Life’s Most Ignored Partner: Death

“It is hard to have patience with people who say, ‘There is no death’ or ‘Death doesn’t matter.’ There is death. And whatever it is matters. And whatever happens has consequences, and it and they are irrevocable and irreversible. You might as well say that birth doesn’t matter.”
– C.S. Lewis –

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My sprightly father has been researching the price of funerals in the Sunshine Coast. Or should I say, he has been exploring the cheapest possible way to dispose of his body when he dies. His Melbourne plan to donate his body to research at a local university was sabotaged when we moved to the Coast. Never fear, he just discovered that he can save a whopping $2,000 by using a funeral home near Brisbane and he reported his finding to me with a smug sense of satisfaction! As you can tell, I grew up in a home where we talked about death. It was as natural as talking about life. I only discovered that talking about death was a social taboo when I moved to Australia, and strangely enough, especially in church.

It remains somewhat of a mystery to me why people avoid this subject at all cost. Last time I checked, the death rate of Homo sapiens was pretty high – sitting very close to 100%. Death is inevitable. Considering this, why wouldn’t we ensure that we have a will in place (no matter what age) and clear instructions for end-of-life care? “DO NOT RESUSCITATE”, for example, has been emphasised to me by my father. If he could, he would have that clause tattooed on his forehead. I know it’s hard, but we need to talk about our mortality and death with our loved ones.

Our society’s strange avoidance of death is really quite insane. It seems like we fear death so much that we have convinced ourselves that by not talking about it we can dodge it. Anyone grieving the loss of a loved one in such a cultural “Truman Show” is normally met with awkward comments, a change of subject, or, a total lack of contact and care. By refusing to see life and death as part of the human existence we have created hell for those touched by death.

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One of the most famous historians of death, Philippe Ariès, claimed that death became a shameful scandal in modern society, that the dying were hidden away in hospitals and that grieving survivors were silenced to repress this scandal of death: “We ignore the existence of a scandal that we have been unable to prevent; we act as if it did not exist, and thus mercilessly force the bereaved to say nothing. A heavy silence has fallen over the subject of death.” Ariès is amongst a growing chorus of voices calling on society to stop this nutty denial and recognise and humanise death, “Death must simply become the discreet but dignified exit of a peaceful person from a helpful society that is not torn, not even overly upset by the idea of a biological transition without significance, without pain and suffering, and ultimately without fear.” Ignoring our mortality does not make death go away, rather, it creates even greater fear and hysteria about this unavoidable life event.

Looking back it also seems rather strange to me that for the many years I spent in church I only ever heard one whole sermon dedicated to death and preparation for dying. I know not all faith traditions avoid the subject, but in the Pentecostal/Charismatic scene a sound theology of suffering and death still remains fairly undeveloped. In fact, talking about death in these places is taboo. An almost superstitious-like fear hangs in the air, coupled with an often over-emphasis on healing (understood in the limited context of physical symptoms), miracles and positive confessions. The disappointment that an individual who had invested into this ideology encounters when touched by death or suffering cannot be understated. It can take someone years to recover from the toxic idea that God has let them down or they did not have enough ‘faith’ to avoid disaster.

My life and the life of our family was irrevocably changed with the sudden death of my mother in 2007. She played a key role as a very loved matriarch in our family structure. Her absence is felt to this day. C.S. Lewis wrote a most poignant journal where he recorded the death of his beloved wife, Joy, in A Grief Observed. He writes, “Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything” and “The death of a loved one is like an amputation.” So I am not for a moment suggesting that talking about death is easy. The very idea of losing the people we love is too sad for words. Yet life requires us not to ignore its partner, death. If the consequences of someone’s absence are so monumental and devastating, we have to be able to talk about our mortality and the decisions that await us or another person in such a tragic event.

Friend, take courage. We do not have much say into life choosing death as its partner. We do have a choice about ensuring that we have things in place for our departure. We also have a choice to talk about death, to discover the wishes of loved ones, and discover the details surrounding wills, accounts, legacy plans, etc. The stories we hear of the distress of people left in chaos when this unpleasant topic has been neglected should be enough to convince us that it is time to defy this silly social taboo and become vocal about mortality. Life is a journey, so is death, and both need our attention.

 

“End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it.”
– J.R.R. Tolkien “Return of the King” –

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Reflections on Faith & Superstition

“Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.” Bertrand Russell

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Myth, legend and superstition: the stuff of my childhood. Those familiar with Norse and Germanic mythology will know some of the popular Icelandic sagas like The Saga of Volsungs, with dragons and treasure and a hero called Sigurd. Then you add the East Prussian myths and superstitions and you have a cauldron of fear and excitement. Both sets of my grandparents were superstitious. I recall my mother telling a story of how her parents treated the wart on her finger by rubbing a potatoe on it under a full moon, and the next day it was gone. These were the stories that filled my imagination as a child.
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Many years later, I would read the surprising ancient text of the Gospel according to Luke. I approached this biblical narrative with the same mindset as I would a Brothers Grimm Fairy Tale or Norse mythology. Yet, I was very quickly engrossed in the story of a remarkable revolutionary. In the words and life of Christ, I found a compelling blueprint for societal and cultural transformation. The words of Jesus, to me, held no comparison to any fairytale, nor, could they be regarded as wisdom literature from a benevolent Jewish rabbi. They were dangerous words – subversive and highly political in their context. They led to his death. This Jesus story was very different to those of my childhood. And this man, carrying a cross, beckoned me to do the same. It was an invitation to follow in his radical footsteps and learn that love is greater than fear.

There was a fearlessness about Jesus that was breathtaking. The centrality of his message was transformation through the realisation that a different kingdom had been ushered in – different to the kingdoms that were built on power, politics, fear, greed, or even religion. It was a message of hope to the oppressed. His kingdom message turns societal norms on its head: where the first will be last, where the poor are blessed, where the humble are honoured, where the servant is the greatest, where the outcast and marginalised are welcomed and accepted, where love overcomes fear …

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Where love overcomes fear! Perhaps this holds a key to the genetic difference between faith and superstition? They both look so alike at times, like wheat and tares. Some of my friends would argue that there really is no difference. The same factors that motivate a mother to rub a potatoe on the finger of her child, believing for healing under the full moon, some say, would be the same factors that cause another mother to pray for her child and believe for the same result. Faith and superstition: is there really a difference? They seem identical.

When you begin to critically examine some of the contemporary Christian messaging, you may find it extremely difficult to tell the difference between faith and superstition:

– A God who is portrayed as love, yet will banish those who refuse to reciprocate his love to eternal torture.9_funny_jesus_thumbs_up

– A God who ensures that you get a car park in some shopping centre when you pray ‘just right’, but seems to be deaf to the cries of 22,000 children that die every day due to poverty.

– A God who will give you ‘your best life now’ when you adhere to certain success paradigms, or tithe, or send money to that evangelist.

– An everlasting, almighty God who loves everybody, but in a twist that resembles an Orwell novel, especially if they are white, male, privileged and conservative …

… it all sounds a bit superstitious, doesn’t it?

Some modern expressions of Christianity seem to have drifted a little ways from a Rabbi who preached about a kingdom of good news that seemed to benefit ‘the least of them’ the most. In fact, it seems that the basis of some of the current Christian ideology is based on karma and superstition: “Do this and God will do that.”

It is in the time of crisis that these apparent identical twins of faith and superstition begin to bear fruit. And it is in their motivation that the difference is most noted: Love vs. Fear. Crisis is one of the few times that you can stand back and very clearly distinguish the two. Superstition, which I observed in my childhood and later in some Christian paradigms (including my own, when I was in the throes of fundamentalism), is driven by fear.

Fear that becomes palpable in times of crisis or contradiction.
Fear that reverts to karma.
Fear that paints pictures of a God that needs to be appeased.
Fear that sees ‘the other’ as evil, far from God, or responsible for the bad things that happen.
Fear that forgets that loving your neighbour the way you would want to be loved and accepted, kind of goes with this radical Jesus that Christianity is meant to be built upon.
(O and let me just spell out this neighbour bit: this could be your Muslim Neighbour, your LGBTIQ Neighbour, your Refugee Neighbour, your Poor Neighbour, your Other Religion Neighbour, your Obnoxious Neighbour, your Ill Neighbour, your Old Neighbour, your Asian Neighbour, your Black Neighbour, your White Neighbour, your Global Neighbour … get the picture?)
Fear and conspiracy theories that can reduce followers of Christ to angry and paranoid people, with a massive persecution complex.
Fear that always needs a scapegoat so we can feel better about the angst of our own vulnerability.

Faith, on the other hand, approaches times of crisis quite differently:
Faith recognises in the biblical narrative a greater story of Divine Providence.
Faith sees Christ as the expression of this Divine Providence.
Faith believes that the good news of Christ’s kingdom brings hope and light in times of darkness.
Faith produces actions that speak of hope, light and love.
Faith sees the image of God in every human being and therefore treats every person with dignity and respect.
Faith believes in Grace, not Karma.
Faith believes that love is the greatest – no excuses, no uncomfortable pauses … The greatest of all is love.

The genetic make-up of faith causes it to shine with love in times of crisis. Where fear becomes a quagmire of paranoia, protocol and law, faith chooses the path of risk and courage, because for faith, perfect love drives out fear.

So for faith, love always wins.

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear … 1 John 4

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