Death and other inconveniences
Last week, I fell into one of the traps of Christianity.
When striving to love the world that God loves (Marcus Borg), to live a compassionate life inspired by Jesus, it’s easy to make our faith into a to-do list, a never-ending, tiring, attempt to do-as-God-does.
In a recent discussion, Douglas John Hall, United Church educator, writer and theologian, said that his hopes and dreams for the United Church is to avoid this to-do list, that too often Christianity is “let’s get out there and do something. [Instead his dream reflects his own role as a thinker and theologian] don’t just do something…sit there…”
Hall said that what defines us as the highest animal on the food chain is that “we are a thinking animal, and that [his greatest hopes for the church is that we can] become a more thoughtful people.”
How do we become more thoughtful? Just this week, with coverage of the Swedish terrorist attack, the Syrian gas attack, the “military response” of the US firing countless missiles, plus all of our own stuff that we’ve got going on in the lives of our family and friends – we so easily experience emotional burnout.
How can we be more thoughtful people when we can barely handle the emotional turmoil that assaults us daily? How can we face life when death waits for us around every corner? It seems like the clichéd sermon response, but we look to Jesus.
Jesus came to be like us, yet there’s so much about him that seems so different than us. His humanity might be apparent in the moments of dying and death of Holy Week, but his grace, his love and compassion, his forgiveness, seem otherworldly. Even his courage. We have stories of Jesus’ arguments with the religious officials, places where his teachings and healings upset the cultural rules and norms (healing on the Sabbath, flipping the tables in the temple). He courageously faced an unjust system. He came to Jerusalem, a place of both religious and secular power, coming in like a king, taunting officials. Riding a donkey (as the elite would ride horses), his disciples and followers cried out Hosanna, Save us, in the same tone of voice they would the emperor. The whole scene is a triumphal entry of a conquering hero. It’s no doubt they’d use it against him just a few days later, with purple cloaks and crowns of thorns. Yet Jesus goes to Jerusalem, to face his death in such a prophetic way. I’d make the argument that he knew it was coming, catching the sideways glances of those unsure of this new teacher. He didn’t run and hide in the wildernesses of Samaria or Israel. He enters the city so that all would see him coming. Many of us struggle to find the same courage.
I think of Martin Luther King Jr’s final speech, given on the night before he died. You can hear his courage supported by his faith:
And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.
And I don’t mind.
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And [God]’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!
And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man!
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!
There’s so much in there:
Calling his enemies brothers.
That feeling of the shadows and the difficult days ahead.
The desire to live a long life but the faith to do God’s will.
So much of King’s journey into Memphis is like Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. A life of faithfulness in the face of death. So when we ask Why Christian…it’s because of Jesus.
Jesus was just different enough that the world took notice. During his lifetime with a handful of followers, disciples, friends and family that followed his teachings, it was far from a global mission. The early church was a minority at its peak, prior to Constantine’s involvement and the establishment of Christianity as the religion of Rome. But what made it persist was more than his life, because for almost four hundred years, followers of the Way kept the faith, died as sacrifices and martyrs for their faith. They knew what we know, in Jesus, death matters.
Both Hindus and Buddhists think of death as a setting free – shaking loose this mortal coil, and rising above the limits of our materialism and humanity. In Biblical Judaism, death is just something that happens (while there’s a long time spent discussing Jacob’s death – Genesis 49:29-50:14)… every death is just a normal part of living in this life. We think of the words from Ecclesiastes 3: for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die. There is no argument. Plants die. Animals die. You will die. I will die.
And the Gospel of Jesus Christ seeks to respond to this.
Death matters to Christianity. And it should. It keeps us up at night.
Have you ever had one of those sleepless nights where you solve the world’s problems, all from lying in your own bed? That’s the blessing and curse of being a “thinking animal” that sometimes we can’t shut off our thoughts. No action, but the mind seems to be running on a hamster wheel of problem solving. I found a website listing the many reasons we’re kept up at night, and all the usual suspects are there: nightmares, arguments with friends or family, food, illness, work, sex…and mortality.
Atul Gawande says in his book Being Mortal, that “for all but our most recent history, death was a common, ever-present possibility. It didn’t matter whether you were five or fifty. Every day was a roll of the dice.”… “Being mortal [was] about the struggle to cope with the constraints of our biology, with the limits set by genes and cells and flesh and bone.” Gawande argues we need to get back to this understanding of our mortality, because in the wake of modern medicine to defy death, modern funeral practices which sanitize death, and modern religion that avoids death, we do ourselves a disservice. We’re living longer…but where is our quality of life? We’re dying painlessly…but death is painful, as on February 14, 1884, Theodore Roosevelt wrote in his journal after his wife died of a mysterious illness on the same day that his mother died of Typhoid:
The light has gone out of my life.
Jesus enters into Jerusalem, not to give us one more to-do list item, but to declare, that our being, and our dying, matters to God.
We had a good discussion at our faith study about why we hang a cross on our walls, rather than a resurrected Christ (as they do in St. Anthony Daniel R.C. church) or an empty tomb, a sign of new life.
Douglas John Hall would argue that the cross is the perfect symbol. “We should not expect the church to be a success story [that the current struggle of Christianity in the West is no different than the early years of the church, and if we omit the roughly 1500 years in between, if we get back to] the cross [at the] centre of our faith, we realize that that God identifies with us…not just in our births, and our lives, but in our deaths…[not just in our successes but in our profound failures as well]. We as humanity have the power to bring life and destroy it. To reach out our hands to Syrian refugees and to bomb them. To welcome the Christ, and to crucify him.
The cross is central to our faith because it reminds us of death. It reminds us that that which keeps us up at night, which haunts us on Good Friday, matters desperately to our God. Death and loss matter to God, because it is what defines us as creation. We must make a difference with the time we’re given. We must tell those we love that they have changed our lives. We must leave a lasting memory of peace and forgiveness. This is what it means to live a more thoughtful life – living with intention…dying without a fear of lost time.
I think one of the biggest issues in our world today, that like Atul Gawande postulates, is that we’ve lost the meaning of our living, and our dying. Driven by science and philosophy, atheism and depression, the search for alien life and the discovery of our universe, we want to convince ourselves that our lives, and our deaths, hold very little meaning. But I can tell you, religious and not, I’ve never been to a funeral where no one showed up. Now I’ve been to a couple of funerals where folks showed up just to make sure that “so and so” was in fact dead (and in the ground)…But the ritual of funerals (which are not unique to Christianity), but through our faith have is strange mixture of fear and hope.
I will never forget the funeral that I presided over for a two year old. She was born with a disease that would undoubtedly kill her. But as I met with her family to plan her funeral, amidst the sorrow, was a thankfulness that they got two years. And as the funeral played videos of her playing and laughing (amidst tears mind you) it makes sense. To that family, every second was precious.
Our living, and our dying matters to a God who in the past seemed indifferent to our suffering. Sacrifices were made of animals, people (Isaac), which seemed to appease God, regardless of what it did to us.
But in Jesus, the divine suffers alongside creation, the body of Jesus takes the wounds of humanity, the brokenness of relationship, the ending of hopes and dreams, in order to say that our dying matters to God, for in our deaths, God wraps us in love, cradles us in tombs, and cares for those left behind. God embraces our deaths not in dismissive ways, but in ways that allow us to live for today. For at the heart of Christianity, is both a living a life loving the world that God loves, and embracing our deaths as significant to this earth.
And so in faith, we give thanks for our living, and our dying, and we walk this journey into Holy Week, thankful for all that gives us hope.
 UnitedinLearning, http://unitedchurchofcanada.adobeconnect.com/p5arno81c8s/
 Those without sin…John 8
 Actually it’s one of the first thing he does – Mark 3:1-6
 Matthew 21
 Abraham – Genesis 25:7-11, Moses – Deuteronomy 34:1-8
 Not sure about the science – as it’s put out by a vertical blind store, but it’s cute nonetheless: