It is Easter and I have been dealing with death this week. That may make more sense that it seems at first.
It began Sunday night, when my friend, Parker, was chosen to be the one to find the suicide note of one of his best friends. I didn’t know Kelsey, but her choice of Parker to hold this moment touched me deeply. All the questions circled in my mind – why did she do it? What could have been done to prevent it? Is this an evil thing? Or is it release for a tormented soul? Now what for Kelsey? Now what, for all who miss her deeply, who were not finished with their life with her? How could there be meaning in this ending? Those questions had no answers. But a path emerged: simply hold this death with grace. No one can change it. Our only work is to live with the reality we have been handed.
Three days later, the hints of grace – a resurrection of sorts, began to appear. Kelsey was, in some mysterious way of the Spirit, making herself known to her friends. They saw her in the hawks soaring in the air, in the squirrels eating on her deck (Kelsey was an avid feeder of the wildlife around her ranch in Sisters), they wrote poems in her voice, somehow understood as her life message coming through their pens. The deer came in one last hoard – 40 or more! – to the feeders, standing vigil in gratitude to one who treated them to abundance. And then they were gone. None showed up the next day. They knew. Somehow, they knew. Was she whispering to them her gratitude for their presence in her life, freeing them, even guiding them to other food, of which we do not know?
How does God deal with this death?
Her choice to end her life is beyond explaining. And yet, there is resurrection in the overwhelming hope and life and freedom which became the way her story touched her friends. This is resurrection! It is new life! Is it so surprising that God, who is known as life-giver, breath, love, should somehow hold Kelsey in arms of love?
Closer to home, Monday our dear greeter, Christina Stacey left this earthly life. Not of her own choice. A fall months ago was the beginning of the end. As I informed people of her death, the life words kept coming back – here are a few samples:
How does God deal with this death?
Do you hear the notes of resurrection? Her way of living among us lives on and we are inspired to attempt to live into the gifts she gave us. We have been called to bring new life to her hospitality. This is resurrection.
I suppose there had to be a third opportunity to deal with death. Darrell and I always observed that deaths seem to come in three’s. It came to me on Friday, this time a not-yet death. That afternoon I talked with the daughter in law of Lois Smith. In her mid-90’s Lois had heard the word many dread: hospice. The spunky little woman had finally heard the words that there is nothing more to be done, but to wait. Death is coming. Days? Weeks? We don’t know. The natural order of this world is that she has lived a long and good life and it is time to step off the stage. But to what? Yesterday, she smiled and said firmly, I hope it is not long. She is ready.
Death comes close to all of us, at some time, in some way. It is rather a taboo subject in proper society. We avoid it, deny it, fear it. Fear of death is perhaps the single most motivating factor in life – all life, not just human life. How do we prepare? What do we say to someone who has received bad news? How can we prepare for our own death?
How does God deal with this death?
With these three death experiences, I came into the Good Friday Stations of the Cross. And I was faced with yet another death. In some ways, the death of Jesus was just like the others. Another human death. But mysteriously more.
This week, the first death was confusing – full of anger, sadness and also, oddly, freedom. I can’t make sense of that, only hold it as a gift of grace – which is what God is about after all! The second death felt like both a loss and challenge – could the community fill her shoes? The third death triggered my sense of fear of the crossing over…. But the death of Jesus broke my heart! The whole idea of us killing Jesus, the gentlest, most loving human being to walk the earth! The one who walked through Palestine, hugging children, healing sick people, giving people lunch, was considered such a threat to the powers that be, that they nailed him to a cross. How could we?! What will it take to get our attention?!
And yet, our concept of resurrection is often too small to change us. We see the resurrection of Jesus as his coming back into his body, re-enlivening his limbs with breath and blood. But if that is all that happened, it is no different than Lazarus, who Jesus brought out of the tomb…, who died again. It would be no different than the stories on the current best-sellers list of experiences of dying and coming back to life. It is one of the experiences science can now chronicle. We believe we will be raised with Jesus in the last day, but again, it seems more about rejuvenation than resurrection.
But, Jesus’ resurrection is so much bigger than reviving a corpse! This resurrection opened a whole new way of thinking about death. How does God deal with death? By ending it! And then by demonstrating it personally! …How can I put this? Death is a transition, not an end. It is a door into more life. Maybe we need to let go of our concept of death as the end.
God is life. The Hebrews tell us this story first because it is the core story. In the beginning, God created. God is the breath of life. Then God passionately seeks us out for relationship, like Adam and Eve in the garden. This story undergirds everything that follows. God never stops being life. In fact, the name for God given to Moses essentially means life – I exist. I am the one who is, who was and who is to come. I am life itself.
Somehow our human life is all wrapped up in the very breath of God, breathed into human being from creation. That to which Life gives birth is also life. And God gave birth to all creation, including human beings, including you and me. We share God’s breath. Because we come from God, our very nature is life. That never changes.
This is what we celebrate today. That life continues. Jesus demonstrated it by walking out of the tomb. We do not have to be afraid of death anymore. Well, the pain part is still pretty scary and undesirable. Even Jesus prayed that he would not have to go through it in the garden of Gethsemane. But we can face it with confidence, courage. Because when our time comes, we hand over this one life we have here into the heart of the One who is life itself.
This is why Easter is so flat-out amazing! Because of Jesus we know that resurrection is the way for all of us. Jesus made the way. Jesus opened the door. Jesus takes us with him. Divinity and humanity are no longer separated by death. Human life is held in God.
It may seem crazy to trust this. Okay. So be it. But today, I choose to put my life in the hands of resurrection, crazy as it may seem. I thing Rubem Alves’ poem gets it right. Just maybe “imagination is more real and reality is less real than it looks.” Just maybe “the overwhelming brutality of the facts … is not the last word.”
Or, put it another way, following Fr. Richard Rohr: Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity (it did not need changing)! Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God….. Nothing humans can do will ever decrease or increase God’s eternal eagerness to love. And to give life.
(Adapted from Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi,pp. 183-188)
And so, how does God deal with death? By changing it into life, by the power of love.
I want to leave you with some words from a poem by Frank MacEowen called, “Return.” May his wishes be our blessing.
My wish for you
is a homecoming to this life…..
In the holy reliquary
of childhood memory
may you find there the unshakable truth
of your preciousness….
may you fold back the pocket
holding your slights,
your jilted times,
your feelings of betrayal,
and discover small diamonds there,
created from the crushed coal
of your hates and rage.
May you taste resurrection
without the need of dying for it.
(from Building Fences in High Winds, a growing unpublished, copyrighted collection of poems)
Christ is risen!
Christ is risen indeed!