What a Christian father teaches

My father did not challenge fate. He certainly didn’t scheme about getting ahead in the world. He was an intelligent man, who had boyhood dreams of becoming a physician. The owner of the movie theater, for whom he worked, had pledged to send him to college. But promises are only promises. They don’t necessarily come to pass, especially in years of great depression and world war. As a boy—and that’s, by far, the best word for it—I thought that my father should have been more adventurous, looked for a job better than managing a grocery store. Of course, as a boy, I sent off for Sea Monkeys, which didn’t do tricks as promised, and a model of a Lunar Lander, no further purchases required, so I thought. My parents had to extricate me from more than one bright promise, recklessly embraced.

Don DeLillo’s new novel, Zero K, is a father-son story, quite the opposite of my own. The father, Ross Lockhart, is an extremely successful entrepreneur, who leaves his first wife and, emotionally, never enters his son’s life.

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As one of the earth’s powerful ones—so unlike my father—Ross becomes the ultimate entrepreneur. He defies death itself, by creating and funding a cult-like consortium, designed to preserve the bodies and brains of those about to die, until, at some point, in the not-too-distant future, they can be restored to a life beyond physical deterioration, beyond death. The plan, while they are suspended, inanimate, is for this world’s troubles to pass. Then science will accomplish what the Gospel only promised: eternal life.

A presentation by members of what is called the Convergence stands on its own as a meditation on the role of death in human life. The questions posed, deeply philosophical, intrigue and frighten.

“This is the first split second of the first cosmic year. We are becoming citizens of the universe.”
“There are questions of course.”
“Once we master life extension and approach the possibility of becoming ever renewable, what happens to our energies, our aspirations?”
“The social institutions we’ve built.”
“Are we designing a future culture of lethargy and self-indulgence?”
“Isn’t death a blessing? Doesn’t it define the value of our lives, minute to minute, year to year?”
“Many other questions.”
“Isn’t it sufficient to live a little longer through advanced technology? Do we need to go on and on and on?”
“Why subvert innovative science with sloppy human excess?”
“Does literal immortality compress our enduring art forms and cultural wonders into nothingness?”
“What will poets write about?”
“What happens to history? What happens to money? What happens to God?”
“Many other questions.”
“Aren’t we easing the way toward uncontrollable levels of population, environmental stress?”
“Too many living bodies, too little space.”
“Won’t we become a planet of the old and stooped, tens of billions with toothless grins?”
“What about those who die? The others. There will always be others. Why some keep living while others die?”
“Half the world is redoing its kitchens, the other half is starving.”
“Do we want to believe that every condition afflicting the mind and body will be curable in the context of our boundless longevity?
“Many other questions.”
“The defining element of life is that it ends.”
“Nature wants to kill us off in order to return to its untouched and uncorrupted form.”
“What good are we if we live forever?”
“What ultimate truth will we confront?”
“Isn’t the sting of our eventual dying what makes us precious to the people in our lives?”
“Many other questions.”
“What does it mean to die?”
“Where are the dead?”
“When do you stop being who you are?”
“Many other questions.”
“What happens to war?”
“Will this development mark the end of war or a new level of widespread conflict?”
“With individual death no longer inevitable, what will happen to the lurking idea of nuclear destruction?”
“Will all traditional limits begins to disappear?”
“Will the missiles talk themselves out of the launchers?”
“Does technology have a death wish?”
“Many other questions.”
“But we reject these questions. They miss the point of our endeavor. We want to stretch the boundaries of what it means to be human—stretch and then surpass. We want to do whatever we are capable of doing in order to alter human thought and bend the energies of civilization” (69-71).
 

The story’s premise raises a Gospel question: Why must the path to life, life in the Lord, pass through death?

If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself
and take up his cross daily and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it (Lk 9:23-24).

 

It’s as if God gave with one hand and took with the other. The deepest desire of the heart is to live and to love. The heart detests death, insists that it is disordered, something that should not be. Why does Christ promise resurrection, but only at the cost of Calvary?

Truth is, we don’t know. All lives climb Mount Calvary. Either the promise of resurrection is true, or we die deluded. The Gospel question, the question of faith, is whether we can live our lives and approach our deaths, believing that Christ has conquered death, that, in the words of our prayer, “for your faithful, Lord, life is changed not ended.”

I am no longer a boy, though I am still working on what it means to be a man. No longer a child, I don’t chide my father for lack of courage, for not being more adventuresome. Now I find myself wondering how he did what he did. How did he embrace life’s demands in a way that made him ready for death? How can I, his son, do the same? To live Calvary never doubting Easter: that’s the devotion of a disciple. And a Christian father has nothing more important to teach his children.

Zechariah 12: 10-11, 13:1  Galatians 3: 26-29  Luke 9: 18-24

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