Acknowledging the Deceased

 

I knew a man who said that the first thing he would read in the morning was the obituaries.  If he didn’t find his name he said he just went about his day.  I am assuming he was joking, but I have to admit that many people seem to read the obits.  Yet in a day and age when news travels fast, it seems to me that information about death seems to be slow than before.  I know that for one thing news about deaths travels more slowly due to privacy concerns.  In a small town in which I once lived, the funeral directors would place In Memoriam cards through the town.  That is no more.

But one thing that I am reading more and more in these obituaries is that people are requesting that “no services be held”.  Whenever, I read that no service (funeral, memorial, celebration of life) is to be held I can’t help but ask ‘why?’   I am sure that the request was made out of a sincere belief that their life was over, and that we should get on with ours. Yet, I can’t help but think about those who are left to grieve their loss.

There are likely many reasons for someone to choose that nothing be held following their death.  It may be purely financial, although it is a law requirement that a mortuary (funeral home) be contacted.  They will simply receive that deceased and await instructions as to what to do next.  There are many different options (and prices).   For these costs contact your local funeral director.  Especially in a small town, these knowledgeable people can be very helpful and generally are not going to use your vulnerability against you.  However, sometimes the vulnerability of guilt felt by loved ones can lead them to “go overboard” when it come to making necessary arrangements.

Sometimes the choice to “have no service” is a result of the idea that “funerals” belong to the church, and since more and more folks are no longer connected to a church, there is a sense that to have a funeral is not in keeping with their “beliefs”.  But funerals are not the property of any religious institution. Those who die with or without any connection to a church can have a service following their death.

I have to admit that personally, I am not a fan of having nothing (no service) after death.  Funerals are as much for the living as for the deceased.  I have known dying persons to attempt (and succeed) in using their impending death to help heal a family rift.  I have also been approached by the child whose mother had wished to have ‘nothing’ after her death.  Two or three weeks later, the daughter and other survivors felt something was missing from their lives.  They felt they needed to somehow honour the deceased yet do something for themselves.

Some folks may even have a celebration of their life while they are still alive of thinking that if people are going to say nice things about them, they want to hear it (and rightfully so). Yet, upon the death, there still needs to be something for the living.  They may need to say good-bye; they may feel the need to be with others who have known the deceased.  Whatever the reason there will always be a need.

Hope is Letting Go

 

Gerald May uses the expression of “naked hope” meaning that hope “is not tied to any particular end”.  This understanding of hope is often the opposite of that to which most of us seem to prescribe.  For the most part many of us like the idea of hoping in something, or hoping for a specific outcome.  Hope in this instance is little more than wishful thinking or wanting.  I hope I win the next lottery.

But what happens when that for which I have hoped is not realized.  When it comes to winning or not winning the lottery many of us can easier tell ourselves that there will always be next time. (A friend of mine also reminds me to buy a ticket.)  But what about those times when there isn’t a second chance (or third, or fourth…)?

Of course, the biggie in this life is often death.  When we are told of our own or a loved one’s terminal illness, we often begin hoping for any number of things.  We may hope for more time, or a cure, or a miracle.  Often, we even hope against hope itself (whatever that may mean).  Even when we are told that the only thing left is good care, we want something more. (Palliative Care often fights an uphill battle because no one really wants to be told nothing more can be done – for many in the medical field, death means defeat.  Others may feel that doing nothing is the same is giving up.

Neither of these views is true. Death is never the victor. I often have used the expression of “death coming mercifully as opposed to being a friend”. Neither is dying well a matter of giving up.  What we really need is as May has named “naked hope”.  We need to look at life without any expectations of a specific outcome.  I can’t help but wonder what would happen if we didn’t wait until the end of life for ourselves or others to start living this way.

Life is full of unexpected turns and twists.  Robert Frost talks about the importance of choosing the road less travelled, but we don’t always have to do that to find unexpected results.  We can also make life more difficult for ourselves when we refuse to accept that which comes our way. Now, I am not saying that we should just roll over and play dead.  There are times when we need to stand up and be heard (ideally, we can do that respectfully despite the fact that the opposite is found so much on social media). But the real name of the game is to deal with the situation in which we find ourselves in a positive way.  Harold Kushner wrote a whole book about dealing with life when “bad things happen to good people”.

The term “little death” has been used to talk about those times in life when we feel a huge loss (sometimes even retirement can be included here).  Regardless of the “death” little or large, how we deal with it becomes central to us.  If we get what we “hoped” for, than I suppose we should be happy, but even when we get a different outcome, we can still carry on.

Real hoping means being able to let go.

Ready for Death

While looking through some magazines the other day I ran across a couple of books that I had been thinking about purchasing.  The first was the The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning by Margareta Magnusson.  It is a book about going through one’s own “stuff” before death and getting rid of what you don’t need or want any more.  The idea behind such a “cleansing” is to make life easier on the loved ones left behind who usually have to sort through these things.  The other part of this cleaning is to clearly mark who will receive those things that often don’t get include in the Will.

Before my mother died, she distributed to her children those things that she felt each child would like to receive or maybe would appreciate the most.  Personally, I received a lot of books.  Some of these books had been my Grandfather’s.  Others were antiques and could be kept or sold.  Some were really worth very little if anything at all and were recycled.

At first I thought her efforts to make these offers to her children and grandchildren were too much.  Not too much in any dollars and cents way of thinking, but in a more morbid way.  She was preparing to die.

At the time I was likely shocked, but as I have come to study and learn about dying and death, I can see a real value in this exercise.  I have a box (a good-sized box) of old photos.  As I look through them as I have done occasionally, I recall the story behind each photo.  Then I ask myself if my children or grandchildren will know these stories.  Generally, they will not unless they are told.  Unless the photos are dated and people named they might mean more, but even that is questionable.  Fortunately today photos can be taken and categorized more easier, but are they?

Death cleaning is such a valuable exercise.

The other book that is of interest to me is entitled I’m Dead, Now What? by Peter Pauper Press.  This book is a resource type book that helps with our death cleaning.  Part of its introduction reads “This practical and not at all morbid book walks you through the important stuff: personal information, medical information, key contacts …personal wishes and last words.” Now, of course, it would be ideal if such matters were thoroughly discussed with loved ones before hand, but that rarely seems to happen.

I realize that very few of us care to discuss these types of issues, least of all with loved one.  Yet, as much as we might hope otherwise, death is going to happen to us all at some point.  Age is not a factor.  Our health may not be a factor either.  We have all known of someone who has “left this earth far too soon”, yet for some reason we put off preparing.  Even those who have a strong belief system that they are going to a better place may put off the inevitable.

We might claim that “life is uncertain, so eat dessert first”, yet how many of us really believe it?

Tough be Christian Today

 

 

In times of difficulty the old adage often quote is that “there are no atheists in foxholes”.  The author of such a statement is accredited to many different individuals. More importantly is that it suggests that when one is experiencing a struggle of some kind in one’s personal that is larger than oneself, the person will seek to find something or someone (God, a god) hopefully for deliverance beyond the present situation. It is being suggested then that everyone believes in something of another worldly kind.

Some individuals who have practised leadership within the Christian church have become self-described “atheists” which seems to be a double contradiction given their position of “minister” and the old adage.  Many have questioned how one can be a Christian and an atheist.  The two seem to be at odds to one another.  At least until the definitions are further explored.

Firstly, one asks:  what does it mean to be Christian?  The simplest answer seems to be that a Christian is one who believes Jesus is the Son of God, the Saviour of humankind. At the same time there are those Christians who profess to follow “the Jesus way” (showing love, compassion, empathy, inclusion to name a few of his qualities) who don’t feel the same about the man’s role in the world.  To quote Tim Rice from Jesus Christ, Superstar: “He’s just a man” with human not superhuman qualities. Between these two extremes lie the rest of those who call themselves “Christian”.

Just as the definitions of what it means to be Christian can and do vary, do can and does one’s understanding of what it is to be an atheist.  In its simplest meaning one assumes that an atheist is one who doesn’t believe in God.  However, the next question has to involve asking just what one means when the “God” is used.  As this writer has often said before, there are nearly as many images or understandings of God as there are people.  Is God anthropomorphized as an “old man with a long beard living in the sky”? Does knowing all things dictate events in the lives of humans?  Does God care about “all of creation” or have a human’s first policy? Is it God who intervenes in some lives and not others and on what criteria?  The list can seem endless if it isn’t.

A news media reported that a particular atheist minister didn’t believe in the Bible.  Of course, this should not be called “fake news”, but it does mean that further questions need to be explored.  What does it mean to believe “in the Bible”?  Once again the extreme understandings of this book can and do create all kinds of havoc with one’s belief system.  Do we read the Bible as the “literal” word of God, penned by human hands but totally directed by God (an outside force)?  Does one read a history of a people and how that people rejected Jesus, as the Christ?  Sadly, the Christian church can’t even agree on which writings should be included or excluded. There was even a time when the idea of translating the Hebrew and Greek into English was punishable by death.

It seems to this writer that we have given up exploring the questions far too soon to be able to make any bold statements. We seem to limit ourselves to our comfort zone and choose to go no further.  By some definitions I too would be considered an atheist.  Many are also turning from the religious institutions that limit one’s understandings and questions.  Too often I also hear the adage that “if one doesn’t stand (believe) for something, than you fall for anything”.   This adage seems only to be true when we accept a narrow definition of our beliefs.

Watching our Language

 

When growing up there was an old adage we used to sing about name calling.  We would sing that “sticks and stones can break my bones, but names will never hurt me”.  At the time we may have thought it to be true.  But nothing could be further from the truth.  Name calling is probably even worse than being pelted with sticks or stones.  The damage that occurs emotionally is every bit as that caused to us physically.

Definitely words that might even have once been used “innocently” (without a sense of malice or with a lack of understanding) can and do hurt.  I would not even think of using the “N” word.  More recently, the “R” has been added to my list.  Sadly, the “F” word has become very common place in today’s world.

Regardless, words used to describe another person as opposed to words that are just used for the sake of emphasis are important for us all to consider.  It is not a matter of political correctness not to call other people by derogatory names.  Rather, it has to do with respect.

Some believe that all creatures have the right to be respected, not just people, but animals and elements of our environment.  It goes without saying that if we can’t respect other humans that we will likely not be respectful of other elements.  I have also met people who find it easier to kinder to animals and plant life and even objects such as stones, that other people because of how we as humans have abused creation.

When asked we have found many excuses to explain away our sense of abuse.  Some will even play the religion card saying that the Bible tells us to have “dominion” over other creatures.  Of course, there is a great difference between dominion and abuse.  It was from the Spiderman movie that we are told:  “with great power comes great responsibility”.  To be given dominion over something calls for us to care for, to be good stewards and not use our power for our own good.

All of us are responsible for what happens to each other and all of creation.  Sadly, it seems to our leadership (often those elected) that they are torn between economics and ecology.  We need to do better at both.

 

Dying as Living

Musings:  It seems as if much has been written about end-of-life care and medical assistance in dying has been pitted again palliative care.  The concern seems to centre on whether or not people who have been classified as palliative are choosing to end their lives with medical assistance rather than letting life take its natural course.  Like most discussions, it seems as if both side of this argument have scientific facts to support their statements.

Those supporting the importance of palliative care may not so much be opposed to MAID (medical assistance in dying) as they are seeking more effort and money be offered to palliative care. There is no doubt that palliative care deserves more than it is now receiving. Yet I suppose that any and every medical department could claim the same.

Despite the fact that good palliative care costs much less than long term care (at least in hospitals), it still remains difficult to get appropriate funding.  As a result we have the apparent conflict between end-of-life care and MAID.

Personally, I have to say that MAID does not have to been in conflict with Palliative Care.  The idea that good palliative care can provide all that is need to the patient (and survivors) just isn’t the case.  There are times when not even good patient management does not relieve the patient from his or her suffering.  The patient cannot find comfort and may choose to ask for MAID.  At present the rules are very strict for these procedures that MAID is truly a last resort for the patient to find the comfort that is expected.

Today, as has been the case for a long time, we have and continue to find new ways to “continue” life.  Again and again, ways are sought to prolong life.  Some treatments come with a claim that without said treatment the prognosis for length of life would be much less.  However, these same treatments often don’t discuss the quality (or lack) of that life being extended.

The question as always is one of ethics and morality.  I was in agreement with a comment that once said that ethics involves what one should do (ethics) and what one would do (morals).  Until we begin to care about the end-of-life and belief that dying is every bit as important as living we will continue to struggle with these choices.

Living the Questions

Sunday Morning Musings:  Over the years I have lived the wonderful paradox that is life.  Today I will talk about the paradox of asking questions.  We likely all have at one time or another encountered the child who seems to be constantly asking questions and feeling harangued by these questions we finally have to say: “Stop asking so many questions!”  On the other hand, we often may have encouraged that same child by telling him or her that “asking questions is the best way to learn”.  It is easy to see why asking questions can become one of life’s paradoxes.

Some of life’s questions can often be answered with simple answers.  Child: Are there yet?  Adult: No! But other questions may not be that simple.  “What is the meaning of life?” “What does God look like?” (I know of a book entitled: Does God Have a Big Toe?).  It maybe that we have rarely, if ever, given any thought to these or other of life’s big questions. During life’s journey it is important that we do give some thought to these and what I would call other spiritual questions.

Too often, we are fed the answers as if there is only one correct one which can often do us more harm than good.  I often wonder how many adults carry around in their heads the same image of God that they were likely taught as a child.  We will often make reference to “the Big Guy up there” when referring to God.  When a ten year old drew me a picture of God, he drew an old man with a beard in a long robe surrounded by clouds.  How does that fit with the “panentheistic” God who is in all things? (Note I didn’t use the word “pantheistic” which means “God is all things”.  The same paradox arises with other spiritual questions.

I strongly believe that asking questions is a very important way of learning. Yet, I just as strongly believe that to assume that there is only one answer and that answer doesn’t change is not very helpful.  When science proves that the earth is much older than Biblical genealogies tell us, it is time to change our thinking and understanding of the Bible.  I don’t mean that we should totally ignore the stories and history recounted in the Bible, but we must be willing to adapt our way of thinking.

I have often said that to think that if we think we have all of the answers, then we haven’t asked all of the questions.  That doesn’t mean we should ever stop asking questions.  Rather, we need to keep asking; we need to keep learning.

Living with the questions is very important.  It helps us deal with one of the many paradoxes of life itself.

Why Do I Attend Worship

Recently in the news there have been a number of stories again about the closing of various churches across the land.  Often the reasons cited included the fact that congregation’s members die or move away making it impossible for those left to sustain their worship place.  It doesn’t help matters that the buildings are often old and costly to maintain.  Yet I also know of fairly new buildings (less than 50 years old) that were also being closed for similar reasons.

As much as I feel badly when I hear of a church closing its doors or being de-consecrated, I am also a realist.  At one time every little community had its own general store, bank, post office , etc. and often more than one church building (sometimes buildings of the same denomination that need to spread its wings or resolve a dispute).  At the same time as some churches are closing others seem to be thriving which leads them to build new edifices and lead one to wonder why.

I asked myself why it is that I go to church.  I used to think that it was because I was expected to do so; after all I was the worship leader.  I figured that I might just not attend worship after my retirement and join the “spiritual but not religious” group.  But then I realized that even though I didn’t consider myself religious, I still wanted to attend weekly worship (not that that is the only thing a real church does).  Despite the fact that I am very much a “lone wolf” kind of person, I still feel the importance of communal worship.  Granted, that doesn’t have to be Sunday morning as in the past, but there is a need to meet with others.  It doesn’t even matter that we don’t even share the same “theological” beliefs.  What draws me to worship is the yearning for fellowship.

I have often heard people say that they don’t go to worship because they don’t get anything out of it.  I would suggest participating in worship is more than just receiving.  It really has more to do with giving (and I don’t just mean when the offering plate is passed around.  Sometimes we don’t know the effect of our presence on others.  One man I knew used to watch his wife and young family walk to church each week for years. Then one day he told me that he didn’t know what overcame him but he just knew he just had to join them, which he did and as every week since.  He didn’t know why, or what it might mean to him, but he knew that it meant something special to his family and so he joined them. (He also did find something for him as well.)

Together they have celebrated new life in their midst.  They have also mourned together at the death of one of their church family.  I have seen similar scenarios played out again and again.  Faith is taught but seems to be also caught.  Most importantly, each of us must make it our own.  Adding to our desire to be part of a larger community is also the desire to connect with the idea that we must be open to being taught and that means being strong enough to ask questions about we have or haven’t been taught.

I also know and appreciate that some will remind me that worship doesn’t have to take place in a building.  I will not argue the point, but my only comment is that if we do not choose to make worship intentional, it misses so much.  I can take a walk in nature and feel the presence of the one I worship, but I then need to learn to share that encounter with others.

Doing What is Right

Sunday Morning Musings:   Many times I have heard it said that some people are “spiritual but not religious”.  I have also said that I believe that it can and often does mean different things to different people.  Earlier this week I shared a post from Facebook that read: A religious person will do what he is told, no matter what is right.  A spiritual person will do what is right, no matter what he is told. I shared it because I felt that it contained a certain amount of truth, and I liked the contrasting opinions offered.

There can be a big difference between some who is religious and someone who is spiritual.  As I have said before that such is not always the case but certainly this saying shows a significant difference between the two.  To acknowledge one’s ties to a religious set of beliefs can and sometimes does lead one to do what they are told to do regardless of its moral, ethical or just plain common sense outcomes.  We see much of this thing happening today with political as well as religious matters when it comes to separating families that have entered the USA illegally.  It is the law or the Bible has said that such actions are required.  If one is told to accept what is being said or done without as much as a question of what it means in the larger picture, then we are in serious trouble.

The sad part of this theory is that both sides will claim that they are right and obviously the other side is wrong.  Such is the result when “sides” are chosen.  My concern is that if we can stand together on certain issues, what is it then that separates us?

The answer is that we let our own interests or our egos to get in the way, which to me is the difference between being spiritual and being religious.  When we can get ourselves and our own needs out of the way; when we care about others first, we can begin to live in a way that is bigger than any religious beliefs. It doesn’t mean that we throw out our beliefs, rather we let those beliefs be guided by a different (I could have said “higher”) set of priorities. We are no longer ruled by the authority of the law, or the authority of our religion, nor religious books or persons.  Rather the final authority becomes our sense of providing care and compassion and love first and foremost.

The spiritual person may belong to a religious group, but each one must choose to think beyond oneself.  Even sometimes one’s ethical sense is stretched and our actions go beyond the utilitarian sense of what is the good for the nation or even the self.  The law or religious beliefs must be put aside in the name of doing what is loving and caring.

This past while there has been much discussion and controversy about the separation of families of illegal immigrants.  As mentioned in a previous article, the Bible has been used to support such actions. It is in just such a situation that we have to realize that any interpretation that calls us to support any action that is harmful is wrong.  When we let our own needs become such we must decide which is more important to us, our religion or our spirituality.

The Bible is Not a Weapon

Sunday Morning Musings:  When I was a child we used to be drilled on finding Bible verses in the hope of speeding up our abilities to be able to find things in the Bible.  This game was in complete agreement with Biblical teaching that recognized the “Word of God” as a weapon of great repute. As the writer of the letter to the Ephesians says: …to stand firm against the enemy, take the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God (6:17).  To be clear, the Christian Church as equated the Word of God with the Bible.  (Of course, this is a whole other topic since the writings quoted were written before the Bible came into existence.)

Despite the above fact, for the sake of these musings I will equate the two as has been often done for my argument today is abusing the Bible when it is used as a weapon.  Strangely enough it happens far too often and this past week has been no exception.  The President of The United State speaking though staff stated that it was considered Biblical to separate children from their parents.  Sadly, there were those that retreated to the Bible to refute such a contention.  To me, that is like meeting violence with violence – or like saying “if you want to sword fight, well, let’s do it.

The Bible is not a weapon and should never be used as such.  Nor should it be considered the only way that God has spoken or continues to speak to us.  To discuss the creation of “The Bible” and when it was determined to be God’s only word, would require a history lesson about canonization and include the Westminster Catechism of the 17th century, so we shall not go there in these musing.  Rather let’s spend what space is left discussing the Bible in general and its use.

Two ideas come to mind when discussions are had talking about the Bible.  They are infallibility and inerrancy and are often related.  The former reminds us: “To confess that the bible is infallible is to confess that the Scriptures are incapable of teaching any error.”  Whereas the latter states: Since the authors could not err when writing Scripture, the bible contains no affirmations of anything that is contrary to fact. Inerrancy is a quality of the original text of the bible. Translations may err, but the original manuscripts penned by the prophets and apostles do not (Ligonier Ministries).

Such a statement about inerrancy does allow for “misinterpretation” which many seem to ignore choosing rather simply to say:  “if it is in the Bible it must be true because God wouldn’t lie”.   And since the Bible is God-inspired, why would any of the many writers lie to us reader?  Yet, that fact in itself is a problem since we also know about “unconscious bias”. Nor does it take into account the fact that “history is too often written by the winners” to paraphrase Sir Winston Churchill.

I am not suggesting that we no longer read the Bible, but do suggest that we not use it as a weapon to defend our point of view.  I am also hope that we would include other writings as sacred texts that can also contain “the Word of God”, that is to say, they contain important truths about our relationship with “God and how these truths are revealed to us.

Only when we begin to broaden our perspectives about God; about how love is more important than defending our points of view can we ever hope to live together in peace and harmony.