Thursday, October 19, 2006

Grief as Love in the Presence of Absence

In dealing with Don's death, I have recently sought the comfort of God through the writings of N. T. Wright. Specifically, I have read For All the Saints? Remembering the Christian Departed. Through it all, after dealing with purgatory, heaven, hell and all that, Wright shares three parts to his conclusion.

First, "What happens to the soul?" He avoids all talk of the soul until the very end, and in truth still avoids it somewhat. Personally, I am reluctant to talk of the soul. Scripturally the dichotomy is post-exilic. And really, it is stressed the most in these binarily opposed, Platonic terms by Paul (obviously Roman educated). Wright however settles without settling (and I think I like this). In reference to Revelation 6, he refers to the soul as a "useful way of talking about personal continuity despite bodily discontinuity." Wright talks about the Cambridge physicist/theologian (a combination of biblical proportion, snicker), John Polkinghorne who said, "God will download our software on to his hardware, until the day comes when he gives us new hardware on which to run our own software once more." Clever and without the Platonic mishmash. Polkinghorne leaves gray what the New Testament leaves gray. Wright writes, "You could simply say, if you like, following Polkinghorne's image, that those who have died as a part of God's people are sustained in life by God. Couple that with Paul's remark about 'departing and being with Christ', and that's about as far as you can go in terms of what the New Testament teaches."

Next, Wright tackles "Praying for and with the Dead?" I think here we have an interesting problem for most protestants. The assumption is that without purgatory (Wright clearly doesn't believe in purgatory, by the way) there is no reason to pray for the departed. Because of the promises of Christ, there is no need to convince God to accept those whom he has already accepted. However, Wright says, "True prayer is an outflowing of love." When we love someone, we will want to pray for them, no difficulties, no needs, but merely "because holding them up in God's presence is the most natural and appropriate thing to do." God also chooses to work through our prayers (personal emphasis on chooses to those who think he must) to bless others. Our love doesn't stop at death. Wright might say that grief is love in the presence of absence. Grief is "the form love takes when the object of love has been removed; it is love embracing an empty space, love kissing the air and feeling the pain of that nothingness." He concludes that there is no reason why love ends at death. Love continues and can continue through the prayers that lift the loved one up in prayer before the mystery of God. The prayer for the departed becomes a celebration! Here, here, Wright!

Finally, death is not the end, but neither is the rest (heaven, paradise, etc.) after death. Our hope is in the Resurrection. We believe in Christ's Resurrection, his the first, and we believe in our own resurrection. The Apostle's Creed and Scripture are clear regarding this bodily resurrection to come. Wright talks extensively about the disparity between the Scriptures and the belief of many folks in the eternity in heaven. Heaven/Paradise is not our final destination, the resurrection and the New Heaven and New Earth as one is! So, Wright has encouraged a change in the liturgy of funerals. No longer should we say, "May the souls of the faithfully departed rest in peace." He encourages, as would I, dropping "the souls of" and adding "and rise in glory."

So, I say it now, May the departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace and rise in glory. Grief is such a hard thing for me to talk about. I still cry at the mere mention of my brother's name or the playing of B. B. King and Eric Clapton. But it is gradually getting (not easier) better. Such is the process of grief. I pray in love, that Don's rest in the presence of Jesus Christ fills him with all the grace of God and that same grace will fill me and comfort me and my sister, Marsha and their boys Chad and Chandler and the rest of our family. May he rest until we rise again in glory. Amen.


Anonymous said...

This is why interpretation is not (and must never be) a dirty word. Without the faithful and thoughtful interpreters of Scripture such as N.T. Wright, we would not be gifted with such an appropriate correction to the present state of eschatology we must live with today. Do we have such little confidence in Christ's redeeming powers that his final and only option is to destroy His beloved creation! O me of little faith, the Kingdom of God is here!

We can probably all name at least one significant loss of a loved one that we continue to mark with a bittersweet mixture of grief and love. Yet Wright reasserts this more profound hope. That our hope is not simply in some ethereal angelic barely-attainable heaven, but in a resurrection that will reunite us -- mind, body and soul. And that full salvation from death and its darkness is possible here and now. The next thing my Grandma sees is the face of Christ.

I was particularly struck in my reading of "For all the Saints?" by the possibility that in the life, death and resurrection of Christ, death (for the follower of Christ) no longer becomes a punishment. Death is indeed overturned for paradise: for presence. We no longer fear sin nor death.

So, is heaven our goal? Perhaps, it is simply the life (here or later) of blessing.

And I, a person of so little faith, find more hope and peace in these beautiful little things than a thousand fiery apocalypse.


Anonymous said...

I haven't read the N.T. Wright work you're referring to, but your discussion of it has certainly sparked my interest. I've also wondered about the full implications of the idea of "communion of saints", and it seems most are afraid (particularly Protestants) of expressing ideas concerning the subject. The Kingdom of God is bigger than any single individual and is no respecter of persons - male/female, black/white, rich/poor, past/present/future, etcetera. Somehow I think we are connected with, not only those participants in the Kingdom of God right now, at this present moment, but with those participants through all of history, including those who have "passed on". Somehow, I think, we're in a web of relationships not only with the Triune God, but with every single participant in the Kingdom of God who has ever lived. Maybe this is what the author of Hebrews had in mind when he/she articulated the concept of the "cloud of witnesses". We're not in this race alone; there is a cloud of witnesses (those who can testify to the all-redeeming power and grace of God) who are present with us at all times, and we are in this Great Race together. We are in communion with one another. This might peg me as a mystic; I'm not sure, but I've never been very good at categorizing myself anyway.

Evan and Julia said...

Great comments Julia and Caleb. Tom (I just like calling academic heavyweights by their first givens) brings up the Hebrews "Cloud of witnesses" issue. He draws those ties with the communion of saints.

In the book he also talks, very little nonetheless, about hell. Rob Bell preached on hell in one of his "God Wants to Save Christians" sermons recently (I don't remember what part, parts 1-4, it was). I think Tom Wright better clarifies the issue in a more orthodox way than Bell, but I sense that their point was the same. First of all, we are to push toward the Kingdom of God now, not worrying about heaven or hell (per se.) and secondly, most pointedly, we are not to judge folks into hell. Either way, the book was fantastic and the Rob Bell sermon (as pretty much usual) was good too!

Monty said...

I am praying for you as I am on my way to Borders to buy this book.

Eric said...

great reflection...thanks for sharing.

At a recent pastor's retreat the topic of post-death existence came up. We have a "messianic jewish" Nazarene Church on our district and the pastor is very rooted in the OT framework of sheol. That made for some interesting conversation with the traditionalist Nazarenes among us. You mean we are just dead? Isn't sheol purgatory? Is that even Christian? I love those conversations -- you should have heard the one about rebaptism being heretical!!!

Monty said...

Thanks again for recommending this book. It lead to my blog today.