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Reflection on Death at 3 AM

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I don’t believe in death. I never have.

When my mom died, I was there. I saw the slow dissolution of her body, her labored breathing, her unconsciousness. I saw her afterward in the casket, her visage severe and unsmiling, her body patently uninhabited. She died, and her body was surrendered to the flames, reduced to a couple of handfuls of ash. There is no grave for her, no headstone saying how long she lived or memorializing her character as “Devoted Wife and Mother.” But there is a tree in Arizona planted in her memory. I know I can’t call her on the phone as I used to, but I can’t shake the feeling that she simply moved away and left no forwarding address. Somewhere she still is.

As a child I remember being fascinated by my own consciousness. Though I could not remember its beginning, I was convinced that it nevertheless began. That I began. I tried to understand death as not-being, but I could never do it. Even if I thought of it as a slumber from which one does not awaken, I could see that the possibility of awakening remained. Given a loud enough trumpet blast, a loud enough shout from the right archangel, even the dead would startle again into consciousness and wonder what the hell was going on. So I have never quite believed in death—my own nor anyone else’s.

Perhaps that is why my grief has seemed so wan, not much like the grief I’ve seen around me. Of course, dear as my mom is to me, there are others dearer still whose loss would be harder to bear. If I should lose a child, for example, I think I might grieve more. Or if I should lose the love of my life, whose very soul is knit to mine, I do not know how I would bear it. And yet I know I would bear it, just as people all over the world, even those who believe heartily in death, bear the loss of those they love and go on living anyway. But even if my wife died and the fabric of my life was rent in twain from top to bottom, I don’t think I would grieve as some have grieved. At the back of my mind would be this bright hope that I had somehow merely misplaced her contact information. Of course, I would see her again. I would kiss her brow and call her “my darling” and bring her coffee, and we would sit and catch up on all the things we had seen and done while we were apart.

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The Dead Man Came Out

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Allowing or Causing

Near the end of Batman Begins, Batman (Christian Bale) confronts Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson) in a speeding train. After a fierce fight, it becomes plain that Batman has won, and Ra’s al Ghul expects to be killed. “Have you finally learned to do what is necessary?” he asks Batman. “I won’t kill you,” says Batman, “but I don’t have to save you.” That distinction, between killing and failing to save, is what sets Batman apart from the criminals and from the vigilantes in the League of Shadows. As the audience, we feel the justice in the distinction: killing a man is morally different from letting him die.

Or is it?

What about a doctor who refuses to perform a life saving operation on a child because the child belongs to a hated enemy?

Good Mary, Bad Martha?

I know about Mary and Martha from Luke chapter 10. Martha complained to Jesus because Mary was not helping her with dinner. Jesus rebuked Martha for her anxiety about many things and refused to make Mary help out. “Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:42). I’ve heard dozens of sermons echoing Jesus’ praise for Mary, making it easy to approach the story of Lazarus’ death and resurrection with the notion that Mary is good and Martha is bad.

Both sisters make the same accusation: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” I think it is important that we see this statement not just as a fact (Too bad you weren’t here; you could have done something) but as an accusation (Why did you delay coming? You could have prevented our brother’s death, but you didn’t). The sisters were hoping for a healing that never came. They knew that Jesus endangered himself by coming. The Jews were seeking his life. The last time he was in Judea, the crowd had picked up stones to stone him, but he had eluded them. So Jesus had good reason for not visiting at all. John makes it clear, however, that it was not concern for his life that held him up. Jesus deliberately let Lazarus die. He tells his disciples, “[F]or your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.” His purpose in letting Lazarus die was to strengthen the faith of his followers.

If a mere man were to do such a thing, we would be appalled. We would call him callous and unfeeling for letting a good man die so he could have a teachable moment with his followers. John intends to astonish us with Jesus’ audacity. Here is a man behaving in a way that only God is allowed to behave. Only God allows good people to die young without being guilty of wrongdoing.

There is a difference, though, between Martha’s accusation and Mary’s. Martha immediately follows up with an astonishing profession of faith: “But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” What tremulous hope flickers in that affirmation! Even now. You could have prevented his death, but even now you can ask God for anything—anything!—and he will give it to you. Martha believes—incompletely to be sure, and with fear and trembling—that Jesus can raise her brother from the dead.

To make sure we don’t miss it, Jesus tells her, “Your brother will rise again.”

“I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”

Martha does what we all do. She tries to take comfort in knowing that her brother will rise again at the last day. But what comfort is there in the all-too-present grief from knowing that your loved one will live again in the distant future? Doctrine is cold comfort. It is also academic. Trust in that future resurrection may bring some comfort into the present, but we can’t test it in any meaningful way. What does it matter now whether the doctrine of the resurrection is true?

Jesus will not allow Martha to take refuge in doctrine. He tells her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”

Then, “Do you believe this?”

Do you really believe, Martha, that God will give me whatever I ask? Do you really believe that I am the source of all life? Do you really believe that death is not the end for those whose life is entrusted to me?

“Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”

Martha makes her most extraordinary profession of faith. Her trust is not in cold doctrine but in the warm presence of the living Christ who stands before her. Trust in a person is so much more complicated than trust in a doctrine. The doctrine will always behave the same way. It will not ask more of you than you think you can do. It will not make any greater demand on you than to assent to its truth. But Jesus might do anything. He has already let Lazarus die. He can raise him to life. But will he? In declaring her faith in the person of Jesus, Martha allows him to be, really to be, in control of the situation. I trust you. Whatever you do will be right.

Martha returns to her sister, her heart poised on the knife’s edge of faith. She tells Mary that Jesus is asking for her, and Mary goes to him right away. Mary makes the same accusation as her sister, but there is no accompanying profession of faith. Both sisters share an offense against Jesus. We sent for you and you did not come. If you had been here, if you had only been here, our brother would not have died. You let him die. You could have prevented it.

The Offense

Jesus makes no excuses for letting Lazarus die. Elsewhere in John, Jesus claims to do only what he sees his Father doing, so we can assume that it was God’s will and purpose for Lazarus to die. Jesus tells us why: “[I]t is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” Lazarus will die for my glory. Jesus lets Lazarus die, lets Martha and Mary experience the grief of his loss, lets them experience doubt and anger and fear and turmoil, all to bring glory to his Father and himself. What kind of God is this, who aggrandizes himself at our expense? John tells us, “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. Yet when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.” Jesus loved them, and he let them suffer.

There is an important lesson here, especially for parents. Our natural inclination is to prevent our children suffering. We want to protect them and keep them safe. No matter how old they get or how capable they become, we want to keep them from getting hurt. But growing up requires suffering. No one can become mature without experiencing pain, loss, trouble, grief, despair, discomfort, sorrow, remorse,―the list of life’s hurts is endless.

Fortunately, Jesus shows us how to allow suffering. We do it with compassion, by suffering with those who suffer. The glory of God is not just in raising the dead. It is in dying with them and then raising them. It is not just in healing the sick. It is in being scourged and flayed for our healing. It is not just in delivering the prisoners. It is in descending into hell to deliver them. The glory of God is no light thing. It is weighty and majestic. God himself endures suffering to achieve his own glory. Should we be surprised if he asks us to suffer, too?

How easy it is to be offended at a God who allows suffering! How hard it is to trust him! Trusting God is work. It is not for the fainthearted. It is not for quitters. It requires persistent, unrelenting effort. But consider the rewards. “Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, put their faith in him.” Lazarus died. Martha and Mary grieved and were offended at God. But Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, and many put their faith in him. The faith of those many was not possible without death and grief and offense.

“Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” Jesus asks Martha.

Many have become offended at God. They have buried their offenses to cover up the stench of corruption in their relationship with God. Jesus wants to call out the dead man. Allowing him to do so will be painful, but enduring that pain will result in lasting faith for ourselves and for others. In your suffering, seek God’s purpose, and allow him to glorify himself.

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Who Lied? Literal Truth and Deception – Part 2

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In my last post, I closed with an accusation of lying against God. In this post I intend to clear him of the charge—even though he does not need my defense.

How you understand what someone says depends on how much you trust that person. If you trust them a lot, you will try to interpret what they say as truthful. You will be generous and allow them a lot of freedom to use metaphorical language. If you don’t trust them, however, you will treat what they say with suspicion. You will be guarded and construe what they say as literally as possible.* You can see the difference if you compare love letters to legal contracts. Love letters are written with an expectation that the reader will construe what is said with love and kindness. The language is very open and highly metaphorical. Legal contracts are written with the expectation that the reader may construe them with suspicion and hostility. The language is very careful, circumspect, and literal. Terms are clearly and carefully defined.

We think that we trust others because they tell us the truth, but that is actually backwards. We believe that others tell us the truth because we trust them. Our default is trust. We meet strangers and trust them immediately, and our trust is usually justified. We don’t normally fact-check the clerk who tells us the price of an unmarked item is $12.99. Occasionally we meet people who take advantage of our trust to lie to us or cheat us, but they are the exception not the rule. We normally expect others to tell us the truth even though we do not know them and have no reason to trust them. True, we don’t construe what they say with the same generosity that we use with those who love us, but we also don’t treat them with the same suspicion that we reserve for people who have already wronged us.

In the myth of the Fall, the serpent does not lie to deceive Eve. Instead, he insinuates that God has an ulterior motive for his prohibition. He implies that God is not concerned about protecting her life but about excluding her from opportunities she ought to have. He introduces suspicion into her normal and natural trust of God. Eve is tempted by the prospect of improving her life but also by the suspicion that God is withholding that improvement from her.

Adam and Eve do not suffer biological death when they eat the fruit. It is not poisonous. Something happens, however. They experience shame. They feel exposed and want to conceal themselves from one another and from God. They hide. They blame others for their own choices. Though their bodies remain healthy, something within them has died just as God had said. This metaphorical understanding of death continues throughout the whole bible. Read Ezekiel 18 with this in mind, and it makes a whole lot more sense. Paul tells the Ephesians that they were dead in there sins until they believed in Christ. In the same way, the eternal life implied in Genesis that comes from eating the fruit of the tree of life is not an unending biological life. It is the eternal life that Jesus promises his followers, a life that overcomes their fear of death and makes them invincible. Those who put their trust in Jesus pass from death into life. He restores them to a relationship with God characterized by mutual trust and love.

Some people have strayed so far from this trust in God that they do not even believe he exists. They imagine that the whole story is a fairy tale perpetuated by the powerful to dominate the ignorant. I know that for the most part I cannot change minds and hearts so distrustful of God. Jesus came into a culture where God was viewed as an exacting tyrant, insisting with hair-splitting accuracy on correct behavior. Jesus revealed God to be utterly different, a loving Father who embraces those who return to him and throws them a party. Yes, he is demanding, but in the way a good Father demands the best of his children, encouraging them, comforting them, loving them, and at times disciplining them. But he is not harsh. His commands are not burdensome; they are easy. His way is not weighed down with impossible demands; it is light. He encourages his children to love one another, help one another, carry one anothers’ burdens, and forgive one another. This is the God I serve. He does not lie. He does not deceive. He invites us to trust him and live.

*This goes a long way toward explaining the wildly differing accounts of events offered by supporters of Hillary Clinton and those of Donald Trump. Trump’s supporters give Hillary’s statements and events in which she has been involved the worst possible construction. Clinton’s supporters do the same to Trump. They trust their own candidate and treat as self-serving and cynically manipulative anything the opposing candidate says or does. This is not to say that the candidates are equal. But their supporters are roughly equal in their regard for truth and justice.
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