Weep for the Dead
| 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
||Sun, November 10, 1996
Rev. Ed Searcy
|I remember it well. Adrianne was all of five years old. I was driving her to dancing lessons when, out of the blue, she asked: "Daddy, why are you wearing that flower?". Such a simple question. But in the silent seconds that I took to respond I wrestled to find words. Why was I wearing that flower? Then the words came: "I wear this flower because it reminds me of the people who died in the wars". "That's sad", my five year old said. "You're right. It always makes me cry". "Then, why do you wear it, Daddy?". "Because I don't ever want to forget to cry". As the years roll along I wonder how long Remembrance Day will last. Every year there are fewer who remember. Maybe after the last vet of the last war has died there will be no more solemn silence at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Oh ... there will surely still be a statutory holiday. But perhaps it will exist simply to provide a mid-November, pre-Christmas breather. Perhaps, too, it will take on a sunnier disposition. If there is one thing that sets Remembrance Day apart on the calendar of cultural holidays it is its mournful tone. Oh, I know that back at the Legion when the ceremony is over things can get out of hand. Still, there is no other national occasion on which we intend to shed tears together ... to weep for the dead.
I wonder if that is the reason why we no longer know what to make of Remembrance Day. Yes, it is true that more and more of us have no memory of the wars. Yet we cheerfully celebrate Canada Day and not one of us recalls witnessing Sir John A's signature at Charlottetown. And, yes, Remembrance Day can become an occassion for worship at the idol of militarism. But there is more to the domestication of Remembrance Day than this. Gone are the tears, the silence, the signs of national mourning. I wonder if it has anything to do with the bigger picture of grief in our culture. Is it an accident that the lone national holiday set aside for tears is going the way of the funeral ... discarded as a thing of the past? Amidst all the rapid change of our century perhaps this is the most surprising of all: that death can go unmarked, unnoticed, without tears. One by one, the public rituals of death that were once taken for granted have fallen from favour. There were the days of viewing the body and being received by the family. There was the casket carried into the midst of the funeral ... the funeral with all of its dark colours and darker music. There was the burial, the dust to dust and ashes to ashes. Now there is rarely a viewing, rarely a casket at the service or a burial in the earth. In the name of progress the family asks the minister to "keep it upbeat, please". And there's a new twist. If you read the obituaries regularly you will have noticed it. More and more announce that there will be 'no service'. Surely this must be one of the few cultures ever known on the face of the earth to deal with death by acting as if it is of no real consequence.
Being part of such a culture has its affect on us. We begin to imagine that the old, mournful ways were too dark. We begin to join our neighbours in avoiding death. It is now the ultimate taboo, a subject which is never to come up in polite conversation .... including conversation from the pulpit. But not today. Today there has been a mysterious alignment of calendars. This past week has been marked by our Jewish neighbours as Holocaust Awareness Week - sixty two years after Krystalnacht' marked the beginning of the Nazis' reign of terror. Tomorrow the nation remembers its own dead. And this morning, the three year cycle of the common lectionary takes us to Paul, who says: "we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope". This is what is called serendipity!
Now let's be clear about this. We may not talk about death very much ... but we do have strong feelings about it. Any mention of death ... or grief ... or life beyond death ... brings with it memories and convictions that are imprinted deep within us. We cannot speak objectivally' about death. It will not stay 'up here' in our heads ... it always drives us 'down here' into our guts. Myself included. I cannot speak about grief without remembering the tears I have witnessed ... and shed. This experience of shared grief has become, in fact, one of the greatest gifts of my calling. I am grateful now that it comes with the job. Oh, it wasn't always this way. I didn't enjoy the prospect of dealing with death when I was ordained. And, to tell you the truth, I thought little about life beyond death. It was just not a part of my vocabulary ... or my limited experience. I attended only one funeral prior to my nineteenth birthday. I was twelve. My sixteen year-old cousin Eddie was killed in an industrial accident on his summer job. I remember one thing about the funeral. When the body was about to be carried out of the church Eddie's older brother Bobby burst into loud sobs and lay his head right on the casket. Suddenly the restrained, ordered service stopped while Bobby cried out. Everyone around seemed embarassed, uncomfortable, concerned that he had "fallen apart", "broken down" in front of us all. I got the message - grief is to be restrained, submerged, kept in. Then, at age nineteen, on one traumatic day I discovered my Grandfather's lifeless body, slumped in the front seat of his car in the garage where - in deep despair - he had taken his own life. I had never before seen death, face to face. Ever since I have wished that it had not been the first time. Because I was terrified. I did not stop to linger, to look, to cry or to say farewell. I ran to the phone as fast as I could and I did not look again. I had learned my childhood lessons well. Grief was something to keep under control. Death was something to keep far, far away.
Since then I have entered into the grief of myriads of families, touched many a lifeless body, led hundreds of funerals and memorial services. These experiences have changed me. Once I feared the call in the middle of the night from the person with the quavering voice. Now I am not afraid. Instead I have become expectant. I have learned to expect all kinds of grace in amongst the grief. It happened slowly. There were the age-old rituals of the Eastern Townships of Quebec which seemed so peculiar to the young student minister from B.C. Endless hours viewing the body and visiting the family before, during and after the funeral. It seemed so macabre. Yet faced with the utter absence of the corpse and the casket back home in this 'enlightened' west coast world I find myself longing for the return of old traditions. Like the ones I discovered as an ordinand in Manitoba. There I used to dread the long drive to the home town cemetery of the deceased. It didn't matter if it was fifty miles away - we drove the hearse at thirty miles an hour all the way. But something quite wonderful always happened along the way. Farmers out in the fields would stop ... stop their tractors and combines ... and get out and take off their hats and stand in silence as we passed. They had no idea who had died. For all they knew it could have been the town drunk. Still, they had learned that when death strikes one it strikes all. Moving to the Lower Mainland brought a different reality. Here there is no memory of the tradition. Here there is no sense of shared loss. Instead, here the funeral director struggles not to get cut off by frustrated drivers in a rush to make their next appointment. My experiences surprised me. I once was sure that the old ways were outdated and that we, in our wisdom, knew better. I am not so sure about that any more.
I suppose that my mind really began to change when I came to school here. It was in a tutorial on New Testament theology. Lloyd Gaston met me for an hour every two weeks to talk about my assigned readings. It was here, with Lloyd, that I realized that the Bible knows nothing about the concept of an immortal soul. I was quite taken aback by this. The idea of the human soul surviving death is woven into the fabric of our society. I had just assumed it must be of Christian origin. But the evidence is abundant and clear: the people of the Bible insist that we are mortal. It is the Greeks who imagine that we are made up of 'body' and 'soul' ... an earthly, flawed shell that imprisons an immortal, divine spark. But not the Hebrews and not the early Christians. They are convinced that we humans are 'psycho-somatic' ... soul and body inextricably intermingled. For the Greek world death is a sham ... death is not really what it appears since part of our essence is, by definition, deathless. But for the Jewish and Christian world, death is really death. Mortals are, to put it bluntly, not immortals. Well, this came as a shock. I suspect that it comes as a surprise to some of you. It is evidence of the degree to which the Greek belief in an immortal soul speaks powerfully still today. In fact, the existence of an immortal soul is a cornerstone of spirituality' for many. For many, immortality is our only hope.
But it is not the hope to which Paul points. The hope which Paul describes is rooted in the death and in the resurrection of Jesus. This alone forms the basis of Christian hope for life and for life beyond death. Here we discover both the love of God and the power of God. In resurrection God does not simply welcome home God's own divine essence'. You see, in resurrection God gives life to the whole psycho-somatic' person. Christian faith is not about a prstine, heavenly spirit escaping from an earthly, sinful body. Christian faith is, therefore, not about ignoring the mundane world while paying attention to the spiritual world. No. Christian faith is about being driven into concern for this worldy matters by God's concern for it all. Christian faith is grounded in God's intention to redeem the whole ball of wax, the whole person, the whole creation ... and more than that, to transform it in the process ... to heal us where we are broken and mend us where we are weak. This is surely amazing grace at work! Which is to say that that resurrection is about God's power at work ... power over death - real death - not pretend death. When Jesus suffered death on a cross he really died. His soul did not live on. The creeds have it right when they say he died ... descended into Hades... went down, not up. But they also have it right when they go on to say that God raised up what death had destroyed. Just when the powers of darkness have done all they can to destroy, God's creative power is shown for all to see.
Here is the reason that we dare allow ourselves to "Weep for the Dead" (VU #526). We need not live in terror of death or press down the deep sobs that well up within us. Our faith in God's power to raise life out of death paradoxically frees us to confront death in all its anguish and despair. Our hope does not put a stop to our tears ... it opens the floodgates of our sorrow. Trusting in the God who is able to renew life even as we 'fall apart' or 'break down' liberates us to walk through the valley of the shadow unafraid. We become the most peculiar of people ... a people who do not live in denial of the power of death or of war or of evil and yet who live unafraid, filled with hope. Paul paints this death-defying hope in the colours of his age. He hears a courtier's trumpet blast announcing the arrival of royalty ... and when the heavenly Royal arrives he is strong enough to bestow new life not only to the living but also to the dead! Paul paints a picture of the peace of Christ transforming a battle-scarred earth. It is not just individual lives that he sees reborn ... God breathes new life into the whole of creation (Romans 8). Seen through the Cross, this time of God's Reign is not far off but close at hand. In the very face of death we hear echoes of the trumpet blast, catch glimpses of the royal feast that lies on the other side of the mirror through which we now see only dimly. I recall being at Terry and Daphne Anderson's not so long ago, after we had gathered here to grieve Myrtle Anderson's death. Suddenly a nephew began to play on an old fiddle that had once belonged to Myrtle's father. It had been stored in the attic for decades, its songs silenced. But there, as the old reels began, the great-grandchildren started to dance and Terry's father, Roy (who no longer seems always to understand or remember) began to tap his feet and to smile broadly. For a moment the music joined those on this side with Myrtle ... and with a world ... newly alive on the other side in the dance of life overcoming death and of peace destroying war. The music was a reminder of the past, yes ... but also a reminder of the future. Fred Kaan's new hymn lyric says it well: "May we, impassioned by your living Word, remember forward to a world restored" (VU #527). May our weeping for the dead become remembering ... remembering forward to a world restored. Lest we forget. Lest we forget.