November 11, 2013

This Shrinking Life

Our culture has sold us the lie that we get bigger and bigger. By “our culture” I mean late, modern consumer culture.  By “lie” I mean the constant percolation of the panoply of multi-media messages that drown out other possibilities and render them seemingly implausible. And by “bigger and bigger” I mean the idea that somehow as we get older our options increase, our freedoms increase, our bank balances increase, and our fun increases. Life eventually becomes “super”, or at least it sails out on a sea of superannuation that can take you and your spouse (who didn’t die horribly and in an untimely fashion of pancreatic/breast cancer or who didn’t run off with a younger version of you) around the world without tiny children or sullen teenagers in tow.  “Free at last! Praise God, we’re free at last!” they seem to say. Retirement ads are the final flourish of the consumer culture – like the dying tree, fecund and profuse in its last year – a last gasp demonstration, before you yourself are finally consumed, that you can sink your (own) teeth into that delicious fruit just one more time.

The truth is, life gets smaller and smaller. We shrink, wizen, disappear, call it what you will.  This has become frighteningly obvious to me as I watch my father fade before my eyes.  Even in these past four weeks, since a nasty fall at home left him in hospital, broken and confused, the change has been alarming.  I walk into a private hospital ward set aside for the elderly, and every day I traipse past rooms full of shrinking people. I glance in.  Withered faces. Pulled up legs. Hunched bodies.  The occasional death rattle.  And then there is Dad.  Losing weight through lack of eating.  Losing his mind, or rather failing to keep it. It is a neglected in-box; junk and important stuff all thrown in together, random, orderless and piling up like those one-hundred-vehicle car crashes you see on foggy motorways on the news.  Chaos  has come back for the creation, and it is painful to watch. In a few short weeks Dad’s life has gone from his small, but tidy and comfortable, one bedroom apartment, to four different hospitals. We have been told he will never go home to live by himself again. Dad’s never been showy, never had a lot and never big-noted himself.  A factory worker all his life; two wives, six boys, thousands of cheddar cheese sandwiches and a yoghurt packed into luncheon Tupperware.  And it has all come down to this.

Dad has some good moments, sitting there in a chair, and in those moments I read Scripture to him.  I read Jesus’ last words to his disciples before the cross. I read Isaiah 40.  I remind him that even youths (and that seems to be everyone who comes into Dad’s room at the moment in comparison to him), lose their youthful vigour and grow weary, but those who wait upon the LORD renew their strength.

And Dad is doing a lot of waiting. Waiting in a hospital to go to another hospital. Waiting in a waiting room for another appointment.  For some people the waiting is in an airport terminal or waiting for the next delicious course to arrive at the table of a fancy restaurant. To all intents and purposes, getting older, retiring, is what they have been waiting for; an opportunity to expand the horizons,  liberated from the expectations and demands of others.  But inexorably, inevitably, their lives too will shrink.  Of course they would never use that word: “shrink”.  The word today is “downsize”.  They “downsize” their house – five bedrooms to three.  “Downsize” and “outsource”.  They no longer mow the lawns, that’s the job of the employee at the over-55s village. It frees them up to play tennis, swim, go on a cruise, all safe in the knowledge that when they come home their downsized, outsourced world will still be working like clockwork.

But clockwork winds down.  Oh, I know we try all sorts of tricks to keep it going, to patch it up, disguise it, eke out a few more sweeps of the dial.  Some of us, with the money to do so, put our hopes not in better clockwork, but in different technology altogether – the digital age; new, nano and nascent.  The singular hope of singularity.

I do not play those cards with Dad.  I do not hold out hope – not in this age anyway.   My hope is resurrection hope. It’s a hope that, just as Dad has entered life in the age to come, in the here and now through the power of the Holy Spirit in him, then what is happening to him is the beginning of an end, not the end.   I do not hope for  some metaphysical pie-in-the-sky future in which he will be less than he once was.  To see a blissful body-less existence as somehow a “hope” is to give in to the shrinkage against which we have fought all of our lives. What sense is there in that? What attraction?  Away with such futile theologies, theologies which have captivated so many in the western church who reject the bodily resurrection outright.  And of course they reject it, given how completely and comprehensively they have been captured by the shrunken, shrivelled hopes plied upon them at every turn.  “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” proclaimed St Paul. Yet there they are, drawing stipends, designing tertiary outlines, proclaiming resurrection-less gospels, as if somehow academic profundity can drown out pity.

No!  Dad’s hope is this, in the words that Job announced, who suffered beyond anything either Dad or I can comprehend:

I know that my redeemer lives,and that in the end he will stand on the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another.  How my heart yearns within me.

Dad seems to know less and less every day at the moment.  But he at least knows this. It’s the hope of a life larger than any life we could imagine here on earth, or have pitched to us via every media that exists. A day will come when our world shrinks smaller than we could ever have imagined, but for those whose hope is to see God in their flesh – then the God who came in flesh will satisfy the deepest yearnings of their hearts.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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