Was it something that somebody said?
Mama, I know we broke the rules…
Ashes of laughter
The ghost is clear
Why do the best things always disappear
-The Band, Ophelia
A friend of mine was telling a ghost story the other day. He’s an accomplished storyteller in the finest old rural Virginia style, his first-person narrative replete with pregnant pauses in all the right places, lurid descriptions of the twilight landscape, the necessary insistence that ghosts are of course wholly Biblical (of course), and the unresolved tension of watching the mysterious form of the Indian canoe with its darkling occupants pass soundlessly over the edge of the waterfall as the forbidden cigarette fell unnoticed from his open lips onto the seat of the campground picnic table. In spite of myself my hair stood on end and my blood ran cold listening to him talk, the unmistakable signs of a great ghost story.
What is it with the paranormal? Whether or not we are among those who might actually pursue the feeling of dread that must accompany an encounter with the departed, there is not a person living who has not felt an icy touch trace their spine from the very thought of it. It is an innate horror of the loss of life, a premonition that each of us must one day let slip from our fingers the warmth of being, whether we are willing or no. It is a stubborn refusal to accept that life must end.
There’s nothing wrong with such a reaction; in fact, there would be something very wrong if we didn’t have it. Human beings were not designed to die. You can hear it in the determination of a newborn baby’s first gasp of air, know it in the strength of the newlywed’s first glad embrace, see it in the desperate fear of the girl who sixty years ago could not imagine herself as any older than thirteen and who now glimpses for the first time her unbending mortality. We cling to life as the driven snow clings to the sheer looming cliff face, unwilling to let the same wind of death pull us away that has softly done the same for every other person who has ever lived.
And it is not only our final breath that teaches us this. The most beautiful friendships, the poignant moments of truth, the breathtaking triumphs we have achieved, the times when our hearts ached till we could barely breathe from longing fulfilled, the overawing discovery of beauty in this ragged world; all these happen to each of us, yet they so unflinchingly fade away. We try with all we have to trace them to their source, but the mist swirls about us, and the inaudible sound of anguish – of the troubled soul of a world that will never be at peace – is all we are left with.
For we have forgotten that death is not our future; it is our past. It is something that already happened to us. Once in a garden we tried to look beyond the beauty of a sinless world, hoping for something that would answer the gnawing question raised in our hearts by our wily Enemy, looking for a way to become like God. Our father and mother took of the forbidden fruit so they could know of good and evil, and the innocence of their hearts was ripped away to open their eyes to deep heaven, and all at once they knew. They knew that there was a path that, although hopeless, would offer them the independence from God they so desired. They knew that beauty could no longer offer its naked glory to an obedient creation, for now a new and terrible destiny had arisen in the world: its name was Death.
Death severed our relationship with our Creator. It stood a mighty angel between us and Paradise, and cut us off from the Tree of Life. It shattered the endless cosmic road we were to explore and inhabit together as one united human race and it consigned us to the shortest two-dimensional distance between two points that a human life is today. And it casts its shadow upon everything we touch and know until the moment when it becomes our most inescapable reality.
But here is the glory of the Christian religion. We have a great high priest Who has gone through the heavens, Who has taken upon Himself the death of the world so that we might take on us His eternal life. We have One who faced the loss of all that was dear to Him: His friends, His human hopes and dreams, His life, and the most bitter blow of all, the loss of perfect communion with His heavenly Father. We have One who comes to us walking, impossibly, on the waters that should have claimed His life. And in our terror He speaks to us, in a voice more alive than any we have ever heard before:
Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.
I lost two of my best friends in the world in 2017 because I broke the rules. The pain of that loss overwhelms me completely when it comes to mind, for there is no hope remaining in my heart that they will ever come back. The ashes of the laughter we had together rises up to mock me; and at times it feels that the best things have indeed disappeared from my life. But the words of Jesus give me a great hope, and a foretaste of an eternal peace comes over me. And afraid no longer, I remain confident of this: I will look upon the goodness of the Lord, in the land of the living.