By JIM NICHOLS
Do you remember your first elementary school building? I do. I spent the first three-plus years of my education at Francis Willard Elementary in Kansas City. In kindergarten a boy held a crayon in his hand for a long time and it soon got softened and melted enough he could bend it into a curl; I was awed and jealous of the idea.
I walked to that school from my house on Olive Street. When visiting the street one year much later, I found the house abandoned with a “condemned” sign on the front door. The next time I drove by the house had vanished; it had been leveled and replaced by grass in between two decrepit houses of neighbors.
One year the local shoe store exploded and scattered shoes everywhere. It was replaced by Arthur’s, a wonderful classic drugstore that sold chocolate revel ice cream cones. Later, Arthur’s burned to the ground in a fire. That corner has turned into a trinket shop now.
After we moved to the suburbs, within a few years old Francis Willard was boarded up. I drove by it a few times and was saddened. I drove by it a few years later and it was gone, leveled. There was nothing left but dirt, grass, and rocks.
My wife’s elementary school (where her mother also taught for many years) was leveled and replaced by a more modern school building.
The first house of our newly married life and children is a parking lot now; I have wondered where all the roaches moved.
It is no surprise to find that places important to us in our earlier life have now disappeared; some have been replaced, but many are just gone. The concept applies not just to places, but also to relationships and to people themselves. It is as if places, relationships, and even people wear out. The fact is they die.
We have some discomfort with admitting that, apparently, everything human dies in some fashion. Occasionally, even a local church dies. We have some euphemisms for this, such as “passing away.” I see no reason to criticize these euphemisms; they communicate truths. Jesus frequently speaks of something passing away and, frankly, teaches that we had better be prepared for it because it is inevitable. The scattered apocalyptic parts of scripture seem to be trying to prepare us for these events. Richard Rohr suggests that we need to be cautious to avoid two temptations; the first is to take this world far too seriously and the second related is to try to hold on to everything. Those are a recipe for unhappiness, sorrow, and despair; we can each speak to that personally.
It is a lesson that we do not seem to want to learn; it is admitting that nothing is permanent. We need to tell ourselves (speaking to myself too) that this is a truth, not a threat. God does not want us to view the temporariness of life morbidly, but, instead, realistically. I believe what he really desires is that we convert the realities of death to affirmations of at least two truths.
One of the truths is the acceptance of the commonality of death. If something as common as death occurs, why do we act surprised when it does? The biologist in me creeps in when I remember great teachings such as a seed falling to the ground. Seeds appear dry and lifeless and, when we push them under some dark soil, we have added another insult. Jesus even uses the terminology of the seed “dying,” but then, of course speaks of the seed “bearing much fruit” later. That adult plant is not a new life; it is a converted, continuous part of a previously existing life in the seed. Jesus is describing life as a continuum rather than as a beginning and an ending; the life continues although in different form. The type of fruit may change.
The second truth returns to Gethsemane, to Jesus’ last hours. He appears to be struggling with his impending crucifixion. In the terror of that night, he asks that he not have to go through with it. Then, agreeing to follow the path ahead of him, he returns to the disciples. It seems that even Jesus had to recognize what could be changed and what could not.
Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current medical chaplain