FOR THE LIFE OF ME: DEALING WITH DEATH IN A CHANGING LANDSCAPE: PART 3 – Is It Our Denial of Death’s Reality?

Two years ago, as I began my adventures as a Blogger, I promised (and intended) to write a series of three postings about death in a changing cultural context in which 1) fewer of us are actively engaged in the life of a faith community; 2) more death notices do not include any notice of a funeral, or any kind of ritualized recognition of the person’s death; and 3) when such occasions are identified, they are often identified as a “Celebration of Life.”  At that time, I managed to write two out of three, which is not bad for someone who tends to  think big but go small, or begins with great intentions but does not always follows through successfully.

Nevertheless, that third and final blog has often been on my mind, simmering on a back burner.  Now, two years later, I am ready to put this puppy to rest and complete the trilogy of thought about such matters.

To put this blog into context, and to read the two original posts, go here:

https://belovedbastard.wordpress.com/2015/08/25/for-the-life-of-me-dealing-with-in-the-changing-american-landscape-part-1/

and here:

https://belovedbastard.wordpress.com/2015/08/27/for-the-life-of-me-dealing-with-death-in-a-changing-landscape-part-2-is-it-our-fear-of-death/

What finally precipitated this blog was the opportunity to teach, at the local church I attend, a study titled Living Fully, Dying Well.  It is published by Abingdon Press (2006) and has drawn a group of 25 mostly older adults into conversation about what it means to live fully and richly, and what needs to be done to prepare well for death.  A recurring comment is that while they may be willing to talk about such matters and the necessary details, oftentimes their children or other loved ones are quite resistant.

Of course that is a hard conversation to have; I understand and appreciate reticence and the desire to avoid the topic.  To think about the death of someone we love is extremely painful; we have to imagine a world in which they are absent and we no longer have the gift and blessing of sharing experiences, hopes, memories, joys, and challenges with them.

Our culture doesn’t make it easy, either.  For a variety of reasons and in a multitude of ways, we enable such denial to take place.  Sometimes we participate personally by being dismissive of our own death.  As more people have instructed loved ones not have a funeral or any other kind of observance for them, I wonder if the one who has died doesn’t believe their life was that worthwhile, noteworthy, or significant.  Does the decision not to mark a death suggest that the one who has died believes their life had no meaning or purpose, or that their life was so inconsequential that it is not worth noting and mourning?  One of the great blessings of participation in a faith community is the affirmation that a life matters and has purpose and value; a person in such a community has heard that they  have a place in the community and in the larger cosmic reality.  But if we do not participate in that kind of sacred community and hear such a narrative, is it plausible to conclude that life and death are both inconsequential?  Are we so small in a great world and universe that we perceive our life and death to be no more important and meaningful than that of a flea?  What a disquieting and tragic contrast to the treasure of a faith community that, for example, trusts that God knows us better than we know ourselves (Psalm 139), or that even the death of a bird is noticed by God, so surely our life and death are even more precious and significant.  So perhaps one reason we deny death is because we deny life.  Our culture focuses on, and elevates the importance of the beautiful, the famous, the talented and skilled, the wealthy and exceptional, which can lead us to see our lives as diminished and unimportant if those attributes are not ours.  Ordinary people with ordinary lives can be tempted to believe that being ordinary means we are unimportant and beneath notice or appreciation.

Or perhaps we deny death and minimize its importance because our life seems fatally flawed, and beyond redemption or repair.  There is that hard reality that many of us are profoundly and deeply flawed (OK, all of us are, if we will be honest).  There are those habits, attitudes, actions – past and present – that are our shadow side; our personal aspects that we regret or that leave a residue of shame, guilt, or sorrow. Perhaps it is easier to deny or excuse such aspects of ourselves when we are younger, but as a friend inelegantly but truthfully put it, “My life is covered in shit, and I don’t know how to get it off.”  Again, if you live in a culture that is loathe to admit failure or error, to ask for forgiveness or make an apology, to hide shortcomings because they are signs of failure and weakness, some of us may conclude that there is little or nothing to celebrate.  If that is the only way to mark a life and a death, it is better to err on the side of caution and not try to fake it, or have those who remember us only remember the good and go dark on the more complete picture of who we truly were in all our terrible beauty.  Again, our culture is impoverished, as well as those who die in it, when we both live and die falsely, and when our lives and self-understanding are devoid of the promise and hope of the mysterious wonder of mercy and grace that comes from beyond ourselves, which a faith community can provide.

In her recent book Hallelujah Anyway, Anne Lamott calls to mind, with a caveat, “the five Buddhist remembrances: I am sure to become old; I cannot avoid aging.  I am sure to become ill; I cannot avoid illness.  I am sure to die; I cannot avoid death.  I must be separated and parted from all that is dear and beloved to me.  I am the owner of my actions; I cannot escape the consequences of my actions.  Except, I might add as a nice Christian girl, through mercy” (Hallelujah Anyway, Riverhead Books, 2017, p. 70). Receiving mercy and grace, free and undeserved, and knowing how utterly essential they are to us, enable us to live and die in peace fully and honestly, embracing both whatever light we have been able to reflect while also, with Prospero in The Tempest, “This thing of darkness, I acknowledge mine” (Act V, Scene 1).

What is most disappointing to me is how the church itself contributes to the denial of death, even among its own.  Euphemisms abound to shunt aside death’s reality; when speaking of the dead, in addition to such familiar phrases as “passed away” or “entered into rest” or “slipped away,” church folks and pastors conveniently skip over the reality of death and jump immediately into “claimed the promise of resurrection” or “entered into glory.”  In my United Methodist tradition, the official title for a funeral or memorial service in The United Methodist Book of Worship is “A Service of Death and Resurrection;” but these days that name has often been supplanted by “A Celebration of Life.”

But a death has occurred.  Scripture calls death the last enemy, and even when death comes as a mercy to the suffering, it still robs us of one we love and robs them of life. We may want to gloss over that truth, but it is true nevertheless, and faith is as much about speaking truth as it is anything.  This is not something new in our contemporary context, but we have taken denial of death to a new level, and the church has become even more complicit.

My father died in 1987.  On the morning of the funeral, my two sisters and I were at the funeral home when one turned to the other and said, “There must be something wrong with us; for the last two days people have been saying we look just like him (i.e., our father), but he’s dead and wearing a lot of make-up.”  It was humorous, but it was also a recognition of a fundamental difference and reality: we were still living, and he was not; we were living and he was dead.

Nearly 45 years ago, Robert E. Neale laid at least some of the onus of death denial at the feet of the clergy when he wrote, “During a funeral the minister will be circumspect about death according to the standards of ‘good taste.’  Once when I was younger and a little more foolish than now, I spoke of death during a funeral, saying, ‘The man lying in this casket is dead.’  As you may guess, the statement caused no end of consternation.  It…is striking that although the scripture read at funerals speaks clearly and boldly of death, it is not considered proper for the minister to do so in modern English.  At the one time when death is most obvious to a Christian community, the Church flees into dogmas of eternal life.  That little item in between life and eternity gets lost” (The Art of Dying, Harper & Row, 1973, p. 13).

As a seminary student, I remember a professor saying he could do a funeral for Adolph Hitler or any other person, because Christian funerals do not focus unduly on the goodness of a person but on the goodness, grace, and mercy of the God to whom all life ultimately belongs and who is able, even in the worst of us, to be at work for good.  Our worship focus, as always and forever, should be not on us, but on the Triune God, and to acknowledge, confess, and speak truly of life, death, sin, forgiveness, mercy, grace, and even judgment, which ultimately does not belong to us, but to the all-wise One who knows us best and loves us most fully.  Trusting in that God, we need neither deny nor fear death, and that is a treasured gift the faith community has to offer especially to this culture, still.

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The Perfect Church: A Sermon Based on Acts 2:42-47, on the Occasion of the Baptism of James Eno Clayton

Your pastor Meghan told me that during this Easter season she’s preaching on the early church as described in the book of Acts and what that might mean for us today. One of her guiding questions is this: Was the early church perfect and have it all right?

The quick and easy answer is of course it wasn’t perfect and didn’t have it all right. After all, if the early church was perfect, we wouldn’t have most of the New Testament; much of Paul’s letters deal with problems in his less than perfect churches. Even in the book of Acts and its pretty picture of the church, there are problems to be faced and addressed.

You may be surprised that not only is there a perfect church, I know where it is; I saw it a few years ago during a William & Mary Wesley Foundation Spring Break mission trip to Atlanta. The Perfect Church had a large sign above the main door reading, “The Perfect Church,” so it must be perfect, right? You wouldn’t lie about that, right? What was interesting was that the carved sign “The Perfect Church” had a crack in it, so The Perfect Church sign was, well, imperfect.

It’s true that we have ideas of the perfect church, whether in Atlanta or here or elsewhere. And people do look for it. On YouTube, search for “Church Hunters” and you’ll find a comical spoof of HGTV’s House Hunters; a couple looks for the perfect church with just the right blend of hipness, convenience, music, branding and star preaching. For others the perfect church has every seat taken on Sunday, the budget’s easily met, there are enough volunteers so I don’t have to do much, young families, children and teens are everywhere but old people are still mostly in charge, the preacher is young with 40 years experience, serious and totally funny, always available anytime to me but dedicated to her family, preaches from the Bible in a way that’s always relevant and tells it like it is but is never offensive or controversial. Perfect, right?

Today’s reading in Acts follows the Pentecost Day birth of the church when 3000 become believers after a powerful, Spirit-filled sermon by Peter. We now see the Jesus community evoking awe and marked by signs and wonders. It sounds picture perfect; I’d like to be part of such a church, wouldn’t you? More importantly, could Salem be such a church?

But before we hear about that “perfect” church in Acts, we might honestly think that “perfect” is too strong a word, too impossible, too flawless for Salem. But here’s some good news: in the Bible perfection doesn’t mean utterly pure or unrivaled or faultless or beyond compare. The Greek word teleios simply means doing what you’re created to do, being what you were made to be. For example, my lawnmore is teleios; it’s perfect, not because it dropped straight out of heaven, or there’s none like in the world, or it’s better than yours. It’s much simpler. My mower’s perfect because it does what it’s supposed to do, what it’s made for. I put in gas, crank it, put it in gear and voilà, it runs smoothly on all cylinders and grass gets cut. It was made for grass cutting and that what it does. It’s awesome, perfect.

So what are the marks of the perfect church in Acts? Listen to today’s report from the book of Acts:

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”

They seem to be joyfully caught up in a new kind of life rooted in the Holy Spirit and constantly devoted to worship; there’s continual learning about God’s great works in Christ and what that means for faith and life; they eat weekly in homes and around the Lord’s Table; there’s habitual and fervent prayer, and sharing a common life deeply. Not just the good and easy things are shared, but shared struggles and failures, needs and fears, along with gratitude and victories. In that community there is caring honesty, healing, hope, joy, active love, and sacrificial compassion so no one is in need, and all have enough. What strikes me about this picture especially is that it doesn’t sound like it is legally enforced, but Holy Spirit-enabled. There’s s mutual agreement and a shared commitment to live in such a way; they didn’t take a vote with majority rule winners and losers; they were drawn to this way because they couldn’t imagine another way to share life in love with God and each other. Such a life together brought them such unaffected joy that they had to praise God with glad and generous hearts, and others were drawn to it because it had such magnetic power and evoked their goodwill and awe.

Can Salem be such a perfect church? Yes, not because you’re great but because God is; and because God is good and desires it for you. Here’s an extraordinary promise: the same Spirit that empowered the church in Acts can still act here. Constantly hold up that mirror of church, reflect it here, and by grace you will become what you see. The God who raised Christ from the dead can raise you to such a life. Church, that’s the Easter life good news, even here.

Here’s why it matters. Today Meghan and Josh give baby James up for adoption. They’re bringing him to the baptismal font to give him up to God, his rightful owner, and giving him over to you as his faith family, because they know they can’t do this faith thing all on their own. They need your help, just like you need theirs to keep close to Christ and to help James take on a Christ-shaped life. They’ll make promises to do their best by grace to show Christ to James in their lives, and they ask you to do the same so James can grow up with a greater knowledge of what it means to hunger for Christ and to love God and others. In the language of the old Methodist baptism service for children, they hope that together you’ll “live a life that becomes the gospel” and makes it real and true and attractive, so in time James will also choose Jesus because he won’t be able to imagine any other way to live. That would be perfect, thanks be to God.

-2017, David M. Hindman, soli Deo gloria.

Unexpected Blessings: Sermon Based on John 20:19-31

Locked inside Greensville Correctional Center with 150 inmates wasn’t a place I expected to be blessed. It was a Sunday night, like those we just read about in John’s Gospel; shut up in a place where sadness and despair and fear also live. We were singing a worship song that never would’ve been on my top 40 list. But unexpected blessing came in such a place and time. I realized that the Risen Christ had broken in and was standing in our midst bringing peace and joy and love and freedom and life like I don’t always experience where there aren’t guard towers. In the midst of the full-throated and full-bodied joyful song of my brothers in Christ I realized, surely God is in this place, and I did not know it – an unexpected blessing.

That’s what we hear in this Gospel story. The disciples are locked away in fear and anxiety, prisoners of their grief and disappointment, facing an uncertain future, still shocked at the Jesus’ death, the one they truly believed was God’s man. And then suddenly, unexpectedly, Jesus stands among them bringing peace, showing them his wounds so they know it’s really him alive in a way they can’t explain. The most real things they know are that Jesus was crucified, died and buried, and now he’s alive in their midst bringing peace and joy. Surely God is in this place, and they did not know it until Jesus breaks in, bringing unexpected blessing.

Such blessings can come in many ways. Ours is not a one size fits all faith: what abundant and amazing grace. Sometimes unexpectedly, what seemed dead and lifeless breaks open with new life. Many years ago, a friend greeted me after worship after we’d had Holy Communion using the old Methodist ritual that I mostly experienced as dreary and depressing. But she was unexpectedly exuberant, glowing, joyous in a way most unlike her, especially after our usual sober “celebration.” Ecstatically she said, “Today I got it. After all these years of praying the same prayers and using the same liturgy, I heard something I’d never heard it before in the words, ‘that we may walk in newness of life. That’s what this is all about; it’s what it means to be a Christian; we get to live new life, go a different way; travel a better road!” Unexpectedly and blessedly, the Risen Christ broke through a familiar and locked down faith tradition with new presence, new joy, new life.

That’s part of the Easter promise! Christ is alive, still meeting and greeting us with life and joy and peace, especially when we think we’ve got things locked down, secure and under control; or when life seems uncertain and terrifying. A tired old hymn suddenly speaks to us in a fresh way; scripture we’ve read countless times comes alive as God speaks to us directly in a stunning way; or an ordinary conversation unexpectedly becomes holy and life changing.

At a church homecoming service I attended as an adult, I saw an older man I’d known from childhood. With joy and deep gratitude I told him that when I was in college he’d spoken words at a church meeting that had changed my life. He listened to my story but said with a wry smile, “I just don’t remember that at all.” What was ordinary and forgettable to him was an unexpected blessing to me; the Risen Christ spoke through him and the old man didn’t know it.

In mission and service we may assume we’re the ones bringing God and help and hope; but unexpected blessing can come through those to whom we go; the Risen Christ enters our lives afresh bringing joy and peace and life. A campus ministry colleague took a group of students on a spring break mission trip to Guatemala; the team included a young man who said he was an atheist, but he wanted to do good. Of course he was welcomed because that’s what Christians do, right? The team worked in a village with only widows and children; a few years earlier the Guatemalan army had come to round the men up and lock them in the village church and blow it up. That young man worked alongside the widows who shared their lives and their faith in ordinary ways and at week’s end he humbly said, “If these women who have suffered so much and have so little can trust and believe in God, maybe I can, too.” The Risen Christ broke into his locked up beliefs and assumptions to plant a seed of faith as an unexpected blessing.

Scripture promises such blessing to all of us, not just a select few. In today’s story the Risen Christ comes to the disciples. For John that’s not just the 12; he rarely mentions them as a group. The disciples are all who follow and love Jesus; that’s to whom he comes, as they need him, meeting them where they are.

Certainly that’s Thomas’ story. We typically call him Doubting Thomas, and I like that, because that means my doubts and uncertainties and questions won’t keep Jesus from me, and Jesus won’t love me less. But when you read John’s Gospel there’s more to Thomas. He is also Brave Thomas saying to his friends let us go with Jesus even if that means dying with him. He’s Honest Thomas; the night before his arrest Jesus tells the disciples, “You know where I’m going and you know the way.” But Thomas says, “Lord, we don’t know where you’re going so how can we know the way?” There’s a beauty in owning up to how clueless you are and to trust Christ won’t give up on you; that’s when Jesus tells Thomas, “I am the Way, and the Truth and the Life.” Thanks to Thomas we have those treasured words and that blessed promise.

So it’s not surprising that when Thomas is told that the Lord is risen and has appeared to the disciples, he doesn’t believe it. Hearsay evidence isn’t good enough for him; a one-off, second-hand faith isn’t for him. He wants direct encounter, a hands on, full-bodied meet up with Jesus. We tend to criticize Thomas for that; he should just believe, right? But Thomas only asked for what the others already received – to know and see for himself, to believe up close and personal, not at a distance. Isn’t that what we all want? And the unexpected blessing is that Christ gave Thomas what he needed, in a way he needed it. He doesn’t chastise or criticize Thomas. He comes to him, again through locked doors, and invites Thomas into that direct encounter: put your finger here; put your hand there. In our English translation Thomas is a doubter; but that’s not what Jesus says in the Greek. There he calls Thomas from being an unbeliever to be a believer. And then Jesus gives us an unexpected blessing because even though we aren’t among those first disciples in that long ago place, belief and faith are gifts that are given to us, too. We are those who believe, although we have not seen. We don’t meet a dead Jesus but a living Christ in scripture and prayer and worship and service; he still comes to us with unexpected blessing and calls us to believe and trust and live, and to continue his work and mission and ministry. The Risen Christ doesn’t come to the disciples to say, ”I’m alive so now you know you can go to heaven when you die.” Not at all. What he does is breathe the Holy Spirit on them, like God breathing life into the first man in Genesis’ creation story, or like the prophet Ezekiel when he envisions God breathing breath/wind/spirit into a valley full of dry bones that are raised to new life. The Risen Christ breathes that same Holy Spirit into the disciples, birthing new creation and says, “As the Father sent me, so I send you.”   By the Holy Spirit’s power working in us and through us and for us, Christ sends us, like him, to live and heal, to love and forgive, to teach and serve, to show mercy and bring peace and abundant life. We get to be his partners and co-workers; Christ alive in us!

What a great joy, what an unexpected blessing. I have a treasured picture of my daughter and wife working alongside each other in the kitchen preparing a Thanksgiving feast. They both look at the camera, so alike, so happy, working together to make Thanksgiving real. That’s what we’re about, working alongside Christ to give the world what the hymn writer calls “a sweet foretaste of the festal joy, the Lamb’s great banquet feast of bliss and love.”

In the same way I watch our neighbor Quinn and his son Liam. Whatever Dad’s doing, Liam does. In the yard, they wear identical baseball hats; they’re partners bringing life to their yard, one working with big people tools, the other with tools his size, but side by side sharing the joyful work together. And in days to come, our Grace and little Liam will continue living in the light of lessons learned and living love will be still be near, even if in a different way.

That’s what we get to do; work alongside Christ and show the life Christ gives in our lives. In the words of blessing in our wedding liturgy, we get to “bear witness to the love of God in this world so that those to whom love is a stranger will find in us generous friends;” we get to tell the story that Christ still comes with joy and peace; we get to love as Jesus loves, and serve in his name; in the words of John’s story we get to to be signs of Christ’s life so others can judge for themselves if they want to be part of such an incredible story, and believe for themselves that this same Crucified and Risen Jesus is Lord and God, Savior and Messiah; and believing they – and we – will have life in his name, thanks be to God.

-2017, David M. Hindman, soli Deo gloria.