This week I want to once again look at Paul Zahl’s latest work “PZ’s Panopticon: an off-the-wall guide to world religion” which is, as I mentioned in my post from last week, a unique; personal; moving; and humorous reflection on world religion from the point of view of one who is near death (“near death” not only in the physical sense, but anytime we’re at the end of our rope). The central question of the work is what does religion have to offer to the man on the ceiling who is looking at his own body on the operating table? In other words, what do the religions of the world have to say to you when you really need some light?
Below are some of my favorite insights from Zahl’s reflection on the Christian message. So, what does Christianity have to offer you when life’s end is near and you are at the end of your rope? According to Zahl:
“Christianity seems almost ‘tailor made’ to be a help in time of need for people like our main character, near-dead and spelling out a message of invincible pain. But Christianity is often understood as the opposite of that. In fact, so different has Christianity become in presentation from what it really is in essence, that the contrast could almost make believe in the existence of Satan. What?
A religious ‘fact on the ground’ today is this:
To our near-dead victim of life, it is not likely that he has known Christianity to be anything other than the Grouch-Religion of the world. He has probably been so shaped by the invisible force-field of attitudes and assumptions that surround him, that he has barely been able to give a hearing to Christianity in its core form, which is a religion of mercy and forgiveness…
What I need [when I’m near dead] is peace so that I can go on. And the only way I can have peace is if I can get this goddamned burden of my past off my back, this movie in my mind, which gives me unending grief with it re-winding reel-to-reel of personal failures and self-centeredness.
What I mostly need right now is what J.D. Salinger gave his character ‘Franny’ in his novel:
‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
The greatest gift to the world of the Christian religion, which comes straight from its founder, is the gift of absolving sacrificial love. This gift of mercy. Whatever words are right to describe what he [Jesus] did, he regarded his life, in all the Gospel biographies of him, as something lived ‘for you.'”
Zahl’s insights are of the utmost importance when we consider what the message Christianity is to ourselves and the world. One of my favorite preachers Steve Brown once remarked that for every ten people you encounter, seven of them have a broken heart. In Zahl’s lingo, seven out of ten people you encounter today will be in the midst of a “near-death” experience. Maybe you’re one of them. I know I often am.
As Zahl says, the essential message of the Christian faith is seemingly “tailor-made” for this sort of situation. To the person who is drowning in a sea of regret, fear, and uncertainty Christianity speaks a message of mercy, 100% forgiveness, and grace. Zahl writes near the end of his work, “The only religion that will work for the dying is a religion of mercy. Total mercy is the only thing that will work.”
I guess I’m writing today as a plea for remembrance. If you’re a preacher remember this weekend as you address the congregation that the vast majority of them are in the midst of a “near-death” experience. If you’re a friend of one who is in the midst of a messy divorce, remember that the Christian message for him/her is one of mercy, forgiveness, and grace. If you yourself are passing through the furnace right now remember that the One who created everything you touch, smell, see, hear, and even those things that are beyond your perception meets you with mercy, forgiveness, and grace. Remember that, believe that…