Sunday, 23 February 2014

“Everything will be all right in the end. If it’s not all right, it is not yet the end.”

A few weeks ago, an internet 'fun' quiz told me that the type of parent am, is (wait for it) 'prematurely old.' Which is exactly why I've stopped doing 'fun' internet personality quizzes. Maybe the reason I was deemed past it, in soul if not in body, was that I confessed a preference for the 2012 movie 'The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel', in which an ill-matched assortment of British gentlefolk in the late autumns of their lives, sell up their UK homes and move to what promises to be a luxury hotel for retired Brits in India. The owner, Patel, is exuberantly, ridiculously, irresponsibly optimistic, and where others see a pile of rubble with leaking pipes and no doors into bedrooms, he sees 'the best exotic marigold hotel.' Everything will be all right in the end, he assures both his new paying customers and the family who are bankrolling this enterprise, and if it's not all right, it's not yet the end.

In my church ministry, I spend time with people who are nearing their own end, or who are responding to the end of life of someone close to them, which in itself is an ending in the life of the one left behind. Some of the worst things I have encountered have been endings of lives in which everything didn't become 'right', endings which were brutal or cruelly unexpected. Much more often, though, happily, I hear from people a profound sense of things becoming 'right' as people near the end of their lives, and of there being a 'rightness' at the time of death, and of a 'rightness' emerging out of the dark grief and gnawing loss following the ending of a loved one's life. As many clergy say, it is a deep privilege to hear these stories and to be with people at these most poignant and precious times in their lives.

And in these precious and poignant endings, there is a whisper that what I am witnessing in the ending of a person's life - a person unique and uniquely gifted, uniquely loved and with his or her own unique stories to tell - is a kind of microcosm of Christian hope.  “Everything will be all right in the end. If it’s not all right, it is not yet the end.” It was when I was reading for my Theology degree that I had the opportunity to scratch the itch to think more, read more, ponder more deeply what we mean by 'the end of the world' and how belief in a Christ who will come again may shape our lives as they are now. As you probably know, some Christians are only too keen on eschatology (the belief in 'the end'); on a daily basis you can check the statistical likelihood of the Rapture, should you feel so minded, not that Jesus commanded us to do anything of the sort (quite the opposite, in fact). Other Christians nervously back away from anything  answering the description 'eschatological.' I joked with my fellow Theology students that my own burgeoning interest in eschatology would turn me into a wild-eyed, crazy-haired apocalyptist. At least I think we were joking.

Yet as I sat in our very comfortable college library and, for the first time, read the book of Revelation from start to finish in one sitting, not pausing to ask tricky questions or dwell on obscure details, the cumulative effect on me was the overwhelming assurance that everything will be all right in the end, not only for individuals facing the end of their life, but for the whole of everything; for the world that God created in love and in infinite potentiality. Everything will be right in a way that we can't even begin to imagine, which strains at the very, very edges of language to describe. The deepest, fullest, most satisfying rightness we've ever known will be just a tiny foretaste of the rightness when, as Revelation puts it, God will wipe away every tear from our eye and, with our eyes wiped of all suffering, will show us the wonder of the new home which we will share with him forever.

Maybe I am prematurely old, but what I loved about 'The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel' wasn't so much its cast of well-loved British actors of later years, but its irrepressible optimism in a future only as yet imagined, and that dimly, and its hopeful hero who makes every decision in light of this optimism.  “Everything will be all right in the end. If it’s not all right, it is not yet the end.” One of the problems of ignoring eschatology as a  Christian doctrine is that we lose sight of this hope, and we are left to measure immeasurable things like success and meaning from within our own lifetime only, which is hopelessly short-sighted. If all our individual endings are only a mere foretaste of that great ending, then even the endings we experience which are not 'right' are held within the hope that ultimately, all will be right. I think of one or two deaths I've known which were not right, and this ultimate rightness is what I believe gives them all the meaning and rightness they need. To change the terminology slightly from 'right' to 'well', Mother Julian of Norwich famously said 'All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.' These words sound so easily like mind-numbing platitudes, and yet they were borne out of a time in her life when she was anything but well. Knowing that 'all shall be well' enables us to see our unwellness in the light of the great wellness that awaits us in the coming kingdom of God, to accept it with grace, and, when we glimpse moments of it in our lives as they are, to receive them gratefully, not as the thing in itself, but as the promise of what its to come. “Everything will be all right in the end. If it’s not all right, it is not yet the end.”

   

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