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All Things are Yours

"… whether Paul, Apollos, Cephas, the world, life, death, the present, or the future— all things are yours, but you are Christ's…" (I Cor 3)

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death

My Theory on Life After Death (part 1)

221996093_63f7dc8a50_oIt’s been over a year and a half since my mother died.   I’ve definitely moved on to a different stage of grief than I was during the first few months after her death – but as two friends mine have just lost loved ones, and another friend at lunch asked me at point blank range, “Do you believe in an afterlife?” I think the topic is still very much on the table.   So let’s talk about life after death.

First of all, there are a LOT of different viewpoints out there in Christendom about what the afterlife holds.   Debates rage about whether or not there is a hell, for instance, and who would or wouldn’t go there.   I’m not even going to talk about any of that in this post – sticking at least for this discussion to the side of the afterlife that would be termed Biblically, “Eternal Life.”

But even there, you don’t have to look far to see controversy.   Some people hold firmly to the adage, “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.”   Others consider that a wrong concept and believe that people who have died are “asleep,” waiting for a physical, bodily resurrection where their Earthly body will get up from its actual gravesite and be changed into something more enduring.    Others believe in hybrid scenarios, which involve immediately going to be with the Lord and also being resurrected at a later date, and there are other renditions in the hybrid category besides that, but I’m not going to field all of that, (even though it might make a great blog post sometime.)

Instead, I’m just going to talk about what helped me get through my mom’s death, and what helps me sleep at night knowing the horrifying reality that any person (including me) at any time, could die at any moment.   Death is pretty dern scary to me, I’ll admit, probably more so because of the depths to which my analytical sciencey side has compelled me to consider it – and in the week after my mom’s cremains were handed to me for burial, I barely got any sleep without waking up shaking all over in abject terror.    (I’m better now, but thanks for the concern.)

Of course, the existential fear of dying is a very self-centered thing, and on the other side of that is the mourning associated with losing someone you love.  That’s an altogether difference side of the ugly death coin.   My friend who inspired this post asked if I knew any really good books about people who have visited Heaven and came back to talk about it because she wanted to know what her loved one was experiencing.   After my mom died, I watched the movie, “Heaven is For Real” and admit that I found it mildly comforting, even though I am always a bit skeptical about the reliability of such accounts.   Nevertheless, I’m not going to go into why – in the first few months after losing a loved one, reach for whatever is helpful for your own grieving process.

Nevertheless, there are a few thoughts I want to share that I personally find helpful.   My friend Rob just lost his brother and told me a couple days ago that he was walking through a park, looking at a beautiful sunset, and broke down crying as he considered that his brother can no longer see this beautiful sight.   I reminded him that we know everything that is beautiful in this material realm is only a shadow, a hint, of what real beauty in the Heavenly places actually is like – and that his brother may be walking through whatever the heavenly fulfillment of the human concept of a “park” is in God’s realm, looking at a sight more beautiful than anything any of us have ever seen, and thinking, “Wow, I am so excited to get to share this view with Rob when his time on Earth is finished.”

sunhandBut I have to admit – there’s so much I don’t understand about life after death.   There are a few things that hold me together.   At my mom’s funeral, some friends asked if they could sing some worship songs and so I thought about what I would want sung – the song I ended up having them sing was Jason Upton’s “In Your Presence.”    That’s because there’s one thing I know about God – nothing and no one is out of the reach of His Presence.

Psalm 139:8 says,
If I ascend to heaven, You [God] are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol
[translated sometimes as “the grave,” sometimes as “hell”],
You are there!”  

I knew that while I had no way to really be with my mom anymore, that God’s presence was wherever she was – and that His presence was with me as well.   And thus, His Presence was the one ‘thing’ still tangible to me in this world that was connecting her and I together.

Other verses that really helped me were this one:

“And Jesus said to them, ‘….they cannot die anymore, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection. But that the dead are raised, even Moses showed, in the passage about the bush, where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. Now he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to him.”  

(Luke 20:34-36)

So, along these lines, my thoughts tend to go in one of two directions, that sort of lead back to the same place.   The one stream of thought is all about how these verses all are about relationship – and how it’s not some abstract, “afterlife” where it’s just about a soul departing a body in some sense and going…somewhere.   Rather, almost every verse I can think of about life after death involves some sort of relationship to God Himself.   And ultimately, that’s where my fearful hopes tend to come to rest.

Screenshot 2016-01-05 at 1.08.16 AMWhen the thief who was crucified next to Jesus on the cross said, “Lord, remember me, when you come into Your Kingdom” and Jesus promised to meet him in paradise that very day – the hope is in relationship.

When Jesus showed up at Lazarus’s tomb and cried because his friends were crying – and then raised his friend up from the dead – his tears and his voice ringing in Lazarus’s dead /then/ no longer dead ears – his tears and voice speak of relationship.

And when I think of the Christian picture of joining with Christ in His death and resurrection: going with Christ down into the waters of baptism, and being risen up again with Him out of the water – I think of the intimacy accorded of that shared and unifying experience with Him – and thus, relationship.

My science mind asks the other of the two directions of thought, “How can the dead be conscious and alive when their brains are irrevocably and completely damaged and dead?   How could brainless consciousness work?”   After all, if someone gets in a car accident and part of their brain is damaged, they will be severely hampered in their ability to think and function as they had before.   And death is unfortunately, essentially, “total brain damage.”

A friend once wisely reminded me that God thinks without having a physical brain- and speaks to me without a physical mouth – and having experienced hearing His voice and known a few of His thoughts I think my friend is on to something.  I can consider God’s nonphysical ability to exist in the whole “ergo cogito sum – I think, therefore I am” dimension of things.   I can’t begin to say how, but I can admit that He is and does.

2000px-Elementary_particle_interactions.svgUnlike material organisms that need to take in chemical energy from physical food to have energy and processes happening in a nervous system, God is Spirit – and thus it is not a stretch to assume He functions as a being by some other means that physical matter and energy beings like us.  Spirit is not matter nor energy – spirit is something not that does not seem to be included in this universe’s physics – in fact, if any of my atheist friends read this, they’ll probably call me out for making an unproven assertion and consider the very concept of “Spirit” to be mythical.

But if you’ve encountered the Lord’s Spirit via your spirit, then the concept that God is Spirit will not seem strange to you. So the most I can guess at with my tiny understanding of God’s hypothesized Spirit ‘biology’ is that we can roughly say that His self-existent nature would mean He exists of His own self-existent means.  This has a huge bearing on what “eternal life” then might be.

The ‘energy’ that powers God’s life is generally considered to be God Himself – there’s a generally understood belief that He is self-sufficient for self-animated existence, eternally. This undying power or life force that consists of His own being powering His own being eternally, also goes by another more recognizable term in the Bible -life, or “eternal life.”  (Gene Edwards in one of his better books talks about this.)

 I would venture that “Spirit” is comparable to a pattern, an informatic – except in God’s case, His Spirit is comprised of a self-sustaining, living pattern.   But what about you, me, or any of our loved ones?  As I think about it – all it would take really for me or anyone else to go on existing and thinking without a physical body – is for God to remember me – just like the guy on the cross asked Jesus to do for Him.  Our own Spirits may not contain the self-sustaining power that God’s does, but that is where Jesus comes into the picture as the bridge – the imparter – of God’s life force to us.

Screenshot 2016-01-05 at 1.05.02 AMIf my thought patterns are preserved in His memory somewhere – or if a my “spirit” contains that pattern and then just goes to Him – He can definitely work with that.  He can reboot me.  He can run that data in His already-living program of His own substance.   In short, He can share His own life-force: the eternal, undying, sustaining Being that He is, with my pattern – my Spirit.   IN fact, the promise for us who have believed in Him is that we have already been joined to His essence – His eternal life – within our own beings, and thus we cannot die.   Him in us (the power of life) and we in Him (our pattern – our minds and beings) results in our existence being settled by being one – in relationship, with Him.

And so – I wonder – is life after death really a matter of living IN, and BY Him?  If it is, we’re right back at the place of intimacy – connection – relationship – as the operative element in obtaining “resurrection” and life after death.  In the book of Revelation at the end of the Bible – instead of the light of the sun we have the Lamb’s light – instead of energy derived from chemical reactions from food we have God as our energy source, our life – which is what Jesus said we could receive from participating in His own being.  He called this partaking of His flesh and blood.

Animating and Energizing our own inner Spirit beings – both while we are here in physical bodies, and then once we no longer have a living physical body – is it really just all about connection with Him in the most profound, interconnected, integrated, Spirit to spirit and heart to heart sort of way?   What does it mean for the faith to be made sight, anyway – unless everything we experience as beings becomes completely summed up in knowing Him in the most tangible, everything-is-part-of-Him, sort of way?

walking_on_water1These are the ideas that keep this sciency charismatic gal in a place of hope despite the impending reality that my complete physical reality will one day be destroyed – and the hope is that when that occurs,  death will be defeated in each of our lives by Jesus’s power.  Even though I admit I still wrestle with fear at times, my hope is that in relationship with Jesus the Son of God, He  who Is Immortal Himself will cloth Me with His own immortality.   And also you.  And anyone else who looks to Him as the way, the truth, and the Life.

After all, if you’ve entrusted yourself to Christ – you’re already dead in some sense, and the real living-forever part of you is already on deposit with Him.

“Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory.…”  (Colossians 3:2-3)

 

The never-end.

Amen.

 

 

Death and grieving… post #1

10466782_685859048116775_1470332350_nThere is a Scripture that says “We do not mourn as those who have no hope.” There is something about the hope that Christians express in the face of the death of a friend or loved one, that is unique and expresses the heart of our faith in Christ. But I am becoming suspicious, after attending funerals of two of my friends’ mothers, that we in American charismatic Christianity may have inadvertantly developed a culture when it comes to our death rituals, that has the appearance of presenting hope, but unfortunately is more truthfully an expression of our unwillingness to feel pain, or to grieve, to mourn, and to acknowledge with appropriate gravity than reality of many facets of what death really is.

Today we buried my friend Stephen’s mother Audrey (who was also something of a friend to me.)  I really appreciated how this funeral was conducted compared to other funerals that I have been to – most notably that Audrey’s coffin was not left by the graveside, but instead had already been lowered into the grave, and a pile of dirt and two shovels were at the graveside instead.  There came a point during the funeral when those in attendance were invited to place dirt on top of Audrey’s body (hidden by her wicker coffin) to signify dust returning to dust.  (Other funerals I have been at in my life have not allow people to experience the reality of burial with that degree of tangible rawness – for instance when my own step-father died when I was a teen, I was surprised to discover that we as family members would not be permitted to witness the actual burial.)

But Audrey’s funeral was refreshingly different on that level.  When it was my turn to shovel, and as I was tossing dirt on the wicker, I thought about a moment I had shared with Audrey when I first met her and with her permission had laid hands on her in prayer.  I thought about how the same physical body that I touched and prayed for now lay in the wicker coffin that I was shoveling dirt onto and in my mind there was this juxtaposition between touching her while she was alive, and now touching her with shovelfuls of dirt in her death.  As I held the memory in my heart of the brief relationship over a handful of occasions that she and I had had together, a deep place in my soul felt both the connection to her of one-to-one relationship, and the loss of her life here in this realm.  So in what was a very real moment for me, I spoke towards her body between shovelfuls, and said from that place in my soul, “Goodbye Audrey.”

It was all very vivid and very real. But somewhat predictably, someone immediately countered me and said somewhat gleefully, “Audrey would say, ‘I’m not here!'”  For me at that moment, it was so incongruent with what I was expressing, that I searched for some reply that would allow me to have that moment of goodbye in peace.   What came to mind in that moment, in that setting, was to share with the sister who had gently rebuked me, “In Jewish tradition, there is a belief that the spirit stays with the body for seven days after death.”   I can’t say i honestly was thinking of that idea when I shared my goodbye towards Audrey’s body, but at that moment I wanted to have the freedom to say goodbye without being silenced, and I knew Stephen would find what I had said to be worth consideration and contemplation (as I found myself doing also, after I said it,) because he’s just that kind of person.   The reality is that as much as we have hope and confidence in Christ after death, I don’t think anyone has a monopoly on explaining what actually transpires in the mystical connection between body, soul, and spirit, and what the medically indefinable point of total death really is.  So it seemed legitimate to toss into the mix the Jewish take on it.

But the reality for me was much more about how my charismatic brothers and sisters seem to often want to rush right over any grieving process, and straight into pearly gates and streets of gold and lots of dancing.   This is not an isolated incident, and I bear no malice for the woman who reminded me that Audrey has gone somewhere else, but it really felt like yet another time of many times I have experienced, that funerals have become a little bit too artificially happy in our this time and day among Christians.

Later on, I was with my friend Stephen as he ran into a neighbor on his street. The neighbor took a moment to express some condolences, yet the neighbor seemed strangely cheerful and even glib to me as he ran through a litany of phrases about how Audrey was out of pain now and was in a better place. I’m sure he meant well but I also got the distinct impression that it might have also been the easiest way to keep the conversation short, simple, and upbeat. I could be wrong but it seems to me that Audrey wasn’t really suffering a whole lot of pain until the very end of her life – not enough that I think it really justified the idea of being comforted to know that “at least she’s not in any pain now.” She did leave this planet praising the Lord cheerfully herself, and I’m glad to know that, and I know that she is happily praising the Lord in even better ways now, because that’s what her spirit was about in life, and I’m sure it is what her spirit is still about, even more so departed from this life.

To be sure, for someone who loved and longed for the Lord’s presence, death represents a promised transition into some realm in which we can be confident that the departed person has new and expanded, unfettered and direct, undistracted clear and incredibly tangible encounter, spirit to Spirit, with the most magnificent, wonderous and beautiful Being in all multitudes of universes. This is pretty dang cool, no matter how wonderful or terrible that experience for any particular person might be.

But – here’s the rub – this is not the side of death that funerals happen on.  A funeral is quite a different story entirely.  While we can envision (barely, and I mean barely) what a departed person may now be experiencing or enjoying, this is not the side of death that the living are privy to fully know about and see. For the living, these things exist only as a “hope,” thus the verse that, “We do not mourn as those who have no hope.”  Hanging on to hope is a good thing! But while funerals may rightly be tinged with hope, funerals are – or should be in some form or fashion – a time to mourn.  On our side of death-the side where someone’s heart has stopped beating, and decisions have had to be made about harsh realities like burial, or cremation, there are even harsher realities that funerals are meant to be a time to honor, with appropriate weight – things like the end of a legacy, the value of the person in our lives, and ultimately, the loss of that person from our lives.

We do ourselves and others such a disservice if we so lightly gloss over larger themes that mean more to those of us still on this side of death in our rush to sweep away every negative or painful emotion with our religious (and dare I say, sometimes callous) script of protective and artificial rejoicing.


matt.agnello / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

 It is not time to overbearingly rush right into platitudes with words like, “She’s in a better place,” or, “At least there’s no more pain or suffering,” or, “She’s dancing with Jesus now.” If these words are being said in an honest and a truthful effort to bring comfort and encouragement to a grieving family member or friend, that is one thing – but if these words are being said to preempt having to be serious and sober about someone’s pain and feeling of loss, or to simply make sure that nothing uncomfortable or disconcerting about the passing of another person gets any airtime, as I am perhaps erroneously becoming more and more convinced is the default, then we have turned the verse, “We do not mourn as those who have no hope,” into another idea altogether: “We do not mourn at all.”

Realistically, I am sure that for anyone who was deeply attached or connected to the departed person, no matter what words of victorious assurance or vicarious rejoicing that he or she might share with others at a funeral or upon sharing the news about the departure of their loved one with others, the reality will be that that person will still grieve to one extent or another.  (This is, I guess, unless we have somehow learned a little too well how to have so many “boundaries” in our relationships with others that we have stayed happily unattached to anyone, ever, and loss really is a foreign concept to us.  That’s a subject for a different blog post I think – LOL)
But I guess I wonder: have we created a culture where among believers it is not really safe to mourn, even at a funeral? Have we relegated mourning to be something that should occur “out of view,” only after the official and public funeral and/or announcements have occurred, instead of something which is viewed as an appropriate thing to share with others particularly during funerals, the very sacred communal  formality that was originally designed to bring people together to grieve and face the uncomfortable realities of human mortality, as community?

But more and more, our community has made grief unnacceptable; before funerals, it has become standard to collectively pray and focus on the possibility of the dead person being raised and not needing to be buried.   While praying for a resurrection certainly has some degree of validity, I wonder how much we have codified Christian conversation after a death in this way, to avoid beginning the process of grieving and facing loss?    And then, at the funeral, when talk of resurrection in the here and now subsides, we move straight to rejoicing – perhaps at least in our talk of raising someone from the dead at least we were able to admit we didn’t like the fact that they were dead.   But now that the deceased person is still a corpse, we have to move past our even subtle expressions of wishing the person was still with us, and go straight to expressions of joy to drown even that out entirely.

At the very least, I do think we are too quick to shut down (whether it is eagerness to comfort, or our own uncomfortableness with loss, pain, and mortality) those who do express thoughts and feelings that align with loss after someone has died. This is a travesty, because deep and painful emotions are not our enemies – they are part of the richness and fullness of our hearts and of what it means to love, to be alive, and to be aware. Death, however, is spoken of as “an enemy” in the New Testament (1 Cor 15).   Shall we not share emotions that represent it as such?   I think that we need to rethink our “religious death script” to include feeling these emotions deeply, and being able to relate to others who have these emotions and thoughts in their hearts. “Mourn with those who mourn,” I believe needs again to become a verse that we treasure in community, even as we treasure every verse promising hope, resurrection, and communion with the Lord after earthly death.

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