Friday, May 14, 2010

Grief and hope

After the death of Abel, we start to see creation disintegrating. Brokenness enters every human relationship. It's been happening since we disobeyed God in Genesis 3, but now we start to hear the cry of the human heart, alienated from God. Cain's lament sounds a lot like what my college profs used to call "existential angst." He's alienated from the ground, from his brother, from his place of origin, from a settled life, from God, from himself, and from other humans.

Existentialism is a philosophy which says basically that we are all alienated in this way. It is the ultimate individualism, in a sense, proclaiming that each of us is truly an island, each of us truly stands alone.

Death, which has been an unwelcome part of our story now since Genesis 3, is the final expression of this isolation. As the character of King Saul says at the beginning of the movie "King David," "in death we are all forsaken." Isn't this so much of what frightens us about death? We descend into this mystery alone, and though loved ones might stand around our bedside, they cannot accompany us. We are like children in a department store, playing peekaboo among the clothing racks, yet always checking to see if Mom or Dad is still close by. We want to dabble in isolation, we want to feel independent, but we don't want to be truly alone. Facing death is like that moment when the child looks around and no one is near. It's terrifying.

Instinctively, we shield our children from this as best we can. We don't talk about death, don't let them see death either in person or in media. We speak of the dying in hushed tones and arrange babysitters during funerals so the kids don't have to attend. Notice that we are not carefully considering what is best for our children when we do this; we are simply acting out our own fears and trying to protect our kids from the nightmare that scares us.

Culturally we act out this fear of death by producing ever more bizarre, grotesque, and horrific visions of death. Horror movies or shoot-em-ups where bodies fly across the screen are common fare in our theaters. I was driving my daughter and one of her friends home from school a couple years ago and the friend was describing in graphic detail a movie he'd seen the night before in which hundreds of people died gruesome deaths. After ten minutes of vivid description, I asked him, "Have you ever been with someone in real life when they died?" He gave me a horrified look and murmured, "That would be freaky. No way."

Given our almost insurmountable fears about death, dying, and loss, it's no wonder that so many people wander our streets with hidden reservoirs of grief, terror and avoidance regarding anything related to mortality. It's no wonder that our children are shielded to the point where we create a phobia about death in them before they know what it is. They learn what we live.

The Bible says that death is the final enemy. What Jesus did, giving his own life and rising from death, flies in the face of our fears about dying and loss. Jesus' death on the cross does not minimize the reality of death; quite the opposite. Studying what Jesus went through on the cross leads us deeper than we ever wanted to go into the reality of death and dying. That's the point of the cross. Jesus enters into our deepest horror, goes fully into the most grisly death. Are we afraid of death because it seems senseless? Jesus' crucifixion is more senseless. Are we afraid of violence? Jesus dies at the hand of carefully, intentionally violent men. Do we fear prolonged suffering? The torture of the cross was horrible. Does the suffering and death of those who don't deserve to suffer and die offend us? Jesus was more innocent, more holy than any other -- yet he suffered terribly and died in horrible pain. Jesus enters fully into death in all its offensiveness, in all its horror.

This is the heart of the Christian gospel -- that Jesus, God in human flesh, actually suffered and died. By entering into our death, he conquered death. By rising from death, he demonstrates for us the promise of God who calls us into life beyond death. When we face our own death or the death of those we love, we can stand squarely without flinching, because we know Jesus has gone before us. We do not understand fully what this means, but we know that he has been here before us.

I sat on the riverbank with my daughter and her friends after the suicide of another of their group, and together they wept out the grief of those who were new to this experience of laying a loved one to rest. It's hard. In her tears, my daughter -- knowing me and my work as a pastor, that I do a lot of funerals and have laid a lot of my own loved ones into the earth -- turned to me and asked, "How do you do this, Dad? How do you do this over and over again?"

The question surprised me a little bit. I hadn't thought about it much. "I guess you get used to it, a little," I said. "Grieving gets easier. Not that it ever gets easy. But it gets to be familiar ground. You learn how to grieve." But then I paused, because I knew that wasn't the entire truth, nor the deepest. "But the heart of it is that I know Jesus. And he's been here before -- he's been where I am, grieving for those he loves, but he's also gone into death itself. And he rose. He defeated death, and whatever happens, I know I can trust him to bring me -- and those I love -- out the other side of death."

So post-Easter, how do we deal with death -- for ourselves and for our children?

First of all, we grieve. We do not lipstick a smiley face on death and try to make it okay. As Jesus' followers we know the horror and the pain of death. We do not minimize it or say it should be okay. It's not okay. It's wrong. It goes against God's heart for his beloved creation. So we weep, like Jesus wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus in John 11. But as we grieve, and as we struggle with our own fears, we cling to Jesus. Amid all the flowers and weeping faces and clutter we place around death, we look for the face of Jesus, to look in his eyes and hear his voice. "Where are you in all this, Lord?" For we know he is there. He has been there, in death, and his promise is to meet us there. He does not simply come as the Comforter, though there is no greater comfort than the presence of Jesus. He meets us in the ambulance, at the hospital bed, by the graveside, next to the withering flowers at the weathered tombstone, as the Resurrection and the Life.

Second, in this as all other areas of life, we lead our children to know Jesus in the midst of grief, in the midst of fear, in the midst of death. So when my mother died without warning in 1994, or when my father died after a prolonged battle with cancer in 2000, or when my sister-in-law died after a medical procedure gone senselessly wrong in 2005, my wife and I were careful to sit with our children, to tell them in words they could understand about this death, about how grandma's body stopped working, about how cancer had taken over grandpa's body, about how sometimes -- not very often, but sometimes -- accidents happen, even to people we love. We listened to our children's grief and to their fears, we let them see some of our own grief, we cried with them while they cried, we remembered and told stories and kept them close. And above all -- above all -- we let them know that grandma, and grandpa, and Arlene, are with Jesus, and he takes care of them, and we will see them again.

This is why it is much more difficult for the follower of Jesus to deal with the death of those who may not know him. But even then we can say, "We trust Jesus to take care of them," and we do. We don't know what the specifics are in eternity for every individual, but we know who holds eternity in the palm of his hands, and he is trustworthy. When we know that our loved ones trust Jesus, we can proclaim their hope clearly. When we don't know, we proclaim Jesus and his faithfulness and his love.

But we need not -- we must not -- hide from death. This last enemy has been faced, and conquered. Jesus is risen, the victory won, as the old hymn says. Alleluia!

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