For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘death

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!

But if this ever changin’ world
In which we live in
Makes you give in and cry
Say, “Live and let die, live and let die”

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.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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