Tag Archives: death

Pondering the big questions

How dare I write about these things? How dare I “know” or even speculate about what other people are going through?

So long as I try to remember not to give answers, or try to understand that my answers won’t “work” for everyone. The big questions will remain and we will keep pondering them. But I want to find hope and comfort within the pondering, however fleeting and incomplete. So I will dare…

On Easter Day

“Something happened didn’t it.”

“It was all easier when I was a child and there it was all up in the sky and you had to be good to go there.”

“All the answers.”

“Yes. It was all quite simple really.”

“When my mum died, I went straight back into believing all that. I knew it was childish or something and I didn’t even care. I just went straight back into it. Heaven is for good people and she was good people.”

“Yes I can see why you would do that.”

“I didn’t want her to be gone.”

“They didn’t want Jesus to be gone either. Was that all it was? Just memory.”

“It might have been.”

“It might have been…we don’t really know… We’re not supposed to believe all that any more are we? We are supposed to view it symbolically.”

“But we don’t really know”

“No we don’t”

“Something happened.”

I haven’t put names, I don’t actually remember who said what and how we uncovered our thinking together but those were the themes of a conversation a very short conversation.

“Don’t you think something happened?” there was a frightening moment of looking down from the cliff and seeing a dizzying precipice under me, because in my life the older feminists are supposed to have more answers than me and I get the luxury of being opinionated and hot-headed and possibly often wrong and they are wise and peaceful and have seen more and know more.

And in this moment one of the wise people didn’t “know” and seemed to be feeling a kind of existential panic connected to being old without the certainties she deserved to have supporting her. And if she was flailing then what about me? If she was not certain then how could I believe anything? In a flash I saw that someone who  has spent her life working and fighting to make things better, to build something that may or may not be valued in a changing world with a shrinking and stubborn church. She is at a time to retire from some of it and to let go of things she has made happen and she can’t even know for sure whether the next generation will honour it; whether even in a real sense there is a next generation.

That could easily be me, although I have spent my life questioning everything and achieving nothing so I don’t even have anything much to let go of.

That impermanence that shows us a deeper futility in all our efforts, if anything my generation had an instinct for that sort of cynical despair and were afraid to even begin to achieve anything because all thing ultimately are made to be deconstructed and for failure. We had depression even as we rolled our eyes at the things our parents took for granted and we had a sort of negative arrogance in knowing how futile, how empty everything is and was and will be.

Some of that critical thinking is justifiable, like realising that even if I work hard and earn a lot I will just find a lifestyle to damage the earth more and to live off the exploited labour of the third world even more than I already do. And as I breathe out oppression inadvertently so I hate myself. The temptation is embracing the despair, desiring nothing- cynicism or escapism become the methods for living this dystopian dream. The lure of death is that it is the only cure for the guilt that is synonymous with existence.

It must be acknowledged that neither our parents nor our teachers intended to burden us this way, just as we did not mean to give the negativity a further twist before handing it to the “millennials” we parented and teach. Where my generation, in passing on this despair to our children is most to blame is in our denial- we sternly tell them that we never have felt or needed anything that we were “tough” in some way and that we have mollycoddled them when they should be tough. And yet all we have mollycoddled is our own emptiness.

The beauty of our children is that they do not fully believe us and they dream dreams we have not permitted.

Praise eternal Wisdom for our children- electronic devices and smashed avocado and all!

“Don’t you think something happened?” Oh something happened alright!

“We just don’t know. Something happened. Definitely something because they wrote it down.”

“They wouldn’t have listened to women unless it really was something.”

“Yes one way or another there is a miracle there. Oh I want to hope.”

I don’t know that we used so many words actually, possibly we didn’t. There were facial expressions and a story we had both heard again as we do every year. Somehow we communicated our vulnerability and our surprise at each other’s vulnerability. With that there was a refusal to accept in each other any need to despair- I saw her as definitely possessed by wisdom and destined for the good at the centre of the universe and she must have seen me the same way, because there was a moment of recognition of “Oh you have fears and struggles too, but I can see you being more than them therefore more than them exist” only we didn’t actually answer any of the big questions.

It is a comfort when the bigger “other” also needs the comfort, then my own lack of knowing is normalised and not a deficit in me. I cannot believe that her life and work are emptying of meaning in the aging process, she cannot believe that my being born in the first place is an unfortunate mistake. That is a gift that generations can give to each other- the belief in each other’s significance. That is why we learn history and that is why nurture and mentor those younger.

I thought today about people who have died- some were younger than me and many were significant. I thought about how I have not achieved anything with this life I have been given and now I am beginning to get little wrinkles and touches of grey already- without having decided what to do or how to do it. Resurrection does not solve the way we suffer and grieve each other’s suffering and loss nor does it give us a blueprint for “what next in six easy steps”.

When I was a little girl I was so scared I would go to hell. I remembered that today as I drove through the twisty country roads. I felt quite secure that even without being a solved and perfect being there was God in me.

“If I do go to hell I will just bring you in there God for all the people who need you most.”

“You really think you can do something like that?” I could hear God laughing at me as usual.

“No” I admitted, “I think I just feel confident that you wouldn’t send me there.”

“You want to believe there is some point to everything don’t you.” Said God

“Yes” I said, “Is me talking to you a psychological trick I play on myself to try to believe there is a point to existing?”

“You need to learn to trust me.” God said and my car came over the hill and the tree-trunks were gold.

“Is this why you wanted to go via Clare?” I asked my son seeing the gold trees.

“I don’t know” he said, “we’ll just find stuff. Can I change the CD now?” and I realised we were not going to “end up” any particular where on this holiday. We’d deal with tailgaters and pot-holes and take detours to lookouts and if we were really lucky see an echidna. And then the day would be over without anything having been achieved.

So I may as well love the sight of the golden trunks of trees as not; and yes it was fine if he changed the CD.

 

 

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Stations of the cross II

Once again this year I will confine myself to two stations of the cross, so I actually think about them. Please feel free to check out last year’s post which was stations one and eight.

  1. Jesus carries his cross

The crosses we carry, we might start to think of as part of ourselves, but in fact they are external to us. For example my cross is not that I am female, or a lesbian, or a low-income earner but my cross is that people around me value women and lesbians and low income-earners less. In the same way, we learn to have a deficit model of (for example) Indigenous students in schools but this is simply wrong. The disadvantage (cross) is not their identity but the value judgements we make about some types of people (refugees, disabled people, old people) that make their way of being valued less, work to make a cross for people to suffer on.

Jesus carries his cross. Traditionally we have been told that it is part of his “goodness” not to resist and that we should not resist the crosses placed on us. I don’t think so. I think he does not resist because he is tired and beaten down and knows it is ultimately futile- he is also possibly scared for himself or his apostles. How awful the parts of church history where Jesus’ carrying of his cross has licensed sadism or masochism in Christians (sadism by the powerful, masochism of the weak) because “we all must carry our cross”. It makes me wary of seeing Jesus as a role model. What if instead we view him as a lover or friend? What if it pains us to see him suffer? What if your instinct is to alleviate his suffering and put and end to the injustice that caused it? Is this not more constructive?

But Jesus is also radically committed, in this I suppose we can see him as a role model. He would rather accept the cross than fail in his liberative mission. His integrity and critical voice are more to him than the easy life. So  are the crosses we must accept, the crosses we don’t particularly want, but that are part and parcel of our solidarity with others- the loss of our privilege and security the danger of being honest. If Jesus is carrying his cross, we are called to walk with him as fellow-resisters of the system not as soldiers and cowardly bystanders. And that is the hardness of the Christian message because there may well be consequences for living with integrity and at best it is uncomfortable.

Where does Jesus draw strength to carry his cross? How do we alleviate or cancel unnecessary crosses of others or ourselves? How do we walk with courage and resist unjust systems? How do we find dignity and joy even in facing the weight of our burdens and the long road of suffering?

Jesus teach me how to bear some of the weight to alleviate others?

Holy Wisdom show us better ways to be humanity so that no one has to carry a cross.

Lover of the universe, make me one with Jesus, not part of the cross that must be carried.

 

  1. Jesus falls a second time

Once we could have forgiven, but there he is losing again, failing again- hopeless and helpless more than once. Once we could have got him back on his feet but he squandered that, he wasn’t wise with the help he was offered. There is a limit to how much you can help people. He must have made a bad choice somewhere. My ability to walk upright is because I make good choices and wise investments, not because of luck or privilege.

Jesus here is like a welfare recipient, bowed under immeasurable weight and falling and then having shuffled to his feet he is tired and beaten and the road gets steeper and the rocks get sharper and maybe so do the taunts or whips of the soldiers. And he falls again. “What a loser” says the system and also “he deserved this”. This is how we view the people who come into this country to find a new life, they are rejected once, twice, again and again. This is how we view welfare “recipients” who have more and more taken away from them and then are expected to keep battling on and on in steeper and steeper conditions with less and less empathy from those who do not struggle as they do.

And in our weakness also, we fail to respond to the person who needs our help or we fail to make ll our commitments, or we fail to be the shining perfect person we want to be.

And we live right now in a society that judges and punishes failures.

What is the stumbling block in my life? Where do I fall again and again? Do I have enough compassion for the falling, struggling Jesus to also learn to have compassion for myself and my imperfections? Can I learn to see Jesus instead of failure in those who need my compassion?

Jesus I see you fall again, teach me to understand how hard your road is.

God who calls me, I hear your voice but the world comes in with burdens and stresses and I fall again and again.

Holy Spirit teach me to know for real that there is no limit or due date on grace.

Conclusion

It is not yet Easter in our lives. All wrongs are not yet healed. This is an eternal truth that we encounter in Good Friday. Pain and suffering and even death are real. God’s grace sometimes seems in short supply and we cannot anticipate the fullness of grace when we are trapped in the “not yet” of our lives.

Jesus remember me, when you find a way through to liberation. Show me how to hold your hand and hold mine.

Where do we go with all this?

Wow this first reading and I go back a long way. It was in my children’s bible and I remember reading it and being traumatised all day at school thinking about it (I was only little) and having massive nightmares. I literally thought when I was a child that stuff like this would happen to me…so I can’t find any theology in there (I know good or bad there is some in there) because I feel sort of triggered and yuck from the story. Sorry about that. Not very professional!

I always imagined myself as the mother in the story (probably because it was the only female character). JUST AWFUL!!!! Even now. Maybe especially now.

But it’s been an unusually tough week in a particularly hard year and I am hearing in the second reading that the world can be kind of hostile to people who try to live according to God’s values (I didn’t say I succeed) and who call into question the “common sense” of the world in who they are or what they do. I’d like to be delivered, if not from perverse and wicked people then at least from perverse and wicked systems (but there are people behind the squeeze on low income earners and welfare recipients, it does not happen naturally lets remember).

So the second reading recommends me to be inspired by the love of God and the endurance of Christ. But really, what else is this world and many of its people going to be asked to endure? I love that at Standing Rock so many people are supporting the environmental stance of the local Indigenous people but as we send support from Australia (a good thing to do) Celeste Liddle reminded us that there are parallels over here  We hear less about our own country, the continued injustice and colonial grinding down that is happening in our name. We need to bring the love of God to the face of that Christ-like endurance and not be the wicked and perverse oppressors as outlined in the second reading.

The gospel seems relevant to me in a society that is trying to protect a supposedly “Christian” model of marriage from flowing out to embrace more diverse people’s expressions of love and family. Jesus here is not putting on the serious face about the “sanctity of marriage” or the “sacrament of marriage”. I am not belittling married people who may have lived a sanctified and sacramental life (whether the church recognises it or not). But it seems to me that here Jesus is saying something along the lines of “marriage is a made-up human thing and the greater reality isn’t a particular narrow model of marriage but is eternal life, marriage is sort of a distraction or side issue for the real question.

Now I have to confess I am fairly agnostic about anything happening after we die. I am reading Marie Turner’s book God’s wisdom or the devil’s envy finding themes about life and death in the book of Wisdom, but that is based on Derrida’s version of deconstruction so there are not going to be any iron-clad conclusions there are there? All I can take from it is an idea of this attempt by humanity to dance with God and Wisdom in the face of evil and “the devil” and death and we are pretty clueless in it all. But then maybe we can trust Wisdom to lead the dance and just hold on and not know where we will end up. Can we do that? Sometimes it seems easier than other times!

That sort of positive theology certainly flows out of Elizabeth A. Johnson’s Abounding in Kindness which is full of eco-feminist frustrated but relentless hope.

Yes that is where I want to head in this messy week when I was almost sure I wouldn’t write a thing. All the ways the world tries to colonise and torture us but there is some sort of radical crazy hope. And we need to stop putting rules on other people, stop taking their land or erasing their families or denying the validity of their love. And we need to stop being so hard on our own battered selves too.

Love of God, endurance of Christ. Radical hope that doesn’t yet know itself fully.

 

Are you a saint or a soul?

This week’s readings represent the age-old struggle to make meaning and hope after loved ones have died. This is a time of year when I naturally remember my mother and my brother anyway as well as other loved ones that were not as close to me but whose deaths impacted me or those I loved. If we follow the lead of the readings in how to interpret the concept of “All saints”, for me that is more helpful than trying to draw some line between “all saints” and “all souls” (but I will try to unpack that a little…

In the Wisdom reading, we are talking about the “souls of the righteous” whereas Isaiah has an even more inclusive “all peoples”. I want to reflect on both readings in tandem as a kind of “All saints” reading and an “All souls” reading together (I haven’t actually looked to see what the lectionary says for all souls. So if we consider our beloved who have died as “righteous” in any way, as in some way subscribed to the radical justice and utopian vision of the reign of God then we label them “Saints” and that is all that it takes. So really everyone is covered under the idea of “All saints” because there is some good in everyone and God can work with that and call more out of them (this is assuming anything happens after death, although I generally prefer to hedge my bets and try to turn to justice in this life in case it is all my individual soul gets).

“All souls” is not an implication that some people don’t qualify for some sort of entrance exam to be “saints”. Instead it is a move from talking about the “righteous” to talking about “all peoples”. In the end God’s radical inclusivity and hope will challenge all our notions of justice and deserving. Justice is a starting point for aligning ourselves with God but God is everything and can afford to be reckless. God even loves and saves and gives bountifully to those who don’t deserve it. I used to see this as good news when I was young and naïve, but the more I have read about politics and economics in the world the more I wish God would call all the oppressors to account more than she does.

“Even you?” asks God, “will you still like me calling them to account when I show how you are implicated?” We who participate in society, especially we who benefit from inequality must work for the justice we thirst for. The dead are the “righteous” in so far as they worked for justice and kindness with God; but God isn’t ultimately interested in whether we judge them as worthy, before we begin the pious tradition of “praying for their souls” god has already swept them up in whatever hospitality is possible in whatever reality looks like after death.

So then having anxiety about whether God would accept as “saints” my brother, my mother, my good friend who suicided or anyone else is also beside the point. If I can feel this love and feel this loss then that soul that is lost from my presence had value and God sees that value more clearly than I do and welcomed them into Godself with more love and passionate longing than I could ever begin to ask for.

This is not to say that their deaths are God’s will or something that I should celebrate. God consistently has that longing to be one with us, but gives us many opportunities in this life to begin to move into that union. Life is a great blessing, it is not cheap or trivial and even when we think about the meaning of eternity and the “what comes after” we do it within a framework of our bodily and conscious experiences of this life. We simply can’t imagine any way of being apart from alive. We tend to cling to childish hopes of “Another world” or a perfect place called “heaven”. I don’t know what “happens” really, I just hope that God’s love means something and I try to trust that.

The psalm seems at first glance less inclusive than the picture I have just painted. In the psalm it is those with clean hands and pure hearts who haven’t soiled themselves with lies and falseness. This seems to speak into my fear that evil is allowed to simply thrive no matter its effect on others. In this psalm God in some way honours the efforts of those who do make the effort to be sincere and honest. This psalm is less reassuring because in a word of capitalism, commodification, performativity can any of us really claim not to have lied and cheated out way into things? Do any of us have hands unsoiled by market goods that are made by exploited labour in sweatshops and are part of the denuding of the earth for trivial reasons such as to match decorations.

The King imagery at the end puts me off somewhat and I was going to steer clear of it, but what if the “ancient doors” and gates need to brow higher and bigger to let in this “king of glory” because of the radical inclusivity, the infinity of his entourage. Just as recently we had the reading about the eye of the needle, those of us who cannot under our own merit “climb the mountain of the Lord” need to rely on the endless possibilities of the infinite love of God. We seek to be what God wants us to be, but the movement is not one person, it is all of us with God- with the King of glory. To become the radical justice we dream of we must connect with others. Our love keeps those who have died within the reign of God and our love can also reach out to take more of the earth with us into God.

There is more idealistic imagery in the second reading, about a future time of consolation. The caution here is not to use it as an escapism from the immediacy of all that is wrong with this world. It is wrong to read an implication here (as some do) that this life and this earth are disposable commodities and that God will give us a new one just like that. There is something unique and precious about this life on this earth and we need to be better stewards of what we have been given.

Instead this reading is a call to hope that somehow God’s presence will be “among mortals” that the grace and possibility of the reign of God will be made somehow accessible to us. It doesn’t say how and it doesn’t tell us to passively wait for it, but God is the beginning and end of all that we are and strive for and become and love. Whatever happens in this world and in this life God will be with us, reaching out to give us possibilities and solace. I refuse to be a Pollyanna about it, the things that are happening to some of God’s beloved (eg entire families of refugees) are painful and real and hard to find hope in (likely even harder for them than for me). Grief and loss are real. Human sins such as exploitation, envy, bullying, unkindness, greed are also real. We can’t erase that. What we are called to do is stubbornly cling to a radical hope (in the context of Jesus having had to carry and die on a cross…and the real crosses we see and build and suffer on around us).

I am going to consider the gospel separately, because to me it speaks of a completely unrelated issue. But as we remember and mourn and celebrate our beloved family and friends around all saints/souls days let us cling to radical hope. Let us use this life to orient ourselves ever more firmly toward God’s justice, kindness and faithful presence. Let us never let go of our loves (though our mission is still to live fully and with joy).