Posts Tagged ‘death’
Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger. Atria Books, 2013, 307 pp.
The title drew me in from the “new books” section of the library. I’d never heard of William Kent Krueger before, but he is apparently best known as a mystery writer. Ordinary Grace is a bit of a mystery, but it is mostly a coming-of-age story about a young boy, son of a Methodist minister, as the reality of death touches his small community and his family. It is not the best book I’ve ever read, but it was a good story well told. I couldn’t put it down, and it made me weep more than once. It spoke to my heart in a powerful way in this season of my life, as the pastor parent of a young boy.
The story belongs to Frank Drum, who is thirteen in the summer of 1961 and the novel’s narrator. Frank and his younger brother Jake have the run of their Minnesota small town, while their older sister Ariel is busy preparing to attend Julliard in the fall. Their daily explorations unpack the town’s characters: the minister father who carries invisible scars from his bleak past at war; the mother who gave up her own musical dreams; the piano teacher Emil Brandt, blind from war wounds and resigned from a life of fame; his sister Lise, living with mental illness; their father’s war buddy Gus, who lives in the church’s basement. There are savory and unsavory characters, from their young friends to a Native American with a past to the rowdy teenagers to the town police officers. The story unfolds a series of tragic deaths that occur over the course of the summer. As Frank is exposed to these deaths, and to the events that led to them, he enters an adult world of violence, betrayal, adultery, prejudice and more.
What drew me in was the plainspoken style that Krueger gave to many of the adult characters, especially Rev. Drum, as they explained to the boys and to one another the realities of loss, hope and especially grace. I put nearly a dozen flags in the book, and copied out countless quotations to keep for later. Here are just a few.
These are Rev. Drum’s remarks at the funeral of a transient man whose identity is unknown. I would hope to speak so simply and truthfully.
We believe too often that on the roads we walk we walk alone. Which is never true. Even this man who is unknown to us was known to God and God was his constant companion. God never promised us an easy life. He never promised that we wouldn’t suffer, that we wouldn’t feel despair and loneliness and confusion and desperation. What he did promise was that in our suffering we would never be alone. And though we may sometimes make ourselves blind and deaf to his presence he is beside us and around us and within us always. We are never separated from his love. And he promised us something else, the most important promise of all. That there would be surcease. That there would be an end to our pain and our suffering and our loneliness, that we would be with him and know him, and this would be heaven. This man, who in life may have felt utterly alone, feels alone no more. This man, whose life may have been days and nights of endless waiting, is waiting no more. He is where God always knew he would be, in a place prepared. And for this we rejoice.” (71)
When the Drum family suffers a terrible loss, Rev. Drum questions whether his own sins in war might be to blame. His war buddy Gus responds with words that cut to my heart as a pastor who has known times of doubt.
Gus said, “You think God operates that way, Captain? Hell, that sure ain’t what you’ve been telling me all these years. And as for those sins of yours, I’m guessing you mean the war, and haven’t you always told me that you and me and the others we could be forgiven? You told me you believed it as surely as you believed the sun would rise every morning. And I’ve got to tell you, Captain, you seemed so certain that you got me believing too. … I can’t see any way that the God you’ve talked yourself blue to me and everyone else about would be responsible for what happened.Seems to me you’re reeling here, Captain. Like from a punch in the face. When you come around you’ll see that you’ve been right all along. I know I give you a hard time about your religion, but damned if I’m not grateful at heart that you believe it. Somebody’s got to. For all the rest of us, Captain, somebody’s got to.” (191-192)
I know what it feels like to carry the weight of faith because other people need you to believe it, even when you have your doubts. Krueger’s ability to name this subtle experience of ministry so plainly moved me.
I also learned from the Prologue a quotation from Aeschylus that I had not heard before.
He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain, which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.
In the end, it was the grace of Ordinary Grace that moved me–the way the characters in this small town extended grace and forgiveness to one another across terrible circumstances.
This is one of the most frequent theological questions I get asked. If you believe in the Holy Spirit, can you also believe in spirits? If you believe in resurrection, in heaven, in hell—can you also believe in ghosts?
I usually field these questions from those who are dying and those who have recently lost loved ones, and they arise in response to a direct experience that feels like an encounter with someone beyond the veil. It’s not anything like Casper the Friendly Ghost, or Poltergeist, or even the friendly haunts from Hogwarts. Almost always, people just describe a presence that they can feel, or sometimes a voice they hear or a vision that they see.
When people are dying, they often tell friends and loved ones (and their pastor) about visits from loved ones who have already died. People will detail elaborate conversations they have had with their parents or spouses or children who are long deceased. These conversations seem as real to them as conversations with living family members. My own grandmother, in the final days of her battle with Alzheimer’s Disease, described the “red-headed angel” that came to see her, and we all thought of my aunt, her daughter, who had lost her battle with breast cancer a few years earlier.
Those who have recently lost loved ones—especially a spouse or parent—will describe feeling, hearing or seeing that loved one with them again. These encounters often come in the night, either through a sophisticated dream or a sudden awakening to the brief sight or sound of the person in the room. Other times, it just feels like the person is there, even though the bereaved person knows that they have died. I have had countless people share messages from their mother, father, wife or husband. Almost always, these visits provide a sense of love, peace, connection and healing to the grieving heart.
People tell me these stories to see if I think their encounters are real, to test if they are losing their minds, and to ask whether believing in the reality of these experiences is somehow incompatible belief in the reality of God and God’s promise of resurrection. As a pastor, my answer to all of the above questions is always unequivocal. Yes, I believe them when they tell me about the power of these experiences. No, I don’t think they are crazy. No, I don’t think believing you’ve seen or felt the presence of someone who has died is incompatible with Christian theology.
Are these “ghost stories”? Who is to say? We do not have sophisticated, subtle language to discuss our experiences that touch the space between this life and the next. From earth, the boundary between life and death seems impermeable, but we have no knowledge about how that boundary works from the other side.
No one knows for certain what happens when we die. It is all a matter of faith and speculation. At the heart of the Christian faith is the promise of the resurrection—that Jesus somehow was raised from the dead, which means that death does not have the last word, that there is life beyond this life, and we need not fear the grave. Does that resurrection mean that our beloved ancestors return to us at the time of our crossing over or theirs, to comfort us? Or is it all something our minds concoct in times of stress and distress? I don’t claim to know or understand. I certainly don’t find anything in Christian theology that precludes the possibility, nor anything that affirms it. Who am I to say that it is not of God?
As a pastor, I am grateful for those grieving loved ones who have these encounters with spirits, because their pain is eased and healing begins. Maybe it is all just the one Holy Spirit, the Comforter, who comes to us in many forms to bring consolation.
Since I started seminary 14 years ago, I have offered words of remembrance at the memorial service of every family member who has died, along with countless church folks I have known and loved. In that time, I have learned to grieve and to heal by writing those remembrances. While it may be unusual to eulogize a cat, Ringo was an unusual cat. Writing him a letter felt like just the right way to honor his memory and work through my grief at his passing today. I share it with you with a light heart and much love.
To Ringo, My Little Lion
July 26, 1997 to June 27, 2011
You came into our lives in October 1997, when you were just 10 weeks old. At the Berkeley Humane Society, all the other kittens were sleeping quietly in their cages, but you and your jet-black sister were racing in gravity-defying circles around your cage. I immediately thought you were beautiful, and we brought both of you home.
That first night, before you even had a name, you were both so tiny we were afraid we would lose you in our giant one-bedroom apartment. We made elaborate plans to let you spend the first night in the bathroom, then move to the bedroom, then the whole house. But you and your sister were so cute and irresistible, and you slept in our bed that night. We should have known right away that this was a bad idea, because you kept us up all night. We discovered you had been weaned too early, and had taken to suckling (loudly) on your baby sister’s soft stomach. Hours and hours you carried on, and we couldn’t tear you away. This was just a preview of your lifetime of obstreperous behavior.
J named you “Ringo,” and the name fit you perfectly. Your sister became “Lilith,” and she has grown aloof and reserved in accord with her name. In that first apartment, you grew and discovered the world. You and she found a way to crawl inside the back cushion of the sofa, and made us worry you were lost or trapped. You would mewl and tap us on the back through the thick fabric. One day, you got curious about something outside the unscreened, second-story window, and took a flying leap to the alley below. It was the first of many times your wild side gave us a scare, but you landed just fine and took it all in stride.
When we moved to our second apartment just a block away, you were already two years old. You immediately took an interest in the small yard out our back door. Within just a few days, looking out the window was no longer good enough. You started keeping us up all night again, yowling and begging to go outside—even though your only previous experience outdoors was your flying leap out the window. We tried a leash, and supervised outdoor playtime, but you were relentless and demanded to go out all the time. Who could blame you? It was Berkeley, and the backside of the PSR campus. We finally gave up, and let you go free. You only became more affectionate and attached to us, and always returned home from your wanderings.
When the time came to journey from California to Boston, it was you, me and Lilith driving all the way across the country in a tiny, 12-year-old Ford Escort with no air conditioning. I couldn’t stop for more than 15 minutes at a time, because the car would get too hot for the two of you in your carriers. That first night in Elko, NV, we stopped at a Motel 6. I put you and Lilith in the room with food and water, and left to go eat and cool off. When I returned, you acted like a watchdog at the front door—guarding it with your body and your fiercest meow. All night long, you laid like a sphinx by my side on the bed, and at the smallest noise you would send up a loud warning growl. I don’t think you managed to scare anybody away, but you showed me that night how much you loved me. I realized that you would fight to the death to protect me and Lilith, and ever since that night, I have felt honored by your devotion. I started calling you “my little lion,” because you acted as big as the king of the jungle.
When we moved to Boston, we tried to keep you inside again. That didn’t last long, and you were again an urban outdoorsman—prowling the backyards and driveways of Brighton in all hours and all seasons, even insisting on going out into two-foot snowdrifts that swallowed you whole. It was there that you honed your skills as a hunter. You jumped into the front window bearing mice, birds, rats and even a snake one time. Sometimes, they were still alive in your jaws, and I had to finish them off just to be humane. Once, you dropped a crushed, crippled, but very much alive and FAST mouse in the middle of the kitchen floor, and it scurried under the couch on three legs. You sat and watched as I chased it all over the house. I’m not sure if you thought you had provided me with great entertainment, or you just did it for your own amusement. I was pretty amused, though, when we left you in the care of our two PETA-loving vegan friends, and you left them the head of a mouse on the kitchen floor as a gift. They were horrified! I still chuckle when I remember it.
You always maintained your wildness, your fierceness. Of course, that meant you were also a bully. I was so embarrassed when I realized that you were the one starting all the fights with the other neighborhood cats. I had to go apologize to more than one neighbor. When we moved here to Indiana, you were older and the neighborhood cats were tougher. You tried to keep on being a bully, but you kept getting injured. After two $150 trips to the vet to drain infected cat bites, we had to keep you inside again. J told you that we didn’t have $150 to let you go outside, and if you wanted to go back out, you’d have to give us $150. You didn’t ever come up with the money, but you did manage to wheedle your way outside again. You could be just that annoying, demanding and obnoxious. We realized we couldn’t live together in peace if you were an indoor cat, so you got your way.
When B was born, I was afraid of your fierceness. I worried that you would be jealous, or play too rough, or love too hard. But you directed all your fierceness to protecting my tiny child, showing distress when he cried and joining your yowls to his if I did not respond quickly enough. To B, you gave only gentleness and patience. I cringed when I saw baby B grabbing fistfuls of your fur, pulling your tail, or leaning open-mouthed into your flank and emerging with a giggle and a face full of gray hair. You just laid there, even seeming to enjoy his crazy attention. As he got older, B became your playmate, and I never had cause to worry about his safety with you around. He always called you, “my best kitty,” and you were. You two roughhoused and snuggled and got on each other’s nerves just like brothers.
But your true sister was always Lilith. You two were siblings in every sense of the word. Sometimes, you loved on each other, groomed each other, healed one another’s wounds and showed enormous affection. Other times, you were jealous of one another, snappy and bickering and screaming at one another. But you always protected each other, just like all good siblings. I don’t think she realizes yet that you have gone for good. I don’t know how she will grieve for you, but I know she will miss your companionship.
We all will. You were a big presence in our household. I keep expecting to hear you yowling at me about something, or jumping in the front window to come inside, or head-butting my chin to get my attention, or pawing my face to get me to pet you more vigorously. You drove me crazy most of the time, and I was annoyed by you as much as I enjoyed you. Yet you were the most friendly, tolerant animal I have ever known, never showing a hint of meanness (except to other cats) and letting us lift, carry, pull, tug and pinch you without concern. You were fierce in your loyalty, fierce in your affection, fierce in your independence and aggressive in your demands for love and attention. I loved you even when you made me want to throw you across the room. You loved me even when I did toss you across the room—and you immediately came back for more.
Tonight your fierce and restless spirit has at last been silenced. I held you in my arms to the very last, and your persistent spirit kept purring and begging to be petted some more. Your sweetness and love prevailed as you purred through your last breath.
I wasn’t always the most attentive caregiver, Ringo, and for that I’m sorry. Please forgive me. If you could talk, or feel regret, or ask forgiveness, I hope you would finally admit you weren’t always the most patient or pleasant of pets, either. You were stubborn, obstreperous and frequently rude. I don’t think I’ll miss that behavior anytime soon. But you were also the most loyal, devoted, loving animal I have ever known, and I will miss your presence on my feet, in my lap and in our lives. You will always be my little lion. I love you.
Thank you for sharing your life with us, Ringo. I hope it was a good one.
This has been a difficult week for my congregation. We have experienced the death of two beloved church members this week, as well as three unrelated deaths of family members (a mother, a father, a sister) of church leaders within the last two weeks. I have been responsible for officiating at four of the five funerals, including three in five days.
As a pastor, these difficult, exhausting times are just part of the job sometimes. It comes with the pastoral life. The middle of the night phone calls and trips to the hospital, the painful hours spent sitting with grieving families, the processing of lifetimes in writing homilies and prayers—this is the work of ministry. When the crises pile on, we get tired, but we keep putting one foot in front of the other and do the work that God has called us to do.
In my church, I am giving thanks this difficult week that I do not do this work alone. I am beyond exhausted by the sadness and heartbreak of it all, not to mention the scramble to prepare services and interrupted, sleepless nights. I have my own grief to manage as I say goodbye to people I have come to love dearly. But I am not the only one carrying this burden, or doing the work of caring for these families.
I am surrounded by so many faithful Christians who are also participating in the work of ministy to these grieving members of our community. The Women’s Fellowship has coordinated a funeral meal for four of the services. Several were very large families and groups, and they reached out to the rest of the congregation for help. I know that even as I am up late in the night writing another homily and formatting another bulletin, the church family is up late in their kitchens preparing casseroles and vegetable trays and chocolate cakes. When I arrive early to print out programs in my office, they appear just a few minutes later to start preparing the coffee and the lemonade.
During the meal, I watch them make their way to the grieving family members. I see the women who’ve lost husbands in recent years spending time with the newest widow, reassuring her that she will survive this heartbreak. I see caregivers who’ve supported each other in holding on now supporting one another in letting go. When my feet are aching and I just want to go home, I am not there alone—they are packing up the leftovers, washing the dishes, wiping the tables. We arrive together, we leave together. We grieve together, we serve together.
I am so blessed to serve in this community, where we are the church to one another. Each one of us is doing our part. I carry the pastoral load of emergency calls and funeral rites. They carry the load of food and friendship. My hours might be longer on weeks like this one, but I feel their ministry carrying mine when I am about to fall exhausted. I am so grateful.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J.K. Rowling, Scholastic, Inc., 2007, 759 pp.
I have thoroughly enjoyed reading the Harry Potter series over the years. I saw the first movie, then picked up Book 2 one night when I was stranded at Midway airport. I have looked forward to the release of each book and movie since then. I went to see the new movie on opening day (not at midnight, but a nice, empty 1:30 p.m. Friday afternoon showing). Before I did, I stopped to reread the book version. As always, the book is much richer. In particular for Book 7, I thought the movie just felt way too fast, so that the audience barely had time to absorb everything that was happening. When you are reading the book, you have the choice to pause and reread that you do not have in a film.
I think what is most compelling about the series is the way Rowling takes classic mythical themes and dresses them up in fresh and creative ways. The Harry Potter series combines all these familiar plotlines and tropes: unloved orphan who discovers he is special, good vs. evil, coming of age, quest, tragic hero with loyal friends, a war story, a sports story, an underdog story, perceived evildoers who turn out to be good, sacrifice of an innocent and many more. These are stories that have been told for thousands of years, because they speak to the human heart in powerful ways. Rowling dresses them up in wizarding robes and creates a compelling new world and new characters to live out those stories. We are captivated and delighted once again.
One of the things that particularly captivated me about the last book was the way it worked like a classic war story. Book 7 (and the movie) both work like all war stories—battle scenes punctuated by waiting scenes and conversations between war buddies about what it all means and why they are doing it. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry and his friends are in the middle of a war against Voldemort and the Death Eaters. Some of the battles take place directly with Harry, Ron and Hermione, but there are battles happening on a wide array of fronts. Death is an ever-present reality. In the course of Book 7, characters are dying all the time. From the opening battle on, someone that we have known and loved for all or part of the series dies. But because there is a war going on, there is not time to mourn each loss. Like soldiers at the front, the remaining characters bury the dead, pause for a moment, and return to the front. I am impressed by Rowling’s ability to capture that grinding presence of death and its threat, instead of tipping into sentimentality.
The other part of Book 7 that captivates me is the story of the sacrifice of the innocent. There is an implication from the end of Book 6 (if not before) that the death of Voldemort will also be the death of Harry. Harry the innocent must die, so that Voldemort the evil can be vanquished. (Warning: potential spoilers ahead, although all details are deliberately vague.) This plays out to completion in the book, but the recent movie is only Part I and does not get this far. You can pick up on some of this even in the trailer below.
This sacrifice of the innocent is another classic story in human history, but it is also at the heart of many versions of the Christian story. In some theologies of the atonement, Jesus was sent by God to be a perfect innocent, so that he could be sacrificed on the cross and his innocent blood could pay the price for our guilt and sin. In order for us to be saved, an innocent life must be lost. (I do not share this theology myself. I would say that Christ’s life and death were the ultimate demonstration of God’s love for us, that Jesus was an example of faithfully following God even unto death, and that the resurrection is proof of God’s ultimate victory of life over death.) While it’s not as blatant as the death of Aslan in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, there is clearly a parallel to the Christian story of willingness to follow the faith unto death, sacrifice of an innocent, and resurrection.
For all the hoopla about some Christians who object to the Harry Potter stories for inspiring our youth to dark magic and devil worship, the story in the end is not far from the Christian story. There is certainly a case to be made that one could read the Jesus story parallel to Harry Potter and use one to interpret the other. While I have not read it, I suspect that The Gospel According to Harry Potter by Connie Neal does exactly that.
Harry Potter is captivating because it takes familiar myths that speak deeply to the human heart, and offers new plot twists, characters and settings to entertain and inspire us. I, for one, am looking forward to the final installment of the movie!
Ah, the wisdom of Paul and Linda McCartney! Have you heard it, church folk?
The world is an ever-changing place. Each generation displaces the one before. New technologies render yesterday’s marvels as obsolete junk. Taste, preference and popular culture shift constantly. People die, and other people are born. Old things sometimes want to die. New things want to grow.
Far too often, we in the church forget this cyclical rhythm of life. Programs and ministries of the church are a part of this same ebb and flow. New things grow, old things die. In spite of our fervent belief in resurrection, we seem unwilling to let go and trust that God can birth a new thing in place of the old. Instead, we exhaust ourselves in seeking every means of life support available to sustain a ministry that has no chance of long-term survival. It is not the dying of old ministries that makes us feel weak, exhausted and hopeless as the church—it is the fact that we are drowning in life support for them.
Just today, I was visiting an elderly member who said, “Oh, I hope the Women’s Fellowship keeps going. It’s been such a good thing over the years.” I agree with her—our Women’s Fellowship has been a huge part of the growth and ministry and service of this congregation for over 75 years. They are currently down to less than 15 participants, the youngest of whom is approaching her 80th birthday. They are a shadow of their former selves, when women gathered 100+ strong and wielded significant political and financial power within the church.
However, the Women’s Fellowship is also still a vital and vibrant ministry. They gather once a month for a meeting and program, usually a study of a bible-based book. The group leads our ministry to homebound members, ensuring that everyone receives a visit and a card once a month. They sponsor the education of a girl in Sri Lanka, and make small contributions to various charities throughout the year. Their members are happy and engaged in leadership, and other than occasionally leading Bible study, they thrive without staff or pastoral support.
In spite of their continued vitality, they are still an aging ministry that will probably die out when its current members can no longer sustain it. Like its members, the Women’s Fellowship is nearing the end of its life cycle. Women’s roles in culture have changed. Most women now work outside the home and are not available for daytime meetings. Women are no longer barred from serving as officers and leaders in the church, and they find their opportunities for leadership throughout the congregation. Gender-based groups are giving way to affinity groups based on age, family status, hobbies, interests and time.
As the pastor, I will be there when the time comes to help the remaining members of the group to celebrate the life of the Women’s Fellowship and to grieve its passing. That time is not now, but it is in the foreseeable future. I will help the church to understand what it will mean to lose their ministry to homebound members, and determine how to find new ways to connect with these lonely souls. This work will be difficult and painful at times, but I do not expect it to be frustrating, exhausting and hopeless. I believe it will be holy.
What would be exhausting and defeating and depressing would be the tasks required to keep the Women’s Fellowship alive, the measures of life support. Begging younger women to attend. Moving the meetings to an evening in the hopes that working women will jump in. Investing hours of my time and energy to design flashy new programs and bible studies. Heaping guilt upon women who could attend but choose not to. Taking on the tasks of leadership myself, since there is no one else to do it in the group. We could do all of those things, and chances are that the Women’s Fellowship would still die, albeit maybe a year or two later. Chances are even better that we would all end up feeling bitter, exhausted, disappointed, guilty and hopeless about the future of the church. We would see the death of this aging program as a failure on our part.
McCartney’s words are good advice for the church: “But if this ever changin’ world/In which we live in/Makes you give in and cry/Say, ‘Live and let die.’” Letting something die is not a sign of failure, but a sign of faith—faith that the God of Resurrection can bring new life out of death. That new life will not likely be the victory we expect, the program we planned or the old body we once inhabited, but it will be holy, hopeful, alive and energized to meet the needs of the changing world we live in. And so will be the church that welcomes it.
The drive to preschool has become definition time. If B has heard new words he does not understand, he often asks about them during the quiet drive. I enjoy his inquiring mind, and the challenge of explaining something in terms he will understand.
Last week, though, it got complicated.
Mommy, what does “kill” mean?
As I paused to figure this one out, he went on to explain that some of the older boys (he is 3, but his class has children up to kindergarten age) pretend to be superheroes and bad guys, and they “kill” him. B said, “When Z kills me, I just say ‘puweee,’ and when N dies me, I say ‘pchoooo.’ That’s what you do when they kill you.”
I chuckled to myself at his nonsense comeback, and felt grateful that he did not yet understand what game they were playing. His question had afforded me the opportunity to give some explanation and interpretation, rather than letting him get all his information from his schoolmates. B has not had any serious exposure to death, so it was difficult to be honest and truthful in answering his question with no context at all. Even more, his simple quest for a definition raised a whole host of theological and moral issues for me.
When I explain death, do I just explain what it means, or do I offer theological perspective and insight? To be honest, I’m not even sure what theological perspective I would offer. I am confident in my faith that this world and all that is in it is not the end, that the God of Jesus Christ is a God of resurrection and new life, able to overcome even death. I do not claim to know what that means—whether heaven and hell exist, what the afterlife looks or feels like, whether our individual souls continue to exist in some form. I tend to believe that we are reunited with God and with the souls of those we have lost, but in my mind that bears absolutely no resemblance to a family reunion filled with hugs and catching up on lost time. This is barely comprehensible to me, and I can’t imagine explaining it to a three-year-old.
Add to that the questions arising from violent play. We have carefully sheltered B from violent images and realities so far in his life, but that cannot and should not last forever. The world is a violent place, and being a peaceful presence in the world requires confronting and understanding that violence. As he matures, he will come to know that reality, and we will not try to hide it from him. His question indicates, however, that he is not yet capable of comprehending anything beyond the feeling of fear that violent images might provoke.
I also understand that war play is a normal and developmentally appropriate part of children’s lives (great article on that subject here), and I do not have any need to forbid those kinds of games from his life. There is little bad and a lot of good that can come from games of cops and robbers, or superheros and villains, or my childhood favorite, Jedi Knights and Storm Troopers. I wasn’t disturbed or angered to hear that friends at school are playing these games. Still, I think it’s important to let him know that violence is dangerous and wrong, and there are better ways of solving problems.
All of those questions raced through my mind, but meanwhile I needed an answer, quickly. How I wish I could just offer a simple definition this time!
In the end, I decided to abandon theology, keep a matter-of-fact tone, and throw in a small dose of moralism. I told him something like this:
Dying means that someone is gone forever, that they are not alive anymore and we can’t see them or talk to them. Like the dinosaurs—they are all dead. When you kill someone, you make them die. Sometimes you can play pretend about killing and dying. That’s okay if you’re playing superheroes or cowboys and there are bad guys. That’s just a game. But in real life, killing is very bad, because it makes someone gone forever, and their family would be sad about that.
I’m not sure I exactly believe everything I told him, and there are things that I believe that I didn’t tell him. That answer just seemed logical and faithful. He seemed satisfied without being frightened. All the other questions and possibilities can remain unanswered for now.
Ash Wednesday is so intimate it almost makes me uncomfortable. A handshake, a hug, a pat on the back—that is as close as I get to touching the people in my congregation on a regular basis. Except on Ash Wednesday.
They line up in front of me, and one at a time step forward so that we are face-to-face, close enough to feel each others’ breath. We look at one another in the eye, a little bit uncomfortable with this proximity and with the ritual we are about to perform.
Dipping a blackened thumb into a pile of ashes, I brush back the bangs from their forehead, a gesture usually reserved for lovers and mothers. I notice their faces in a new way—sweaty or dry, wrinkled or smooth, powdered or naked. I touch their skin with the ashes and make the sign of the cross on their forehead. We look into one anothers’ eyes, and in this moment of trust and intimacy, I remind them they are going to die. “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Somehow, in the intimacy of that moment and the grace of worship, this pronouncement does not provoke fear. Always, we smile at one another in recognition. What a relief, these ashes! Our finitude is received as a gift. We will not endure this life’s suffering forever. The weight of the world does not rest on our shoulders, for we are only dust. The breath of God, which gave us life from the dust, will handle the burden of eternity. We can let go of our worry about forever and simply serve one another today.
My eyes do brim with tears from time to time, as I darken the forehead of some innocent young child whom I wish to protect from the reality of death, or the elderly woman who knows that reality is close at hand. But they are not tears of anguish or anxiety–they are the tears that come when you touch holiness, and know you have been blessed.
When we remember we are dust, we also remember that we are made of the breath of God. The touch is intimate, and it is holy.