God's Open House

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Seeing Through Tears

We don’t like to talk about death. It makes us uncomfortable, because it brings up feelings like sadness, anger, fear, and regret, and we don’t like to feel those so-called negative emotions (even when they help us heal). So most people in the U.S. do whatever we can to avoid thinking about death. We don’t plan for our own deaths, even though there’s a pretty good chance they are going to happen. We pretend that we aren’t dying, even when we are. We don’t even like to use the word death. We have an army of euphemisms to avoid talking about death. He passed on, she’s with the angels, he isn’t with us anymore, she’s with God now, he went home, she’s dearly departed, he’s pushing up daisies. We’ll do just about anything to avoid talking about our own mortality.

The problem with all of that avoidance is that when death finally comes, and it always does, we are completely unequipped to handle it. By refusing to talk about it, by pretending it doesn’t exist, we don’t ever give ourselves the opportunity to prepare for it, to anything about how to do it well. And so we need to talk about death, so that when it comes we’re in some sense armed to face it, with knowledge of what to run from and what to embrace.

Now the Thessalonians were not so unequipped as we are to deal with death, but they were disarmed. The Roman Empire made massive changes to the Mediterranean economy, more and more people were living far from their families, and had nobody to arrange for a decent burial. And so a number of social organizations sprung up to serve that need. Usually professional associations, or religious groups, but later there formed burial societies, whose only official purpose was to arrange for burial for its members. Either you’d pay a large sum when you joined, or monthly dues, sometimes both, and then when you died the society would either arrange for your burial or they would disburse funds to pay for your funeral to your next-of-kin.[1]

Members got two things out of the deal. The first was that they would make sure that you got a proper burial and someone to remember you, either in their own columbarium, or by paying out funds to reimburse your next of kin, etc. The second function was that they gathered on a regular basis for banquets, where they’d get together to build bonds of brotherhood and occasionally sisterhood and remember their dead. The Roman Empire didn’t always look kindly to groups of people meeting together, so burial societies were also a way to build strong ties of community between people in a way that didn’t seem seditious.

So the Thessalonians lived in a world where people were so comfortable about death that they built their social lives around it. And many of them believed that death was the absolute end, there was no afterlife, nothing else, and they weren’t afraid to talk about it either. Listen to these tombstone inscriptions from that era, and they are borderline nihilist:

“We are nothing.

See, reader, how quickly

we mortals return

from nothing to nothing.”[2]

What a lovely sentiment to have on your tombstone. Here’s another one.

“If you want to know who I am, the answer is ash and burnt embers”[3]

This last one is almost cheeky:

“I didn’t exist, I existed, I don’t exist, I don’t care.”[4] This particular epitaph was so common that on many tombstones it was just abbreviated with the first letter of each word.

So in a world that had no hope for life after death, burial societies and professional organizations served the purpose of providing some way to deal with death. And the way they dealt with it was to join together in these sorts of mutual remembrance societies. There was no hope, so enjoy your life and join a club to make sure that at least someone remembers who you were.

Many of the people in the church in Thessalonica probably had been members of societies like this, but now they joined this new society of people devoted to following Jesus Christ. This new community wasn’t a burial society. It was a resurrection society. In Christ Jesus they had received the promise of eternal life, and they were eagerly anticipating the return of Christ. So this is what I mean by saying they were recently disarmed. If they are expecting eternal life, their old way of coping with death no longer applies. They could no longer confront their hopelessness by bonding with friends over good drink and grim humor. They were now believers in eternal life, which would be given to them soon at the coming of the Lord. For the most part this was a welcome change, the Thessalonians were delighted that the gates of eternal life had been opened to them.

But there started to be a slight hitch in the equation. While they were eagerly anticipating the coming of Jesus, some important people from the community had died. And the Thessalonians didn’t know what to do. What happened to those folks who died before Christ came back? What do you do if you believe in eternal life and someone dies? Did they just miss the boat? Was it because they had done something wrong? In essence, it’s the same question that Christians face today, those who believe in eternal life. What do we do with death?

One of the ways that Christians can handle this is by thinking that grief is a mistake, or a lack of faith. The logic is that if we believe that so-and-so has gone to heaven, there is no reason for us to be sad, they’re in a better place. If we grieve, it is because we don’t really believe. This leads to all sorts of odd things that well-wishers tell people who are mourning in order to “cheer them up,” that miss the truth: “You should be thankful that she’s with God.” “It must have been God’s will,” “She’s in a better place.” They miss a key part of grief. When you grieve someone you love you’re grieving the fact that they’re gone from you, and whether they are in a better place or a worse place doesn’t make it hurt particularly less that they are no longer in the same place as you. (Side note: there are a whole lot of things that are best not to say to people who are grieving, and they almost always boil down to one rule. Don’t tell hurting people how you think they should feel about it. Listen to how they feel.)

The truth is, when we’re grieving, we don’t always have the ability to see that resurrection hope. We don’t always feel like we’re standing on the promises of God. But that’s one of the beauties of church. That’s why we don’t try to do this whole Christianity thing alone. Because when we can’t hear those promises, the people who are around us will hold on to them for us, and share them with us when we’re ready. That’s why we have funerals in church. The Lord who is Lord of our living is also Lord of our dying and our rising. The same promise of resurrection that we celebrate every Sunday is true even when death tries to drown it all out. The God who is with us at our birth, baptism, marriage, and the raising of our children, and week in and week out is also with us in death. This is what Paul is telling us when he talks about the trumpet blast and people rising up as if they were sleeping. The one who reigns over life reigns over death also, and has conquered it in Jesus Christ and invited us into new life.

What Paul tells the Thessalonians is not that we shouldn’t grieve. But that we shouldn’t grieve as those who have no hope. That is, the resurrection hope promised in Jesus Christ should color the way we grieve. We don’t grieve with witty existentialist tombstones, or by trying to drown it out, by avoiding it however possible. We acknowledge the hurt, but we also acknowledge that death does not have the final word. Even in death, God reigns.

To grieve with hope is to acknowledge our grief, our heartbreak, our sadness, but not to forget that our Lord is the one who promises to wipe away every tear. This is what Paul is talking about with his passage about those who have died rising up as if they have fallen asleep. It is a proclamation that God’s victory over death in Jesus is a victory that we are all invited to share.

Y’all know I have a baby on the way. And of course that means we’ll have to name that baby. And one of the things that I like to do is to find silly or ridiculous names and make silly jokes with friends and family about what we’re going to name the baby. Before Jane was born I sent out an email to my family with all of the funniest sounding Biblical names I could find, from Adrammalech to Zamzummins.             And while researching names for the next go-round, I ran across a book called “The Curiosities of Protestant Nomenclature,” a 19th century text dedicated to document naming trends among the Puritans/Presbyterians in the 16th and 17th centuries. At this time, Presbyterians were a persecuted minority in England, and held themselves distinct from others. One of the ways they made this distinction was with names. They abandoned traditional English names, Charles, Mary, and Henry, and Margaret, and instead named their children after virtues and important theological concepts. This book was a goldmine for ridiculous names, and I thought it was fun to read about names like, Abstinence Pougher or Waste-not-want-not Jackson.  Or, and this is a hyphenated name, If-Christ-had-not-died-for-thee-thou-hadst-been-damned, last name Barebone. (Later accounts tell us that he went by just the last word of his long first name, which allegedly fit his character better, and thus he was known as Dr. Damned Barebone). I giggled at teasing Hannah with the suggestion that we might name our daughter “Zeal for the land” or “Sorry-for-Sin.”

But my giggling stopped when I read the story of another unusually named child, Safe-On-High Hopkinson, found in the baptismal records as the son of the Presbyterian minister in Salehurst. There was a footnote next to the name.  It reads “This child was buried a few days later. From the name given the father seems to have expected the event.” Safe-on-High. For a parent to bury their child breaks the natural order of things. As a parent myself, the very thought terrifies me. And I can’t imagine that the parents of the child shed no tears at his death. But when they chose to name him, to say what they would call him when they remembered each day who they had lost, they called him Safe-on-high. They grieve, but they grieve with hope, declaring that he may be gone and it breaks our hearts, but he is beyond the realm of evil now, he is Safe-on-High.

The promise of the resurrection is that God reigns, even over death.

[1] Ascough, Richard. “A Question of Death: Paul’s Community-Building Language in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18” Journal of Biblical Liturature vol. 123 no. 3 (2004) 511.

[2] Ibid, 522.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.