Medicine for an Anxious Heart: a Christian Meditation on Death and Fear

Court-of-death

 

Peter Lawler stated in a recent article, “Philosophy is learning how to die, to get over obsessing about your personal significance. Being (existence) itself is not in our hands.” Lawler aligns himself with great thinkers such as Plato, Cicero, and Montaigne in believing that Philosophy has the purpose of preparing oneself to die. Shakespeare even incorporates this thinking into his many plays. But, I am convinced that philosophy can only do so much to sooth man’s soul, and I would like to assert that one should replace Philosophy with Christianity. And, I am fully convinced of this: Christianity is learning how to die.


This past year has been quite a year. I graduated from college debt free. My brother was married. I became an uncle. I was offered a job that I wasn’t qualified for. And most importantly, this year, I married my beautiful wife, Stephanie. God has been gracious and kind to me.


But, although this year has been filled with joy and happiness, I found myself deeply saddened. April 15th, 2016 marked the 18th year anniversary of my father, John Francis Elliott’s, death. It can easily be deduced that my father was not at my graduation, at my niece’s birth, at my brother’s wedding, or at my wedding. His death still has a real affect on my life, even though it was 18 years ago. So much so that in April of last year, I had an anxiety attack that landed me in the emergency room of Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane, Washington. Having too much caffeine from coffee and to much stress from school, work, and wedding planning resulted in the anxiety attack, but I am convinced the root cause was my deeply rooted fear of death. Let me explain.


Because of my father’s early death, I have always feared a premature death, myself. My dad died of a heart attack when he was forty-one, and I was so scared that my anxiety attack was a heart attack that I literally tricked my body into thinking it was going to die. The doctor told me that I had experienced a hypochondriac reaction. I had convinced myself I was dying, and my response consisted of being frantic, afraid, and scared.


But, this brings me back to my original point. Christianity is learning how to die, at least a large part of it. Death is the great equalizer of humanity. Every one experiences death. Naked we enter this world, and naked we leave. From dust we are formed, and to dust we return. No matter who you are, you will die. Death is scary, and the fear of death has many tangible reactions. Anxiety, denial, and ignorance are just a few.


I am afraid of death. I am afraid of being separated from my family. I am afraid of the pain I might face in my final hours. I am afraid of not being there for my children. And, every year I remember my dad’s death, and what he has missed, it incarnates that fear even more into my life. Fear is not something that mankind merely experiences, it is a part of our nature. Although a concept, fear incarnates itself into our reality in a concrete way. How does mankind conquer fear and its many consequences? The Apostle John with such sublime and simple words tells us that, “Perfect love casts out fear.”


But, how does love cast out fear? Often the answer to this question places the action on man to love and not act out of fear. Preachers often tell us, “You, human, in your own capacity, do not fear. You, human, in your own capacity, love other.” But this is the wrong way of understanding this concept. Fear has incarnated itself as a part of our human nature. The only thing that can overcome the human incarnation of fear is a divine incarnation of love.


The question one should ask is not “how do I with love cast out fear?” but rather, “how does perfect love, the Triune God, cast out fear?” The Father gives us His Son, Jesus Christ, through His Spirit. And, the presence of Jesus Christ in our souls casts out human fear. Christ casts fear out, because He is perfect love. And, as Christ casts out demons who controlled the men and women they indwelled, so Christ cast out fear from his church’s body. The God who calmed the raging waters of the Galilee Sea, can assuredly calm the fear in his children’s heart.


Therefore, the answer to fear is Christ himself. Christ went through death for humanity. God experienced death. As Peter Leithart eloquently explains in his article Lord over Death, “He (Jesus) is not only Lord over the safe confines of heaven…Not only Lord over galaxies, but Lord in the world of hunger and thirst. Not only the Lord over nations, but the Lord in suffering, injustice, and pain. Not only the Lord over life, but also the Lord and tamer in death.” Christ did this as our brother, a partaker in humanity. Adam sinned and brought death, destruction, and fear upon all mankind. But, through Christ, the God-man, mankind has life, redemption, and love. As Leithart states in another article, “The Lord of life becomes Lord of death. God’s throne is a tomb… Any old god could put up a throne in a temple. The true God must reign also in the midst of hell, among the ruins, or he doesn’t reign at all. He is no living God if he isn’t the living One among the dead.” Our God not only became man, He experienced the dirty, messy, humiliating act of death.


Modern society views death as man’s weakest point, that great adversary of mankind. Death is the point of human existence in which human will and ability can do nothing to stop the impending destruction of life. Death is in its nature a humiliating moment. Perhaps this is why euthanasia is becoming so appealing to many; human will can exercise its power one last time. Human will desires to be lord of its own peaceful death. But, that subject can be tackled at a later time.


In Christian thought, death receives a new nature and purpose. Death is man’s act of victory; man’s final experience of pain and sorrow, becomes its moment of victory. Death is still humbling in Christianity’s understanding, but it is humbling because we submit ourselves to God in humility with faith that he will raise us up incorruptible. Christian’s go to the grave not fearing death, for in death’s humiliation we are exalted to the heavens into the throne room of God. God made his throne the grave, so that man’s grave could become his throne. This is why a large portion of Christianity is learning how to die. For, Christianity teaches that in death we have life if we place our faith in the power of our Savior, Jesus Christ. We literally preach the gospel of Jesus Christ in our very death. Man is sinful and weak and deserving of the punishment of death, but through faith in Jesus Christ man is restored to a divine life that is incorruptible. This is the message of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15.


So, when fear attempts to reincarnate itself into the hearts and minds of men, man is to think of Christ. Think on that perfect love, who incarnated himself on this earth and in your heart. Think on Christ, who descended into the grave and rose victorious. And, pray. Pray for Christ to give you His Spirit. For through His Spirit, we receive the power, presence, and love of Christ, the Eternal Son. Our God, came to this earth as one of us, and conquered not as a powerful King, but as a dying servant. And, through this we have peace. Our anxieties and fears can be calmed, for God has accomplished the work of salvation through His Son, Jesus Christ. And, with this peace, man can truly live. Understanding the true nature of death leads to true life. Anxiety, stress, and despair slowly fade.


My fear of death still exists, and my heart is still anxious. Every year when I remember my father’s premature death, my heart will become heavy with fear and anxiety. But when my heart is heavy, I think of the word’s of Christ, “Come to me all who labor and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Christ speaks to my heart through his Word, through His Church, through His Communion, and through Prayer. He tells me to have no fear, for he has conquered the grave. And, slowly, very slowly, I am learning how to die.


Title Painting: The Court of Death by Rembrandt Peale. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2012645626/

St. Gregory of Nyssa on Divine Transcendence and Presence

“All the heavens can fit in the palm of God’s hand; the earth and the sea are measured in the hollow of His hand. And though He is so great that He can grasp all creation in his palm, you can wholly embrace Him; He dwells within you…saying: I will dwell in them, and walk among them.” [1]


A deep morning fog surrounded me as I read these words from St. Gregory of Nyssa’s Commentary on the Song of Solomon. How fitting it was that this deep fog surrounded me as I read these words, for the fog of nature provides a beautiful image that reflects God’s transcendence, which St. Gregory is expositing.

A thick layer of fog surrounds and encompasses everything within it’s borders. Those walking in the fog actually participate in that fog as they breathe in the air. God too is like this, for God encompasses everything with his presence, and man has the ability to participate and breathe in that very presence.

Often in the Scriptures God’s presence is described as a cloud. God leads the children of Israel as with a cloudy pillar by day,[2] and the Psalmist,[3] along with Job,[4] describe God’s presence as a thick cloud. A cloud represents an image of transcendence. It is visible, yet man cannot grasp it. It can be breathed in to one’s lungs, yet it cannot be held in one’s hands. God too is like this. God is visible, yet we cannot completely comprehend him. God is both attainable and unattainable, graspable and ungraspable, knowable yet incomprehensible.

It is interesting to note that in the Old Testament the cloud of God’s presence dwelt only on the physical tabernacle of the people of Israel. God’s presence and transcendence was only visible to those who worshipped at the tabernacle. But, something divine occurred in the incarnation. God’s presence filled a man, Jesus Christ. The Scriptures say that Christ was “a more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation.”[5] Christ contained the fullness of God’s presence, for He was God. Gregory states, “It is God, then, the Only Begotten, Who encompasses in Himself the entire universe, Who has built His own tabernacle among us.”[6]

The God-man, Christ, acting as the mediator to mankind did not keep the presence of God to Himself. Christ took on human nature as to give us the ability to partake in God’s life. The risen Christ poured out His Spirit to man, to those who believe in his work. [7]

In the Old Testament, the presence of God only dwelt in the tabernacle, and in the New Testament that is still true. Only now the children of God, the church, is that tabernacle.[8] Christ who is the Mediator of man, gave man his Spirit so man can participate in the act of mediation. God uses man to mediate his love to the world. The church is the visible presence of God on earth. It is as a fog covering the face of the earth, allowing the world to breathe in the presence of God. In the church, the world is to be refreshed, for in the individual members of the Church, God is present.

The question that Christians and the Church must ask when contemplating this thought is, “Am I refreshing? Do I correctly display the presence of God to the world around? Do I allow the world to participate in the love of God as I love others?

It is easy to be dismayed when one asks these questions. But, dismay is not the answer to these questions. St. Gregory’s theological thought on God’s transcendence and presence is itself the answer to this question. For, it is in the moment when redeemed man realizes that the transcendent God lives in his person that he is urged to be virtuous.

Therefore, dwell on this thought: The infinite, Trinitarian God rests in those who seek Him. God who is spirit and boundless has given man His very Spirit in our being. He who contains everything is contained in humanity. And, this is only possible through the man, Jesus Christ. Be like Christ. Be refreshing. Be virtuous. Be just. Be temperate. Be courageous. Be charitable. Be these things not to be a good human, rather, be these things because the God who is the very perfection of virtue exists in your person. Christ who is Justice, Temperance, Courage, and Love lives in you through his Spirit to the glory of the Father.

[1] St. Gregory of Nyssa. From Glory to Glory: Texts from Gregory of Nyssa’s Mystical Writings. Ed. Jean Daniélou. Trans. Herbert Musurillo. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary, 1979. Pp. 162.

[2] Exodus 13. New Revised Standard Version.

[3] Psalm 97:2

[4] Job 22:13-4

[5] Hebrews 9:11.

[6] Gregory, pp. 132.

[7] Titus 3:5-7.

[8] 2 Corinthians 4-5.

The Glory of the Gods

What if I told you I was a Greek god? What if I told you that people offered sacrifices of food and libations to me? Well, it is true. Let me explain.


In Greek mythology, gods were built temples in which human subjects would bring offerings of food, drink, and incense. Greek citizens would try and bribe the god into favoring them. Sailors and seamen would offer sacrifices to Poseidon for a safe voyage across the stormy Aegean. Infertile women would offer a sacrifice to Demeter or Aphrodite in the hopes of bringing the fruit of life to their barren wombs. Kings and generals alike would offer many sacrifices to Athena and Ares to have the arrows of their artillery and the swords of their hoplites guided into the hearts of their enemies. In ancient Greece, if one wished to succeed in what he did, he would sacrifice to the gods. The gods were thus utilized for success.


Greek deities were not good. They were and still are symbols of the fall. They were worshipped in fear and utility. They were ruled by their emotions and used their powers to serve and glorify themselves. Greek gods symbolize the misuse of creation. So, while it may have seemed narcissistic that I called myself a Greek god, it actually was my confession of pride, arrogance, and sinful nature.


Has anyone ever said to you, “I need your help,” or, “Without you I would have failed?”


Well, fellow students in my bachelor’s degree constantly told me this when I helped them in their academic endeavors. I though that they needed me, like the Greeks needed their gods. I was like Coeus, the titan god of intelligence. I dressed myself in knowledge, facts, and academics. I was a book reader, a contemplator, and a theologian. I researched in the library, reading Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas. I taught, tutored, and edited the works of many students.  Friends, acquaintances, and students I had never met, would ask me for help. I was offered sacrifices of food and drink. I was frequently given meals and coffee for my help. People told me, “I need you. I need your help. I will fail if you do not help me.” Oh! How I loved those words. Oh! How I my heart was pleased to hear those words and to receive those gifts. I built for myself a temple of knowledge, a temple in which I allowed my heart to commit adultery against its very Creator.


Have you ever experienced this?


Perhaps you are like Apollo, god of music, theatre, and poetry. You dress yourself in the arts. You parade around mastering musical instruments. Maybe you are a poet, a writer, or a lyricist. Are you a lover of the theatre? Do you sit under a favorite tree or in a favorite coffee shop and read Browning, Byron, Shelley, and Shakespeare? Whatever aspect of the arts with which you dress yourself, you are defined as an artist. Are you one to allow your passion to exude through your performances? Do you thrive on the crowds cheering? Do you long for people to tell you how good you are; how wonderful your performance was? Do you perform poetry, sing songs, act in plays to receive adoration, even if for a brief moment? But, Oh! How you cherish that moment; Oh! How you desire that moment of pleasure again and again. Maybe you have built a temple for yourself, where others come to praise you. Perhaps you are Apollo.


Perhaps you are like Aphrodite, goddess of love, beauty, and eternal youth. You dress yourself with make-up, designer clothes, trending fashion, rich perfumes, and anything that could make you attractive, that could make you beautiful. Maybe you have a size zero waist, a beautiful smile, or even the hair of Aphrodite herself. Are you a lover of aesthetics? Do you sit at home fantasizing about wearing Burberry, Dolce & Gabanna, Versace, and Louis Vuitton? Or do you long for love? Do you long to be loved? Are you someone who dresses with garments of beauty in order to be loved? Do you long to hear people tell you how pretty, gorgeous, or stunning you are? When you hear these words, do you feel loved? Oh! How loved you feel, when someone adores your beauty. Oh! How divine you feel, when your beauty is desired. Maybe you have built a temple for yourself, where others come to adore your aesthetic beauty. Perhaps you are Aphrodite.


Perhaps you are like Ares, god of physical strength and war. You dress yourself with workout regiments, dietary restrictions, and muscle. Maybe you are at maximal physical strength. You are the best at sports, a born leader on the field; your teammates follow you as the Greeks followed Odysseus into battle against the Trojans. Are you a lover of physical physique? Do you always need to be stronger? Do you long for the cheers of others when you reach a new level of strength or when you excel in sports? When you hear those words, do you feel accomplished, strong, and powerful? Oh! How mighty you feel when others look to you as a strong man. Maybe you have built a temple for yourself, where others come to praise your strength, agility, and skill. Perhaps you are Ares.


Mankind imitates so many other Greek deities. Hades, the god of the underworld and wealth, was known to seek and accumulate riches. Hermes, the god of travel, commerce, and trade, mastered his occupation and helped others in their economic endeavors. Hera, the god of marriage, blessed new marriages and united spouses. All of these idolatrous deities represent specific idols in our life. Idols are created objects which mankind uses in self-gratification and self-glorification as a means to bring himself control over his life. Mankind’s sinful nature wants freedom from God, and wants to become itself a god. We desire to glorify ourselves, and in our self-glorification we deny any possibility to love and glorify our Creator.


Being a Greek deity is quite exciting, but that which is exciting is not always right. I realized that my deification of self came from the pride I found in my knowledge. Humanity is prone to this. Man seeks life in creation and not in the Creator. Man seeks fame, fortune, popularity through knowledge, athletics, business, artistry, and much more. This is the great temptation in life: to take that which God gives us to steward (creation) and use it for personal gain and self-gratification. It is to deny true deity, God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God cannot be glorified by one who loves and seeks creation as its own end, but sadly all humans are prone to do this. It is the temptation of the forbidden fruit. Take creation and use it to attain deity. It is quite ironic, though, for in using creation to attain deity, we forfeit any chance of becoming one with God. It is ironic because, in my pursuit of knowledge, I lost the true knowledge of God. Knowledge of God (theology) became an object to me. I saw it as a means to the end of glory, fame, and popularity. I became as the vain preachers in Philippians 1:15-16, who preached the knowledge of the gospel, “from envy and strife…from selfish ambition and not sincerely.”


I would like to clarify that music, the arts, fashion, exercise, beauty, strength, knowledge, money, and the many other created objects, which I stated were a means of self-glorification, are not inherently evil. Again, idols would not exist apart from humanity’s fall. And, if idols are objects, which God created and called good, then it is humanity’s fallen nature that is inherently evil. Man in his sin takes creation, that which God created good, and uses it to its own advantage and glorification. When God created the world it was good. Creation in itself is not evil; man uses it for evil. But, man can also use it for good. Creation is at our disposal, and, through the power of the Spirit, man is once again given the ability to use the objects that once enslaved him as channels of adoration to his Creator. Man seeks and serves God with creation through the love of God mediated in the work of Christ by the power of the Spirit.


And, this is the lesson I come back to time after time. Loving God is the cornerstone of all right action. The only thing that separates us from the natural tendency to love and worship ourselves as divine deities is God’s love for us. God has given us his word, his table, and his church as created objects which draw us into his love, through his love, and by his love. Thirst for these! Hunger for these! Be as a deer panting for water. Pray for God to be your sustenance. Do not be as the Greek deities, who take from creation for power and life; Scripture tells us to love the Creator and in his Son find power and life. Jesus is the very image of God to humanity, fully God and fully man, mediator of true life and our new nature. Jesus is not an idol, but God himself. He destroyed sin, death, all idols, and even the devil. Idols no longer control us, and our selfish desires have no power over us as long as mankind loves and seeks the Creator God through the Savior, Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Love God; seek Christ.