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A Matter of Life, Death and Faith

Coming to Grips With the Inevitable

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Above image credit: Forest Hill Calvary Cemetery in Kansas City. (Bill Tammeus | Flatland)

Death, which many Americans seem to think is optional, has been my close companion for two years.

It’s driven me and many others to our knees, in both despondency and prayer.

Death — through COVID-19 and such spinoff calamities as mental health breakdowns and economic disasters, plus violence in our streets and now slaughter in Ukraine — often has stolen our confidence, our hope.

We’ve seen it in so many places.

People have died in nursing homes while family members, barred from the room, have stood outside watching helplessly through a window.

Funerals, which might have comforted the grieving, have been postponed, then postponed again. Some may never happen.

Health care workers, clergy, first responders, funeral directors, teachers and others have been sucked into death’s intense vortex, some of them permanently damaged by the collapse of their mental or physical health or both. I know pastors who pray for strength to manage just one more day.

Students often have been out of school, learning instead (sort of) virtually and falling behind as they fear that dreams of a gleaming future have died aborning.

Teenagers at summer camps, in scouting and in other group activities — strained by forces they have little capacity to understand or control — have acted out in distressing ways, requiring counselors to use techniques they hope don’t make things worse. When worse happens anyway, it sometimes means suicide.

Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Maryland) wrote about exactly that in his new book, “Unthinkable: Trauma, Truth and the Trials of American Democracy,” in which he describes the suicide of his son, who was buried the day before the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection in Washington: “I did not want to further darken his mood. But there was no way I could steer him clear of the barrage of news images of the COVID-19 body count, the corpses piling up outside hospitals, the suffering of children losing parents and the anguish of parents losing children …”

Forest Hill Calvary Cemetery in Kansas City.
Forest Hill Calvary Cemetery in Kansas City. (Bill Tammeus | Flatland)

Add to that the death in public places. Names of the dead now are chanted against racism, police brutality, inhumanity: George Floyd, Duante Wright, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Cameron Lamb, so many more. Kansas City recorded 179 homicides in 2020 and 157 in 2021, while 2022 also has started out murderous. There’s been blood everywhere — here, at our nation’s Capitol, in Afghanistan, on and on.

Many of us also know people dying from something besides COVID, but their struggle seems more poignant now. Cancer, for instance, has almost killed a childhood friend of mine — a man of much grace. Recently on Facebook he posted a list of books he’s read “in researching how to prepare for my own death.” At the end of 2021, he wrote: “I’m happy. This may sound crazy or impossible coming from a dying man, but it’s true.” Then he listed many reasons. What a model he is.

And while we’re dealing with all this and more, our shattered, polarized politics has pummeled us in incalculable ways, even as death sometimes has forced a personal reckoning about the nature and purpose of life, raising ancient questions about evil, suffering, God.

Recently, a self-described atheist wrote this in a piece for New York Magazine: “I thought several hundred times this year, Maybe I should go to church.

Religion is being tested brutally now. Does it have anything useful to say about death, angst, uncertainty, grief? Is it a source of hope for us? Or have we been abandoned on a wounded planet crowded with people making destructive, self-centered decisions to poison the globe, oppress their neighbors and fight to keep whatever advantages they have?

I come at these tortuous questions as a Christian. As my friend Fr. W. Paul Jones writes in his new book, “Remnant Christianity,” he has wagered on the Christ event (as have I), choosing to live as if it’s true because he wants it to be true and because he believes it is true.

We both reject a faithless alternative. As Paul writes: “While evil is the enigma for believers, beauty is the enigma for the unbeliever. While death defies the Christian, a mockingbird defies the atheist — while both expose the agnostic as lacking in courage to struggle with life at its deepest level.”

That — wrestling with life’s mysteries, especially in this prolonged winter of our discontent — is what we’re called to do. Not because we are — or are not — people of faith, but because we’re human. It’s our job. That’s why I find it so discouraging when people waste the gift of time on circuses, which is to say on shallow, even addictive entertainments.

Several years ago, a book took on part of that question: “Entertaining Ourselves to Death: The Crisis in Christian Youth Culture,” by Andrew Strom. It was aimed at the practice of having to amuse kids in church just to get them engaged in questions of faith.

But it’s not just young people who at times seem to want to be entertained to death. It’s also many adults. I’m not talking here about necessary recreation and restorative game playing. I’m talking, rather, about mindless activities (or inactivities in front of hypnotic electronic screens) that keep us from engaging the questions raised by our two years of death’s menacing growl.

I’ve spent lots of this time walking in cemeteries. It reminds me of where I’m headed. It makes me wonder how people under the headstones spent their lives. It forces me to think again about what I want people to remember about my own presence on this planet. And it confronts me with hard questions. Whom have I hurt? Did I use my gifts and talents for others? What drove me? How could a god of infinite wisdom and creativity possibly care about me?

We’re not yet done with this intense time of death. But while it’s still here I don’t want to use it to escape the human condition, but to celebrate it. I choose not to focus on the evil, the ugliness, the disasters that inevitably are part of life, but on the beauty, the wonder, the miracles.

Exactly that happened at a recent funeral I attended for an Episcopal priest who had developed a deep connection to — and love of — Hawaii. Everyone got a flower lei to wear and lots of people wore bright Hawaiian shirts.

It was a cool way of doing what we all should do: Tell old Mr. Death he won’t have the last word.

Forest Hill Calvary Cemetery in Kansas City.
Forest Hill Calvary Cemetery in Kansas City. (Bill Tammeus | Flatland)

Bill Tammeus, an award-winning columnist formerly with The Kansas City Star, writes the “Faith Matters” blog for The Star’s website and columns for The Presbyterian Outlook and formerly for The National Catholic Reporter. His latest book is Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety. Email him at wtammeus@gmail.com.

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