Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Hoping Beyond Death

So-Fee and me

I paid my taxes a few weeks ago. If there is one thing that is certain, it is paying your taxes. But there is something more certain than paying taxes. One day I will die. Death is more certain than taxes. 

I think about death. One result of my conversion to Christ forty-six years ago was a greater awareness of death. Being a philosophy major helped me, since "death" is a big-time philosophical theme. How we think about death influences how we live today. Heidegger, for example, told us that life is best lived in light of one's death. The death of Socrates, as told by Plato, is philosophically famous as a example of a good life and a good death. 

Attending a theological seminary and becoming a pastor meant that I was always being called into life-and-death situations, some of which ended, of course, in death. I have done many funerals. I did the funerals of my mother, my father, and Linda's mother and father. My infant stillborn son David never got a funeral because of the crazy circumstances surrounding his expiration. When you minister at a funeral you deal with death. You meet with people whose loved ones are gone.

I have cried at the death of loved ones. I cried when we put our dog So-Fee "to sleep" a few years ago. That was one of the hardest things I have ever done. We loved her so much! Driving her to the veterinarian's office as when she was dying was, for me, ridiculously painful. The fact that she trusted in us, in me, but could not be communicated to, made the situation harder. It also made me angry. Angry... at death... at the fact of death.

For several years I was the pastoral chaplain at the Mid-Michigan Neonatal Intensive Care Unit in Lansing. This was Sparrow Hospital's "HOPING" group. HOPING: Helping Other Parents In Normal Grieving. My loss of David made me, in some way, "a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief." Once or twice a year I would speak, representing HOPING, to parents who had lost their children in the hospital. That was intense. It feels intense as I write about it.

I will never forget these things. I do not want to forget them. I cannot and should not forget that death is still with us. In times of death, in times of walking through the valley of the shadow of death, some people think and reflect. Not all, but some. I once did a funeral where friends of the drug-overdosed deceased were having a tailgate "party" in the funeral parking lot. Alcohol was their drug of choice for dealing with grief. They staggered into the funeral service having failed to "drown their sorrows."

I see every funeral as a God-opportunity. Worldviews kick in at funerals. Some people are weighing things, evaluating things, dealing with incomplete things, with unsaid things that should have been said, with the experiential finality of death, and with their own mortality. All of these are thematic in the Gospel of Jesus the Christ. I share how forgiveness is possible in Jesus, and how in His resurrection we have hope beyond the grave. As I speak I see people who are listening, who are HOPING. Some who live in denial come out of that dark closet and stand, for a while, in the light. In that moment they are looking for some hope, and before them stands the Hope of the World.

How do I handle death? I like what Thomas Merton said after one of his healthy meditations on life's mortality: "The important thing is simply turning to [God] daily, preferring his will and mystery to everything that is evidently and tangibly "mine."" (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander) Note the quotes around the word "mine" since, obviously, we own nothing in this earthly life. This includes other people. I don't even think we own our own selves. 

I'm going to die. You are too. But Christ has been raised. Therefore I have hope, and you can, too. Today I choose to live in the light of that eschatological hope and connect with "Christ, the HOPE of glory."