Death, Thanksgiving, and the Resurrection

“Keep your mind in hell and despair not.” — St. Silouan the Athonite

I’ve been thinking a lot about death lately. An acquaintance of mine is a widower, and while I knew previously that his wife died several years ago, I only recently learned how: she suffered a sudden and massive heart attack. This woman was in her early thirties and in good health, and she died shortly after giving birth to the couple’s first child.

It’s easy for me to think of tragedy as something very distant and other. Tragedy happens to people on the news. It is sad and horrible, but always in a somewhat abstract way.

It’s easy to put my faith in statistics and regular exercise and my daily vegetable intake.

It’s easy to believe that because I am young and reasonably healthy I have a lot of life ahead of me.

Of course, if asked point-blank, I would not say that I expect to live to a certain age or that my life will go exactly as I hope and plan it will; no rational person can say that with certainty. Tragedy teaches us that life is very uncertain. Yet my underlying attitude comes out in my words: I joke with my husband about “when we’re old and gray;” I muse about parenting strategies and baby names in preparation for “when we have kids.” I use language of certainty when I speak of the future.

Like so many things in a young person’s mind, I often and far too easily relegate death to the far-off “someday” category. It will come when I’m old and after I’ve accomplished everything I’ve set out to accomplish. Perhaps I don’t believe this completely or even all the time, but in some small corner of my heart, I believe that death will come when I’m ready for it.

And so, it seems I have built an altar to my hopes and dreams, to what I expect out of life and what I think I deserve. I rely on a good diet and good luck for a fulfilled life, and in so doing I ignore the reality of death and tragedy, which really boils down to ignoring God and my need for him.

A former priest of mine used to respond to the question, “How are you doing?” with the statement, “Thank God.” That is, regardless of the circumstances in his life at that moment—whether joyous or tragic or somewhere in between—he responded in this way to practice continual thanksgiving. This is a good reminder of what our baseline should be as Christians: thankfulness to God for every good and perfect thing, and, more importantly, thankfulness for his unchanging goodness and mercy despite our current life circumstances.

After my priest’s example, I am trying to change the way I talk about my life. I speak of the future in terms of God’s will instead of my own plans. Rather than saying, “When I’m an old woman,” I’ll say, “Lord willing, when I’m old.” It’s not bad to hope for good things, but it is bad to idolize our desires and expectations.  We must remember who is ultimately in control, placing our faith in God’s sovereignty and grace above all else, especially when life doesn’t go according to plan.

This past Saturday, my church celebrated Christ’s raising of Lazarus from the dead. I was moved by one of the Scripture readings during the service, from the book of Hebrews:

“Let your conduct be without covetousness; be content with such things as you have. For He Himself has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ So we may boldly say: ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear. What can man do to me?’…Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” — Hebrews 13:5-6, 8

In just a few verses there is such a profound and overarching message: that we must be content with what we have, for the greatest thing we always have is a God who will never abandon us, and that is all we could ever need.

While ignoring the reality of death and tragedy can be detrimental, I am not promoting the opposite extreme of being so consumed with the notion of death and mortality that we become hopeless and fail to live our lives well. Rather, we must be mindful of death, our weaknesses, and other realities that ultimately illumine our continual need for God and his grace. The Jesus Prayer, inspired by the parable of the tax collector in Luke 18, is a powerful aid for such mindfulness: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.”

My contemplation of death seems appropriately timed, as we near the end of Holy Week and rapidly approach Easter Sunday. Soon, the Christian world will celebrate Christ’s resurrection from the dead. Death has been defeated, and while it is still a terrible reality of this life, it is not our end. Our mortality and our shortcomings remind us to be humble, but, as St. Silouan says in the quote above, we must not despair. This is not to say that tragedy and suffering are to be dismissed as insignificant; Christ himself mourned the death of Lazarus, which points to how death is unnatural and against God’s will. Death is a horrific thing that tears apart a human’s very being. But thanks to Christ, we have hope beyond death and despite tragedy and suffering, as our savior tells us:

“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” — John 16:33

Thank God.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

A Final Act of Service

Who does a funeral benefit? This last week, I took some time off from work and school to be with my family as we buried my grandfather. It was a difficult but rich time, remembering and learning more about a man who was one of my heroes. Prior to this week, I had always thought that the funeral was solely for the benefit of the loved ones left behind—a way for us to remember the deceased in the best light possible, and to garner comfort for our loss by gathering together and mourning communally. Even though the memorial service was centered around the life of the deceased, I imagined that its purpose was to give comfort to the living, not necessarily to benefit the dead themselves. How could the deceased receive any benefit? They cannot be present at their own funeral.

Obviously, all this is true—the deceased is not present to enjoy the service, and the family left behind does receive comfort and closure from the funeral. But this week, I realized that my previous conceptions of funerals are not entirely true. Benefiting the dead or the living is not an either/or option.

There is a sense of duty which accompanies the family planning a funeral. It feels extremely important that everything go well: that the eulogy praises and appreciates the person’s life, that the coffin or urn is beautiful, that we sing songs the deceased loved or relate memories that honor them. In many ways, this part is like planning a surprise birthday party without the knowledge of the recipient—we want everything to be perfect, not for ourselves, but for the guest of honor. This is why it means so much to the family when friends attend the funeral, even if they were not close to the deceased. Their presence supports the family, but it also honors the dead when they make it a priority to come.

And the deceased is the guest of honor at a funeral, even though they are not physically there to witness it. In a way, the funeral and burial are the last acts of service we can provide for the loved one who has passed away, and because of this, we act as though we are benefiting the person through the service.

This is right. We really can benefit the dead by honoring their memory. When I speak well of someone, I am respecting them, even if they are not within hearing. I constantly tell people how wonderful and smart my boyfriend is—and often, he doesn’t hear a word of it. But just because he is not present to appreciate my words of affirmation does not mean that those words are insubstantial. I do not simply say them to feel good about myself, but to respect and cherish him, in or out of his hearing.

My grandfather was a wonderful man—he lived a life that truly glorified God through his  family leadership and vocation as an artist. I benefitted greatly from attending his funeral, both by remembering the man I knew, and learning about other aspects of his character through the eyes of others. We put on a beautiful service in his honor—a service he deserved. This week, when I heard my grandmother say things like, “This is for him,” and, “I want the best for him,” I realized that her words are perfectly appropriate. We benefitted my grandpa by honoring his incredible life. Yes, his service was a blessing for those of us who will miss him, but it was also a blessing for him, and I feel privileged to have been part of it.

Black Dirt and Old Bones: Meditation on Ecclesiastes

Ecclesiastes 1:4 says “Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever.”

After the deaths of two old men I understood that verse for the first time.

I grew up in Linn County, Oregon. When I was a kid my Dad was the pastor of a sixty person church, with farmers and truckers making up most of the assembly. I remember the scared hands and missing fingers when the communion cups tipped and the offering plate was passed. After the benediction I would sneak by circles of them telling stories about brushes with death while in the woods or jobsite, and I listened with reverence. Men like that don’t die.

In my hometown, if you were old enough to steer machinery or lift hay bales, you were expected to work harvest. I would spend my summers from the age of fourteen cutting, sacking grain, or pulling a plow. The dawn to dusk work six days a week was tedious, but interactions with ancient farmers at church and in the field usually broke the monotony.

One of these old farmers was Charlie Bearly. He could always be heard walking into Sunday service because his right boot heel was an inch taller than the other. Part of his foot got blown off in a hunting accident. When I summoned enough courage to ask him the story he only pointed at his boot and said “Remember young man, that’s happens when you hunt on a Sunday.” Charlie knew Linn County like an old friend. He worked plow horses in his youth and was known for herding mustangs over the Santiam pass. He was the last of the real cowboys.

He slowly succumbed to Alzheimer’s in his eighties. Dad would take me into the nursing home and read Louis Lamour paperbacks to him. I would sit there silently and watch as Charlie would sometimes laugh, sometimes cry—his eyes full of fading memories, happy moments and regrets. Charlie talked to Dad about his sin, saying he had done a lot of people wrong in his life. After he died there wasn’t an empty seat at his funeral.

I began working at Cross Roads farms in 2004, and there I became acquainted with Willard Keen. He had lived through the days of the Spanish Influenza and Great Depression, rarely leaving Linn County for ninety years. His vision was poor at best, so I’d be careful whenever he would start the forklift or fire his twelve gage. Willard had looked death in the face several times. One instance machine blades caught hold of his arm in the warehouse. It’s said he calmly wrapped his lacerations in rags, crawled over the cat walks, and down a twenty foot latter. After seeing his jagged scars I told my friends that the Grim Reaper had visited the Willard multiple times, but the old man always chased him off the property with his own scythe.

Willard was always trying to bring dead things to life. Every day he’d put a battery charger on a water truck that hadn’t run since the sixties. When that didn’t work he decided the spark plugs had dirty contacts and nearly destroyed my fingertips when he made me hold all eight of them up to a welding torch to “burn the dirt off.”  I would accidently break brooms and cheap tools only to find them put together disjointedly with masking tape. Grain bins in the warehouse were so old and worn that they would leak seed and Willard plugged the gaping holes constantly with burlap sacks. His thin, old frame never stopped moving. I was convinced he would outlive me.

Willard saw his last harvest at the age of ninety nine. They mentioned that in his twenties he had plowed with horses like Charlie and that his father had told him that the tractor craze was never going to last.

When I was seventeen I ran a John Deer with an eight bottom plow, working the same valley ground. I thought about plow horses eighty years before, lathered in sweat as they pulled with the young hands of Willard and Charlie straining to keep the main share straight from dawn to dusk.

I find my mind attempts to put flesh to fading memory—to revive dead things. Maybe Willard taught me that.  Sometimes like Charlie I lie in bed at night haunted by past happiness and regret. One day I will be as old as they were, and shortly after our bones will all be together in the dark soil. A sermon I heard many years ago in my little church comes to mind. A voice asks in the desert “Son of man, can these bones live?”

I think about the cycles of the earth: the new life in spring after winter; the green stalks of wheat before harvest; new dawns after new moons. I think about working in the same red twilights as Willard and Charlie, smelling the same fresh soil and watching the hours turn into days and days turn into years and I reply, “You alone know.”



Cowardice is Virtue; How The Doctor Saved the World through Cowardice

Note: There are spoilers here if you haven’t seen Season 1 of Doctor Who (2005)

Let’s set the stage.

The Doctor (I find him amazing) is at a crossroads. The sinister Daleks (an ingenious race of genetically engineered aliens designed to take orders and exterminate all life) were not destroyed in the previous war that killed The Doctor’s race. They have been secretly harvesting humans and have returned in full force, ready to claim the Earth as it’s own paradise. They will exterminate all humans and then move on to conquer the rest of universe. All of The Doctor’s defensive forces have been eliminated and he sent his trusted friend Rose back to her own time, against her will, as a promise to keep her safe.

There is still hope! While his friends have defended (and sacrificed themselves for) The Doctor, he has been converting the space station in which they are trapped into a huge “delta wave” generator. This wave produces enough power to wipe out the entire race of Daleks in one single pulse. There’s only one problem. There hasn’t been enough time to focus the direction of the delta wave, so it has become more of a pulse or bubble. It will effectively wipe out the Daleks, the space station, and the entire planet Earth, which they are orbiting.

It is in this moment that The Doctor becomes surrounded by Daleks; even the Dalek Emperor has come to gloat in his triumph. The conversation begins:

The Doctor: You really want to think about this. Because if I activate the signal, every living creature dies.
Dalek Emperor: I am immortal.
The Doctor: D’you want to put that to the test?
Dalek Emperor: I want to see you become like me. Hail the Doctor! The great exterminator!
The Doctor: I’ll do it!
Dalek Emperor: Then prove yourself, Doctor. What are you? Coward or killer?

At this moment, I myself am stymied. What would I do in this situation? The Daleks have proven themselves to be a true threat. They will not alter their course and it is quite literally The Doctor alone who can stop this threat. He lost his entire race last time in the process; the war was that difficult. We know The Doctor is selfless, so it doesn’t matter to him if nobody else is there to witness how he saved things, it must be done. In light of all of life in space and time, this one planet of human beings here and now seems like a small cost. Surely it is drastic, but it must be done.

With his hands on the trigger, and a moment of hard thought and struggle, The Doctor makes his reply:

Coward. Any day.

I’ll admit I wasn’t quite expecting this decision. Earth, humanity, and even himself were all doomed to death and whatever horrible abominations the Daleks would  perform, yet he chose “cowardice” and let the Earth live, even for just a few moments longer. Placing myself in The Doctor’s shoes, this seemed foolish to me, in light of the greater good of space and time that would be spared.

And yet, that’s really just letting the ends justify the means. Even if it spelled certain doom, I wasn’t the one ending the lives of billions. I was not playing God, and I was not corrupting my soul in the extermination of so many souls. There are some things beyond the scope of my responsibility, or at least beyond the range in which I am capable of handling.

In that point I think The Doctor knew that virtue (and maybe even God) wins.

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