How We Talk about Death Changes How We Live

My youngest daughter got me started watching Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist. We’re a musical theater family, so she knew the show would click with me.

I knew the dad would die. I also knew I would sob, because I sob at toiletry commercials or a beautiful turn of phrase. What I didn’t expect was how much that death would break me both with memories of my own dad (who loved to dance with me, as hers does) or with the crushing communal grief we all share in COVID’s destructive ramifications. I sobbed, not just for Zoey but for me. For our friend Lauren, who lost bother her parents in one week. For my father-in-law living alone. For modern widows and orphans, all of whom have grieved too soon.

When should we expect to lose those we love? What is the precise time span that we can accept life on earth has been adequate? Exactly where is that line between when we shout angrily at the sky in defiance at a death too soon and when we sigh resignedly at a life well lived?

Much of popular Christianity tells us to accept that death is a natural part of existence. Cue Simba, the circle of life and all that. We ought to celebrate our loved ones’ lives and carry on, not take too much time to cry in the dark, quiet hours of the night.

Somewhere between losing my mother-in-law, studying Genesis with the congregation, and watching COVID numbers mount, I decided something. I don’t believe that anymore. 

With Dylan Thomas, I believe unapologetically in raging against the dying of the light. Going gently has never been my form, after all. Yet, theologically speaking, we have room for our rage.

Humans began this world with a life-giving tree in a garden and a mandate to flourish. We will end in a city and a veritable forest of trees of life, healing and wiping away all tears for eternity.

But what do we do with the in between? 

How might it have changed the way we all spoke to, argued with, and cared for others in a pandemic if we had taken the time to articulate a good theology of what we believe about death? Not where we believe our souls will fly to—but what we tell others about the purpose, or lack of purpose, behind the great equalizer. 

I’ve been told many things about death over the years since I lost my first significant person—my sister when I was fourteen. Some phrases have no place in our theology of death. Everything happens for a reason. It was her time. Many others, meant to console but succeeding only i

There is tension between closing our eyes in peace knowing whom we will see when next we open them and aching to continue the joys and efforts of our lives.

There is mystery in the truth that God didn’t create us for death and yet we die, without omnipotent intervention. 

People die, and they usually die when there is still so much more they want to do. That doesn’t mean God was finished with them. It means God is potent enough to carry on the universe without our individual contributions. 

A few years ago, I stood contemplating the Atlantic Ocean on the shores of Rockport, MA. I felt the weight of a new pastorate, a struggling church, the school work I was just beginning there, family illness, and more. Looking at the water, I felt God speak calm to my burdened soul. The weight of the world was not on my shoulders. My shoulders are frail and finite. They are a drop in that endless water I watched land on the shore in meandering waves. The water goes on. It always will. The individual drops matter, their stories and deeds contribute to the fulness of the ocean, but they aren’t the whole.

A good theology of death accepts this tension.

A healthy view of death from a Christian standpoint doesn’t insult the love that neither death nor life can separate us from by implying that God always intended to pull a bait and switch on us with that Tree of Life in the garden.

Nor does it bargain with the Creator, presuming on our prideful faith to keep us safe from life’s plagues. 

A good theology of death refuses to bank its integrity on claims of certainty—the God we see in Job can burst those at will. It admits that we aren’t certain. We don’t know the reasons. We cannot, as Gandalf counsels, see all ends. 

Don’t go quietly into that good night. Rage. It’s OK. Jesus raged at Lazarus’ tomb. Rage at death and joy at the afterlife can coexist. Peace and anger can shake hands over a deathbed. They’re not opposite entities. They’re twin ends of the same cord, held in tension before a mystery we cannot, try as we will, resolve. 

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