Knowing How the Story Ends
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the
throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of
the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and
the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there
--Revelation 22:1-3a NRSV
Each morning when I wake up, the first thing I do is glance at my phone to see what news headlines were “pushed” to me from various news apps I have allowed to always run day and night. Today my phone “pushed” towards me stories of another Black man shot and killed by a police officer in Minnesota and a COVID vaccine’s distribution halted possibly lengthening the difficulties of this pandemic. I sighed. Some days one must work hard to see the beauty in this world so as not to be overwhelmed by its ugliness. Some days I feel tired even when I just woke up from a good night’s sleep.
“I’m not afraid of death; I’m just afraid of suffering as I am dying.” These were the words of my mother weeks before a non-operable brain tumor ended her life. I’ve heard them echoed by many people who trust that the hereafter will be good but have their doubts about the here and now. Does knowing the end of the story help one deal with the pain that is to come between now and then, the pain of the here and now?
In preaching, teaching and writing, I find myself often saying, “Death doesn’t have the last word; God has the last word.” I picked up those words from who knows where? They certainly didn’t originate with me. Countless Christians down through the ages have considered the significance of Jesus’ resurrection and have come to the conclusion that God is in control over how things end even if the getting to the end involved a lot of pain and suffering beforehand. The mysterious John who had the visions of the Book of Revelation bearing his name endeavored to describe the mystery of getting to the end of the story and left us with images that have launched thousands of insane books, violent sermons, and delusional would-be messiah cult leaders. He also gave us wondrous images of beauty and hope. Does the fact there awaits a happy ending for each of us and all of us help right now?
I’ve secretly been of two minds about knowing how the story ends. On the one hand, part of the fun of a good story is the surprise awaiting the listener at its end. Will the hero or heroine prevail or is this the kind of story where the villain rules the day? Also, there is a pleasure that comes when the story ends in a way you didn’t see coming and you must look back on the story all over again with new eyes. Sometimes when one encounters a predictable plot or solves the mystery too soon or recognizes tropes from similar stories the fun of a story is lost. A peculiar sort of fatalism sets in. Why finish the story when you already know how it ends?
On the other hand, sometimes knowing the end of the story makes a difficult story bearable. A friend tells you of a dangerous or harrowing experience they had, but since they are sitting in front of you their survival remains certain. I confess to skipping ahead to the end of Stephen King’s The Stand to see if the boy survives. If he didn’t, then I did not want to enter the frozen hedge maze along with him and his crazed father. I feel similarly every Maundy Thursday and Good Friday service I attend. Why experience this painful story unless I already know how it ends?
I suppose the knowledge that God has the ending of things all sewn up could lead to a spiritual apathy in which one concludes why bother to attempt to change the world since its fate is already sealed. Yet, such fatalism strikes me as a lack of imagination. If what awaits us at the end is so good, then why wait? Why not get as much of that good stuff now trusting that it is so good that a taste of it now will only whet one’s appetite rather than spoil the later fun?
Also, there is the apparent truth that God doesn’t give the followers of Jesus much of a choice in the matter of being apathetic or not. God’s commands and expectations are clear that the Christian life is not a spectator sport. Participation is required. The future God promises is not just a future reality but also a present one. Episcopal bishop Henry Knox Sherrill once said, “The joyful news that He is risen does not change the contemporary world. Still before us lie work, discipline, sacrifice. But the fact of Easter gives us the spiritual power to do the work, accept the discipline, and make the sacrifice." The tough stories of life become worth the hearing and the reading, because God makes us part of them, and the end of the story is made richer because we participate in the getting to it.
Minister and writer Molly Baskette describes her fear of flying much in the same way my mother described her fear of dying.
It might seem counterintuitive that a Christian minister—or a Christian of any stripe—would
be afraid to fly. Don't we know that flying is the safest form of travel? And aren't we supposed
to have dealt with irrational fears and a propensity to worry, simply because Jesus told us to?
And, because planes sometimes do come down: well, isn't Going to Glory something we are
supposed to look forward to?
But that assumes I'm afraid of dying. I'm not afraid of dying. I'm afraid of falling.
She over came her fear with help from a book which advised her to imagine arriving safely. It read: "As you get ready to take off, imagine yourself at your destination. Whatever has happened during the flight, you have arrived safely. If you could just know for certain now what you will know then, you will have spared yourself a lot of unnecessary suffering." The key word in that advice is “unnecessary.” Life can be painful, and some suffering is inevitable, but we can avoid “unnecessary” suffering by focusing on the end of the story.
Whatever bad news gets “pushed” at us, knowing the end of the story helps us to stay awake and face the day rather than going back to bed and pulling the covers over our heads. We don’t have to fear the dying, the falling or and other “-ing.” Instead, we can trust that the end of our story is so good that even with what we know of it already we will still be surprised by how much better it is than we ever imagined. With this assurance of our good God, we can not only endure the pains of this life but thrill as it unfolds along the way.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
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