On this first day of Advent a cold wind blusters our parcel in Oklahoma, and like many in America today, we awakened to the chill of grief this mistral brings. In addition to the approximately 90,000 Americans who spent the Thanksgiving holiday in the hospital, and the nearly 2000 Americans who died today from the ravages of this virus, in the past week my extended family has suffered three deaths due to Covid. My nephew by marriage lost his father, and my wife lost her aunt and a cousin within the space of few days. Perspective is difficult to keep when the sadness that accompanies death hits this close to home. And as you might imagine, as is the normal pattern when these tragedies happen, our thoughts turn to contemplation of our own limitations and mortality.
Over the past few days, I have had more than one conversation with family members about death. As with all conversations there is a spectrum of views concerning the inevitability of our death and whatever may come next that runs the gamut from pessimistic to optimistic and sometimes vacillates between the extremes. As a follower of Christ, my views are informed by the hope of the resurrection which I believe was first demonstrated by Jesus. And because I have put my faith in Christ, I believe that whenever death comes and by whatever circumstances, my eternity remains secured because of what Christ did for me. I believe that Jesus uniquely lived, died, and rose from the dead, and that this has implications for how I live, and how I will experience the inevitable. But I have observed that there remains a great deal of discomfort and grief that appropriately expresses itself in visceral varieties among those of us experiencing loss and contemplating our unescapable own.
These thoughts fill my mind as I reflect on the interactions I’ve had with those who have passed this week. I did not know my nephew’s father all that well, but I know his son, and as with all children, they are a reflection of the influences of the parents in many ways. This being the case, I can say with certainty that my nephew Tony had a father who loved God, life and people. It is evident that Tony loved his father Rex and that the feelings were reciprocated in powerful ways. The love that was communicated is now a memory that will be shared as a legacy with future generations. This is how love works and is living testimony to the power of resurrection. Tony demonstrated this kind of love in his living relationship with his dad, and now as he navigates the grief in anticipation of the reunion to come.
I’m reminded of what the great Apostle once observed, “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.” (1 Corinthians 15:19) The key word is “Only” because if our relationships can’t transcend this life then they are limited in scope and impact and will only last as long as we do. But what the Christian faith provides is the promise that even if our relationships are difficult, challenging, and even dysfunctional at times, we do have the hope that this isn’t the end and in ways we don’t yet fully comprehend there will be a resolution that includes a reckoning and reconciliation as necessary. This is the hope of the Christian faith, that in Christ even the most difficult circumstances and relationships of our lives will be made meaningful in light of the eternal knowledge.
I think of my wife’s Aunt Betty, a beautiful soul who negotiated life with a no-nonsense philosophy. To the untrained eye Betty’s beauty was tempered by a tough attitude, but like the necessity of unsavory medicine, it served as a tool of truth and healing to those closest to her. Betty served a police officer, earning distinction and honor for her many years of protecting and serving her community. On many occasions, my wife shared her eye witness account of Betty taking out a bad guy in their neighborhood with jiu-jitsu precision that left all of us in awe of her strength and poise under pressure. Aunt Betty wasn’t one to be trifled with and she didn’t entertain fools or their foolishness. But if you genuinely had a problem and wanted help, in my experience, she would be among the first to step up. Through the years, she humored my curiosity by answering my questions about police work and even engaged in a few philosophical conversations about the complexities and implications of policing in difficult times. She was rewarded for her service by advancement in rank and all that knew and served with her applauded her dedication to her job and devotion to her family that she loved. These losses are difficult to understand, but every loss is heartbreaking, especially those close to our hearts and our homes.
My wife’s cousin, Michelle died far too young. At only fifty-two her life was cut short by this terrible plague. My wife shares memories of them playing together at their grandmother’s house and doodling with colorful crayons and pencils, getting lost in their imaginative drawings of Mickey Mouse and other Disney favorites. These are memories that are eternal, even though life sometimes falls short to live up to our expectations of “happily ever after.”
As our hearts are filled with this sadness, I know that many more, across the nation also lament as a result of great losses. Empty chairs at upcoming holiday gatherings will only be eclipsed by emptier hearts because of loved ones’ absences. Rumination yields to lots of emotions in addition to the grief. Frustration at State and National leaders for abdication of responsibility tops the lists. I also struggle with an inability to understand the response of others to this pandemic and sometimes I get angry at the general lack of empathy along with a flippant dismal of science and the insensitivity displayed by many throughout our country. But often I’m no better than others. I, too chafe at being told what to do, and what to wear. We could all use a re-baptism of love and compassion for others, because to quote Willie Nelson there are only “three days of tears and sorrow, yesterday, today, and tomorrow.” Indeed, life is filled with grief and none of us are exempt. But yet we aren’t without hope.
The philosopher Martin Heidegger once observed that among us humans “Death is deferred -to others, to ‘later.’ When it comes to death in general we are certain that everyone dies. But when it comes to our own death, we are fugitives from the truth: we run from facing it.” I think we do this because we live in the tension of the conundrum that perplexes our minds, we are torn between not really wanting to live forever but neither do we want to die. And when those who are near and dear to us do die, we are faced with the reality that we are losing those who give our lives meaning and in all actuality often served to define our existence. Loved ones simultaneously serve as a means to our happiness, but also the source of our greatest fears. We fear their rejection in life and their loss in death. And as Hannah Arendt, a student of Heidegger’s points out “The trouble with human happiness is that it is constantly beset by fear.” We live in this constant battle between fearing death and thus refusing to live, or fearing the relational loss of loved ones so we refuse to tell each other all the truth because to lose them means that we lose something of ourselves. So we have a tendency to put off the necessary relational work because we gamble that perhaps we have a surplus of time. So we live without really living and death catches all of us unaware. And maybe this is what adds to our grief?
When faced with losses in his own life St. Augustine wrote long ago in his Confessions, “I let go the tears I held in, letting them run out as freely as they wanted, and out of them I made a bed for my heart. And it rested on those tears, since there only you could hear.”
I don’t pretend to understand the mysteries of death. I don’t even know how I should read basic Scriptures like Hebrews 9:27 “But as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgement.” Does this mean our time to die is fixed and determined? Or does this mean that all of us have an appointment and that how we live, love, and steward the time we are gifted will influence that appointment? Should the emphasis be on the word “appointed” or “once?” Does this mean that my death and your death; the finality of that appointment will only come once? And how are we to navigate all of the mitigating circumstances in between our birth and death? It seems the questions that we have about death are as many as we have about life.
But I remain certain of few things. We shouldn’t ever confuse the love of those we lose with the love of the one who cannot be lost. Because if we believe Christ, then none in Him are ever really lost. Neither should we obsess over the afterlife to the point of losing the value of this life. It would indeed be sad to gain the world and lose our own soul, but sadder still to lose the world and our souls. I don’t think that God ever intended for this to be a binary choice, in fact learning to enjoy this life is preparation for the joy to come in the next.
As James K.A. Smith writes, “How to die is a question of how to live, but how to live is a matter of knowing how to love: how to find a love that isn’t haunted by fear, a love that is stronger than death -figuring out how to love rightly and live lightly with all the mortal beauties of creation without despising or resenting their mortality either…Grace isn’t high speed transport all the way to the end but the gift of his presence the rest of the way. And it is the remarkable promise of his Son, who meets us in this distance: “My Father’s house has many rooms.” (John 14.2)
By God’s grace our loved ones now enjoy the palatial estate of our Father’s house, where there is plenty of room. With a perfection that is only improved by the occasional breeze of a southern wind, reminding them of the joy that is present and the joy still to come.