Thursday, May 02, 2013

The Last Enemy

Elements of the gospel which I had always thought would console did not. They did something else, something important, but not that. It did not console me to be reminded of the hope of resurrection. If I had forgotten that hope, then it would indeed have brought light into my life to be reminded of it. But I did not think of death as a bottomless pit. I did not grieve as one who has no hope. Yet Eric is gone, here and now he is gone; now I cannot talk with him, now I cannot see him, now I cannot hug him, now I cannot hear of his plans for the future. That is my sorrow. - Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament For A Son
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. - 1 Cor. 15:20-26
There are few things more pleasing than discovering a new thing that surprises at its beauty and power.  So it is that my occasional reading of the blog Eclectic Orthodoxy has turned to awe as the blog's author, Fr. Aidan Kimel, exposes the never-to-heal wound of his son's suicide for the world.
This is Holy Week for those of us in the Orthodox Church. I had intended to provide daily patristic citations from Holy Wednesday through Easter Sunday. But I have changed my mind.
This morning I drove past the parking lot from which my son Aaron jumped to his death on 15 June 2012. I began to weep. When I got home I found myself sobbing on the floor for twenty minutes. I had not cried like this for several months.
In his inaugural blog post, he is up front about how blogging and the death of his son are related:
There is one other reason I have decided to begin blogging again—for the sake of my sanity. On June 15th my second son Aaron died by suicide. His death has shattered my life and the lives of my wife and children. On June 22nd I preached his funeral homily and prayed the committal over his casket. Aaron’s death has changed and traumatized me at the core of my being, in ways that I have not yet begun to fathom. On most days I am overwhelmed by sorrow and grief. Curiously, only two things seem to provide some measure of respite—walking my dog, Tiriel, and theological reading. And so I continue to read St Gregory, for my sake and for the sake of my beloved son, Aaron Edward Kimel. Memory eternal.
 A bit further above this paragraph, Fr. Kimel writes the following:
I used to read theology ravenously. I had even reached a point where I thought I was fairly fluent in the language of faith. For a few years I wrote a now defunct blog, Pontifications. Through the culpable negligence of those who hosted it, the original Pontifications has been lost; but some of the constructive pieces that I wrote for it have been archived at a resurrected Pontifications. But God has broken me. The Pontificator is dead. Much of what I thought I once knew has been, quite literally, stripped from me. Five years ago I became incapable of reading theology of any sort. When I tried to read a theological article or book, the words did not make sense. I almost lost my faith.  Six months ago this began to change. Suddenly I had a desire to read theology again. It was as if a cloud slowly lifted from my mind and I could finally make sense, at least a bit, of the theological reflections and arguments of others. My brain has not returned to its previous level of functioning, but I am finally enjoying theology again.(emphasis added)
Many people believe the great un-talked-about issue in the Christian churches is sex.  I do not believe that is the case.  We talk about it, just not very well, or clearly, or honestly.  I am of a mind that the real elephant in the sanctuary is death.  When we speak of it at all, we limit our talk to those special worship services called funerals.  We skirt around the matter of Jesus' death on Good Friday, consoling ourselves that Easter is coming so as to mitigate our reflection on the possibility of death being taken up in to the life of God.

I do not exempt myself from this.  On the contrary, I think I have by and large avoided the topic, or been far too glib, perhaps even thoughtless, on what rare occasions I did write about it.  Part of the reason for that is fear.  What Christian wants to admit fear of death?  After all, aren't we supposed to face death without fear?  As we read or hear the words of the twenty-third Psalm, aren't we reminded that even in the valley of the shadow of death, the LORD is with us?

Last year, while leading the Christian Believer class, we had a discussion of death in the section dealing with "eschatology", or "the last things".  Death itself, for all we try to manage it - the whole "stages of grief" business that, while real enough, makes death something to get through rather than an event in the lives of families and communities - or wish it away or fantasize about either clouds of joy and streets of gold or lakes of fire; for all that, the experience here and now for far too many people is this: death is a monster.  The deepest faith, the calmest mind and heart in the face of the death of a loved one, cannot shield anyone from the gaping jaws of death.  Never satisfied with a single life, it works its way in to our lives, destroying joy and sense and hope.

Death will rip apart families, even whole communities.  It has, on occasion, grabbed hold of whole nations, making a meal of millions of lives before something, some Other from outside with the power to bring death to heel, cries, "Stop".  From my own family's history, I know the terrible toll death will wreak when it strikes a child.  I have watched adults break under the weight of grief death heaps upon them when a parent passes, even when that death was long in coming and a final rest from suffering.

Talking about death is considered "morbid" in our society.  For some reason, it is a social faux pas to admit that a final end comes to all of us, to all things; it is declasse to admit that our peculiar, human reality as creatures both social and communicative, create a situation in which death can spread like a virus, engulfing us in waves of sorrow and emptiness and even terror.

I long for the day when the last enemy lies under the boot of God.  I hope and pray for the courage and strength to face the inevitable deaths of my family and friends without allowing death's insidious hunger to touch me before I am ready.   Along with hope and faith, or perhaps a part of them, is the honest communication to others the toll death takes upon us.  For that reason, I invite you to travel through the Orthodox Holy Week with Fr. Kimel, as he shares his own pain, using the words of Wolterstorff to say what he wishes he could but cannot say.  One would need to be heartless not to be moved by the power of Wolterstorff's honesty, and know the silent tears Fr. Kimel sheds as he shares his grief with the world.  In our turn, all we can do is demonstrate to them and all those who know that monster death far too well that they are heard, and that we grieve with them.

Virtual Tin Cup

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