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What should you do with my dead body?

photo credit: 18thC tombstone, Ecclesmachan - Kim Traynor

No, I’m not dying. Well, actually I am, but I’m not dying any faster than the rest of you. Of course, maybe I am and I just don’t realize it. But that’s a topic for a different post. To the best of my knowledge, you won’t need to figure out what to do with my dead body any time soon. But, I want to ask the question anyway.

“I don’t care what you do with my body. It’s not me. Just throw it away.”

I’ve heard that sentiment many times from Christians. And, it worries me.

We should all affirm that “the story of me” does not end with the death of my physical body. Or, better said: “the story of me” continues because it has been drawn into the story of Jesus through the power of the Spirit. So, whatever I believe about what comprises a human person (one part, two parts, thirty-nine parts, whatever), we should affirm that physical death does bring the story to an end.

But, that’s not the same as saying that my body is extraneous and irrelevant. God created me with a body. And, in the end, he will raise me to live again as an embodied being. That should lead to the conclusion that my body is an important part of who I am. It’s not an annoyance that I just put up with for a time. It’s how God created me. And, I fear that the “just do whatever you want with that dead hunk of meat” stems from (and contributes to) a persistent failure to appreciate this fact.

Augustine wrestled with this very issue in City of God 1.13. In the previous chapter, he assured Christians that even if they were martyred and had their bodies torn apart or burned, they didn’t need to fear what would happen in the resurrection. God knows how to handle things, and he’ll get it all straightened out in the end. But, he didn’t want anyone to draw the conclusion that this means we can just do whatever we want with people’s bodies after they died.

This does not mean that the bodies of the departed are to be scorned and cast away, particularly not the bodies of the righteous and faithful, of which the Spirit has made holy use as instruments for good works of every kind. For if such things as a father’s clothes, and his ring, are dear to their children in proportion to their affection for their parents, then the actual bodies are certainly not to be treated with contempt, since we wear them in a much closer and more intimate way than any clothing. A man’s body is no mere adornment, or external convenience; it belongs to his very nature as a man….The Lord himself also, who was to rise again on the third day, proclaimed, and commanded that it should be proclaimed, that the pious woman had done ‘a good deed’, because she had poured costly ointment over his limbs, and had done this for his burial; and it is related in the Gospel, as a praiseworthy act, that those who received his body from the cross were careful to clothe it and bury it with all honour.

These authorities are not instructing us that dead bodies have any feeling; they are pointing out that the providence of God, who approves such acts of duty and piety, is concerned with the bodies of the dead, so as to promote faith in the resurrection. There is a further saving lesson to be learnt here – how great a reward there may be for alms which we give to those who live and feel, if any care and service we render to men’s lifeless bodies is not lost in the sight of God.

So, Augustine wants to walk the line between two false ideas:

  1. Our story is entirely wrapped up in our physical bodies.
  2. Our story has nothing to do with our physical bodies.

The truth, as always, lies somewhere in between. And, he thinks that how we treat people’s bodies after they’ve died has significance for life and ministry today. We should treat people’s dead bodies in a way that respects the person, honors God’s grand purposes for the physical world, and manifests faith in the resurrection. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily lead to any definite conclusions regarding specific burial practices (e.g. cremation), but it does provide a wise set of ideas to keep in mind when dealing with the issue.

The Top 5 Regrets People Have on their Deathbeds

Edvard Munch

Bronnie Ware is a nurse who has worked with dying patients for years. The Next Web is a tech website. What happens when you put the two together? You get an interesting post on the Top 5 Regrets People Have on their Deathbeds.

According to The Next Web, they took the “grandmotherly bits of advice about dreams having gone unfulfilled” and supplemented them with “some rockstar advice on how to not have these regrets in the digital age.” It makes for interesting reading.

I’ve listed the five regrets below. Check out the post for their comments on each.

  1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.
  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

I have to admit that I resonate with at least a couple of these. Although, I’m afraid that the first one on my list will be, “I wish I’d spent more time with my daughters.” I hope not. But since I’m on the road this week, I wonder.

Dem Bones, Dem Bones (When He Comes 6)

We have several houses in our neighborhood that really get into the Halloween spirit. Every year they’re decked with all kinds of scary things—witches, ghosts, goblins, giant spiders, black cats (any of kind cat would work for me), and pumpkins carved to demonstrate what a psychotic dentist could do to you if he really wanted.

And, without fail, each yard has its own supply of skeletons. Now, I can understand how most of those other things would be scary, but skeletons? What exactly is a skeleton going to do to you? They don’t have any muscles, so I’m guessing they can’t run very fast. (Actually, without muscles they shouldn’t be able to move at all, making them even less scary.) And, if they did somehow manage to catch you, what are they going to do, poke you with a finger? Those bony hands can’t be very good at holding onto things, so good luck using a knife or any other weapon. And, they don’t really have any special powers. I’ve never heard of skeletons suddenly being able to fly, cast spells, or shoot fireballs from their empty eye sockets. They do have teeth, but they’re generally not very sharp. So I suppose your worst case scenario is that the skeleton would catch you napping and start gnawing on your leg. Unpleasant, but not terribly scary.

So, why are skeletons scary? I think it’s because skeletons represent a human person without life—no flesh, no spirit, no warmth…no life—an empty person. And, that’s scary.

Now, imagine that you’re standing in a valley with the hills rising all around you. Shifting your weight a bit, you hear a crunching sound. You assume at first that you’re standing on some dry leaves, but that impression flees as soon as you look down. Bones. Dry, brittle bones all around your feet. Slowly you raise your eyes again and see that the entire valley is filled with skeletons—jumbled piles of blanched bones blanketing the valley floor. And, imagine that these aren’t just any bones, these are the bones of your people—your families, friends, neighbors, co-workers, all turned into dry bones and scattered uselessly across the ground. Not very pleasant , is it?

That’s what Ezekiel saw (Ezekiel 37:1-14). God showed Ezekiel the nation of Israel as a valley full of dry bones. Because that’s what Israel had become: a people separated from God, sapped of life, discarded among the nations. East of Eden.

Walking around among the bones, Ezekiel is struck by how dry these bones are. That might seem a little odd. Of course the bones are dry. Why wouldn’t they be? The point, though, is not simply that the bones were not wet, but that they were without Spirit. The Bible routinely associates the Spirit of God with water and life (e.g. Jer. 17:3; 31:12; Ezek. 47:9). So, in the vision, the very dryness of these bones shows that they are without Spirit, without the life that only God’s Spirit can provide. The bones are God’s people without God’s Spirit.

Notice the stark contrast between the Valley of Bones and the Garden of Eden. The Valley is dead and dry, but the Garden contained life, water, and Spirit. In the Valley, God’s people are separated from him, cut off from the source of life. In the Garden, God’s people walked intimately with him, bringing him glory throughout creation. The Valley is east of Eden. And, God’s people are in the Valley.

But, God offers more. The coming one, the one that God has been promising since the Garden, he will also bring with him a new spirit for God’s people. He will be the one on whom God puts his Spirit (Isa. 42:1). And, when he comes, God will pour out his spirit “on all flesh” (Joel 2:28). All of God’s people will receive God’s spirit again.

And, when the promised one brings the promised Spirit and pours it out upon God’s people, the Valley of Bones will again be filled with life! “Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the LORD” (Ezek. 37:5-6).

Think back to the Garden. When God created Adam from the dry dust of the earth, he breathed into him the breath of life (Gen. 2:7). But, Adam rejected the God of life and was separated from the source of life. Here, God demonstrates his faithfulness to all of humanity by again breathing into his people the breath of life. He will not allow his people to remain trapped in the Valley of Death, but he promises that he will again restore them to life.

When he comes…God’s people will live again.

[Read the rest of the posts in this series on the Gospel Book page.]

When Lazarus died, Jesus wept – grief, mourning, and “getting on with life”

We don’t know how to grieve. That’s the thought that has been floating around in my head for a few days now. We know how to cry, we know how to be sad, and we know how to “get on with life.” But we don’t know how to grieve, how to mourn, how to process the pain of deep loss. And, oddly enough, as I was processing these thoughts, I found an interesting connection between an ancient religious tradition and a modern chick flick.

These thoughts started rattling around a few days ago when I read an iMonk piece on the importance of mourning and grieving in community. That piece included a quote from Lauren Winner’s book Mudhouse Sabbath: An Invitation to a Life of Spiritual Discipline explaining her concern that we lack the traditions and rituals necessary to grieve effectively:

What churches often do less well is grieve. We lack a ritual for the long and tiring process that is sorrow and loss. A friend of mine whose husband recently died put it like this: “For about two weeks the church was really the church—really awesomely, wonderfully the church. Everyone came to the house, baked casseroles, carried Kleenex. But then the two weeks ended, and so did the consolation calls.” While you the mourner are still bawling your eyes out and slamming fists into the wall, everyone else, understandably, forgets and goes back to their normal lives and you find, after all those crowds of people, that you are left alone. You are without the church, and without a church vocab-ulary for what happens to the living after the dead are dead.

The piece goes on to explain the advantages that a religious tradition like Judaism has in the way that it approaches grieving. Unlike most of our churches today, Judaism has explicit rituals and traditions for grieving, making it clear that grieving is a discipline that involves both the mourner and the community in a process that will take months, and even years, to complete. Thus, unlike our approach, which tends to emphasize the quick-fix and and an individualistic, therapeutic model of grieving, the Jewish tradition emphasizes that grieving is a long-term, communal, and deeply religious affair.

While I was still processing these ideas, my wife and I watched P.S. I Love You. I have to admit that I went into the movie expecting a fairly standard chick flick. And, you can definitely watch the movie from this perspective. It’s a story of a girl who meets the boy of her dreams, loses him, and learns, haltingly, to love again. Very touching.

My wife hated it.

That by itself is odd. My wife loves chick flicks. She’s seen While You Were Sleeping and Notting Hill more times than I can count. What was different here? Passionate love. Touchingly humorous side stories. Quirky supporting characters. Strong female lead (Hilary Swank is terrific). She should have loved this movie.

But, it wasn’t primarily a movie about love; it was really a movie about loss. Even more, it was a movie about the fact that we don’t know how to grieve.

Early in the movie, the main character loses her husband—the love of her life, her soul mate—to a brain stumor. And, of course, she immediately begins to grieve. The problem is that she really doesn’t know how. She locks herself in her apartment, cries a lot, watches old movies, and imagines that her husband is still around. She’s alone, desperately trying to process her uncontainable grief. As I watched, I mourned her inability to mourn—her loneliness, isolation, and frustration.

And the people around her have no idea how to help. Her mom just advises her to “Get back on your feet.” Her friends really want to be there for her, but the best they can come up with is to encourage her get back to work, go out for a night of fun, and, after a suitable period of sadness, hook up with some random Irish guy. Everyone in the story lacks a sense of how to grieve.

Everyone, but one.

Fortunately, one person in the story understands that grieving is more than just feeling bad for a while and moving on. Rather than showing her ways of escaping her grief, this one person helps her enter into her grief more deeply, gently coaxing her through rituals designed to help her remember, celebrate, mourn, laugh, and cry, rejoicing in the memory of the relationship even as she experiences the pain of its loss.

As I watched the movie, I came to a better appreciation for the argument that we lack rituals, traditions for mourning. We don’t have any intentional, communal activities meant to lead us through the process of grieving. Instead, we are expected to privatize our grief, be sad for a while, and either “get on with life” or seek professional, therapeutic assistance. It’s as though we’ve determined that Paul’s declaration that death has “no sting” means that we should not grieve. But, the fact that Christ has conquered death does not mean that loss has no pain. It only means that it is a pain that we can understand in the context of a greater hope. But it is still pain—deep, abiding, and often bitter, pain. When Lazarus died, Jesus wept.

I don’t know how to grieve. I don’t offer any answers for what this might look like. But, I’m coming to recognize the inadequacy of the typical evangelical approach to mourning. Mourning does not come naturally; it should not come naturally. To grieve properly, we need help. And, I’m open to suggestions for what a deeper, more intentional, more tradition-al approach to mourning might look like.

 

Eccentric Existence 11 (Sin)

[We’re continuing our series on David Kelsey’s Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology.]

For Kelsey, living faithfully before God in the quotidian is “dying life.” As finite beings, we are constantly poised on the edge of death, constantly dependent upon God, the source of life. As we respond faithfully to God in our context, we flourish. But, if we respond unfaithfully before God, “dying life” turns into “living death” (402).

The Nature of Evil

Kelsey makes a very helpful distinction here between “sin” and “evil.” For Kelsey, evil is anything that violates the integrity of God’s creatures:

Evil may be understood as a violation of creatures….It is a violation of what the violated ones are, either as instances of some natural kind or as individuals in their particularity. (403)

It is, therefore, anything that hinders the “well being” of God’s creatures and prevents them from being and doing everything that God created them to be and do. But, it’s important for Kelsey that evil does cause creatures to become any less creaturely. That is, we are still God’s creatures, possessing dignity and (potentially) serving to manifest his glory in the world. Thus, he critiques the Augustinian notion that sin should be understood as a “privation of being” because he thinks it suggests a diminution of our creaturehood. Instead, he argues that we should see evil as distortion rather than privation. (I’m not entirely certain that this is as different from the Augustinian notion as he suggests, but the distinction is still helpful.) And, since we remain God’s creatures, we retain our dignity and purpose despite the ravages of evil:

evil may be said to damage their well-being but not to damage their flourishing as God’s glory….Consequently, violation of their creaturely integrities in no way undercuts human cretures’ dignity and their inherent claim on their neighbors for unconditional respect. On the other hand, the fact that who they are and how they are able to be is also the glory of God becomes very ambiguous and obscure when they are violated by evil. (407)

And, Kelsey rightly points out that when our existence has been distorted by evil (either our own or others’) it often takes on a life of its own, resisting efforts at amelioration and spreading to those around us. So, the violated becomes violator and the death spiral continues.

The Nature of Sin

Sin, on the other hand, is best defined as “living foolishly in distorted faith” (408). Thus, “Sin is folly – that is, an inappropriate response to the triune God relating to us creatively” (408). Unlike evil, then, which primarily has to do with the impact that we have on our fellow creatures, sin is theocentric; it refers exclusively to our faith response to God.

In one of my favorite sections, Kelsey addresses the origin of sin in the world. He adopts the Kierkegaardian notion that “sin posits itself” and argues that we cannot “explain” why sin entered the world.

Every theological explanation of how sin entered creation either turns out to be circular, presupposing the very thing it sets out to explain, or explains it away by reclassifying it as another type of evil. (410)

Thus, the origin of sin is a “mystery.”

Sin is a type of negative mystery. It is not mystery in the sense of something in principle explicable but about which we present have insufficient information for an explanation. Nor is it mystery in the sense of something too richly complex for our finite minds to be able to grasp its rationale. Rather it is mystery in the sense of something undeniable real but a-rational, without cause or reason. (411)

The Origin of Sin

Although the entrance of sin into the world is a mystery, Kelsey affirms that human existence as we now have it is sinful. He agrees that we all act in sinfully distorted ways that renders us guilty before God. But, he goes further and affirms that there is a deeper sense in which we are all sinful before God. And, Kelsey rejects any suggestion that our sinfulness comes through some kind of genetic connection to Adam and Eve. Instead, he seems to argue that we are born into a sinful state because we are born into quotidian relationships that are already sinfully distorted. Thus, our own existential “how” is distorted from the very beginning.

every personal body is born into an everyday world that is already constituted by exchanges of giving and receiving among personal bodies whose existential hows and personal identities are sinful. (435)

So, we enter the world sinful because we are always already in sinfully distorted relationships. But, Kelsey argues that this doesn’t necessarily mean that we are “guilty” (i.e. morally culpable) from the beginning. Instead, he argues that impurity and shame are much better descriptions of our sinful state at birth:

However, I suggest, the objective status one enters by violating relationship with God by responding inappropriately to God’s creative relating might better be designated by impurity before God than by guilt before God. Subjective awareness of this status might better be described as feeling shame rather than feeling (subjective) guilt. (436)

Thus, we have the status of being “sinful” at birth and are always-already subject to the dynamics of a sinful world, but we don’t become morally culpable until we begin to express our own existential hows in sinfully distorted ways.

Sins vs. Sin

That gets us to Kelsey’s explanation of the difference between “sins” and “sin.” For Kelsey, sin in the plural refers to the “distortions of faith’s existential hows” (412). In the previous post, we discussed the ways in which we are to respond faithfully to God in our everyday context (existential hows). Now, Kelsey argues that “sins” are the myriad (infinite?) ways in which those faith responses can be distorted. So, practices of delight become sentimental practices; practices of wonder become exploitative practices; and practices of perseverance become practices of self-abegnation. For each, Kelsey offers insightful discussions of the ways in which sinful practices actually mirror faithful practices.

Sin in the singular, on the other hand, is “best understood as a living human body’s personal identity distorted in an inappropriate trusting response to God relating to her creatively” (422). Thus, for Kelsey, sin (in the singular) is more about one’s identity than one’s practices (though the two are ultimately inseparable).

When their quotidian personal identities are defined by acknowledgement of some aspect of their quotidian proximate contexts as the basis of their reality and value, their personal identities are distorted in a bondage of limitless dependence on that by which they consider their identities to be defined, whatever it may be. (424)

The key here is that when we allow our identities to be fundamentally grounded in creaturely realities, as opposed to the Creator, we get involved in relationships of “limitless dependence” (427). Since neither party is capable of fully meeting the needs of the other, the relationship lapses into a never-ending spiral of dependency, ultimately undermining the true existence of both.  Thus, instead of being eccentric beings, fully and fundamentally defined by our relationship to the Creator, we become “deficiently eccentric” (426), locked into our finite and sinfully distorted relationships.

Flotsam and jetsam (6/14)

Zombies need the gospel too

I have no explanation for this excerpt other than the possibility that Mary put something in my dinner last night. I was working on a section focusing on the idea that we’re all dead in our sins, but we often try to hide from that fact through various “shalom restoration projects” that only serve to mimic life without really making us alive. So, I sat down to write an introduction to that section and this is what came out.

Dead is dead. There is no mostly dead, sort of dead, or the “I’ll be better in the morning if you’ll please just hand me my head and that stapler over there” kind of dead. Dead people are just dead. Unless they’re zombies. Or, mummies. But I like zombies. They dress better.

Actually, if you think about it, zombies don’t have it all that bad. They can’t die, since they’re already dead. Apparently they can walk in a slow shuffle as fast as a normal human can run terrified down a dark alley. And, if they really get backed into a corner, they can tear off their own arm and beat people with it. How cool is that?

But, of course, in the end, they’re still dead.

They could try to act like living human beings. Put on fresh clothes. Invest in a small makeup company. Figure out some way to keep their rotting flesh from falling into their coffee all the time. With enough work, they might be able to blend in, become part of the community, part of the human family. Maybe they already have.

Very carefully, look at the person next to you. But don’t let them see you looking. Zombies are sensitive. Are you sure he or she is not a zombie? How could you tell? Maybe they’re just really good at acting like a human. Maybe they’re simply waiting for the zombie overlord to give the command for the zombie apocalypse to begin so they can take over the world. (What? It could happen.) How can you tell the difference between a regular human and a zombie in a suit?

For that matter, I wonder if it’s possible for a zombie to deceive itself. If a zombie spends enough time pretending to be human, can it actually forget that it’s really dead? (There’s an idea for a blockbuster movie lurking in there somewhere.) Which, of course, raises the question, what if you’re a zombie and you just don’t know it?

From there I’d go into a discussion of the fact that without Christ we really are zombies. In other words, we’re dead even though we’re doing our best to look like we’re really alive. And we do all sorts of things to hide the fact that we’re really dead. But in the end, dead is dead.

What do you think? Is the zombie approach too much? I had fun writing it, but it didn’t resonate with Mary. Then I made the mistake of telling her that this might mean that she’s not really in my target audience, which she took to mean that I was saying she was too old. Things went downhill from there.

The ambiguity of death

Should Christians see death as an enemy to be feared and resisted or as a friend welcoming us to a new and better home? Or, as Paul Griffiths argues, is it both? On the one hand it is a horrible consequence of sin and a sign of our brokenness. On the other hand, it is “a transition to a new condition,” and one whose way has been marked out and sanctified by Jesus himself.

And, Griffiths argues that the ambiguous nature of death has two interesting implications. First, it should lead us to emphasize that life is a good to be cherished and one that should not be lightly cast off through life-ending practices like euthanasia. But, more interestingly for the purposes of this discussion, Griffiths draws a second conclusion from death’s ambiguity:

To jettison the view that death is a friend to be welcomed, a friend who will greet you one day whether you like it or not, suggests blindness to life eternal and a fixation on postponing death at all costs and for as long as possible. That fixation, because of our ever-increasing capacity to keep the body alive, now often leads to tormenting the body and the person by refusing to permit death to do its work.

Both of my parents worked for years in the nursing home industry. So, I have witnessed first-hand what happens when the ambiguity is lost and death becomes something to be resisted at all costs. Every family must face these decisions for themselves, but watching the doctors resuscitate the same ninety year-old man for the fifth time, practicing every emergency measure available in a technologically advanced society, knowing full well that the end has come and that such measures can only hold death back for a few days at best, makes you ask some hard questions.

Griffiths hints that we need to consider issues of global equity and justice when a country like America spends as much money as it does keeping its wealthy citizens comfortable and healthy despite the costs involved and regardless of the disease and death rampaging through the rest of the world. (On a similar note, see the recent Yahoo news article today on the rise of unnecessary back surgeries in America.)  To combat this, he concludes that we “need to begin to think and teach again, in public, about the ars moriendi, the art of dying.”

So, for the first half of the essay, I thought Griffiths did a nice job challenging us to recognize the ambiguous nature of death for Christians. Unfortunately, the latter half of the essay went in directions that I found less compelling. Swinging the pendulum too far back in the other direction, Griffiths concluded that Christians can (should?) pay less attention to preventative care and diagnostic testing, and we should spend less time celebrating those who have “survived” in their battles against illness. Neither of these conclusions seems warranted and both press against his earlier contention that we should cherish and celebrate life as a gift. There doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with seeing each of these as examples of human flourishing, even as we try to redress the balance between death as curse and death as gift.

What do you think? What is the proper response of the Christian in the face of life-threatening illness? How do you counsel people to deal with their own mortality? Do we have a responsibility as wealthy westerners to be more careful with the way that we use the world’s resources to sustain our own lives?

Flotsam and jetsam (5/19)