On Death, Life and a New Year

Photo Credit: http://rebeccabrinkleyphotography.tumblr.com/

Over the Christmas holiday, we traveled to Uganda. In Kampala, Ryan was able to see a movie in a theatre for the first time in a year, along with his brother and our travel companions. Amelie and I stayed at the guesthouse, as it was a late night event and we didn’t think that “The Hobbit” would be a good choice of activity for our eight month old daughter. Some movie viewers felt differently, as a two year old girl sat next to them in the theatre, with other young ones around. From their report, the movie was full of action and, for lack of other words, violence. Whether it be elves or orks, the most entertaining action was primarily in the pursuit of death – in the epic battle of good vs. evil. However, our group commented that the interaction with the movie from those around them was interesting to say the least. When someone died, the children would laugh.

We’ve seen this culturally before, and I’m not sure how to explain it. When there is an expression of vulnerability, such as death or sadness, or something makes you feel uncomfortable, we hear laughter. Not joyful laughter I am sure, but laughter for lack of something better to respond with. In an American culture, we see this as inappropriate. We may be uncomfortable, but we respond with reverence and silence.

In an African funeral however, things are quite different. When it comes to funerals, African cultures know how to mourn and to honor their dead. There is a fear of curses and what might happen were one not properly in relation to the dead, however there is also a sense of proper mourning. In America, and especially in the church we struggle to know how to interact, how long to ask about those who have passed on, what to say, and generally most things surrounding death. We do not have a clear cut tradition that tells us how to properly mourn as believers.

The Father of a friend recently passed away. A man who lived and served and laughed a lot. And words never seem quite right to be able to express concern and care that does not appear trite or glib. Often we hear expressions, such as “it was their time to go,” or “they have been freed from this life.” But when death comes suddenly, and not after a long battle with the body or others, it takes us by surprise. It does not seem like freedom, because life was good. A dear friend passed away in 2014, that I had not been able to say goodbye to. She was only in her early twenties, and full of zeal for God and for life. No, it does not seem like she was “freed” from the body, though she did struggle with a physical condition that eventually took her life.

Having now seen life come into the world, I also see death differently. It is a peaceful thing – the first breath. Surrounded by tears, and emotion, but the moment that slimy warm body was skin to skin with mine, it was overwhelming peace. New Life. And in as quick of a moment, life can slip away. Peace crumbles revealing a gaping hole.  A wound that cannot be kissed to wellness. After seeing new life, I see death with a new vulnerability.

And the desperation for hope becomes all the more real. In, Treasuring Christ when your hands our full, gospel meditations for busy young moms, Gloria Furman beautifully connects our everyday tasks with an eternal perspective. She begins this perspective by reflecting on death,

“Jesus has saved us to the uttermost so that we do not mourn as those who have no hope (1 Thess. 4:13). We mourn the death of our loved ones knowing that God’s love is more powerful that the jaws of death. Death claims the lives of believers, but death cannot hold them, as these precious ones are counterclaimed by Jesus. The saints live forever in God’s presence where they are more alive than they’ve ever been.”

How is it possible to mourn with hope?

We struggle to work this out together, experiencing in the darkest times that Jesus has drawn near. “You’re blessed when you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.” (Matthew 5:4 – The Message.)

We begin the new year with the sting of death. Remembering a life well-lived, we ache in not understanding, while looking soberly at our own lives. What matters most? Are our lives and goals about these things or they centered on ourselves? Just after blessing those who mourn, Jesus answers this for us as well.

“Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You’ve lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage. Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand – shine! Keep open hour, be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you” prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:14-16

God-flavors. God’s colors. The things that ignite beauty and joy and all that is good. The sweet taste of caramel and sea-salt dark chocolate. Vivid greens that cover fields after a heavy rain. These are the things we taste and see.

The feeling of knowing someone is there, that you are not alone. The beauty of working together, to care for creation in gardening, or serving a community through cooking. These are not just good things, these are part of the life-breath of the body of Christ. These are not things that will earn us a place after our breath is gone, this is the overflow of grace in knowing that our life has been claimed by Jesus.

The lives that I mentioned were both lived generously. And this is all that we want to be a part of. In the grieving of lost life, we do not have the right words or prayers to seal the hole that has been created. We are open, in vulnerability, inviting others to be open with us. To cry out to the life-giving God of Love that mourns with us. But who doesn’t stop at mourning, and will one day defeat this final sting of death. And together we pray, Come Lord Jesus.

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