Discover more from The Way We Practice
Against the Nothing
The death of Moses and the gift of the Giver I The Word in the Wild Proper 25, Year A
I’ve been thinking about death lately. We have a friend with a cancer that’s come back. The doctors aren’t hopeful—treatment is about buying months, not providing any ultimate healing. We are praying for the best, the miraculous, but we also know that death will come, eventually, and for all too many, sooner than later.
All creatures die. Mortals is how the old language puts it. The scales of time vary, but each of us, from people to the planet, will one day fade from existence—here and then gone. It is a hard truth of being human that we live with an awareness of this fact. Even as we do our best to distract ourselves, we all know through simply living in the world, that those we love and know will one day be gone and we will too.
Some see this as a flaw in the world, a result of a fallen nature. But I have learned from the great Swiss theologian Karl Barth to see mortality, sickness, and poverty as not evil in themselves; they are often simply a fact of finitude. When you are a limited creature you will touch the edges of those limits in time. This reality Barth called the “shadow side of creation.”
What is more dangerous than death, what is in fact evil, is the Nothing. This is the complete annihilation of the creature in both its light and its shadow. To die is to remain in our creatureliness, but to turn toward the Nothing—that is to lose our very existence.
The curious thing is that so often our fear of death turns us toward the Nothing. Because we so desperately want to be free of the painful limits of being finite, mortal creatures, we turn against our very finitude and limits. There are engineers working on infinite life extension, seeking to undo the limits of our bodies. What they are seeking is to go beyond the human, beyond the given realities of our lives. But in doing so they are joining forces with the Nothing, the anti-creational forces that have long sought to undo the gifts of God as an affront to their giver. Rather than learning the old art of dying well, they are working toward a technological denial of death that goes beyond our creatureliness. And the pattern we see in that effort is one played out on scales large and small throughout the human domain.
I was thinking about all of this—death and finitude and the Nothing that tempts us—when I read the lesson from Deuteronomy for this Sunday. It’s the very end of the book and the end of the journey for Moses. After all the longing to move into the promised land, the long and circuitous route through the wilderness, we find Moses unable to reach his final goal. This is so often the case. So many human projects never find their end, or they exist for only a moment, and then are covered over. We like to think that even if we aren’t immortal that our work will outlive us. But it won’t, at least for long. Moses was only able to get to the edge of the gift God was giving, but not to move into the fullness of its reception.
And yet, there is nothing tragic here. Moses, we are told, is the greatest prophet of Israel, the one who spoke to God “face to face.” In this Moses was able to live fully as a creature in communion with his creator. Over all his work to enable Israel to receive the gift of freedom, Moses, in the end, found that the true gift was in the giver. And from his life and his death, we can learn the same truth. Our lives and our projects will mostly end unfinished and incomplete. But their glory and goodness will come, not by the possession of some place or thing, but by remaining creatures in the care of God.
A dependent creature, lovingly turned toward God, satisfied in the presence of the giver—that is the posture that Moses shows us. It is this posture that we, too, should take on. In such a stance, our need for violence, our temptations toward Nothingness, will begin to fade into the light of a greater communion. What we needed, we will find, is not the gift promised but the giver who is the source, beyond all limits, of life and light.
The Way We Practice is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.