Posts tagged ‘Death’

How God Sees Death

I’m torn between sadness and joy today at the news that the father of a very dear friend of mine has lost a long battle with cancer. He went home to Jesus peacefully the day before yesterday. I’ve been thinking about it all day, how his last view on this earth would have been the family that loved him, and his next view would have been the face of his Creator, Whom he will spend eternity with. In the midst of thinking about this, John Meunier posted an entry on his blog, entitled God of the living. John makes some potent statements which minister to me:

“Death does not look the same to God as it does to us …  To God, we remain alive. To God those we love still live. Death is a doorway, not a dead end.”

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Looking On Other’s Pain

The following I originally published several years ago on the Jews for Jesus blog at http://www.jewsforjesus.org

My father-in-law and I share a love for the television show Joan of Arcadia, which ran on CBS for two seasons in 2003 and 2004. The premise of the show was that a very ordinary girl, Joan, suddenly begins to have conversations with God, who appears to her in different guises: a little girl on the playground, a handsome young man, the lunchlady at Joan’s high school cafeteria, etc. God gives Joan an assortment of strange tasks, many of which exasparate her, but all of which prove to cause Joan to grow spiritually, and to help her family and friends heal from tragedies they have experienced in life. Although it was hated by as many people who loved it, Joan of Arcadia was a show which was unique in dealing each week with spiritual issues which confront many people.

In my favorite episode, Death Be Not Whatever …, the writers of Joan dealt with what C.S. Lewis called “the problem of pain.” In short — the existence of suffering in a world created by a good God. God tells Joan to take on a babysitting job. Joan’s charge, Rocky, turns out to be a young boy who is dying of cystic fibrosis. Although Rocky tries to tell Joan about his imminent demise, she isn’t really listening. It’s only in a conversation with God that she gets an inkling that there is something more going on, as God explains:

“He tried to tell you what it is, but you ignored him. I understand why. You don’t want to look at anyone’s pain. The trouble is, when you try to avoid it, you stop helping, people end up alone.”

Joan does learn to look at others’ pain. In fact, she finally sees the pain that her friend Adam is suffering from due to his mother’s suicide, a pain that has gone unrecognized by anyone else. In seeing it, Joan reaches out to him and gives him comfort.

Jesus was greatly concerned with the suffering of others. In the book of Matthew, we’re told of an incident in which Jesus goes into seclusion after hearing of the murder of John the Baptist. He is followed into the wilderness by crowds of people who want to be near Him, and:

“When He went ashore, He saw a large crowd, and felt compassion for them and healed their sick.” Matthew 14:14 NASB

And as well in Mark 1:40-41, Jesus is moved by the pain and suffering of others:

And a leper came to Jesus, beseeching Him and falling on his knees before Him, and saying, “If You are willing, You can make me clean.” Moved with compassion, Jesus stretched out His hand and touched him, and said to him, “I am willing; be cleansed.”

It wasn’t just the specific pain of individuals that Jesus looked at and felt compassion towards. Consider the strong compassion regarding the Jewish people that lies behind the following:

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, just as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not have it!” Luke 13:34 NASB

How does this relate to you and I, as followers of Jesus? For one thing, we’ve been instructed to cultivate this same compassion towards others that Jesus modeled.

“So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart ofcompassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience;” Colossians 3:12 NASB

When the writers of Joan of Arcadia attributed to God a statement about being able to look on others’ pain, they followed it with a statement about what happens when we avoid looking at others’s pain.

“The trouble is, when you try to avoid it, you stop helping, people end up alone. “

Here, the fiction of Joan of Arcadia is not far off from the truth. Followers of Jesus are called to a standard of serving others. When we look upon others’ pain, we should not only put on the heart of compassion that Messiah showed us, but we should consider as well the heart of servanthood He displayed.

“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” Mark 10:45 NASB

Is there someone near you whose pain you haven’t seen? Maybe it’s time to take a closer look at those you see every day, whose pain has been beneath your radar. Put on that heart of compassion, and seek to serve them. I can’t tell you how to do that; to be honest, looking on other’s pain is something I am praying that God helps me to be better at. I can tell you some ways to serve someone in pain, though: Listen to them. Pray for them and with them. That starts with making yourself available. How will someone in pain know that you see their pain and want to help them unless you step forward?

On Mourning

I think it is fair to say that we live in a society that tries its best to avoid ever having to face the facts that people age and people die. All one has to do is look at beauty magazines on the newsstand or television ads for clinics offering cosmetic surgery and Botox injections to get the picture that ours  is a culture obsessed with a desperate and futile effort to stay young at all costs. This is ultimately a fear of death, and is understandable for those who don’t have the promise of eternal life in Jesus, but as Christians we should not share that fear.

During my Christian walk, I have shared in the grief felt by friends who have lost family members or others close to them. When we lose someone, it is right that we should mourn, even when we know that those we have lost are not lost at all, but are with Jesus right now. How should we as individuals and as a community of faith deal with death and mourning?

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” (John 11:1-3 RSV)

Thus he spoke, and then he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awake him out of sleep.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead; and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” (John 11:11-15 RSV)

Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother. (John 11:17-19 RSV)

“Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still in the place where Martha had met him. When the Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary rise quickly and go out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there. Then Mary, when she came where Jesus was and saw him, fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled” (John 11:30-33 RSV)

There are some particular things that can be drawn from these passages. Notice that Lazarus is not a stranger to Jesus. He and his family, Mary and Martha, are people whom Jesus cares about and loves. This is not some anonymous death, but the passing of someone meaningful to Jesus. I want you to take note as well how these verse mark that many of the Jews in the area of Bethany had come to console Mary and Martha, and how they were weeping with Lazarus’ family. What we see in this passage is a communal participation in the process or discipline of mourning.

In the first century, as in Judaism today, this is a process that those losing loved ones are expected to engage in, a process in which the community participates. Within the Church today, I think this is something that can be glossed over, especially by the community. All too often, those in mourning are expected to move on with life as if they don’t feel sadness or loss, and are left by the community to grapple alone with those feelings. There are lessons to be learned from examining the rituals of how those in Jesus’s day mourned, rituals which Judaism continues to practice today. I am not suggesting that Christians need to begin practicing Judaism, but as a Jewish believer in Jesus I know from experience that Judaism contains disciplines from which Christians can glean practices that can make our own faith communities stronger.

The Judaism of Jesus’ day divided the bereavement process up into periods of decreasing intensity, to allow mourners to express their grief fully and gradually enter back into normal lives.  Jesus and the disciples arrived after Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days which means that they arrived after the first of these periods,  called in Hebrew aninut, meaning simply “burial.” This is the period after death and before burial, and during this time the bereaved are excused from any regular religious obligations. The sole duty is in preparing the body for burial. The community is not required to visit, feed, or comfort the mourner until after the burial, to allow the family to feel the full force of grief.

In Jesus’ day – and continuing to this day – respect for the dead took high priority. The body is never to be left alone, and every Jewish community has shomerim, those who will sit with the body until burial. Shomerim may not eat, drink, or perform one of the commandments from Torah in the presence of the dead. To do so would be considered mocking the dead, because the dead can no longer do these things.

Once the burial occurs, the family eats a special meal of condolence, which is  prepared by a close relative, near neighbor or friend. This meal traditionally consists of eggs, a symbol of life, and bread. The meal is for the family only, not for visitors. After this, the next period of mourning begins, during which the community is permitted to make condolence calls. This period is known as shiva, or “seven,” because it lasts one week after the burial. In the passage from John, Jesus and the disciples would have arrived in the midst of this period. We know this because the passage describes Lazarus as having been in the tomb for four days, and because of the references to Jews from the area who had come to console the family, and who were weeping with them. A family is said to “sit shiva” during this period, and this is a literal meaning. The family is permitted to sit only on low stools or on the floor. We can see this demonstrated in the Hebrew Scriptures in the book of Job, as Job’s friends join him in mourning the loss of his sons and daughters,

“And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.” Job 2:13 RSV

Shiva is observed by parents, children, spouses and siblings of the deceased, preferably all together in the deceased’s home. Shiva begins on the day of burial and continues until the morning of the seventh day after burial. Mourners do not wear leather shoes, do not shave or cut their hair, do not wear cosmetics, do not work, and do not do things for comfort or pleasure, such as bathe, have sexual intercourse, put on fresh clothing, or study Scripture, with the exception of Scriptures related to mourning and grief. Mourners wear clothing that they rent, or tore, at the time of learning of the death or at the funeral. Mirrors in the house are covered, so that vanity will not be a concern in one’s grief. Since mourners do not leave the house during shiva except on the Sabbath, neighbors and friends gather at the mourner’s home to hold prayer services.

The community is expected to visit during this time to express condolences, and to bring food. It is considered commandment rooted in kindness and compassion to pay such a visit. There are a number of customary blessings which a visitor says when leaving a shiva visit, such as:

“May the Omnipresent comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem”

“You should have no more tza’ar (pain)”

“May you have only simchas (celebrations)”

“We should hear only good news from each other”

Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead before the period of shiva was done, sparing his family the full process of mourning until (presumably) many years later. What would Mary and Martha have experienced at the time had Lazarus not come forth from his tomb? Following shiva would have been a period called shloshim, or “thirty.” During this 30-day period, the bereaved is still mourning, but begins to enter back into a normal life. They can return to work, to doing laundry, to doing the shopping, but must avoid large parties and celebrations, and cannot attend musical performances. They can attend a wedding only if it is for a close relative, and cannot take part in singing or dancing at the reception.

The final formal period of mourning is called avelut, which is observed only for the death of a parent. This period lasts for twelve months after the burial. During that time, mourners continue to avoid parties, celebrations, theater, movies, and concerts. For eleven months of that period, starting at the time of burial, the mourner goes to the synagogue twice a day to recite a prayer known as the mourner’s Kaddish. This is the text of the Kaddish:

Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name throughout the world which He has created according to His will. May He establish His kingdom in your lifetime and during your days, and within the life of the entire House of Israel, speedily and soon; and say, Amen.

May His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity.

Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that are ever spoken in the world; and say, Amen.

May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us
and  for all Israel; and say, Amen.

He who creates peace in His celestial heights, may He create peace for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen.

Now this is a curious prayer to be said when one is mourning. It doesn’t say anything at all about mourning or grief, in fact. Rather it is a prayer which extols God’s magnificence. This is important to understand about how we as individual Christians and we as the Church might approach grief and mourning. In Judaism, the Kaddish is a part of mourning which very much involves the community; one has to be in the synagogue to recite the prayer, not in the privacy of one’s home. The entire community sees the mourner there, and is therefore engaged in the discipline of grieving with them.

Judaism today includes a final ritual of mourning that is not part of the formal mourning process prescribed since the biblical period. This is a ritual know as Yartzeit, which is Yiddish for “time of year.” Each year, on the anniversary of the loved one’s death, the mourner commemorates the deceased by lighting a special candle which burns for 24 hours. The mourner also recites the Kaddish prayer at morning, noon, and night.

Thus far we’ve talked about mourning traditions that have grown out of Biblical traditions and continue today in Judaism. What of Christian mourning traditions? Are they primarily individual rituals, or are they communal?

Throughout most of Christian history, one of the most visual aspects of mourning has been the wearing of black clothing. This is a custom that continued for many centuries. Christian widows would often wear black for at least one year after the death of their husband, sometimes for up to four years. Even today, attendees at most funerals are likely to wear dark clothing of some sort, even if it is not black.  A custom which is still maintained today, particularly in Irish communities, is that of holding a wake, a ceremony in which people eat, share stories about the deceased, sing, and give support to the family of the deceased.

In the South,  where I have resided the past few years,  there are some traditions in which the community partakes to take part in the grieving process. The passing of a loved one is something that is frequently commemorated with a visitation service during which the community can pay their respects to the deceased and offer condolences to the family. Following the burial service, the community often gathers at the home of the deceased or elsewhere in order to share a meal. That funeral meal can mean a great deal to a family that is still in shock over their loss, and unable to think about practicalities such as cooking dinner for themselves. In her memoirs, It Ain’t All About The Cookin’, Southern hospitality diva Paula Deen devotes an entire chapter to funeral food, discussing the importance of food for a funeral being comfort food instead of fancy food. She even reveals that she always has an “emergency casserole” on hand in her freezer in case it’s needed for a funeral.

Mourning should be a discipline that helps us to move on with life in appropriate stages, after fully experiencing grief. My observation is that sometimes Christians don’t really know how to do this, because many of us are unused to engaging in regular spiritual disciplines.

The idea in the recitation of the Kaddish prayer, for example, is to continue to give praise to God even when the bereaved is unable to feel that praise, because the discipline of repeatedly offering the praise will eventually cause the mourner to remember the truth behind the praises. This reminds one of Peter Boehler’s famous words to John Wesley: “Preach faith till you have it.” How much more do we as Christians have access to truth, in the person of Jesus Christ? How much more should we be able to praise Him, as His Spirit is within us to strengthen and encourage us during a time of loss?

This is not to say that we should not understand and have compassion for the emotions suffered during the mourning process. My grandmother passed away over 6 years ago, and I still experience sadness each year at the anniversary of her death. A friend who lost his own grandmother not too long ago feels very depressed, and that is appropriate. It’s appropriate to feel what you feel when you are mourning – that might be depression, it might be anger, it might be disbelief, or even hatred. It’s also appropriate to talk or shout those feelings out to Jesus – He has experienced all the feelings that you as a human being have experience, and He can handle them.

What am I driving at in all of this? Without being irreverent, I am reminded of a line of dialogue from Star Trek II, my favorite of all of the Star Trek movies. In the particular scene I am thinking of a young Starfleet trainee, Lt. Saavik, complains to Captain Kirk that a simulator test involving a no-win scenario was not a fair evaluation of her command abilities. He reminds her that a no-win scenario is a possibility that all commanders face and then remarks to her, “how we face death is at least as important as how we face life.”

Death is an inevitability, but it is not the end. The Apostle Paul makes clear that the world we are in, and the suffering we experience, is not all there is.

“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” Romans 8:18 RSV

As individuals, Christians need not fear death. Jesus has promised us that all who follow Him will be given eternal life. If our departed ones were believers in Him, we can rejoice that He has promised that we will see them again before His throne. But regardless of whether those we grieve for were believers in Jesus, when we mourn we are engaged in commemorating all of the things that we enjoyed and loved about our departed ones. As individuals, we can praise God that He gave us the time we had in this world with them, even as we allow ourselves to experience the fullness of grief that they are no longer with us. As the Church, we can engage in a shared recollection of why the deceased was important to us, and assist the mourner to move through grieving back into normal life.

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