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.

Sow Crazy: Sermon Based on Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Note: Whatever flaws are contained in this sermon, they are mine. Some of the thought was informed by Brian Stoffregen’s Exegetical Notes at CrossMarks, and Elisabeth Johnson’s commentary on Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 found at WorkingPreacher.org.
     Today’s scripture’s a hard sell. We’ve heard it so much we don’t hear. “A sower went out to sow…” Boring. It won’t be easy to sow the seed of God’s Word to bring unexpected blessing before you stop listening and start thinking about lunch or the coming week?
     Remember first that Jesus’ stories are trickier than you think. Jesus says he tells parables to confound people to make them think more about things they think they already understand. He says, “This is why I tell parables: ‘seeing, folks don’t see, and hearing they don’t get it.’ The prophet Isaiah got it right: ‘The people are blockheads! They stick their fingers in their ears so they won’t have to listen; they shut their eyes so they won’t have to look so they won’t have to deal with me face-to-face so I can heal them.’”* If we think we’ve figured out a Jesus story think again: maybe not.
     And remember that Jesus’ stories caused trouble. If we listen to a Jesus story and don’t think, “This guy needs killing,” then we probably don’t really get it. His stories always have an edge; they take an unexpected turn to challenge our everyday day world and what we think. Jesus wasn’t put on a cross because he nice, but because he and his stories threatened people.
     Matthew arranges his story of Jesus to show him as a new Moses, a new lawgiver and teacher of God’s way. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches with authority like Moses on Mt. Sinai; five blocks of teaching crafted by Matthew remind us of the Law in the first five books of the Old Testament. Today’s scripture is one of five parables Jesus tells in the third block of teaching, but they’re wedged between conflicts Jesus has with faith leaders, hometown neighbors, and his own family. Jesus’ stories go together with misunderstanding, challenge, threat. Today’s story is also full of puzzle and promise, if we have ears to hear.
     It answers a crucial question: if Jesus is so wonderful and truly God’s chosen, why don’t more people believe? Shouldn’t more people believe, and trust him, and live like him? The story’s told so we won’t fret overmuch that most folks simply won’t.
     Some hearts are just hard and unreceptive. For whatever reason some think faith is foolishness for losers and this Jesus stuff is just wishful thinking.
     Others start out well, but their roots in Christ aren’t deep so when trouble comes faith withers. Disappointment happens and they turn from God because they think God didn’t come through, so what’s the point?
     And some folks have the seed of Christ planted in them, but other things become more important. and discipleship dies. I knew someone on fire for God and the radically different life she believed Christ was calling her to live. But then she met and married a man with a very lucrative career and this world’s cares and wealth choked her life of faith.
     But there’s that fourth blessed group: the seed of God’s Word and life takes root to bear a rich harvest. But it’s only one out of four; an F- in school. A 25% success rate’s not that great; shouldn’t God do better?
     Maybe failure and lack of success are just part of the deal. Maybe God delights in throwing seed everywhere to see what happens and delights whenever and however new life comes. Fruitfulness matters; but so does faithfully doing God’s work, trusting that growth will happen, sometimes in surprising places. Maybe faithful failure and fruitfulness are both OK.
     We’re tempted to think we’re the good seed, the good soil, the ¼ bearing fruit. In God’s multiple choice test, we’re #4, the good soil, right? But maybe the more honest answer is #5, all the above. Our hearts can be hard and dismiss parts of the gospel as absurd: love our enemies? forgive those who harm us? trust God completely instead of military strength or retirement savings, or youth or beauty? There’ve been times when doubt got the best of me; I felt betrayed by God or God’s silence terrified me. We know what it’s like to be distracted by wealth or money worries or family demands. Maybe we should thank God that God’s seed somehow survived and we produced any fruit. Maybe it’s a miracle that God didn’t give up on us, but kept planting year after year. Even when met by failure and disappointment God kept hoping for something good, even in us.
     As a teenager I spent hours talking after school with Ben Nelson, my home church’s associate pastor. We talked about everything: relationships, issues of the day like race and war, faith. At times he could’ve thought I was a waste of time; I was such a blockhead, sticking my fingers in my ears not wanting to hear what Christ might expect of me, shutting my eyes to what following Jesus required of me if I took him seriously. But he didn’t give up, and I tell you that whatever fruit came out of my ministry came because God kept planting seeds through him week after week, month after month, year after year. Before giving up on others, thank God that God doesn’t give up on us. It’s a miracle of God’s amazing grace.
     Maybe this story is about a God willing to take risks even when results aren’t guaranteed. Maybe it’s about a reckless and extravagant God who sows seed without fretting over efficiency or effectiveness, but simply throws out seeds of life and blessing to see what happens. We disciples are to be like God, doing God’s work today. What if we become God’s faithful reckless risk takers who don’t fret over efficiency or effectiveness or what kind of return we get on our efforts? God seems to be OK with being faithful failures and things not always working out; Jesus’ God Jesus is extravagantly and wastefully generous, tossing the seed of life and rejoicing with what happens. Could we?
     Maybe God’s seeding and harvest of life through us is marked both by grand failures and successes; what’s surprising is where fruit is produced. In Jesus’ life it was the odd balls and misfits and rejects who got it, not the religious or proper folk – often their hearts were hard or faith was shallow. In his story maybe Jesus is challenging us to take risks that may fail, to try things that might not work, to see what God might do anyway. Do something for Christ’s sake even if it goes badly.
     Here’s some advice from successful business folks: be sure to create a sufficient number of excellent mistakes. If you want to succeed, double your failure rate; if you’re not making mistakes, you’re not doing anything worthwhile. Indeed, some things are so important they’re worth doing badly.
     In Jesus’ story, if the sower didn’t throw the seed and fail alot, there would be no fruit. Making mistakes, wasting time and energy are part of the creative process. Google headquarters has nap rooms and game areas and outdoor spaces for walking for a reason. Sometimes what looks like doing nothing is tilling the ground for unexpected breakthroughs to new life. Jesus advises us, “You received without payment; give without payment; you received as a gift, give as a gift.”
     What if this church decided to be God’s reckless risk-takers and committed 10% of the budget to sow God’s seed in wild and crazy ways, to experiment with reaching out and planting seeds of faith and living the gospel where you’re planted? What if you didn’t fret about being effective or efficient, but prayed fiercely simply to be faithful see what God might do?
     When a Chicago church received an unexpected $1.6 million windfall last year, most of the money went to ordinary things, like meeting a budget shortfall or needed building upkeep. But they also did something reckless and risky: one Sunday each of 300+ worshipers got a $500 check to do whatever they thought God wanted them to do with it. $160,000 to sow crazy for Christ. Some miracles happened, but certainly not always. But without sowing crazy, no fruit.
     In campus ministry I often saw the fruit of risky, reckless faith. Students tossed out ideas and tried crazy things, trusting all to God. Spectacular failures happened along with wonderful experiences of unexpected fruitful blessings. In late night movie discussions students suddenly got it and faith was born in new ways. Seemingly endless encounters eventually led to students becoming a pastor, a nurse, a special ed. teacher. Paying students to take Religious Studies classes led to deeper faith, not less. A casual walk across campus with a teacher from Russia led to years of connection and mission between students here and there.
     In his book Blue Like Jazz, Donald Miller tells of some young adults setting up a confessional booth at a mall. They invite passersby to enter the booth where they unexpectedly hear a Christian ask their forgiveness for the church’s sins: racism, homophobia, judgmental intolerance, love of power, focus on buildings instead of building relationships. Sow crazy! Sometimes nothing happened, but some gave grace and forgiveness to the broken Body of Christ and room was opened for new faith.
     Others sow crazy: a college town church hosts therapy dogs and food for 300 students during exams; a downtown church’s Bible School draws hundreds of children, most not from that congregation; another offers Sunday School for special needs friends and midweek worship for folks who work on Sundays; a church gives yearly blessings to new drivers, teachers, first responders, health care workers; another hosts a free community-wide block party with food, games and music; a congregation invests thousands of dollars helping working poor neighbors develop a two year plan to escape poverty; some Christians goes to Denny’s at 4 a.m. to share breakfast and blessing with Muslims from a local mosque as they prepare for their daily Ramadan fast. Sow crazy; you never know what fruit might be produced.
     Jesus says, “You will know my disciples by their fruits.” Seeing becomes believing as our good soil fruits help others “put together” faith, words and actions. A young woman went to church but finally became a Christian as she saw an older woman showing that following Jesus was fruitful, if not easy. The woman had a rough relationship with another in the church; as she worked to love and forgive frequently, she saw her nemesis as a fruitful gift and blessing as she confessed, “That woman will make me a Christian yet.” God’s seed in our lives might be the only Bible someone will ever read. Sow crazy, for Christ’s sake. Amen.
-David M. Hindman, 2017, soli Deo gloria.
  • This is my wording, based on a loose rendition of Eugene Peterson’s The Message, Matthew 13:10-17

Anna and Simeon Sightings? Two Poems in Praise of Ancient Saints

There is so much grace, mystery, wonder to be seen, and I mostly miss it, but today I saw a blessing.  An elderly woman was making her way toward the local Lutheran facility where the church gathers weekly for worship (St. Stephen, you may know of whom I speak); she looked frail and ancient leaning on her cane, and yet there she was making her way toward the place where she expected, by grace, to meet the God she’s forever known in Christ.  I suspect she was unnoticed  because this is who she is and what she does; most Sundays I have also missed her on the way but today I saw and marveled at her faith, her steadfastness, her enduring perseverance that was Spirit-inspired to move her toward worship once more.

Her witness reminded me of another moment of mystery and wonder I encountered in a small Methodist church building in Bournemouth, England in 2004, with a group of students from the Wesley Foundation at The College of William and Mary.  Worship was being led by Kara Cooper, a W&M alum, now a British citizen and Methodist chaplain at Lancaster University.  What I will remembers always from that Sunday was a trio of members coming forth, the middle an elderly WW 2 veteran aided and upheld by his fellow sisters in Christ who had come and brought him to the Lord’s Table.  There is a hunger and a thirst that only God can quench, that draws us until we draw our last breath, and is a blessing.  These poems respond to the epiphanies I was blessed to see today here and then, in England.

She creeps

Her three-legged crawl near imperceptible

By drivers passing on their way

Like a vine she moves

Carefully, cautiously, gently toward the Light

 

She grasps

Her outstretched hand feeling for the sign

Aptly marking the privileged place for her

Who no longer moves so fast or far

As others do and once she did

But blesses and is grateful for a place

Reserved for her

 

She steps

Shyly lightly curb-toeing her way up

Wondering not if it can bear her up

But if she can bear herself to that low height

Rocking back and up once twice thrice

The small swell of success waving her on

 

She processes

A one-woman band gliding toward the parade

Others also drawn toward the Light

Just inside the door

Where she expects to meet the Door

The Shepherd True Gate Way Life

 

She follows

The path paved every first day of life

A lifetime lifelong journey

She cannot think not going

Woman toward the well where the thirsty Savior waits

Thirsty to bless and be blessed

To feed and be fed

Welcomed Home once more grateful

 

II.

Call sounded

Invitation sent

Table set and prayer ended

Bread fractured Cup filled

They come

Hungry hearts anticipating

Empty hands filled with hope

 

The pastor stands

Dispensing grace

Ordinary ways ordinary folk

Mundane, ho-hum

Nothing new as always

Until he comes they come as one

Mystery on the move

 

An ancient man

Armed with two women

Who stand him guide him on

Lest he fall or fail

To reach the goal of God

No rush ever patient

They have eternity

Slowly shuffling

Feet sliding on holy ground

 

Once young guarding shore

Ludicrously armed with battle axe

Now feebly muscled yet faith strong armed

He comes as two stand guard and lead

The pastor ready at her post to feed and bless

A miracle seen at life’s ebbing shore

Old soldier at ease before the soul’s Guard

At peace and fed and blessed

By two by all by One

And blessing he because I saw

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