Death And All His Friends (Including Sketchy Theology)

About three weeks ago, my wife’s cousin suffered two heart attacks.  After spending about five days on a heart and lung machine, she passed away.  I was among some of the family members at her bedside when she died.  She was only 50 years old, in good health, and just beginning to enjoy her “grandma” years.  Out of respect for the still-grieving family, nothing I am about to write has anything to do with the family itself or the funeral, which celebrated her life in meaningful ways.

Everyone deals with death and dying in their own way.  Perhaps my way is to over-analyze the theology embedded in people’s comments and prayers during a stressful time.  But I remember a moment in the car when my wife was reading me a poem that someone had suggested be read at the funeral, that I got really angry at the belief system inherent in that poem.  I understand the poem (which, by the way, was not read at the funeral) was only meant to bring comfort to a grieving family.  But for me, it was the culmination of several well-meaning attempts to make sense of death that left me puzzled and frustrated.

A few that left me wondering:

  • “I guess when it is your appointed time, there is nothing you can do.”  Does each person really have an appointed time of death?  Maybe this is one interpretation of Hebrews 9:27, but I believe what is appointed is that we will all die one day, not that each of us has a fixed day of death predetermined somewhere in the future.  Yes, our days our numbered, but that simply means nobody will live forever.  This idea reflects a fatalism that bemoans, “however I live, whatever choices I make, my life (and death) is already determined.”  I don’t see this reflected in scripture.
  • “At least she is home now.”  My issue isn’t so much with the statement itself, but what many mean when they use it.  Inherent in this statement is the belief that we really aren’t supposed to be here on earth anyway, we are supposed to be in heaven; this world is just a throw-away.  But the more I read, the more I am convinced that heaven is a temporary realm until God’s kingdom is fully established here on earth.  Heaven and earth will then be one.  Yes, when we die we are at home with Jesus.  But our home is not ultimately away from this earth (if heaven is even away, in a spatial sense).  We will be home when God’s kingdom is fully established on earth.
  • “She isn’t really dead, she is only sleeping.”  Again, I understand the poetic license behind a comment like this, but while death is not the end, it is still very real.  This takes me way back to a church advertisement I once heard on the radio.  The commercial featured a widow at a funeral laughing and being positively engaging.  When someone asks her how she could be so strong at the death of her husband, she responds that because she is a Christian, everything is fine.  No need to mourn.  Is that how we are supposed to react to death?  Even Jesus wept at the death of his friend Lazarus.

So what is it about death that brings out sketchy theology?  There is nothing like trying to make sense out of the senseless to make one pause and consider what is held to be true.  No doubt, some are simply grasping at anything that will bring comfort.  And I realize that not many would enjoy a good theological discussion in the moment of their grief.  But if the way of Jesus is the way of hope, why must we alter his words so badly to hold on to that sense of hope?

What are your thoughts?

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One thought on “Death And All His Friends (Including Sketchy Theology)

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this topic, Dave.

    I heard a lot of things like this when I was a hospital chaplain. I’ve come to believe that sometimes it’s about finding comfort, sometimes it’s about people who have no hope for or understanding of an afterlife trying to make sense out of the finality of death, and sometimes it really is bad (and occasionally, painfully cheesy) theology. Clearly, I wasn’t about to get into a discussion on this with a family whose loved one had just died, but I felt a lot of discomfort when I heard things like you’ve mentioned.

    Another factor that might be at work is our culture’s absolute state of terror when it comes to death. And not just death, but aging in general. How many drugs and cosmetics and diets and exercise routines and other tricks do we as a society employ to avoid any sign of aging and death? We’re so fixated on staying “young” that I think we might be avoiding the opportunity to really consider what death is and how to deal with it. Thus, when death does show up, we’re left scrambling to come up with a definitive answer (because we as a society also hate to live in the ambiguous, uncertain moments of life).

    Wow, what an upbeat train of thought. Maybe I’ll cheer myself up by seeing who Michigan’s playing tomorrow. Wait, that might not be a good idea either…

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