Ides of March

Begin early to prepare

Issue: "Alan Keyes: Can he win?," March 13, 1999

The most ominous date of the year, March 15, is fast approaching. Julius Caesar walked to his death when he brushed past the man telling him to "beware the Ides of March." But Newsweek and other magazines have been noting that movies are also "exhibiting a touch of, um, denial," with "death scenes airbrushed out of movies." Christians, of course, know that human beings have souls that never die, but movie afterlives are very different from those suggested in Scripture. In Hollywood's theology, people become ghosts, angels, and even snowmen (Michael Keaton in Jack Frost). Actor Brad Pitt becomes "the Cute Reaper." The old romanticism embraced pathos: Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) wrote the lovely line, "And all the winds go sighing,/For sweet things dying." The new romanticism ignores the winds. The Ides of March traditionally have been a time to contemplate the inevitability of death. For centuries, that fascination has produced a vast array of grandiloquent sayings with uncertain parentage: "Until you are free to die, you are not free to live." The fear of death has been most memorably summarized by Shakespeare in Measure for Measure: "The weariest and most loathèd worldly life,/ That age, ache, penury and imprisonment/ Can lay on nature is a paradise,/ To what we fear of death." Christians through the ages have noted that we should prepare to face death, not fear it. John Calvin made understanding of death a milestone of sanctification: "If anyone cannot set his mind at ease by disregarding death, that man should know that he has not yet gone far enough in the faith of Christ." More recently, the tendency has been to place not believers but belief on trial; as theologian J.I. Packer put it, "No philosophy that will not teach us how to master death is worth twopence to us." But Hollywood is teaching not mastery but avoidance, perhaps because many people as they grow older see death as the master. Today's death ethicists say they're on top of the subject, but they need to develop pitcher Jim Bouton's self-awareness: "You think you're gripping the baseball, only to find that it's gripping you." Medical improvements such as painkillers make dying physically less savage now, yet emotional frigidity cuts as deep as an icepick. Today's hospitals, hooking up bodies to machines but cutting off the dying from their families and familiar surroundings, have often been criticized, and the growing hospice movement seems to offer a better alternative. But changing the physical environment does not necessarily help us to master death spiritually and psychologically. Writers to Dear Abby offer sad reports of death-fear mastering pleasant environments: "Grieving in Orange, Texas" recently wrote of how patients "are scared to death, and no medicine I have seen completely eradicates that pain." No medicine can, for those without hope. Minnesota pastor John Piper, in his excellent book Future Grace, writes of two skydivers, both free-falling at the same speed-but one has a parachute and one does not. Only the person who knows he has a parachute to open will enjoy the sensation. To develop the metaphor further, the other person may conclude that parachutes are imaginary, that he should put the impending cratering out of his mind, that new medical knowledge is sinking the ground by a few feet-but he is still likely to be miserable. Christians have the advantage of knowing that there are parachutes. Christians also have the responsibility to tell others that parachutes are available and should be deployed, for as Charles Spurgeon said, "He who does not prepare for death is more than an ordinary fool. He is a madman." Hollywood offers pretense, but J. I. Packer has given good practical advice: "Plan your life, budgeting for 70 years ... and understand that if your time proves shorter that will not be unfair deprivation but rapid promotion." As the Ides of March approach it's good to remember what Robert Zagore, pastor of Hope Lutheran Church in Stanton, Mich., noted in 1997: "A deathbed is a hard place to teach the faith. It is much better learned day by day, week by week." He wrote of an elderly woman in his church: "When I last saw her, she was in the hospital bed she would not leave alive. The last words I spoke to her were 3,400 years older than she.... 'The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you. The Lord lift up his countenance on you and give you peace.' She knew He would. The last word I heard her say, I overheard her say to God: 'Amen.'"

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Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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