Monday, July 26, 2010

Death is not our home

As I mentioned once when a friend was shot, I have a tendency to respond to death by railing against it, which ought to strike me a bit like railing against the ocean for lapping up on the shore. “Death is natural,” people would reason with me. “Death is just a part of life.” “This world is not our home.” “Our citizenship is in heaven.” “He has gone on to a better place.” (Etc. etc. etc. ad nauseum.)

I was never sure what exactly I was protesting. On the surface, after all, these adages were true, and I certainly had no argument against them other than the fact that my spirit kept rejecting them like a failed organ transplant. If death was indeed as natural as it seems to be, why would it shock us as it does? If this world was not our home, why would we have to keep reminding ourselves of the fact?

It didn’t help that Scripture is not half as clear on the topic as we make it out to be. It was downright frightening to imagine all the unsatisfying sorts of resolutions that could fit within the vague descriptions of the afterlife that were given to us by a God who never seems to spell the future out as clearly as we expect him to.

If this were a theological blog, that would have been a great set-up to introduce N. T. Wright, whose eschatology (theology of the end times) regarding the New Creation and the Resurrection (of us) I found to be quite healing after my years of railing. (He infamously says that “Heaven is not our home; we’re just passing through”—as we wait for our coming bodily resurrection in the transformed earth.) For now at least, I am friends with too many Biblical scholars to feel comfortable presenting Wright’s eschatology. Let’s just say that I have found great hope in the belief that just as the material creation fell (not only our souls) and just as Christ’s material body was raised from the dead (not only his soul), we are awaiting the restoration of the material creation (not only the spiritual), the resurrection of our material bodies (not only... well, you get the idea).

On the contrary, this is still my listening-blog, and yesterday as I sat through a funeral hearing my rector encourage the grieving family with the emphatic hope that the dead man had gone on to his true home where we would eventually spend eternity with him as well, I forbade myself from questioning his eschatology. Instead, I remembered my sister-in-law’s grandmother who died this past spring. When her son talked to her a bit about the possibility of a bodily resurrection, the dying Appalachian woman simply brushed him off by interjecting, “I don’t know what will happen, but as long as Jesus is in charge I know it will be good.” After a long life of walking beside Jesus, she had confidence in his goodness, and it was enough to face the unknowns on the other side of death.

I may not ever be graced with the simplicity of faith that Appalachian woman had, the faith that could find comfort in adages about heaven or that would not care either way. I’m grateful at least that in the Church my overly-intellectual faith can learn from her simplicity, that her confidence in the person of Christ can shed hope on my endless queries. As I learned from my unsettled spirit, a robust eschatology is important; as I learned from that grandmother, intimacy with Christ is more important.


Kate said...

I've been thinking a lot about this post recently. At one of our ministry training weekends, the priest leading a session on funeral liturgy just mentioned in passing the pastoral difficulties posed when ministering to someone who is comforted by the fact their loved one is in heaven looking down on them. 'Of course,' he said, 'that's not actually what we as Christians believe. We believe in the bodily resurrection and the transformation of this earth, but it's not always appropriate to say that.' It was the hot topic at dinner that evening, and I was amazed at how many people were utterly shocked at what he had said, and who had barely given a thought to general resurrection. (I, like you, have found Wright's work to be very thought-provoking and healing.)

So I have found great peace in your words at the end of this post - about the need for a robust eschatology, but the more important need for an intimacy with Christ. Those are words of wisdom I will carry with me in my future ministry. Thank you.

Em the luddite said...

Thanks for the comment, Kate. Here's to simple, Appalachian wisdom--I'm glad that your future parishioners will benefit from their American kin!