President Biden declared last week that the US economy is not in a recession. However, the Commerce Department reported on Thursday that the US economy shrank for the second consecutive quarter, meeting the definition for a so-called technical recession.
Unsurprisingly, the president’s critics took to the media on Friday to lambast his unwillingness to admit the “facts,” while his supporters did the same to defend the positives of the present economy. That’s because the perceived health of the economy heading into midterm elections is obviously of vital interest to both parties. In a postmodern culture where truth is subjective and “perception is reality,” the battle to name and thus frame our financial health will continue.
In the midst of this debate, President Biden tested positive for COVID-19 again on Saturday in what his physician called a rebound case. Dr. Kevin O’Connor added that the president “has experienced no reemergence of symptoms and continues to feel quite well.” He continued to test positive again yesterday.
Groundbreaking Star Trek actress dies
The fact of presidential mortality is not a partisan observation.
President Trump contracted COVID-19; President George W. Bush had pre-cancerous skin lesions removed from his face; President Reagan narrowly survived an assassination attempt. A few years ago, I stood at the spot in Washington, DC, where he was shot and reflected on the fact that if a US president can be attacked, no one is truly safe.
Basketball legend Bill Russell died yesterday, as did groundbreaking Black actress Nichelle Nichols of the original Star Trek franchise. Pope Francis acknowledged on Saturday that he can no longer travel as he used to and may one day retire. At least twenty-eight people have died in devastating floods in Kentucky as of this morning, with the total expected to rise.
The news reminds us daily that Shakespeare was right: “All that lives must die, Passing through nature to eternity.”
But there’s something in us that resists this fact.
Three ways we deal with death
As with the economy and other political issues, we rename and reframe death (people don’t “die,” they “rest in peace”) as if we could change reality by denying it.
Or we make deals with God to escape our mortality. Historian W. T. Jones described worship in ancient Greece as “a business transaction” whereby the mortal did what the deity wanted so the deity would do what the mortal wanted. I suspect that millions of Americans went to church yesterday for the same reason.
Or we seek to manipulate nature to conform to our wishes. Six centuries before Christ, the first philosophers—Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes—declared that the world could be understood without recourse to religious dogma, which is why we think of them as the first philosophers. The scientific revolution has taught us that we can control forces hitherto uncontrollable, from harnessing electricity so we can light our homes at night, to irrigating former deserts and mechanizing agriculture, to developing medicines that cure what used to kill us.
Denial, transactional religion, and faith in secular progress are still the ways millions of Americans deal with their mortality today. Lest I seem unfairly critical, let me hasten to add that they are just as appealing to me as they are to anyone else.
Most of the time, I’d rather not think about death at all. If I do, I hearken back to my teenage decision to trust in Christ and trust God will keep his side of the bargain when I die. Or I take comfort in the astounding medical advances of our day.
But there’s a more hopeful way.
“We are but travelers on a journey”
The Bible says Christians are “ambassadors for Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:20). Ambassadors live in the country they are assigned, but that country is not their home. To the contrary, “our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20). In the meantime we are a “sojourner” and a “guest” in this world (Psalm 39:12).
But when death comes, we’ll be home.
St. Augustine observed: “Though we labor among the many distractions of this world, we should have but one goal. For we are but travelers on a journey without as yet a fixed abode; we are on our way, not yet in our native land; we are in a state of longing, not yet of enjoyment. But let us continue on our way, and continue without sloth or respite, so that we may ultimately arrive at our destination.”
When Christians make this world our home, we become more like the world than the world becomes like us. As C. S. Lewis noted, “Prosperity knits a man to the world. He feels he is finding his place in it, while really it is finding its place in him.”
By contrast, if every Christian took seriously our status as “travelers on a journey,” I am convinced that our world could not remain the same.
We would passionately seek to lead everyone we know to Christ since they will spend eternity separated from God in hell (Revelation 20:15) unless they accept the salvation only Jesus can offer (John 3:18). And we would care more about our fellow travelers than our temporal circumstances (Matthew 22:39) since they are eternal beings like us. We would love people and use things rather than the reverse.
By these standards, are you making your home in this world or the next?
“I’m just passing through”
A tourist meeting a well-known rabbi was surprised by the austerity of the famous scholar’s home. A table, a chair, and a bed comprised the entirety of his furnishings. “Is that all you have?” he asked.
The rabbi smiled and pointed out the fact that the tourist had only a few belongings with him. “But I’m just passing through” the man explained.
“So am I,” said the rabbi.
So are you.