The Church with the Boarded-Up Doors

I feel like I apologize to you every time I post now, Reader, for my erratic schedule and the lull between postings; I can tell you that I’ll post this and then be back for my usual Advent Christmas carols shtick.  This semester is taking the mickey out of me in ways I really did not see coming at all; I will be so very glad when it’s over.  To be honest, I’ll be very glad when this degree is over, which is super unfortunate.  But the upshot of being here in the Wicket Gate is that I work at a pretty amazing church.

It’s an old church, as in over a century old (which is old for Americans; I know that’s laughable for Europeans, but cut us some slack, we’re young).  Being old means that there’s a lot of repair that has to happen.  Right now our main front doors are gone because water had warped the bottoms of these thick wooden masterpieces, so there’s a beautiful Good Shepherd stained glass window hanging out over a bunch of plywood.  It looks pretty awful, and it confuses the crickets out of visitors, but I was thinking the other day about what it must look like from the street.

boarded-up-entrance-to-church-after-removal-of-doors-767x600Oh, what a shame, some driver may be thinking, another beautiful old church closed down and falling apart.  Because those boarded-up doors make it seem like we’ve thrown in the towel, for sure.  The thing of it is that they are the exact opposite—those plywood planks are the showcase of our growth, our fiscal health, our connectivity (paid for by a grant from our denomination), our stewardship of the building, our desire to make sure we are able to welcome people to this house of God.  Our boarded-up doors are symbols of our being alive, not dead, and I wonder what that looks like when speaking of the larger Church.

I have very little patience left for folks who bemoan the death of the Christian Church and even less for the people (like a classmate of mine, recently) who say that the Church should die because it’s outdated.  Nope.  The Church is not dying, not by a long shot.  Christianity is a truly global religion represented on every continent, with over two billion believers.  It is the largest organized religion on the planet.

Now I know, Christianity doesn’t necessarily equal the Church.  But the Church is its most cohesive vehicle.  The Christian Church is the community that goes out and fights for justice, that works for peace, that stands with people suffering from natural and human disasters.  The Church is the community that gathers to stay strong in faith, to challenge ourselves to live godly lives, to reach deeper into the mind-bending compassion of God to be able to see each other—and ourselves—in love.

It is also the community that is wrapped up in colonialism, racism, sexism, homophobia, a million different kinds of discrimination, power grabs, ageism, judgment, and oppression.  We, the Church, do not have clean hands.  But that does not mean God is done with us.  My church, my century+ church, definitely has things it needs to deal with about how we interact with each other and our community, and I pray mightily that we acknowledge those things and open ourselves to God’s ability to change us and speak through us to the hurt and the aching need for hope here in the Wicket Gate.  Yet I also pray mightily that we may continue the growth that we are doing, both the quantifiable and the completely unquantifiable.  We are a constant work in progress, thank God, as is the larger Church.

Certain parts of it must change.  That is undeniable, and unsurprising, because no living thing is ever permanently stagnant.  It would die.  So when folks talk about how the Church is dying because it’s changing, I wonder at their definition of death.  Do we have fewer people in American pews than there used to be?  Sure.  But Christians are gathering in Africa, in southeast Asia, in South America, and they can’t keep up with the amount of churches needed to house the communities.  A shift is not a death.  Do we have a different cultural relationship with Christianity than we used to in the West?  Sure.  But Christianity is becoming something that is owned with purpose and determination rather than to impress your boss or make sure the neighbors don’t think you’re a terrible person.  A shift is not a death.  Do the new generations have a wariness about Christianity that often manifests in us leaving the faith?  Sure.  But many are hungering after authentic grace and we millennials, for one, are becoming some of the strongest change agents in the Church.  A shift is not a death.

So look deeper when you see a church with plywood where the doors ought to be.  It may well be that that church has closed—but perhaps that’s to form a co-op with another church down the street, or to move into the city to be closer to the people who need this news of unconditional love, or to switch to a more accessible and less leaky building to keep on worshipping.  Or maybe it completely folded, and that’s okay too because the face of Christianity is changing and that church may have lived its purpose in that spot.  Or maybe it didn’t, maybe it wasn’t done yet, and that boarded-up church represents a workplace where God is calling someone to bring the message of hope back into that neighborhood.  Is it you?

Or, maybe, it’s just getting its doors replaced so it can come out looking beautiful once more, ready to fling those doors open come Easter and let the hymns roll out over the stone steps into the neighborhood proclaiming that Christ is risen, Christ is risen indeed.  Keep looking.  There is life here, and life abundant.

 

We know that Christ has been raised from the dead and he will never die again. Death no longer has power over him.  He died to sin once and for all with his death, but he lives for God with his life.  In the same way, you also should consider yourselves dead to sin but alive for God in Christ Jesus.  (Romans 6:9-10, CEB)

 

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Resurrected, Not Restored

My last official day of classes for my first year of seminary is Monday.

Thank God.

It’s been a rough year—an even rougher second semester—and I’m ready to switch into the next thing.  (Of course, the next thing is itself an exhausting concept:  I’m going to be basically a hospital chaplain over the summer, so I don’t know how much you’ll be hearing from me since I have to do 24-hour shifts every other weekend.)  I will be heading home more scarred than I came here to The Wicket Gate, metaphorically and literally.  I have grown older and in some ways sadder.

But I have also grown (hopefully) wiser.  I have met some amazing people and had some crazy adventures.  I have stepped into a new part of who I am.  You know how this goes, Reader; you know how change always comes at a price—or, as a great blogger (BeautyBeyondBones) put it:
BeautyBeyondBones change begets change

We are now in the season of Easter—yep, it’s not just one day.  Easter is 50 days long in the liturgical calendar because, well, it kind of took a while to catch on.  Jesus had to keep coming back and telling people yep, the rumors are true, I am no longer dead because let’s face it, Thomas wasn’t the only one who thought such a thing was unbelievable.  We have all of these stories about Jesus appearing to various people and them being surprised each time; I’m actually preaching on the road to Emmaus next week (prayers for such are welcome) because the Resurrection didn’t just settle into being an accepted reality on that first Easter Sunday.

The thing about these appearances of Jesus, though, is that He didn’t come back perfect and shiny and new.  He comes back with scars—“look at My hands,” He tells Thomas.  “Put your finger in my side.”  The Resurrection didn’t—and doesn’t—make the Crucifixion un-happen.

Which kind of blows my mind as a person of faith, actually.  We as Christians have built ourselves around the Good News (and boy howdy is it good news) that Christ is risen, that Death is defeated, that hallelujah the tomb is empty.  Every Sunday is a little Easter.  But our God is not a God of completely erasing that which is broken and painful and ugly; our God is not a God of sweeping things under the rug.  Jesus could well have come back in a body as smooth as the day He was born, hands no longer bearing the small cuts and splinter marks of life as a carpenter, eyes no longer crinkling with the first signs of age.  He could have come back with a perfect body.

But instead He came back with the marks of having lived, and died.  He came back with the white lines of scar tissue on His palms, with the thick and shining flesh across the holes in His wrists, with the gouged-out hole in His side.  He came back with a body that bore witness on every inch of the brown skin of brokenness, of pain, of horrifying violence, of sorrow and abandonment and misery.

He came back with a body that looked an awful lot like our world feels, honestly.

The difference, however, is that His scars were scars, not open wounds.  No blood poured into Thomas’ hands; no bones showed through the criss-crossed cuts on Jesus’ back.  One of the many miraculous and hopeful things about the Resurrection is not that Jesus fought death to be restored to pre-Crucifixion health but that Jesus won over death to ensure the reality of healing.  We who are Easter people follow a God Who knows exactly what it’s like to be broken into pieces and get put back together with the brokenness as part of who we are.

It’s not about it making us stronger—I’ll confess, I actually loathe the motto “that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” because I think it’s untrue and harmful.  (There are some things that happen that don’t kill you but you wish they had; there are some things that don’t kill you but maim you; there are some things that don’t kill you but weaken you from the sheer amount of emotional or physical blood loss they cause.)  Christ didn’t die so He could come back stronger, and I don’t think God is calling us to die to ourselves so we can be spiritually stronger like we’re in a weird Christian Gatorade ad.  The Resurrection, I think, is about showing us that we can be healed from even the worst of things—made not stronger, but whole.

kintsugi-225255b325255dThere’s an illustration that I’m pretty sure every pastor has to use at least once in his/her career about this broken/whole thing, namely kintsugi or the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with gold-brushed lacquer.  It’s a beautiful metaphor, it really is, and it has everything to do with this resurrection that isn’t truly restoration.  What was broken is not remade such that it looks like no harm was done.  It is healed such that the harm is no longer the defining aspect, such that a broken Body can bring an entire world hope.

Happy Easter, Reader, for every one of the fifty days, and every one of the revelations, and every one of the moments Jesus tells us again, yep, still true; I am alive.  Peace; do not be afraid.

 

For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve.  After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep.  After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles.  Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time.  (1 Corinthians 15:3-8, NKJV)

Good Friday: The Quick and the Dead

In the old-school version (i.e. the one based off of William Tyndale’s English Bible) of the Nicene Creed (and the Apostles’ Creed), it says that we believe Jesus is in Heaven and will return to “judge the quick and the dead.”  “Quick” in this sense is an archaic word for “living, alive”, like quicksand and cutting to the quick.  It was only later that it became a word for speed.  I like this use, this quickness of the heart that still beats, the blood that still flows, the lungs that still pull in even the smallest amount of air.

Today is a day in which I want to gather to myself the slowness; today is the day the heart stops, the blood halts, the lungs cease their rhythmic movement.  Today is the day of Christ’s death.

It’s weird to be observing Good Friday with such a different pattern than I’ve had the last five or so years; I went to work this morning and then to one of my other jobs (I’ll actually go to all three today, come to think of it).  I went to a party for student appreciation—a party on Good Friday, which felt so jarring and yet not jarring at all because I still can’t wrap my head around it being Good Friday.  I didn’t see it coming, didn’t really do anything for Lent this year.  I’m not ready for this death.

The thing of it is, though, that you can never be ready for death.  My family has been on a kind of low-level deathwatch for my one remaining grandparent for a couple of months now—it is definitely her time and her body is shutting down bit by bit.  But I know that even when she dies, we won’t actually be ready for it.  We can’t be.  Death, in all its slowness, comes quick; death steals into even the most-watched spaces.  Death, even the expected kind, is always a surprise.  I can’t even imagine how intense the shock must have been for the disciples.

Think of it—Jesus had been trying for weeks to get the disciples to understand, to prepare themselves even to some small degree, to set up their own kind of deathwatch.  They didn’t take it seriously.  Who could?  Jesus was at the top of His game, in the prime of His life.  A crowd had just laid their own clothing on the dusty ground for Him.  Radical things were happening; there was change in the dry, desert air.

But then there is the inexplicable jumpiness of Judas, and the incomprehensible things Jesus says at the table about bodies and blood, and then there is the garden and the need to stay awake when they don’t know why, don’t know why they couldn’t just sleep; it had been such a long week, after all.  Jesus’ voice is so quick in its frustration, straining against something they don’t understand, a pain they don’t feel—and then there is the crashing of the soldiers, so loud in that quiet space, so bright in the darkness.  Peter lashes out; he always thinks with his body first, speaks the first thought, never reflects.  Peter is quick.  The soldier is too slow and the shriek of pain slices through the murmurs of the crowd, the blood pouring red on red cloth under grey armor and Jesus is quick, too, stooping down to pick up the ear, holding His hand to the man’s head while the blood pours over His fingers and slows, slows, stops.

The trials are not quick.  The walks between the political poles are endless as Jesus’ heart still beats and the disciples cower, quick to refuse any connection others ascribe, anxious not to end up in that same slow circle of accusation and torment where no one takes responsibility.  The crowd is quick to choose Barabbas, opening like a hungry maw to receive him into itself from the platform where Jesus sways slowly, exhausted from holding the world together.  The soldiers hurry Him away and the women who love Him, who stand in the crowd shouting His name against the louder voices of the priests’ plants, do not know they will never again see Him whole like this.

PICEDITOR-SMHThe crucifixion does not feel quick.  Jesus’ last breaths come slowly, His words making sure community remains even as the sweat slides into the blood dripping down His naked skin, the cuts on His back pressing into wooden splinters as He pushes against the nails that hold Him there, splayed for the world and God to see what it looks like to slow, and slow, and die.

It is finished,” He says, and there is no more quickness in Him.

Lighting flashes, a quick bolt shattering the sky suddenly darker than night as the sun and stars hide their faces in grief and the earth shudders at the violence she must bear on her sacred soil.  A curtain tears and God is as naked as Himself, His body and His secret dwelling place both on display in this unthinkable space where Death claims what he believes to be his.

No one was ready.  No one is ever ready for this.

 

When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!”  (Matthew 27:54, ESV)

Christ Is Risen, Indeed

Happy Easter, Reader!  Christ is risen!

It’s an old tradition (no, I don’t know how old, but I do know that “the lorde is risen in dede” shows up in Tyndale’s Bible in Luke 24, and that dates to 1526) for Christians to say this during Eastertide (Easter season, Easter, however you want to say it; it’s not just one day, in case you didn’t know, it’s 50.  Seriously.  We party ’till Pentecost) and expect the response, “Christ is risen indeed!”

“Indeed” isn’t a word that gets a whole lot of play these days; it’s often thought of as stuffy or proper, easily replaced by “seriously” or “really” or, if you’re a youngerkind, “for realz.”  (Why yes, I do sometimes say that.  Try it.  It’s actually pretty fun.)  “Indeed” itself doesn’t even have a meaning other than amplification, usually—or does it?  I went searching in the Oxford English Dictionary (it’s a favorite hobby of mine) and found some interesting things:

indeed, adv.
1a.  In actual fact, in reality, in truth; really, truly, assuredly, positively.
1b.  Freq. placed after a word in order to emphasize it; hence, with n.=actual, real, true, genuine; with adj. or adv.=really and truly.
2a.  In reality, in real nature or essence, opposed to what is merely external or apparent.
3.  Used in a clause which confirms and amplifies a previous statement.
5a.  In dialogue, used to emphasize the reply (affirmative or negative) to a question or remark.
7.  As an interjection, expressing (according to the intonation) irony, contempt, amazement, incredulity, or the like.

Reader, how apt!  The call-and-response ritual becomes affirmation, becomes expression of amazement, becomes the spoken recognition of the impossible.  Christ is risen—indeed?  How on earth (or off it) can that happen?  This central miracle of the Christian faith is utterly outrageous; Death wins, no one comes back from that (unless they’re super creepy and otherworldly).  I mean, check out this graphic I found about how resurrected folks fare in the popular mindset:

Obviously on a historical and faith-based level I take tons of issue with this, but in terms of recognizing how crazy the thought of following a risen human is I find it pretty accurate.  There is no way this should work.  Christ is risen—say what?  How does that work?  Is He a zombie now?  And surely He isn’t actually alive; somebody just took the body.  April Fools’.

Which, of course, is what the original folks tried to say.  Check this out—Matthew 28:11-15:

11 While they were going, behold, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had taken place. 12 And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers 13 and said, “Tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ 14 And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” 15 So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day.

Later addition?  Likely; it’s not like Matthew sat down and wrote the gospel the day after Easter, anyway.  But immediately people said no way, this can’t be real.  Christ isn’t risen; dead people stay dead unless something nefarious is at work.  So when Christians get together and say, “Christ is risen!”  “Christ is risen indeed!” they are making a hell of a statement.  The impossible has happened, we say to each other.  Yes, the impossible has happened!  How crazy cool is that?!  So what?

Ah, “so what.”  Why does it matter, other than being a slightly creepy but really neat magic trick?  After all, Lazarus came back from the dead.  So did Jairus’ daughter, and that widow’s son.  And even outside of the Gospels, Elijah resurrected a guy, Elisha resurrected a guy, Paul resurrected a guy, Peter brought Tabitha back; in point of fact, it seems like people couldn’t really manage to stay dead in the ancient world, so why does it matter that Jesus did?

Because He predicted this; nobody else said yeah, I’m going to snuff it but it’s temporary, brb.  Nobody else had any idea that Death could be anything but final—check out how made Lazarus’s sisters were that Jesus hadn’t come sooner.  They were totally sure that dead meant dead, even though their own history had stories where that wasn’t the case.  But also because Jesus didn’t have any help.  In all the other stories, somebody had to go get the dead person and bring him/her back, but Jesus was alone from start to re-start.  This is both incredibly awful and marvelously fantastic because it means that Jesus is stronger than Death.  He doesn’t need anybody else’s help because He is the help; all by Himself, he took the one thing none of us can defeat and walked away (with scratches).

And lives!  Not only is Jesus alive, but He’s alive in a real way—not as a zombie or Dracula or anything, but a breathing, eating, functioning person every bit as human as He was before.  That…that’s mind-boggling, is what that is.  And it’s the core of Christianity; that we celebrate with each other the reality that the Guy we venerate went through the ugliest and most painful death and then came back and had breakfast.

That’s style, when you think about it.  I mean, God most certainly has a wry sense of humor, but really.

So in this Easter season, if you find yourself or someone else doing the Easter response, listen to it.  Hear what an incredible thing it is that we say Christ is risen—and then respond in incredulity and hope and wonder that yes, He is risen.

Indeed.

 

Now it was Miriam from Magdala, Joanna, the Miriam of Jacob and others together with them who were telling these things to the emissaries.  But these words appeared to them as nonsense, and they would not believe them.  But Peter got up and ran to the tomb. Leaning in, he sees only the linen cloths. And he went away to his home, marveling at what had happened.  (Luke 24:10-12, TLV)

Lent, Week Seven: Anointing the Sick

My apologies for how late this post is this week, Reader.  On top of the usual reality that Good Friday is complicated for me, my car died Thursday.  For a wannabe pastoral type, of course the best time to be without transportation is Maundy Thursday leading into the Paschal Triduum.  Fortunately, my music director was willing to give me a ride to work, my coworker loaned me her car so I could get to class, and then Interpreter graciously ferried me around for the rest of the day and then on Friday.  It helps that he and I were already going to the same places—it’s church week, y’all—but it was still a moment of grace for him to step in and for me to let him.  It’s hard to be dependent on another; it’s hard not to feel like an imposition, a burden.  But in letting that happen while I waited for my dear car to be resurrected (how apropos, no?) we got to talk with each other, break down events with each other, talk shop and not talk at all.  We’re both introverts, after all, so sometimes we are perfectly happy just to pay attention to the road and say nothing.

I do now have my car back (thanks be to God, although my checkbook doesn’t agree) and that is good because I truly don’t live a life of a format or in a place that can count on rides from others and public transportation.  But it was an unlooked for gift, I think, to have that time of simply being with a friend and of seeing the generosity of others.

So what does that have to do with the one remaining sacrament?  Not much, on the surface.  The anointing of the sick, formerly known as Last Rites or Extreme Unction, is very much about humans and not cars.  But it is (even still in the Catholic Church, though they’ve changed the name and broadened the parameters) about death.  This sacrament was originally the last connection in this life to God’s grace; it served as an outward sign just before death that God was on both sides of that great divide with the person dying.  Now it includes those who are very ill and may yet survive, but the concept is the same; “yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.”

I saved this sacrament for last because I knew it would fall on this holy weekend, Reader.  I realize that technically Lent ended Thursday night, but we are still in the wilderness.  Perhaps we are even more so, because right now our tradition states that Jesus’s body, broken and bloodied and stabbed, lies entombed.  Christ has died.

One of the most awful of the Seven Last Words to me is the one often left in Hebrew (or Aramaic, if you go with Mark):  Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?  (“My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”)  In the hour of His death, Jesus had no one to administer the reminder of grace; no priest hovered in the approaching darkness to reassure Him that the Light would not be overcome.  He was Himself the Light, and He died.

I don’t say this to get into a theological argument of how God can desert Himself but to underscore that death is the one thing we can reliably count on to freak us all the hell out.  It is the one thing that we concretely know happens and don’t know much about.  We persons of faith have lots of ideas, sure, but we don’t know.  We can’t.  Death is beyond all of us; only One has ever come back from it, and He didn’t spend any time at all talking about what it was like.  So to have a ritualized reminder that God is there with us even in that most unnerving of hours is an amazing thing; we are not left alone as Jesus was, we are not forsaken in that time of great need.

Because Jesus was.

Here’s the amazing thing I re-learn every Good Friday—Sunday is coming.  Here on Holy Saturday when Jesus is not in the story, is not in this world, when His disciples huddle together in a room that holds memories now painful and stare blankly at each other wondering what they missed and what else they could have done right, there are birds chirping outside my window.  The slowly dropping sun slants in through my front window and makes my silver-edged table shine, the empty glass on it sparkling in the light.  Soon I will head out for an Easter vigil service and then wake far too early in the morning to go to a sunrise Easter service because Death did not win.  Yes, Christ has died, but Christ is risenand Christ will come again.

If I don’t fully believe that, I need to start playing for a different team.

But in believing that—and doubting it and fighting with it and being totally confused by it and worrying about it and celebrating it—I myself am still confronted by Death.  My best friend will die, my favorite uncle will die, my first love will die, my last grandparent will die.  But in that space of standing on Death’s threshold and feeling his hand reach for ours, we do not have to be alone.  In this sacrament or merely the spirit of it (for those of us who aren’t Catholic) we are reminded that Jesus has stood here and taken that hand and will come back for us every time.

So I know it’s a few hours early, Reader, but let me hear it all the way up here in the Land of Pilgrims:  Christ has risen.

Christ has risen indeed!

 

And when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him.  And very early in the morning the first day of the week, they came unto the sepulchre at the rising of the sun.  (Mark 16:1-2, AKJV)

The Art of Losing the Dead

I left work early yesterday because I got sick.  I went out to lunch and something disagreed with me—out out out, said my body, vehemently pushing against this unknown intruder.  Sleep, sleep, it said then, muscles frayed from the stress of fighting itself.  But I had rehearsal for a show this weekend, so I slept a few hours and then went and moved sets around.

I came to work this morning and everyone asked how I was, whether I was better, how good it was that I was alive.  We joked about my being dead for a few hours, but I got better.  And then a colleague came into my office and said that a mutual friend was quite dead.  She was not getting better.

But what was that to me?  I had to present at a department meeting.  I had to figure out out how to balance a payroll deficit.  I had to work.

It’s such an odd thing, how the death of another can only wait so long.  Like my body that refused to be held in check until that magical five o’clock end time, it was while sitting at my desk that my soul said out out out, vehemently pushing at this concept of grief for a woman who was, as they always are, far too young.  She was not yet 30, set to be married later this year, a former classmate of mine who was adventuring states away.

I don’t know how to deal with death.  I never have, really, and I doubt that anybody actually does.  Part of my trouble with it is all the language that surrounds it:  “I’m sorry for your loss,” “S/he was such a great person,” “If you need anything…”  I understand completely that these sorts of platitudes often come from a genuine desire to help the people at the center of the grief, but they simply don’t make sense to me.  I’m sorry that this happened now, yes, but I know that everyone dies, and I don’t know how to be sorry that that will happen.  As to someone’s loss, I feel like that’s so flat—the person isn’t lost, literally or metaphorically.  The body was not misplaced, nor has the person been; s/he shines the brighter in the memories of those left behind, such that s/he is never lost, will never be lost, because we will cling the tighter to the possibilities that could have been.  And of course the dead person was a great person, but s/he was also petty, and selfish, and bitter, and unkind, because s/he was human and had days when absolutely nothing worked and people were jerks.  I don’t want to talk about the idea that s/he was nice because that means nothing, it means only that I don’t want to blemish your memory or mine, and that’s not real.  I want to talk about an instance when she was nice, and then I want to talk about one in which she made me want to pull out my hair because then she is real, she is alive, she is still here.

She is not lost.

“If you need anything” is one of my least favorite things for anyone to say in any context, and I hate when it’s the only thing I have to say because I don’t know what else to say (which, I suspect, is often the case for people).  Of course the person needs something.  S/he needs his/her loved one back.  S/he needs not to feel this aching space inside when that person’s laugh no longer resounds in the house.  S/he needs to have people stop saying that the person was lovely when the last thing that happened was a fight that the dead person started because s/he was angry, or needs to have people stop hugging him/her because the only arms s/he wants belong to somebody whose arms will never move again, or needs to say to God this isn’t fair and it’s absolutely no better when people say it’s all right, s/he’s in heaven, a better place.

Here is a better place.  The grieving person needs the chance to make it better, to go around again, to say good-bye.

I don’t say any of this, Reader, to suggest that all people who say these sorts of things are silly or heartless—far from it—and I don’t say it to say that no one should ever say these things.  I only say this to say that I don’t like to say them.  I don’t like to hear them.  And I don’t know how to tell my friend whose fiancée is now dead that I react to her death with him, grieve with him from several states away, and wish I remembered more about her.  I don’t know how to say that I don’t want to say anything because there is nothing to say; I want to listen, to hear his stories of her and watch the way he smiles just so because she was his light.  I want to celebrate how weird she was, and how it took me forever to remember her name, and that I wish I had gone to her moving-away party.

And I want to say that she is not lost.  Wherever her fierce soul may be, who she was to us will only be lost in the sense that anything is lost in the knick knack shelf of our minds, the memories worn from the oils of our hands as we thumb through them again and again, the dust that starts to gather years down the line as we continue to live settling comfortably amongst the other stories that share the shelf, making us someone who will die, and whose life will be told, and who will not be lost.

 

When Job’s three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him.  When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads.  Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.  (Job 2:11-13, NIV)

All Hallows’ Eve

I must admit that Halloween is not in the upper levels of my favorite holidays, not least because I’m a coward.  I have no patience for being scared, and no tolerance for things that are scary.  I don’t even do well with the trailers for horror films—the films themselves?  Forget it.  I have a mind that holds onto images FOREVER which is a terrible, terrible thing for a day built around images designed to creep you out.  I still remember a scary email from 12 or 13 years ago that freaked me out in the middle of the day.  No threshold for that sort of thing.  So Halloween?  Hell.

Most Halloweens I relish being able to stay inside and watch Ghostbusters (the limit of scariness for me, really) and It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, waiting for the world to return to some semblance of sanity on All Saints’ Day.

I do like jack-0-lanterns, though.

(Unless they’re meant to be scary.)

So sitting here at my desk on this blustery, witching-cold Halloween (or Hallowe’en, to recognize the contraction of “even[ing]”) and listening to the soundtrack for Nightmare Before Christmas and Bach’s Toccata & Fugue in D Minor and getting feminist-ly upset about how utterly sexist and stupid adult costumes are these days, I’m trying to think back to the point of the holiday.  It was a day meant to appease the dead, who may or may not have had unfinished business with the living.  Scary things are scary because they are unknown, right?  And what is more unknown than Death?  It would be pretty awesome if he were actually as snarky as Terry Pratchett’s version, but somehow I doubt it.  And people of faith get kind of stuck, because we’re not supposed to be afraid of death—I mean, God’s got it covered, right?

Right?

Not to be overly morbid on a Friday afternoon, but it’s still super overwhelming to me to consider how much we skirt the line here in the 21st century between this world and the next.  We don’t have nearly the comfort with the idea that people did when Halloween was still All Hallows’ Eve—or better still, Samhain—no matter how much we talk about how much more “civilized” or “evolved” we are than those weird Dark Age medievals.  In modern Western culture, we don’t do death with any real engagement—and so it gets pretty scary.

The idea of the unsatisfied dead is a hard one, especially for modern Christians, again because we have everybody classified.  There is no waiting room of the afterlife—there’s Heaven, there’s Hell, and if you’re an old-school Catholic there’s Purgatory, which was one of the original terrible sequels.  People don’t wander the earth seeking comfort or vengeance or forgiveness because God the Judge gets that all ironed out.

And yet.

How often do we reach for a person who is no longer there?  How often do we wonder if they miss us as much as we miss them?  How often do we hope that someone who was miserable in life found happiness in death?  A person dying doesn’t mean s/he ceases to be a person, especially to those of us who knew that person well.  The idea that they linger—and that that might not be a good thing—is powerful.

This is not to say that I do or do not believe in ghosts, because honestly I’m not sure how I feel about that, but it is to say that we as a culture (and we as a people of faith) kind of suck at handling the death thing.  We honor the fallen but not our connection to them; we honor the idea of grief but not the seemingly infinite nature of it; we remember our dead but generalize The Dead into TV shows and sexy costumes.  We take what frightens us and mock it, these days, which is really great in theory and kind of sucks in practice as “what frightens us” dwindles from the Great Big Ideas into things like rabid bears and zombies.

Not that I’m trying to rain on the Halloween parade (although I would like you to note, Reader, that’s it’s snowing in earnest now here in the Land of Pilgrims, which is the first snow of the year and makes me unreasonably and perhaps unhealthily happy), because I understand that it’s a night of daring and adventure for many and can spawn hilarious jokes and other curiosities.  It’s just that it’s interesting to me as someone about to ignore a world of frightening things for an evening and then go to church on Sunday and hear about those who have died in the last year.  There does indeed need to be room for both the remembrance and the uncertainty, because things change and things go bump in the night and it’s not always clear where God actually is in all of that.

That’s really rambling, for which I’m sorry.  I can only plead the fact that I’m distracted by snow, and that I started the morning with an hour-and-a-half long meeting of frustrating-ness.  But I find myself implicated by my own refusal to face the Great Big Ideas that frighten me, the relationships left unfinished for one reason or another, the ghouls and skeletons in my own closet.  And that’s tough, because Halloween is meant to be a day of fun and candy and things that aren’t real—not moments of realization that are very real indeed.

 

Lord Jehovah, my light and my salvation, of whom shall I be afraid? Lord Jehovah is the strength of my life; by whom am I shaken?  (Psalm 27:1, ABPE)