Reflection on Death at 3 AM


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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David’s Sin with Bathsheba


Some evangelicals have compared Donald Trump to the Bible’s King David, pointing out that despite David’s several moral failings, God still referred to him as “a man after my own heart.” So let’s take a look at a scandal that rocked David’s administration and see how he handled it.

From his vantage point on the roof of his palace David saw a beautiful woman, Bathsheba, bathing nearby. He desired her, and since he was king, he could get what he desired. He sent for her and slept with her. Not long after, she sent word that she was pregnant. Hoping to avoid discovery, David had her husband, Uriah, returned from war. He figured that the war-weary man would be only too glad to spend his leave in the arms of his wife. But Uriah was a man of principle. He vowed not enjoy the pleasures of his wife when his comrades in arms were still suffering on the battlefield. So David plotted to have Uriah killed by the enemy by ordering his general to put Uriah where the fighting was fiercest. Everything goes according to plan, and when David receives news of Uriah’s death, he takes Bathsheba as his own wife.

David appears to have gotten away with adultery and murder.

Nathan the prophet, a position not unlike the free press in our democracy, appears before David with an odd story.

There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor.  The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him.

Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him. (2 Samuel 12:1-4)

What is interesting about this story is that there is nothing in it about adultery or murder. Instead, it is a story about abuse of privilege and power. David is outraged. “The man who did this should die!” Nathan then confronts him with the truth of what he has done. In doing so, he continues to emphasize how David has abused his position to take what he should not have taken.

At this point David had options. He could give commands to silence Nathan and continue to deny and pretend that nothing happened. Just ravings from a fake news site. He could start his own misinformation campaign, smearing Uriah in the alternative press and using his own popularity to suppress dissent. But David does none of these things. Instead he admits everything and repents.

Just here, then, is where I see a difference between David and Donald Trump. David lost his sense of perspective and began to feel that his position as king, his wealth and power, entitled him to whatever he wanted. One could even make a case that his taking of Bathsheba was rape since to resist or even protest against the command of the king was to endanger one’s own life. David’s power was great enough that Bathsheba dare not refuse him. In any case, the narrative lays all the blame on David and none on her. Yet when confronted, he immediately confesses his sin and repents. Will Donald Trump repent? Will he acknowledge having done wrong by abusing his position as President to further enrich himself? Will he repent when proof comes to light of his campaign’s collusion with the Russians to fix the election? Only time will tell, but I do not see it in him. He is not like David after all.

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Grandfather God


When I saw God
He had a long, white beard
And He’d bring me gifts
At the end of the year
But the big one comes
In the by and by
From the Santa Claus
Up in the sky
—Kurt Kaiser, Tell It Like It Is

How do you see God?

Still from Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Monty Python tapped into our collective view of God as a grumpy old man in the sky.

I can tell you how Anglo-American culture has depicted him. He’s an old man who lives in the sky surrounded by clouds and shining light. A few apparently see him as a doting grandfather who lets them do whatever they want but who takes a prurient interest in their sex lives. This God has a touch of dementia and sleeps most of the day. He’s kindly and permissive but also passive and weak. He may cheer you on, but he won’t offer any real help beyond time-worn platitudes and old stories about people who never had to deal with all the stress you have to deal with—a mortgage and a gay child and getting the recycling out on time.

We’ve also had the wise-old-man God who is slightly amused by our difficulties. This God looks like Morgan Freeman and treats us with professionalism and excellent customer care. He dresses impeccably and just quietly knows everything. He’s not bad as gods go but still a grandfatherly sort.

More common I think is the grumpy old man who watches you with critical vigilance, waiting for you to slip up. You will often find this God in Christian churches where his sternness helps keep everyone in line. Oh, not that anyone explicitly says that God is an angry grandfather, but when you hear about God’s wrath at sin and the horrible punishments he meted out to his own people, the Jews, it’s not hard to draw your own conclusions. Fortunately, this God is only angry with unbelievers. Believers get a pass because Jesus took their punishment himself. Jesus shields them from God’s wrath.

Strangely enough, Jesus endorses none of these views of God. He taught his disciples not that God was an angry grandfather but that he was a loving father. What if instead of peevish old grump, we saw God as a father in his 30s with young children? What if we imagined him down on all fours giving horsey rides to his kids, then picking them up, tossing them in the air, and catching them? What if God is young and full of life and laughter? What if he delights in his children? What if he longs for his lost children so much that he makes every effort to find them as Jesus says he does in Luke 15? This is the father Jesus tells us about, a father who loves you and delights in you, not a stern taskmaster nor a cruel tyrant nor a nitpicking judge, but a loving, joy-filled, life-affirming father who wants for you all that is best—all the intimacy of a lover, of family and friends that you long for.

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