I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun; I saw the tears of the oppressed–and they have no comforter; power was on the side of their oppressor–and they have no comforter. And I declared that the dead, who had already died, are happier than the living, who are still alive. But better than both is he who has not yet been, who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun.
King Solomon (Ecclesiastes 4:1-3 NIV)
Rev. Dr. Giles Fraser is a priest of the Church of England, founder of Inclusive Church, and an outspoken advocate for inclusion of gays and lesbians in the church. He submitted the following article to BBC’s “Thought for the Day” on March 9, 2011.
One of the great privileges of being a priest is that I often get the opportunity to be with people when they die. It frequently astonishes me that, despite the ubiquity of death, this is something a great many people have never actually seen. Little wonder we’re so frightened of death. It used to be something public, but now it’s pushed out of life. Whereas we used to die at home surrounded by friends and family, we now die in hospitals, often alone and hidden behind expensive technology.
It’s commonly assumed that Christians don’t really believe in death at all, that we subscribe to the view that when we die we go on living in some other realm, or in some disembodied form. Just to be clear: I believe nothing of the sort. I don’t like the euphemistic language of “passing on” or “having gone to sleep”. Nor do I subscribe to Platonic ideas about the immortality of the soul. When you die, you die. As the first letter of St. Paul to Timothy puts it: “God alone is immortal.”
Today is Ash Wednesday. Like millions of Christians around the world, I will be marked with ash and told that I am dust and to dust I shall return. There is nothing depressing or morbid about any of this – in fact, quite the reverse. Personally speaking, it leaves me with a more intense sense of the preciousness of human life, something that’s intimately bound up with its intrinsic limit and fragility.
Indeed, the problem with the modern lack of experience of death is precisely that it robs us of this very intensification. Life without death is “just one damned thing after another.” For death gives life its urgency: now is the opportunity to love and respond to love, to be different, to make a difference, to change the world. There is no time to waste.
This is why I have little enthusiasm for the idea that science might be able to keep us alive indefinitely, that through cryogenic suspension or uploading our DNA onto computers we might be able to achieve immortality. I’m not saying these extraordinary things will never be possible “who can say?” but rather, that the best these technologies can ever offer is a life that goes on and on and on. And if I can put it like this: more and more of me, extended over time, doesn’t really solve the problem of being me.
When theologians like Boethius and Augustine speak of entering eternity they mean something altogether different from this: for eternity is outside of time, unrelated to temporal sequence. Which is why eternity can be as much as quality of our present experience, more an expansion of our imagination, a call to reach beyond claustrophobic self-absorption and to see the world anew. As William Blake so memorably suggested:
To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.
I have watched with great interest over the past couple of weeks as Whitney Houston went from being perceived as a washed-up addict to a veritable saint in the eyes of the public. As tributes began pouring in from celebrities and fans, many expressed their belief that she was finally at peace in heaven. Family and friends said they knew without a shadow of doubt that she was with Jesus. Where she had been ridiculed only days and hours before, she was now being proclaimed the newest angel in paradise.
We tend to do that when people pass away. It becomes much harder to pass judgement on someone when they are no longer around to defend themselves. Death also reminds us all of our own mortality, and of our desire that other people not be too harsh in their judgment of our lives.
The morning of the day she died, I spent several minutes perusing photographs of her looking rather disheveled as she left a recent event and thought to myself that she probably wouldn’t live long. I was heartbroken when the news came in later that evening.
I have been a fan of Whitney for several years, and although I wouldn’t describe myself as a “fanatic,” I did purchase her albums as they were released (I actually have over 20 compact discs of her music), watched her movies, and always rooted for her to overcome whatever demons she was fighting at any particular time. Even though I liked her a great deal and followed her career, I don’t think I realized just how important her faith was to her until this weekend.
As I watched her funeral on Saturday, Whitney’s personal friends and family members recounted over and over how she prayed constantly, read her Bible, and quoted verses. Her bodyguard said she refused to go anywhere without her tattered Bible, even leaving clothes behind in order to have enough room for it in her suitcase. In a television interview, a minister friend recalled how Whitney recently laid prostrate on the floor as she prayed and spoke in tongues while begging God for deliverance from her addictions. Even the last song she sang publicly just two nights before she died was “Jesus Loves Me.”
On Sunday night, Oprah rebroadcast the interview she had done with Whitney a couple of years ago. Whitney had just revealed her obviously painful battle with drug abuse and the dissolution of her troubled marriage to Bobby Brown when Oprah asked the poignant question “Who do you love?” Without a moment of hesitation, she replied, “The Lord.”
So, what I know now is Whitney Houston had an astonishing love for God. She might not have been living what some would describe as a “Christian lifestyle,” but she certainly didn’t have a problem with faith. She wholeheartedly believed in Jesus, salvation, and the hereafter. Despite many shortcomings in other areas of her life, no one can accuse her of not taking her faith seriously.
As society replaces its condemnation of Whitney with a more compassionate understanding, I wonder why we have to wait until someone dies to show them any mercy and respect. Maybe if we would look a little deeper, beyond the image projected on people by a ruthless and merciless media, we might see how each person we take so much joy in building up and tearing down is still just as human as we are. We all have flaws, we all make poor decisions, and we are all worthy of a little grace and compassion.
If I should die this very day
Don’t cry ’cause on earth we weren’t meant to stay
And no matter what the people say
I’ll be waiting for you after the judgement day
– lyric from “Your Love Is My Love” by Whitney Houston
During Christmas celebrations at my sister’s house this past weekend, someone brought up the issue of cremation. I could instantly tell that my mother thought the practice to be something akin to suicide, and that anyone who chose that route would be committing a mortal sin. After I argued for a few moments, I asked my mother if she would honor my wishes if I specified that I wanted to be cremated (I don’t, but that’s not the point). She emphatically said no.
While recounting the conversation to my father yesterday, he laughed at the absurdity of it all… before informing me that he also would have a problem with cremating my body.
Honestly, I don’t like the idea of it either, but I would put my personal feelings aside if I knew a loved one wanted to be cremated.
Last weekend, almost everyone was buzzing about the impending rapture and the months of hell-on-earth that were predicted to follow for those who weren’t fortunate enough to get sucked into the sky. Apparently the guy who made the prediction had done the same thing in 1994, so most people didn’t take him seriously this time around either. You couldn’t really say that no one gave it a second thought though, because it was about all that was being discussed on Facebook, Twitter, and major media outlets.
Most of the status updates I read were from a comical standpoint. Some wrote about how they didn’t want to stick around to clean up the bodies afterwards, others popped in to announce they were still here, or to post Bible verses about how even Christ said he didn’t know the time of the end of the world.
Whether we deal with these kinds of doomsday predictions through humor or complete disregard, I think they often strike a chord deep within our brains – our eternal will to live. By the time we reach the age when we understand the concept of death, we realize that we are going to die one day. It’s completely unavoidable. It is amazing how we can condition ourselves to push the thought of our inevitable demise to the back of our minds. Otherwise, I wonder if we would even be able to function on a normal basis.
Regardless of how harebrained the doomsday predictions of last weekend (or even 2012) might seem to the majority of the population, perhaps they serve a deeper purpose; one that reminds us that we aren’t immortal or indestructible.
We will die someday. We should live our lives as if any moment might be our last. The end of life as we know it probably won’t occur on October 21, 2011, or December 21, 2012, but it could happen tomorrow.
Enjoy it while you can.