The Death of Death
Anyone who has experienced a family member or friend besieged with Alzheimer’s disease knows very well its insidious and terrifying effects. The mind not only forgets memories of people, places, and events, but what these things are, in and of themselves. Those who suffer the disease don’t simply forget where they put their keys five seconds ago, but what keys are.
For the Alzheimer’s patient, reality increasingly fractures and dissolves into nothingness. Everything not only loses its meaning for them, but reality altogether, how they know what they know, disintegrates into nothingness—yet they remain sentient enough to experience the nothingness. On top of it all, as their last years and months go by, their bodies begin to decay likewise into death. Body, soul, and mind soon join in the decay and desiccation—ashes to ashes and dust to dust. Alzheimer’s is the perfect horror of death. It is an utter desolation and forsakenness with nothing to which to cling—no memories, no identities, not even your own name, body, nothing. Man finds himself in a continued desolation and dissolution, but never annihilated.
Nothing less than a divine power, a Word from God, can speak into this absolute abyss and save a man.
Most of the time, when the word of God is spoken, our sleepy unbelieving, clogged ears barely notice the miracle. At other times, the miraculous speech breaks through like thunder. It thunders the loudest, paradoxically, in the midst of encroaching death and nothingness. All other realities we rest upon begin to dissolve and pass away.
A few weeks ago we were visiting a family member who is suffering the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease. I was standing there listening to my wife attempt a conversation with him. A man I once knew as a towering and strong man in mind and body, now reduced to increasing decay and total degeneration. He could not remotely remember me or our children, and could only vaguely recall my wife, his granddaughter, from the past. Even this, he could only do with the aid of second by second reminders of who she is and that would then flitter away almost faster than the time it took to speak the sentence.
As my wife tried to bring back memories of the past in hopes to establish present footholds for him—fleeting as they are—she came around to speaking about his past in church. She said, “Papa you remember you are baptized…do you remember?” Suddenly his countenance changed and out of that otherwise feeble body and decaying mind he rose up and said in his former booming baritone voice, “And THAT was real!” “That was real!”, he repeated very assuredly, as if true reality that cannot be dissolved broke through.
There are a few times when you really experience the power of the Gospel like cold water splashed on your sleepy face as it booms like thunder into the abyss and calls into being something that was not. That can only be the power of God: a forgiven sinner, a rebirth, and a resurrection that is hidden otherwise behind this thin veneer we call “real” and “life”.
This was one of those moments.
Let unbelief think that baptism is just water and does nothing, but that day we saw and heard the power of the Word of God speak into the nothingness. Baptismal waters arose in the midst of the abyss of death occurring in a body and mind for which “all of heaven and earth was passing away, but My words shall not pass away” (Matt 24:35). In that darkness of being apparently forsaken, palpable in the present history and not in symbolism or theory, the living God was attending that dying body and person that He baptized with His name long ago—to assure the Promise made unto His resurrection.
There in that moment, the waters of baptism reached down deep into the forsaken path of the grave with a man whose body and mind could no longer hold onto any reality otherwise. Divine water grasped him and would not let him go saying, “Though you appear alone, you are not alone. You have my name and promise indelibly written on you in the water. Though all seems to pass away before you, I will bear you across and raise you up on the last day. For where My name is—though it looks forsaken—there I shall be. Even as heaven and earth pass away, BEHOLD the water, it is real, I am with you, and all baptized, even unto the end of the age.”
“I went down into the countries underneath the earth, to the peoples of the past…But You lifted my life from the pit. O Lord My God” – (Jonah 2:6)