No More Night

  

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=4iPIi7sunEU

Two years ago today, my grandmother passed away. The death itself was not sudden, but the illness leading to it was. She did have several days of lucidity between the diagnosis of severe infection and the medically induced sedation that managed her pain and kept her from feeling the need to gasp for air as her body shut down. Rather than being a blessing for her and for the family at the end, her clarity of thought broke our hearts. 


I’ve seen people die in front of me. I’ve been present as many more have finally chosen hospice—I stayed on their beds and held their hands as they crumbled when the other doctors left the room. And I’ve never seen anyone—believer or not—die with confidence. I believe that it happens—just not as often as we might think. We’ve all heard of famous last words, but there would be so many more if everyone had them. In many ways, modern medicine prevents them. People die after our interventions have left them unable to speak. The last words were before the ventilator was hooked up—but that was so long ago that we can’t remember what they were. 

My grandmother was a planner. She had been distributing her possessions for years, and she had saved a box of special ones for each child, grandchild, and great-grandchild in the family along with a letter describing its contents and their significance to her. Her estate was completely in order. She had said her goodbyes to her dearest friends at church. She had written the program for her funeral. For someone who seemed so prepared for death and so at peace with its nearness before her final illness, she surprised me with her words in her last days. 

“I just don’t think I’ve been a very good Christian…”

“What if we’re wrong?”

“I’m not as scared of dying as I am of what happens afterward.”

These words weren’t produced from a cloud of dementia. I actually felt like this was the ultimate clarity demanded by a desperation for truth that many of us will never experience until the time for knowledge has all but run out. She questioned everything I had watched her confidently believe and live out my entire life. So many others do the same. A few months before Pascal’s mother died, she said almost the exact same words my grandmother had said. I answered her with the scripture she loved. Although I could relate to her doubt, I wept because she was dying in such darkness. I battle this now with the hope that I won’t have to at the end.

My grandmother had planned her funeral down to who would sing what song. It was the most beautiful service I’ve ever been to, and also one of the most difficult. So much of the service answered the doubt my grandmother died with—the doubt I was drowning in. Each of her four children spoke about life with her. The most touching eulogy was my dad’s, because he attributed his triumph over decades of addiction to her love for Christ that she also nurtured within him. 

We sang her favorite him—“Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus” by Helen H. Lemmel. Then, as requested by my grandmother, my mom sang her favorite song of all: “No More Night” by David Phelps. I’ve usually done all the crying I can do by the time I get to a funeral. But this funeral came after one of the darkest weeks of my life, and the promise of Revelation 21:4 and the words of that song were just too much. Can I hope for a future without pain and tears and darkness when it sometimes seems like they are the only thing that’s real? My grandmother did. That song was her manifesto, and she offered it to us after her death to remind us of where her hope always was, even though we couldn’t see it through the darkness at the end. Even though she couldn’t see it, either. The lyrics are powerful:

Lyrics

The timeless theme, earth and
heaven will pass away. It’s not a
dream, God will make all things
new that day. Gone is the curse
from which I stumbled and fell.
Evil is banished to eternal hell.

No more night. No more pain.
No more tears. Never crying
again. And praises to the great “I
AM.” We will live in the light of
the risen Lamb.

See all around, now the nations
bow down to sing. The only
sound is the praises to Christ,
our King. Slowly the names from
the book are read. I know the
King, so there’s no need to dread.

No more night. No more pain.
No more tears. Never crying
again. And praises to the great “I
AM.” We will live in the light of
the risen Lamb.

See over there, there’s a mansion,
oh that’s prepared just for me,
where I will live with my savior
eternally.

No more night. No more pain.
No more tears. Never crying
again. And praises to the great “I
AM.” We will live in the light of
the risen Lamb.

All praises to the great “I AM.”
We’re gonna live in the light of
the risen Lamb


I don’t know if the darkness broke on the other side of her last breath. All I know is that she believed that it would. She had significant doubt, and she had no significant amount of time to resolve it. Doubt and darkness and death were rolling in like a tombstone in her last days, and then she died two years ago this Easter Sunday.

But if Easter tells us anything, it’s that dead things can live again. Even after darkness and death and a shaking earth and a closed door, light and life and peace can break through. Even though my grandmother died in darkness, she left us a song about the victory over that darkness—a victory she didn’t experience while living. She still had hope because of Easter—because she believed that even Jesus didn’t have victory over death and sin until after he took his last breath. 

Some people maintain their faith until the end and lead victorious lives. Some people, like my grandmother, live with doubt and die in defeat. That’s where I am today. But on Easter Sunday, I can still have hope for something more. I can remember how the story goes—Jesus didn’t defeat death until after he died. I can remember that the prevention of total destruction might not be as glorious as the perfect rebuilding afterward. I can remember that the most dazzling light is not the dim one preventing total darkness at twilight, but the first piercing beam after our eyes have grown accustomed to having no light at all. 

I’m getting tired of wrestling, and maybe that’s okay. There is a good chance that I will never figure this out in my lifetime—even if I develop certainty one way or another, it could unwind at the end of life. If there is nothing beyond this life, then it doesn’t matter. But if God is real, then my hope has to be in resurrection. Resurrection of life, resurrection of faith, resurrection of the joy I have not known for the past few years. I’m about to join several hundred people who gather in a building to worship a God who brings life to dead things. I may not be able to worship with them, but even in the midst of darkness, I can remember my grandmother’s life and death and join her and them in the hope for no more night—even if my doubt is not defeated until after my last breath.

Image copyright Siloto, dreamstime.com

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9 thoughts on “No More Night

  1. This leaves something a lot to think about. One major problem I have with conservative Christianity is that not only is there no room for doubt, but it sees doubt as a bad thing. In the end, doubt is a good thing. Right now, I feel drawn to return fully to mainline Progressive Christianity, in part based on this recent line of posts on this blog. But who knows how I will feel next week or next month.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. The Christian worldview seems very attractive at first glance in that it offers us assurance – we are told that we don’t need to fear the unknown because the unknown has become known – God’s gift of a wonderful afterlife is freely given to us. But it seems this whole idea could backfire on us because perhaps the part of the story that our brains become convinced about is only that there really is an afterlife – and the possibility of either a bad or a good one. But maybe the part of the story that says we can be assured doesn’t solidify because our natural tendency is to wonder whether or not we were sincere enough in whatever it is that our religion told us we had to be sincere about. It all seems like such a double edged sword.

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    • Isn’t it funny how that works? Instead of having no fear because we don’t believe any of this, we end up having fear because our minds keep trying to convince us of half of it—that there is more after death. The half that doesn’t stick is the “blessed assurance,” so we end up fearing the consequences of getting it wrong. I never want to believe anything out of fear, so if God exists, I prefer to think that the road to reach him is not as narrow as I once thought. If I believe, trust in his goodness (and an acknowledgement that scripture sometimes has it wrong) would be very important to me. My belief would be that salvation could extend to others my former faith would have excluded—even when our confidence or sincerity fail.

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      • I was thinking more of Christians who claim they are “sure” of their beliefs when I wrote my comment, but you are so right J – this afterlife issue sticks around with many deconverts. I know it stuck with me for quite a while. I think that can change quite a bit depending on both the direction you take your beliefs, and also personality types.

        I’m totally with you on not wanting to believe (or follow a god) based on fear. It’s the wrong way to go for several reasons.

        I think an acknowledgment that scripture is not perfect seems like the most reasonable way to go given what many scholars (some evangelical) have found. Choosing which parts to believe seems a difficult task in that case, but I’m not opposed to the idea of some kind of reasonable belief (with admittance of uncertainty) built out of parts. I haven’t found a way to make it work for my own mind, but maybe you can. I have an appreciation for Unitarian Universalists and also some Progressive Christians, both of which express something similar to what you’ve said here regarding salvation. Have you heard of Rachel Held Evans? She is a very intelligent Progressive Christian who is somewhat friendly toward atheists. Her blog is easy to find.

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  3. Your transparency is what draws me back to this blog. You broke my heart with this post, and yet I feel strangely uplifted.

    I personally find people who doubt more reassuring to be around than those who don’t. The doubters at least are honest about not knowing everything. In a world of people who continually thump their chests with false bravado, they’re a breath of fresh air.

    In short, your words have helped me to breathe.

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    • I’m glad that you’re still here, Tony—that my transparency hasn’t been annoying or offensive. My courage is growing as I develop friendships here—maybe I can be honest without being rejected. Maybe that lifts others up. Maybe we’re all privately struggling and breathing sighs of relief when we realize that we’re not alone. That’s partly why I write. Maybe chest-thumping bravado is hiding deep insecurity. I saw a glimpse of that arrogance in my pastor’s faith yesterday as he explained his debates with non-believers about whether or not the resurrection ever happened. His arguments were fallacious, but he implied that no one had ever successfully contested them. I could have done it right there in ten seconds (and my husband in five) so the atheists he is talking to likely either have very limited knowledge and debating skills or very limited interest in responding to false premises. Why don’t I just throw the towel in and leave the church? Because there are people in the pews of that church who have validated my questions, examined the arguments, and still believe. There are people who can say “I don’t know” and still believe. There are people who can say “Maybe we’ve had it wrong this whole time” and still believe and try to reform the church they’re in. And I want to join them.

      Keep breathing.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m sorry about your grandmother. The grandmother I’m closest to is still living, but my grandfather (her husband) passed away almost 7 years ago now, and I still think about him almost every day.

    Your post is very beautifully written, and it’s evoked in me the most positive feelings about Christianity that I’ve had in a very long time. However, when I read the lyrics to that song, I was reminded of all the problems that soured me on the faith:

    See all around, now the nations
    bow down to sing. The only
    sound is the praises to Christ,
    our King. Slowly the names from
    the book are read. I know the
    King, so there’s no need to dread.

    The image of everyone bowing down reminds me of Hitchens’s comparison to North Korea. And the reference to “no need to dread” is kind of horrifying. After all, the implication is that other people do have cause to dread. And why? As you and Russell illustrate, even people who desperately want to believe aren’t always able to. That could have been so easily corrected if God just gave the same kinds of evidence that he supposedly gave Moses, Gideon, Hezekiah, Paul, etc.

    Christianity has all the markers of something manufactured. Its history looks remarkably similar to that of other religions in its time and location; its claims of the supernatural become less grandiose as history and technology get better; it promises perfection for you and endless torment for your enemies. Of course, that last one has become more problematic for us as our concept of “our tribe” has grown from a single culture or ethnicity to the entire human race.

    Honestly, the quote that brings me the most comfort, confidence, and satisfaction these days is this one (which I previously thought was from Marcus Aurelius, but that’s apparently on shaky ground):

    Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.

    If there really is a god, I see no reason to think he expects us to figure it all out.

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    • I’m so glad you’re here, Nate—I agree about some of the lyrics being bothersome. My hope is that “no need to dread” can apply to all of us, regardless of the certainty and even accuracy of our beliefs.

      I also don’t like the “mansion prepared just for me” idea—that’s just not what I’m about.

      Liked by 1 person

      • You know, I almost referenced that line as well. 🙂

        And I echo your sentiments about “no need for dread” applying to everyone. While we all have good and bad qualities, I think virtually everyone who’s ever lived has only tried to live well and understand things to the best of their ability. What more can you expect from imperfect beings?

        Thanks again for the great post, and I’ll keep reading. 🙂

        Like

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