Hope can be hard

Christianity grew out of Jewish roots. Jesus was a Jew, rinsed in the traditions and stories of a long line of religious people. In the earliest days of the Christian Church there was a very active debate about whether the new movement was to be just a group within the Jewish faith or an entirely new religion. The story is long and complex, and not really the focus of this journal entry, but it is important to note that Christianity introduced some major new theological concepts into Judaism.

Much of the theology of Christianity grew straight out of Judaism. Like our forebears, we are radically monotheistic. We believe in one God who is creator of all that is. We hold fast to the concept that God is actively involved in creation and participates in history for the sake of people. God intend freedom for human beings and has set before us the ways of life and death.

Jesus, however, taught about a new relationship to the law and the prophets. Resisting the legalism that was part of the thinking of some religious leaders of his day, Jesus introduced an element of conscience and active decision-making in place of blind obedience to legalisms. This was not an entirely new concept in Jewish thinking, but Jesus particular interpretation of the law was enough to garner the attention of the religious leaders of his day.

The most radical departure from traditional Jewish thinking, however, came with the death of Jesus. His resurrection was a new way of understanding life and death. Again, the concept wasn’t entirely new. There were Jewish thinkers, prior to Jesus, who entertained thoughts of resurrection as a way of understanding death. Jesus’ appearances to his disciples and the theology of resurrection that developed among his earliest followers eventually marked a distinction between mainstream Jewish thinking and the teachings of the new Christian church.

Like many of the central concepts of our faith, the idea of resurrection didn’t appear fully formed. Rather it took generations of thinkers to fully develop the concept of resurrection. When we talk about resurrection, we are not talking about life without death. We don’t conceive of humans who simply go on forever and for whom death is a kind of side show. Death is very real. Grief and loss are very real. There is pain in separation from those we love. Resurrection is not some kind of “get out of death free” card. Neither is is magic. There is no slight of hand, no switching of bodies, no illusion of death. Resurrection is, rather, an acknowledgment that what we are able to perceive from this life is not the entire story of our human existence. Death is not the end of faith, hope or love. Entire books have been written on the concept of resurrection and it isn’t possible to fully discuss the concept in the length of a journal entry, but it is fair to note that the concept is complex and challenging to understand.

This is not to say that there aren’t Christians who take a somewhat lighter or simpler view of life and death. I’ve attended enough funerals in my life to know that you can encounter Christian leaders who simply speak of death as a ticket into some kind of imagined heaven where every thing is perfect, but incredibly similar to the life we now know. They speak of people becoming angels and even of God “needing” more angels. They avoid speaking of the pain of loss and the power of grief and encourage others to embrace a simple, “Everything will be OK because she is with Jesus in heaven,” kind of thinking. Heaven in their descriptions is remarkably like this life, but without worry and pain and suffering, which is to say, not very much like this life at all.

We do our family of faith a disservice, however, when we try to make light of the pain of loss and separation. Jesus experienced that pain. It is evident in the story of the death of Lazarus when he wept at the grave. Jesus’ own death was incredibly painful and those of his disciples who watched were devastated by what happened. For the disciples death and pain and loss and grief were very real. There is a huge difference between saying that death and pain and loss are not the final words on the condition of the human spirit and saying that we don’t need to grieve or mourn.

A life well lived is certainly worth celebrating. On Friday we held the funeral for a 98-year-old woman who had lived a life of grace and dignity and accomplished a great deal. Tomorrow we will gather for the funeral of a man who was 89. Their lives demonstrated the triumph of the human spirit in many ways. Their accomplishments are worth recounting. Their stories are worth telling. But the occasion of their funerals is not just a celebration. The current trend in some Christian churches of removing the title of funeral and replacing it with a “celebration of life” tells only part of the story. While lives are certainly worth celebrating, the occasion of death includes grief and sorrow. Trying to pretend that death is not the reason for our gathering does no service to those who have come.

I’ve written many times about services I have attended that seem to fall short of their potential. I work very hard on crafting funeral services that minister to the needs of the grieving community and speak of hope. Real hope, the hope that suffering cannot turn back, is a difficult concept and not something to be taken lightly. It comes in the midst of struggle and pain. It often comes with a terrible cost. But it is what we need when we encounter life’s most perplexing challenges and losses.

No single worship service is adequate for the depth of the experiences of our people. A family’s grief does not end with a funeral service. But the experience of worship in a community holds the potential to ease the burden of grief and to remind those who are suffering that they are not alone in their pain.

As long as I am called to minister with families in grief, I will not avoid the pain and sorrow of loss. I will not stray away from words like “death” or “tragedy” or “grief.” I will walk alongside those who are grieving and remind them that they are not alone.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!