Thursday, December 2, 2010

On Death and Mourning

(The painting is of course Van Gogh and is his "The Raising of Lazarus.")

It seems to be an oxymoron to speak of the fact that death is a part of life. While I’m sure the intent of my notion is understood, of course death is really the antithesis of life. But I must put down some thoughts about it as this bad season, of death, has visited our family once more. A week ago today Denise’s father passed from living his days here on this earth. So the thoughts of death and the observance of a life gone have consumed—of course Denise—and all of us this last seven days, and many more to come.

It doesn’t seem right to be thinking on death during this glorious season where the center of our focus is the birth of God on earth. Even the early Church picked December 25th as the day to remember the birth of Christ, because it represented beginnings. Occurring just after the winter solstice, it was the rebirth of the light as the days were growing longer.

Yet, the theme of death has always been the kid-shadow to the holidays. I think for one reason, as I said before, that the holidays are those great buoys or roadside markers, which reveal to us the passing of our lives. With that, it is also a time that we always tend to remember many people, whom we have loved and with whom we have celebrated Christmas, but yet are no longer here.

Of course we all know that the holidays are the most depressing time of the year and I think part of that sadness (in the midst of joy) is that constant longing for the whispers from the past, the grand parents, the old friend and the parent. I can’t imagine the pain that Christmas brings to those who have lost a child, a child with whom they had celebrated glorious mornings of excitement and true joy and then to be hushed forever on this earth.

It also seems that more of the people whom we have loved have departed us during the holidays. I’m not sure why. I realized it could just be a psychological factor that makes it seem that way but, at least for me, it seems real.

I think of the people whom I’ve lost and the vast majority of them were taken away from me during the holidays. My Grandfather, the first person I lost, died one week before Christmas. I can still remember, and I think I was only eleven, finding my mother collapsed in the kitchen floor on Christmas Eve. She went it to check the turkey and never came out. We use to spend every Christmas Eve with him. Mom was lying on the floor, shaking and crying and saying over and over, “Do you realize that was my daddy we just buried . . . that was my daddy . . . that was my daddy. We will never have Christmas with him again.”

My favorite uncle died just after Thanksgiving. A couple of years later my close high school friend, Amanda, was killed the day after school let out for the Christmas break. It was her very first solo driving trip. She was only going to the store three miles away to buy eggs for Christmas baking. That Christmas of 1974 fell silent. It became the year without a holiday season. Three years later, my good, college, friend Owen took his own life about three days after Christmas.

Although my own father did not die at Christmas, I said my goodbyes to him then. I knew I would never see him alive again. It was surreal. How do you say goodbye to your fully vigilant father knowing that the next time you would see him would be in his open casket? It was horrible. I had driven from his house in Tennessee, back to Michigan many, many times and it was always full of tears . . . but that time the pain was unbearable.

But I have to think about death because it is always intrusive. There is never a better way or time to die. I’m not writing to be a downer to myself or anyone, but, like I said it is a part or anti-part to life.

I’ve seen death handled by Christians in a variety of ways . . . some more dysfunctional than others. I helped Barb, a good friend in college, and her mother celebrate her father’s death. When I used the word “celebrate” here . . . is wasn’t what you think. It was a true celebration. They were a deeply religious family and their gross misunderstanding of death made them think that the proper way for Christians to face it was in a loud party. There were no tears allowed. There were balloons, noise makers and the sort . . . to celebrate their father/husband’s sudden, and un-expectant, entrance into Heaven. It was as bizarre as it sounds. I don’t know how deep they had to dig to bury the pain but it had to go somewhere. I saw the same happen when a friend’s son was killed in a car wreck. The father and mother were so hell-bent in proving to the world that they were godly, they never shed a tear . . . at least not then.

But death is not a gift nor was it ever intended to be that way. It is not a happy ending and any time we try to put a positive face on it, it is the same as trying to say the Fall of man . . . had its good side. Death is an aberration. It is offensive. It is un-natural. It is not the grand finale or the relief from suffering . . . but the fulfillment of suffering . . . suffering gone wild . . . suffering triumphing—through temporally—over us.

An acquaintance of mine died a few months ago mountain climbing. He was an avid mountain climbing and truly loved it. He was also in his early seventies. So I must have heard a hundred times, “Well he died doing what he loved and that was nice.” Hell no it wasn’t nice! He fell a thousand feet to his horrible death. He must have been terrified on the way down. He had to have felt the pain of hitting the ground. But worst than that, he felt the pain in his heart during those few seconds of knowing that he was leaving the wife and children, which he loved, and the grand children, who he will not see grow up. Death is always bad. It is worse than bad. Okay, maybe if Hitler died in his youth it would have been a good thing. But only God knows that, and it still doesn’t sound right. I think Bonheoffer struggled with the same concept.

I have also heard of Christians who start to loose faith in the midst of the tragedy of death. The thinking goes, “How could have God allowed this?” It is the age-old question of, how can God be both loving and in control, yet this great pain has come to us? This is the slippery path in the high places were we can so easily stumble. We can fall to one side and blame God forever and either walk away from Him or become to Him a statue of cold marble. On the other side, we fall into the abyss of believing that God is the author of death. In that frame of mind we believe that God not only willed it, but designed it. Oddly, it dictates that God painstakingly formed each second of the suffering and catastrophe with his loving hands. Now that’s an oxymoron.

There is much more I want to say so I must continue this later. I will end with a passage from John 11, which I want to speak to when I’m back. Once again I’m sorry about the typos but I just got off a plane and I’ve had about three hours sleep.

John 11

The Death of Lazarus

1 Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 (This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.) 3 So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.”
4 When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” 5 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6 So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days, 7 and then he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.”

8 “But Rabbi,” they said, “a short while ago the Jews there tried to stone you, and yet you are going back?”

9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Anyone who walks in the daytime will not stumble, for they see by this world’s light. 10 It is when a person walks at night that they stumble, for they have no light.”

11 After he had said this, he went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.”

12 His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.” 13 Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep.

14 So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, 15 and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”

16 Then Thomas (also known as Didymus[a]) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

Jesus Comforts the Sisters of Lazarus

17 On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18 Now Bethany was less than two miles[b] from Jerusalem, 19 and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.
21 “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”

23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”

24 Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”

25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

27 “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”

28 After she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. “The Teacher is here,” she said, “and is asking for you.” 29 When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn there.

32 When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. 34 “Where have you laid him?” he asked.

“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.

35 Jesus wept.

36 Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”


Hope T. said...

I'm so sorry for your family's loss of a loved one.

PRS & ALS said...

I'm sorry too for the loss of Denise's father. And thank you for your honesty and vulnerability.

jmj said...

Thanks for your shared sorry.

Eagle said...

MJ...I'm sorry for your loss. I can't tell you how sorry I am. I wish I could take you to a Starbucks and just listen.

Death is hard...I can't give you a lot of advice except to say that it is hard. I think you learn to adjust, but what makes it difficult is all the holidays, family evsnts, etc.. that your relative will not be a part of.

In October 2009 my family buried my grandmother. I've known her my entire life and have been dealing with her being gone. My Dad can't remove her from his cell phone. In my life for 35 years and then gone. What made it harder for me is thinking of what evangelicals said about Catholics not being saved...and thinking of my Irish Catholic as well. That happened at her funeral.

The link I posted below I think is bothersome. They had a sad situation a couple of years ago here in the DC/Baltimore area. In a custody battle a husband drowned his three children in a bathroom in a hotel in Baltimore's inner harbor. The wife was in an orchestra at a mega church in the DC area. During the news conference at the church she spent some time answering questions about her divorce, problems with her husband, etc.. to the press. Then she spent time talking about how God is still in control still has a plan, etc.. On the local DC TV news when they baordcast her remarks with the Senior Pastor standing behind her bobbing his head. It sounded so weird...especially a few days after your 3 children are murdered.

Maybe I'm over analyzing this situation...

Anonymous said...

No, Eagle, you're not over-analyzing it. Christian Monist has reported the same reaction in many other cases (like the father whose teenage son was killed and disfigured in a car crash, or that young kid killed in a lawnmower accident).

Though often called "Edifying", it's probably a Christianese form of big-D Denial and an attempted search for some meaning behind "shit happens." Unfortunately this Godly Denial response ends up getting locked in as the only Christianese response and the survivors end up in a pressure cooker until they snap. That "wife who was in an orchestra at a mega-church" is probably heading for a crackup some time in the future; at which point her mega-church pastor and mega-church friends will start with the "Shun the Unbeliever... Shunnn... Shunnnn..." and things will just get worse.

Remember when Jesus was quizzed about that tower collapse at Siloam? Asked about the spiritual meaning of it, He effectively said "Sometimes shit happens."

Headless Unicorn Guy