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. 

What Would I Choose?

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The Walk

A volunteer at their church dropped off copies of last Sunday’s sermon with my father-in-law, asking him to bring a few to their neighbors in the assisted living apartments, neighbors who were also church members.

Because he couldn’t leave mom alone, I volunteered to bring around the stapled stacks of paper.

I don’t write out sermons. No one could ever bring my notes to the people who couldn’t come to church. Our generation has turned to the podcast and the Facebook live, and it, too, is good. But different, and not offered hand to hand by someone whose hands you know.

The walk down the hallway should have been simple. Efficient. Quick. Until I started noticing the peoples’ doors.

The Things

Each apartment came with a small table next to the door in the hallway. Some tables had the generic items. Flowers. Easter decorations. The predictable duel of Vikings-versus-Packers memorabilia common in certain parts of the upper Midwest.

But some stood out.

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I lingered near a corner table covered with an antique globe and some clearly foreign pieces of memory. A bronze elephant. A sliver of driftwood. An embossed puzzle piece, and others. Who lived here? Where had they obtained their treasures? What stories could they tell?

A lover of travel, I wanted to knock on the door. What would they tell me of their life before this small apartment and limited mobility? What corners of the earth had they seen? What had they learned? What did I need to know before I, too, came to live in a place where my globe-circling days were likely complete?

I can’t imagine them ever being complete, yet here sits the concrete evidence that this occurs.

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I stopped at a wall that held photos of sailing ships. This table held a rusted item I couldn’t identify but which was clearly part of life on a boat. Above them hung a title that simply claimed—Captain Ron.

Captain Ron lived behind this door, and of what was he still captain? I wanted to know.

I wanted to know Captain Ron. Wanted to hear his stories. I wanted to see the photos of the places he’d been,  feel the spray of salt water and cool wind as I listened to his tales. I knew I’d like Captain Ron. How could I not, with my addiction to salt water places? He knew them, so many more than I did, and I wanted to see them through his memory.

I noted the music enthusiast with the sense of humor. (“Bach later. Offenbach before.”) My sons-in-law would love an hour with him, trading bad music puns and laughing in cadence.

I stood at the lighthouse painting, wondering if the person had, like me, an ambition to see ALL the lighthouses, and how far that ambition had been fulfilled.

Walking between doors, I began to take photos. These things on the tables and walls had been chosen. When all of their long lives had to be reduced to a small apartment and a few trinkets on a table, it seemed to me that what they chose had to be immensely important.

What would I choose?

If I had to define my entire life to strangers in a hallway, what would I choose?

One of my stained glass crosses? A garden trowel? Certainly a photo of our family, and probably one of us somewhere exploring the world, learning about other people and learning about ourselves, and almost certainly a goofy one. A stack of Lord of the Rings, Les Miserables, and Pride and Prejudice, all together, as if they’re inviting another read? I’m not sure how many reads are left in the copies I have. Perhaps by then I will have found out. Maybe a beautiful pen to signify writing, because really, who’s going to look at an old laptop and feel as if it’s life art?

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I don’t know. I know it’s good to think about it now, though. To think about the race’s end and what I want to leave as the mark of who I was. If I don’t think now, I might not become that person I want to downsize to a nightstand-size table and a few square feet on a wall.

I can see, from the walls, that the stories of those people mattered. They still matter. It probably wasn’t great the heroic deeds that mattered, though. It was the rolling waves and the spray in the faces of Captain Ron’s family and friends. It was the tossing lures into the water for walleye together. It was the 369 steps up the lighthouse with your kids, urging one another on and proving that together you were better than standing alone.

Those are the stories. The stories, as Sam Gamgee says, that mean something.