A few pages in, there is the account of the death of a good man named Stephen, killed because the authorities believe him to be a trouble-maker. The author records almost nothing of his life but instead is lavish in his description of the circumstances of his death. Stephen is the first Christian martyr, willing to take the violent consequences from those who do not wish to hear the words he has to say or to consider his life of self-giving service. It is Stephen’s death, given meaning and hope by the death of Jesus, that speaks louder than his life to us today.
Our word ‘martyr’ comes from a Greek word meaning witness. Stephen is one of the hundreds of witnesses who had known Jesus alive, who had seen him killed and had met him after he had ‘stood up again’, inexplicably alive. His friend Jesus had been through the fact of death and somehow had overturned his capital sentence, demonstrating that in him ‘life’, and not ‘death’, is the final word. Stephen knows this to be a reality, and his death shouts it even louder than his life, that those who live and die in the pattern set by Jesus, will also go on to stand up and live again as he did.
We read that as Stephen is condemned to death by the powerful people who are troubled by his testimony and offended by his actions, he glimpses the reality that the temporal and physical boundaries of this world lie very close to the realm where life reigns and human bodies do ‘stand up again’ because death does not have the final say.
Stephen was willing to lay down his life because he understood that how we live, how we deal with our own mortality and how we face death really matters. He knew that if Jesus was able to defeat death, then those who lived like he did and faced death in the same way as he had, could trust his promise that we too one day will be returned to life, like him.
Life is a miracle and mystery that even my degree in Biology has not allowed me to fully fathom. Death will end all of our times on this planet and yet I am inspired and encouraged by martyrs like Stephen, and the countless millions who have lived and died after him. They show us that living well is important but how we face our own death speaks louder still. In this life maybe we should strive not only to live a good life but also to do what we can to die well. Stephen’s death was not a disaster but a triumph that gives us all hope.
It is right to offer a new life to those today who have been able to flee Kabul, but perhaps we should remember too those who cannot leave and those who choose to stay. Among them will be many who, like Stephen, have entrusted their lives to Jesus and are willing to be witnesses to his defeat of death even though they may risk death for doing this. We may never see their faces nor know their names but my prayer is that they may face whatever their future holds with the grace, faith and courage of Stephen.
‘Jesus said… “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”’John 11:25-26