Embracing Death

Death is an unpopular topic in the blogosphere, in politics, and in church. We are as a society consumed with life and with youth. Death is only discussed as a bludgeon to frighten or to cajole others into action, as in politics (John McCain will die at any minute!!!) or in churches (if you die today do you know where you will spend eternity?). Other than that, we don’t think about death and we do all we can to push the reality of our own mortality out of our minds and away from our conversation. Death is something we whisper about, lie to our children about, and hedge about with euphemisms designed to “soften the blow” that that which is will no longer be.

This tendency to avoid death is obvious in how we go about church and about theological reflection; indeed it is obvious in everything we do, and for good reason. Death is singularly unpleasant, yet it is also universal. It is one of two universal human experiences: birth and death. Everything else is, well… everything else. And we spend most of our time on the everything else, pausing only when forced by the intrusion of death into our lives to deal with mortality. Otherwise we go on our way, and new emerging theologians go on about how the church has focused too much on the life to come and not enough on the here and now. Denominations split over questions of ordination, marriage and divorce but all agree that death is a bad thing and we shouldn’t talk about it too much less we drive people away.

It is a singularly modern thing that we can so easily avoid talking about or dealing with death, or that our theologians and pastors get away with unsatisfying answers and flat avoidance of the issue. Our children can easily be shielded from the reality of death. When I ask my age peers how many funerals they have attended in their lives, they can usually count them on one hand. I’ve lost track of how many funerals I’ve attended through the years. So few of us ever see death up close and personal. Death is something that happens to the old and to the distant — almost always away from home, in hospitals, in nursing homes, and in tragedies half the world away.

This is all new. For most of human history, death was something with which people, even children, were intimately familiar. Mothers died in childbirth, grandfathers keeled over while chopping wood, and playmates drowned in creeks and rivers with alarming regularity. No one was pleased to have death visit them, but we were better equipped to deal with it when it came. Not only that, but the closeness of death meant that we were better able to deal with life.

In a world where death was not invisible, age was more respected. The absence of grandfathers wisdom around the dinner table was felt as an actual loss, and the foolishness of the young is much more evident when the consequences of their foolishness was more immediate and less theoretical. Likewise the present theological (and political) obsession with youth and with changing the world NOW would be tempered by a more visceral understanding that NOW is not all there is; that death comes to us all and that in death there is a reckoning more final than any other. Death makes life more dear and precious, and makes choices more stark. Our forefathers didn’t have time for the navel gazing adulthood delaying indecision that marks the current generation.

And this last piece is really the point of this post. All of life really is a negotiation with death. The brevity of our life is belied by the expansiveness of our choices in a post modern world. My students, fifteen years my junior, do not realize that those fifteen years senior to me are staring down the last twenty five to thirty years of life. Nor do they recognize that every choice they now make is a decision to let some other option die. As much as the current “yes we can” mantra of preachers and politicians resounds to the contrary, the reality is “no we can’t.” No, we can’t be both fireman and lawyers, and doctors and astronauts as we imagined when we were in elementary school. No we can’t eliminate poverty and injustice as many in college and beyond believe. No we can’t defy without consequences the biological restraints that constrain the vocational and familial choices of men and women. No we can’t reverse the fundamental reality of human depravity by changing the social structures that surround us.

Growing to maturity in faith as in everything else is a process of embracing death; the death of foolish dreams and good dreams alike, the death of choices, the death of opportunity, the death of friendships, of careers, of ideas we have about ourselves, of hopes we have for our families, and the death of those most close to us. This embrace of death gives us a certain sobriety about life, and wisdom. It is the wisdom of those who know that they alone will not change the world, and that society will not be healed by virtue of voting for the right candidate or planting the right church or having the right ideas. It is an embrace of death that frees us from the tyranny of relevancy, because we know that what is most important is always relevant and that presentation is much less important than substance. In short, embracing death gives us the freedom to be human and delivers us from our pretensions of god-hood. It reminds us that being human is quite good enough, thank you very much, and is really all that is expected of us.

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On Singleness #1

The first in a possible series

A more difficult topic for a post I cannot imagine than that of singleness and the Christian life. It is intrinsically difficult to treat, but rather emotively so for someone who has obtained to nearly half of the promised three score and ten without the benefit and boundedness of the marital covenant. Most of what I have read and most of what has been written concerning singleness is presented from perspectives much unlike my own; the perspective of those who are still under the age of thirty and that of women who have passed that age and find themselves increasingly concerned about the ticking of the “biological clock” that seems ever louder with each coming year. Virtually nothing I’ve read deals well or at all with the condition of singleness for those in ministry, aside from rote recitations of St. Paul’s comments pertaining to the benefit of singleness for a those devoted a life of ministry. None of these treatments have been especially useful to me as I reflect upon my own blessed state (and it is blessed, despite intimations to the contrary contained in this post).

That singleness is such a poorly addressed issue (and I speak of course in context of contemporary American Christianity) is something for which the church ought to have no excuse. Our Lord was, of course, a single man as was St. Paul. The single celibate life has been celebrated throughout the history of the Church and in Roman Catholicism priests are required to express the chastity through remaining single rather than within the bonds of marriage. In the current climate of the Church however, singleness, though increasingly common, is viewed somewhat suspiciously and the older one gets without marrying the greater the level of attendant suspicion and concomitant pity, though such pity is generally veiled. Occasionally there is an expression of contrived envy which is barely credible and certainly not encouraging, though I know the hearts of the people who express such sentiment are usually pure. To hear, “But oh you get to devote time to the Lord and you are free to really do whatever without worrying about a family,” is about as convincing as the descriptions given by short term missionaries of the poor they met on mission; every loves to talk about how much freedom and joy in the Lord they have, but no one would ever trade places with them.

I contend that singleness is the default state of mankind; we are born single and we die single. Marriage on average takes somewhere between 1/3 and 2/3 of a person’s life and much of that time is consumed in the bearing and rearing of children, a noble and God ordained ministry if ever there was any. However even though the average age of marriage has continued to rise (concurrently with decreased community and other support for young marriage) the discipleship and theological instruction concerning singleness tends to presume marriage will take place before the age of thirty, which for most people it will. When a person, especially a man, reaches the age of thirty, the Church really has nothing left to say to him. For those in the world to attain the age of thirty and to be unmarried is not surprising, and the culture provides models (albeit horrid and inaccurate ones) for what a thirty-something unmarried man is supposed to be and/or do. For the Christian, well, there’s always the singles group at church filled with women you either don’t want to date because they have issues you just don’t want to put up with or who don’t want to date you because they’re still waiting on a Prince Charming Knight in Shining Armor who is merely the Christianized version of popular stereotypes. (I don’t mean to hate on the ladies, but I’m writing from a guy’s perspective)

Speaking of stereotypes, there are some myths to singleness that ought to be put readily to rest or at least set aside as not applying to anyone I know. Again here I am speaking about Christians (and mostly about guys) so…

Myth: Single guys are not mature or ready to commit.
Truth: Single guys are as mature/immature commitment ready/commitment phobic as the Christian women they interact with. We need to kill the lie that women are more mature than men. They are not.

Myth: Singles have lots of freedom and time on their hands
Truth: The freedom of making every decision by oneself and tackling every household chore alone and not having help with simple life management takes up more time than you might imagine

Myth: Singles can devote themselves more fully to the Lord in ministry
Truth: Well this is true; it’s in the Bible. But, it is true with a caveat that single people in ministry are not really taken very seriously at all and are never really perceived as being adults.

Myth: Single guys have the advantage because at least they can take the initiative in relationship
Truth: This is also true with a caveat; it is freaking emotionally draining to ask someone out only to be told no, and then to know that you can’t ask anyone in that woman’s circle of friends out ever because then you get either the creepy weird Christian guy label or the arrogant just wants to get married Christian playboy label attached to you.

Myth: Singles have money because they don’t have a family to support
Truth: Singles, especially guys, are usually broke. Do you have any idea how much stuff people give you for free when you’re married? And not just at the wedding, but over and again. And don’t forget that useful two income thing that most folks have going.

Myth: Marriage kills your social life; singles have a better social life
Truth: Not really.

All in all singleness is not all it’s cracked up to be, so I’ve been lately advising students to marry sooner rather than later. They all think I’m strange and screw their faces into grimaces when I advise this. They are too young, too immature they say. But I know that they won’t outgrow their selfishness by spending the next 7 years focusing on their career and their self development. Besides, that old biological clock is still ticking.

Minority majority

In the midst of an election campaign one of the most significant areas of interested to the general public is that of immigration. My hometown is currently embroiled in a rather (I think) inane controversy stemming from this very issue to make English the official language of city government. Having been vetoed by the former mayor, the intrepid councilman has submitted the measure to the public as an addition to the charter of the city government. It is currently held up in legalities, but I am certain that if it passes the hurdles being thrown up by the election commission and others, it will pass. It is to me extraneous legislation, since the official language of the state of Tennessee is already English, but oh well. The chamber of commerce has come out against it (it’s bad for business and makes us look like hicks) while the hicks themselves are all for it in the mistaken belief perhaps that it will force all the “fer’ners” to learn English or go home. I for one am embarrassed. Illegal immigrants of the brown type seem to be a convenient outlet for all the virulent racial hatred that is no longer publicly acceptable to vent towards Blacks. It is made easier by the fact that they are, well, illegal.

The larger issue of immigration though is one which our society is being confronted with in a much more significant way than we have had to in the last several decades. Despite the influx of Asian immigrants from the late sixties onwards, the current immigration boom is new for many, and frightening. A recent census bureau report indicates that soon the US will be “majority minority” a phrase I find particularly interesting. Interesting because it has only been fairly recently that Hispanics (or Latinos if you prefer) have been counted separately. Interesting because they are only minorities in that they are not White. The last great immigration boom, around the turn of the 20th century, saw many millions of European immigrants come to the US. There was great debate at the time over whether they would properly assimilate into what was a clearer dominant Anglo culture.

Successive waves of immigrants each dealt with the baggage if you will of not being White enough. First the Irish, then the Italians, the Poles, the Russians… all the eastern Europeans. Most of these White ethnics settled in enclaves on the east coast and upper midwest where they were accused of the same sorts of things that Hispanic immigrants are now accused of. Of course in time they assimilated, intermarried, and largely became White. Being White in America mainly meant not being Black or Yellow (no offense to my Asian American readers, just using the lingo of the times). Many people don’t realize that many of the soldiers that went to fight in WW2 spoke a language other than English at home as their first language; maybe as many as 1/3.

Nowadays now one really is focused on the many illegal Irish or even Asian immigrants in the country. No one is going door to door at Korean cleaners and checking how much under the table cash is being doled out to someone’s cousin’s sisters brother in law. Those immigrants aren’t scary, and they aren’t brown.

What should be the Christian response to the challenges of immigration? On the one hand it is easy to assert that we should be treat the foreigner and alien as neighbor, since that is what God commanded Israel. At the same time, how do we apply that principle meaningfully in a nation whose laws we are called to obey? What is our priority? And what is the true face of the immigration debate that is tearing our society up? John Lamb, a somewhat acquaintance who I’ve never officially met but admire nonetheless is doing a talk on this issue tomorrow at Vanderbilt. If anyone knows what he’s talking about, its John.

Cold Shower

A cold shower has often been recommended as a quick way of dampening the overly ardent passion of young men. As a single man, such advice strikes me as dubious at best, and it is advice that I’ve never taken, at least not intentionally.

Perhaps our Lord believes that I need more encouragement towards good and godly thoughts as my water heater has apparently broken. So now all my water is cold. However, since it broke back in April, and I spent the summer in less than first world conditions, and its hot here, I’ve actually grown accustomed to colder water. Oh how pressing the luxuries of life seem when they first go missing, and how unimportant they are upon further reflection.