>It’s Just Death

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Had a business meeting this morning at the church. We seem to have a lot of those throughout this whole process of building a church. There’s always an issue of money or construction or some important decision that needs to be made. Today was one of those meetings.

The person I was meeting with was quite a bit older than I am. He’s lived a lot of life and the hope is that his perspective on some financial issues would be helpful to the congregation. This is someone I greatly appreciate and we were left making some small talk as we waited for the other parties to arrive. It seems this person had just lost a friend of his…someone he had known in the community for 40 years or so. Long-time friend. As he talked and shared some of the characteristics of the friend who had passed away, he kind of shrugged. He recounted that, upon his friend’s death he thought he might want to get in touch with some of the crowd the two of them had hung out with in the past. However, there wasn’t anyone left in the crowd. Everyone else had died.

I asked how a mutual friend was doing, someone who had been fighting illness for some time. What he said kind of threw me for a loop. He said, “We all know that [said person] is just going to go downhill and will then “pass.”. There was a nonchalantness to his voice. There was a matter-of-factness to the look on his face. It was if he was saying… “Oh well, it’s just death.”

Now I think I need to be clear here that this was really not some grand statement of faith, proclaiming that, since Christ has been raised from the dead “all will be well and all will be well and all manner of things will be well.” No, this was a perspective of one who had been around the block, who had seen a lot of life…and a lot of death. This was a perspective shaped by age. Everyone dies. It’s just death. It happens. What are you going to do? No tears. No emotion. Matter of fact.

While some might view this response, this lack of shrinking before the mystery of death as cold…callous…as I reflect on this conversation, I can’t help but find it somewhat refreshing. While my views might be more grounded in faith language, it is “just death.”. Sure, it can be more tragic–as when the deceased is young, or leaves behind a young family, or dies in a horrible way. Yes, that’s more tragic and will lead to other emotions and tears and anger. But for those who die of natural causes…even it it’s because of personal choices that had been made earlier (the friend who had died had been a smoker), the fact that we die shouldn’t be a surprise.

I hope that, because of my faith, I live as someone who is prepared to die. And perhaps, when I’m as old as the person I met with today, I can accept the simple fact that death is something that lies ahead for all of us. Perhap knowing that will affect how I live my life today.

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>NT Wright Speaks On American Exceptionalism and the Death of Osama bin Laden

>NT Wright at Park Street ChurchImage by Rachel Ford James via FlickrI read a few blogs from Great Britain, assuming that heaing a European perspective balances out some of the American viewpoints I get, merely from the air I breath. 

This was found over at Ruth Gledhill’s blog from across the pond.  I think it tries to put the American mission to get bin Laden into a different perspective.  On that blog you will also find a video of the Archbishop of Canterbury condemning the manner with which the mission was carried out.

But I thought Wright’s stuff was thought-provoking:

Consider the following scenario. A group of IRA terrorists carry out a bombing raid in London. People are killed and wounded. The group escapes, first to Ireland, then to the United States, where they disappear into the sympathetic hinterland of a country where IRA leaders have in the past been welcomed at the White House. Britain cannot extradite them, because of the gross imbalance of the relevant treaty. So far, this is not far from the truth.


But now imagine that the British government, seeing the murderers escape justice, sends an aircraft carrier (always supposing we’ve still got any) to the Nova Scotia coast. From there, unannounced, two helicopters fly in under the radar to the Boston suburb where the terrorists are holed up. They carry out a daring raid, killing the (unarmed) leaders and making their escape. Westminster celebrates; Washington is furious.


What’s the difference between this and the recent events in Pakistan? Answer: American exceptionalism. America is allowed to do it, but the rest of us are not. By what right? Who says?


Consider another fictive scenario. Gangsters are preying on a small mid-western town. The sheriff and his deputies are spineless; law and order have failed. So the hero puts on a mask, acts ‘extra-legally’, performs the necessary redemptive violence (i.e. kills the bad guys), and returns to ordinary life, earning the undying gratitude of the local townsfolk, sheriff included. This is the plot of a thousand movies, comic-book strips, and TV shows: Captain America, the Lone Ranger, and (upgraded to hi-tech) Superman. The masked hero saves the world.


Films and comics with this plot-line have been named as favourites by most Presidents, as Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence pointed out in The Myth of the American Superhero (2002) and Captain America and the Crusade Against Evil (2004). The main reason President Obama has been cheered to the echo across the US, even by his bitter opponents, is not simply the fully comprehensible sense of closure a decade after the horrible, wicked actions of September 11 2001. Underneath that, he has just enacted one of America’s most powerful myths.


Perhaps the myth was necessary in the days of the Wild West, of isolated frontier towns and roaming gangs. But it legitimizes a form of vigilantism, of taking the law into one’s own hands, which provides ‘justice’ only of the crudest sort. In the present case, the ‘hero’ fired a lot of stray bullets in Iraq and Afghanistan before he got it right. What’s more, such actions invite retaliation. They only ‘work’ because the hero can shoot better than the villain; but the villain’s friends may decide on vengeance. Proper justice is designed precisely to outflank such escalation.


Of course, ‘proper justice’ is hard to come by internationally. America regularly casts the UN (and the International Criminal Court) as the hapless sheriff, and so continues to play the world’s undercover policeman. The UK has gone along for the ride. What will we do when new superpowers arise and try the same trick on us? And what has any of this to do with something most Americans also believe, that the God of ultimate justice and truth was fully and finally revealed in the crucified Jesus of Nazareth, who taught people to love their enemies, and warned that those who take the sword will perish by the sword?

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>A Resurrection Poem

>The Orange Mold on the Churchyard TombstonesImage by Stuck in Customs via FlickrAccording to Jared Wilson, from whose blog I got this, this is a poem engraved on the tomb of CS Lewis’ wife, Joy.

Here it is:

Here the whole world (stars, water, air
And field, and forest as they were
Reflected in a single mind)
Like cast off clothes was left behind
In ashes, yet with hope that she,
Re-born from holy poverty,
In lenten lands, hereafter may
Resume them on her Easter Day.

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>"Create in Me the Life of Laughter"

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202/365 - Laughphoto © 2008 Gillian C | more info (via: Wylio)

Working on a memorial service today.  Trying to find joy in sorry.  Trying to preach resurrection in the midst of death.   Proclaiming the love of Christ while realizing there are those who long to feel that love.  Searching for joy to enter some broken hearts.

Found this over at Allan Bevere’s site:

Jesus, I believe you laughed as Mary bathed you and Joseph tickled your toes. I believe you giggled as you and other children played your childhood games. And when you went to the Temple and astounded the teachers, I believe you chuckled as all children chuckle when they stump adults. And surely there were moments of merriment as you and your disciples deepen you relationship. And as you and Mary and Martha and Lazarus fellowshipped, mirth must have mirrored your faces.

Jesus, I know you wept and anguished. But I believe you laughed too. Create in me the life of laughter.*

Yes, suffering and despair are to be taken seriously; and that is precisely why the Christian life is a life of joy. In the midst of it all, God has made a way out. In the middle of our lost ways, God has found us. Only God can destroy death and defeat darkness. Only God can turn our despair into joy. Only God can turn sorrow into laughter. Only God can turn cross into resurrection.

The worst that can happen to us cannot compare with the best God has already accomplished for us in Jesus Christ!
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*Cal & Rose Samra, Holy Humor (New York: Mastermedia Limited, 1996).

>Suicide–My Pastoral Perspective (Part 1)

>Angel of Death and the Sculpture -Daniel Chester Frenchphoto © 2006 Mark Skrobola | more info (via: Wylio)

Note:  This is Part 1 in a Three-Part Reflection on Suicide from the Pastoral side of things.  Here I’ll set the stage for my reflection and share some advice and words I received from other clergy.  In Part 2 I’ll share some of the words and illustrations that helped me be pastor throughout this difficult situation.  In Part 3 I’ll share just a little bit about my own emotional journey.

I don’t want to talk about the families involved or the deaths as I want to respect the privacy of the families and don’t want to say anything that would get in the way of the healing which will need to occur in their lives.  So, I’m only going to write those things I think would be helpful to clergy as they counsel in the midst of a traumatic death and things I would say to either of these families or any other.  

This is about my reaction to the events.  This is part of my process of trying to think through the pastoral issues and to let some of my friends and colleagues see how their words and support have been helpful.  I have spent a great deal of time with this post trying to say what I want to say, without saying too much. 

If you read this and say, “I know who he’s talking about” you probably do.  I ask that you offer whoever it is the respect and space they need as they continue recover.  And, if any of the words shared here can shape the words you share with them, then this has been a helpful exercise as our extended Christian community shows its love to those involved in the crises that I entered into or other instances of suicide that we encounter as we serve our God.

In November, someone connected to my church family committed suicide.   Also, in November, a member of my extended family committed suicide.  My congregation and my sisters and brothers in the clergy in Alaska are aware of this and they all have been very supportive.

In both instances, these are people I know and families I love.  It was, as should be expected, exceptionally traumatic for all persons who were touched by the deaths.  And, while I had performed funerals for suicide victims before, this was the first time I had really known the person before the death and the first time I was going to be called on to provide spiritual care after the fact.  I was really going to have to be “pastor” here.

As pastor, it’s a whole lot more difficult when you can’t just ride into the horrible situation, like the spiritual cavalry, to save the day.   If you’re just called on to “help out” a local family that you don’t really know it’s easier.  You meet with the family.  You plan a nice funeral saying all the things you really should say about Christ and death and resurrection and hope and faith and comfort…  And then you go home, perhaps following up with the family once or twice, depending on what it seems the long-term relationship should be.  No long-term investment really asked for.

This was different.  In both cases.

These were folks I love.  I loved them before this tragic day.  I am going to love them long after it.  I found my heart broken along with theirs.  And, I want nothing more than peace and wholeness and grace and the comfort of God for them. 

Particularly with the local persons, I was going to have to put a whole lot more of myself into this.  I was going to have to rely more on God’s presence and power and grace to make it through.  It was going to be painful.  But it was also going to be intimate.  As pastor, there is a holiness associated with entering the dark places of life and death with families, journeying with them in the valleys, trying, as best one can, to offer Christ, to share a word of love and grace, to bear some of the immediate burden with them, giving them a God to hold onto when the world is spinning out of control.  Sometimes we do this in a floundering manner, but other times the Holy Spirit enters in in a powerful way and comfort takes the place of the pain, if for just a moment.

This gave me a lot of time to think about suicide, from a pastoral perspective.  It is, perhaps, not something that I’d done a whole lot of.  In fact, I really hadn’t done much thinking about or teaching about or praying about death over my ten years here in Girdwood because so few people had died.  I’d only done two funerals for anyone connected to the church at all.   For years I’d said that every funeral, every death, gave me a chance to talk about the resurrection of Christ; that every death was a mini-Easter for those who put their hope in Christ.  It’s easier to say when not in the midst of the pain and trauma and hearing the voices and seeing the faces of those who love and hurt.

This was different. I knew it.  And, now after more reflection leading into December, I’m still aware that this is the case.

Early in the process of my entering into the situation as pastor, I sent a Facebook message to some clergy, asking for advice on how to be a pastor throughout this.  I knew the hurting family shouldn’t be in this alone.  I figured I should not be in this alone either.  I got replies from several including:

Romans 8:38-39 “… neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, more future things…shall separate us from the love of God….” Be present and embrace them in love. Peter’s words resonate, “God replaces the pain with love.” (From a Pastor/Counselor)

and

The people who are left behind pay a tremendous cost. We as humans build these family units and take care of each other, that is the primary job of family is to take care of each other. So when someone we love takes their life, the family feels like they have failed. And that they could have done something to prevent this from happening. There is no logic to this but, THERE IS NOTHING THEY COULD HAVE DONE TO STOP IT. And that is where your job comes in I believe. (From a Pastor)

and

Your presence, your willingness to walk with the family through all the complicated stages of suicide-induced grief and anger, are the greatest gift you can give. And speak often of God’s grace… something we don’t deserve, but get anyway… reminders that God weeps with us, that God has felt the pain of the man who took his life, that God feels our pain, that God replaces the pain with love… (From a Pastor)

and

Jim, if you chose to emphasize the grace and mercy of God, rather than where this man’s son “went” that is a very wise thing.  (From a Pastor)

and, after a blog post on this site where I said, “I’m Not OK” I had this message from a colleague who had experienced loss:

[We] were not OK for a long time. But in that time of being not OK, we did find some comforts. We found that the antidote for death is life. Whatever you do that is life-affirming or life-enriching will help you to eventually be OK again.  The most difficult part of dealing with death for us was the deadening feeling we had. By embracing life we were able to process death without parts of us dying as well.  (From a Friend)

I appreciate the support I received.  Some of these words have helped shape some of the long-term care needed by the family and the community.  And, if there’s a family struggling with the effects of suicide in their lives, I hope these words can still provide comfort to them.

In Part 2 I’ll share some of my own personal reflections and understandings throughout this time.

>Good Riddance, November. Don’t Let the Door Hit You on the Way Out!

>She left the Door openphoto © 2009 Hartwig HKD | more info (via: Wylio)
November was rough.  It drained me.  It was hard on me and many persons that I care about.

I came into November participating in two different productions–the “Halloween Train” Murder Mystery at Hotel Alyeska and the production of “Once Upon a Mattress” by (the still-forming) Girdwood Community Theater.  October 30th was the Murder Mystery.  October 31st was a Sunday with worship and Sunday School and Trick-Or-Treating with our little ones.  I was wore out.

But November came in and was ruthless.  Now, I know that this is not really the fault of any month.  But it’s clear that this month, as I’ve said to some persons, “Kicked my butt.”

On November 1st, someone connected with our church committed suicide.  It was traumatic for the the family, the community, and me.  While I had done funerals for suicide victims before, I don’t think I’d ever been there “the night of” and followed up with the family over the next week.  I think I said some good things.  I think my presence was appreciated.  I think I was helpful and I think my presence made a spiritual difference through prayer and comforting words and merely by said presence.  This challenged me as pastor.  It also challenged my emotions as I love this family that was having to deal with the very sudden grief and pain and begin the healing process.  I did a lot of self-reflection throughout this process and was able to examine my own psychological and physiological responses to the hurt that I was feeling.  The Wednesday of that week I drove into Anchorage for a minister’s lunch mainly because I needed the prayers to keep going.

Two weeks to the day after this, we had another traumatic death.  Again it was a family I loved and cared about. Again it was unexpected, though not suicide. It was a very painful scene.  It was in the middle of the night.  It was long.  My heart was broken as I could see and hear the brokenness of those I was called out to be with. It was November 17th that I wrote a blog post entitled “Dealing With Death/I’m Not OK.”  And I wasn’t OK.  I knew I would be OK.  But I wasn’t at that moment.  It was going to take me time.  And it was clear that it took me about four days before I really felt like I could do any real work.  Also, it was clear that I didn’t want to be alone.  I didn’t want to be alone because it all felt too raw when I was left by myself.  I found comfort in the company of others.

In the midst of this we had rehearsals and three nights of production for “Once Upon a Mattress.”

Then, a week later, on another dreadful Monday, we got word that a family member committed suicide in Indiana.  Really?!  Again!?  Here the difficult thing was our distance from the loved ones who were grieving.  You could hear the pain in the voices.  There were no indications that this was coming. There were no clues that anyone had.  Totally unexpected.

Three deaths in 21 days.  That was a lot.  That was a lot for me as pastor and a lot for me as…well…just me.

Then came Thanksgiving with a community dinner and all the celebrating that comes with that holiday.  Dinner with friends.  Kids home from school.  

Other pastors and people look to the holiday season and look at their December calendars and wonder how they are going to be able to get it all it.  This can be an overwhelming time and season and month for persons.

But I look toward tonight’s exit of November with relief.  This was a tough month. 

I plan on embracing December and being embraced by God throughout all of it.  I plan to drink in the beauty of Advent and celebrate with my family and others all that this season means.  I look forward to the message of hope and love which comes with the birth of the Christ child and reminds us once again that God is in control and he, himself, has entered and is always entering this messy world of ours.  I pray for healing for myself and I pray for healing for those who have lost loved ones.

And November…good riddance.  Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

>Sadness

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de profundis / the depths of sorrowphoto © 2006 Eddy Van 3000 | more info (via: Wylio)
I’m OK…or at least I will be.  I’m trying to emotionally care for others and myself after some deaths in our congregation.  I’m trying to learn from this experience and not hide from it.  I’m trying to experience the grieving process even as I help others with theirs.  It’s not easy when there’s work to be done (charge conference and memorial service this weekend) and a play to put on (tonight is opening night).

I’ll be OK.  But I am sad.  I do mourn.  My emotions have been hit hard. 

And, you know, that’s OK as well.

I found this quote and thought it was highly appropriate.  The bold is my own.

When the church’s theological rejection of sadness was secularised, sadness became a pathology requiring medical intervention. The medicalisation of sadness is the final cultural triumph of the Protestant smile. If Luther or Kierkegaard or Dostoevsky had lived today, we would have given them Prozac and schooled them in positive thinking. They would have grinned abortively – and written nothing. The truth of sadness is the womb of thought.

(HT to Richard Hall, who got this from Ben Myers)

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