Newton: A final farewell not only tolerable, but pleasant

Alterations and separations are graciously appointed of the Lord, to remind us that this is not our rest, and to prepare our thoughts for that approaching change which shall fix us forever in an unchangeable state. Oh, madam! what shall we poor worms render to him who has brought life and immortality to light by the gospel, taken away the sting of death, revealed a glorious prospect beyond the grave, and given us eyes to see it?

Now the reflection that we must ere long take a final farewell of what is most capable of pleasing us upon earth is not only tolerable, but pleasant. For we know we cannot fully possess our best friend, our chief treasure, till we have done with all below; nay, we cannot till then properly see each other. We are cased up in vehicles of clay, and converse together as if we were in different coaches, with the blinds close drawn round. We see the carriage, and the voice tells us we have a friend within; but we shall know each other better, when death shall open the coach doors, and hand out the company successively, and lead them into the glorious apartments which the Lord has appointed to be the common residence of them that love him. What an assembly will there be! What a constellation of glory, when each individual shall shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father! No sins, sorrows, temptations; no veils, clouds, or prejudices, shall interrupt us then. All names of idle distinction (the fruits of present remaining darkness, the channels of bigotry, and the stumbling-block of the world) will be at an end.

— John Newton, “Letter to Mrs. Place,” August 1775; Letters of John Newton, 235-6.

Newton’s words of comfort to an unexpected widow

“Mrs. Talbot was the wife of the Rev. W. Talbot, vicar of St. Giles’, Reading. In the midst of his devoted labors and in the prime of life this good man was suddenly cut off by a contagious fever caught in the discharge of his ministerial duties. . .”

Though every stream must fail, the fountain is still full and still flowing. All the comfort you ever received in your dear friend was from the Lord, who is abundantly able to comfort you still; and he is gone but a little before you. May your faith anticipate the joyful and glorious meeting you will shortly have in a better world. Then your worship and converse together will be to unspeakable advantage, without imperfection, interruption, abatement, or end. Then all tears shall be wiped away, and every cloud removed; and then you will see, that all your concernments here below (the late afflicting dispensation not excepted), were appointed and adjusted by infinite wisdom and infinite love.

The Lord, who knows our frame, does not expect or require that we should aim at a stoical indifference under his visitations. He allows that afflictions are at present not joyous, but grievous; yea, He was pleased when upon earth to weep with his mourning friends when Lazarus died. But he has graciously provided for the prevention of that anguish and bittereness of sorrow, which is, upon such occasions, the portion of such as live without God in the world; and has engaged that all shall work together for good, and yield the peaceable fruits of righteousness. May He bless you with a sweet serenity of spirit, and a cheerful hope of the glory that shall shortly be revealed. . . .

Will it be a consolation to you, madam, to know that you do not mourn alone? A character so exemplary as a friend, a counsellor, a Christian, and a minister, will be long and deeply regretted; and many will join me in praying, that you, who are most nearly interested, may be signally supported, and feel the propriety of Mrs. Rowe’s acknowledgment,

Thou dost but take the dying lamp away
To bless me with thine own unclouded day.

We join in most affectionate respects and condolence. May the Lord bless you and keep you, lift up the light of his countenance upon you, and give you peace.

Letters of John Newton, “To Mrs. Talbot” (Letter 1)

Life under ‘the plague’

…they all make haste toward some trivial objective that seems of more immediate interest than God.

This semester I participated in a Worldviews in Literature course with our two oldest. Overall it’s been a good experience–lots of reading, insightful questions to answer, and generally good discussion.

For existentialism we read The Plague by Albert Camus which, in my opinion, turned out to be one of the better books in the course. At one point in the story one of the characters–Tarrou–compiles “a longish description of a day in the plague-stricken town.” Consider how the townspeople react when forced to confront their own mortality [emphasis added]:

“At the start of the great heat, for some unascertained reason, the evening found the streets almost empty. But now the least ripple of cooler air brings an easing of the strain, if not a flutter of hope. Then all stream out into the open, drug themselves with talking, start arguing or love-making, and in the last glow of sunset the town, freighted with lovers two by two and with loud voices, drifts like a helmless ship into the throbbing darkness. In vain a zealous evangelist with a felt hat and flowing tie threads his way through the crowd, crying without cease: ‘God is great and good. Come unto Him.’ On the contrary, they all make haste toward some trivial objective that seems of more immediate interest than God.

“In the early days, when they thought this epidemic was much like other epidemics, religion held its ground. But once these people realized their instant peril, they gave their thoughts to pleasure. And all the hideous fears that stamp their faces in the daytime are transformed in the fiery, dusty nightfall into a sort of hectic exaltation, an unkempt freedom fevering their blood.

“And I, too, I’m no different. But what matter? Death means nothing to men like me. It’s the event that proves them right.”

Camus wasn’t the first to depict religion and pleasure in competition for the human soul. Pascal had made this observation about three centuries earlier and he was more than a millennia behind Paul (1Cor 15:32) who was himself preceded by the OT wisdom authors (Prov 14:12-13; Eccl 2:1-11).

But in spite of wildly divergent worldviews these men all had one thing in common: they gave themselves to books.

What a bunch of dullards.

Death & distraction

We can’t escape death but that doesn’t mean we have to think about it.

As for the days of our life, they contain seventy years, Or if due to strength, eighty years, Yet their pride is but labor and sorrow; For soon it is gone and we fly away. Who understands the power of Your anger And Your fury, according to the fear that is due You?  So teach us to number our days, That we may present to You a heart of wisdom.{Psa 90:10-12, NAS}

For the longest time I’ve been struck by the melancholy wisdom in Psalm 90. Forget swimming against the current, this kind of thinking doesn’t even appear to be in the stream of our modern consciousness. Say what you will about today’s society but I doubt ‘wisdom’ and ‘sobriety’ are tags for our day.

But the truth of the matter is that human nature remains unchanged. At some point the stupefying sparkle of the iPhone and FaceTwit will be eclipsed by the lengthening shadow of our mortality. Distraction cannot drive away death.

What distraction can do, however, is offer a sort of palliative care for the soul. Absent an inoculation for finitude we choose to be anesthetized. At least this was Pascal’s contention in the 1600s. Reading this portion from Pensees it’s hard to decide if the man was an astute philosopher or a prophet for the technological age.

166 Diversion. Death is easier to bear without thinking of it, than is the thought of death without peril.

167 The miseries of human life have established all this: as men have seen this, they have taken up diversion.

168 Diversion. 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.

169 Despite these miseries, man wishes to be happy, and only wishes to be happy, and cannot wish not to be so. But how will he set about it? To be happy he would have to make himself immortal; but, not being able to do so, it has occurred to him to prevent himself from thinking of death.

170 Diversion.-If man were happy, he would be the more so, the less he was diverted, like the Saints and God.-Yes; but is it not to be happy to have a faculty of being amused by diversion?-No; for that comes from elsewhere and from without, and thus is dependent, and therefore subject to be disturbed by a thousand accidents, which bring inevitable griefs.

171 Misery.-The only thing which consoles us for our miseries is diversion, and yet this it the greatest of our miseries. For it is this which principally hinders us from reflecting upon ourselves, and which makes us insensibly ruin ourselves. Without this we should be in a state of weariness, and this weariness would spur us to seek a more solid means of escaping from it. But diversion amuses us, and leads us unconsciously  to death.

On the bright side, there’s a market for this kind of biblical wisdom in late night comedy sketches. Use it well.