An unopened bill still must be paid.
I suspect we have all realized it to be so. Even though your mortgage statement sits stacked and unexamined on top of bills from the water company, Chase Manhattan Bank, and Comcast, none of them can go untended to for long without consequence. Shoving your daughter’s tuition statement from the University of Tennessee to the side might move the outstanding debt from your awareness, but changes nothing about what is owed.
It is certainly pleasant though, or at least easy, to shove unpleasantness, like bill-paying aside, as if what is unwanted can become unreality by our refusal of attentiveness to it.
But unpleasantness, demand, and debt buried away often resurrects on us sooner or later, as most of us have learned.
Of course it isn’t only bills, but disagreements, hard decisions, disappointments, or conflicts we’d rather not reckon with as well. All of them can feel more easily contended with if we just sequester them away in some solitary confinement, or give ourselves to distraction so they needn’t been considered. As a man once responded when asked how a certain uneasiness with a future father-in-law was progressing, “Well, he thinks if he just drinks enough beer and plays enough golf, it will work itself out.”
Stern Gazes and Onerous Demands
But an unopened bill, still must be paid. No matter how long we neglect it, it remains standing with its stern gaze and onerous demand fixed upon us.
To highlight the truthfulness of this on matters that matter most, I have in the past made what I intend to be an instructive joke to our congregation (spoiler alert: few people think it funny) whereby I will say something like, “Back in the olden days people actually died, and knew it was coming, and so had to think about what might await them afterward, but now we have twitter, instagram and science, so of course, we don’t have to worry about THAT at all any more.”
But I am only modernizing what philosopher Blaise Pascal once noticed. “As men are not able to fight against death, misery, ignorance, they have taken it into their heads, in order to be happy, not to think of them at all…”
We treat death, misery and ignorance, these unconquerable nemeses, as unopened bills, presuming we can still achieve some measure of levity and well-being, if only we don’t let the eyes of our consideration gaze upon them.
And Derek Rishmawy modernizes the sentiment with greater succinctness, “Twitter cannot distract you from existential dread forever.”
Of course, we mainly dread what we don’t assume we’ll be resourced to face. We put away bills because they remind us how little money we have to pay, or assure us of how little will be left afterward! We try not to think about those mazes of difficulty through which we fear we’ll never be able to navigate.
Terrifying Facts of Our Existence
These ubiquitous tendencies are precisely why Jesus’ church in the world has such an important role.
“Why should men love the church?”
asks T. S. Eliot.
“Because she tells them of sin and death and other unpleasant facts of life they would as soon forget.”
Of course, “sin, death, and unpleasant facts” aren’t our only proclamation. They are descriptors of what is. A ruthless and courageous facing of the facts of our often terrifying and disappointing existence.
But we can “tell them,” or look at them, or think about them, rightly, only when we have what Richard Lovelace called the “anesthetic of grace” helping us bear what could be unbearable reality.
Ivan Ilyich discovered this anesthetic in Tolstoy’s story The Death of Ivan Ilyich
, when after a decades long pursuit of being well-respected by fashionable, high-minded people, having perfectly adorned sitting rooms, and lots of card-playing, it occurs to him with the sudden onset of irreparable illness, “what if my whole life has been wrong?”
A terrible and terrifying realization. And a common interrogation of our own souls when we are paying attention.
But It Can Be Rectified
But the grace that helps us ask the question, is the grace that likewise answers but with shocking surprise.
“It was revealed to him that though his life had not been what it should have been it could be rectified.”
This, of course, is the grace-currency in which the economy of Christ’s church must operate in a head-in-the-sand world regarding the inevitability of death and the facing of the examination of our lives by Him whom we were made to please.
Though our lives have not been what they should have been, they may be rectified. Our death sentences may be overturned. Our crimes may be pardoned. Our dread itself may be banished. And death itself, we are assured, will die.
All because, for reasons unfathomable except through a love beyond telling, our Savior refused to leave the still unexamined and yet unpaid bills of our lives alone.
“I looked, but there was no one to help,
I was appalled that no one gave support;
so my own arm achieved salvation for me...”
Appalled at our plight, moved by our vulnerabilities, and determined that our own overwhelming indebtedness would not be the determinative feature of our world, Christ saw the stack of unexamined, unpaid bills, and ate the cost of our liabilities at the expense of his own sacrificed body. And we are told, in so doing, “tasted death for everyone.”
And now, there is Someone to help. Someone “who is able to save to the uttermost, those who come to God through Him.”
Because he didn’t just taste death for us, he also, with his conquering of it in resurrection, “brought life and immortality to life.”
Thereby reassuring any who will hitch their wagons to Him, that “though our lives have not been what they ought,”
they can “be rectified.”
We have a solution from a Savior who was and is appalled at the un-wellness of our world. It’s worth remembering and worth sharing, because although we won’t get all of paradise thrown in by the end of the week, we shall see reversal. As Ivan in Brothers Karamazov
“I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage... something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, for all the blood that they’ve shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened.”
Grown ups fear bills, but little children live un-self-consciously, shielded with an umbrella of confidence in parents who will take care of all.
Perhaps we can, “like a child” believe again today in a Savior who will most assuredly bring about something “so precious”
that “it will suffice for all hearts”
who have placed their trust in him. A grace like that is the only anesthetic that can help us face and endure all the expense, toil, and disappointment that will be delivered to the mailbox of our lives like so many unwanted bills.