My cousin’s birthday is tomorrow. She won’t be around to celebrate it, because she died in a car accident in 2001 at the tender age of 25. Her father called my mother today and sobbed on the telephone as he remembered. Even 13 years later, the wounds haven’t healed.
I remember Tammy’s funeral. People wept and talked in hushed tones as expected, but this one felt much different from other memorials. Most were quite obvious in their belief that Tammy didn’t go to heaven. Some were so convinced of this they dared to say it out loud. You see, Tammy was reared in a strict Pentecostal home, and she wasn’t living according to those standards the morning she wrecked on an ice-covered road.
Years later another young person I knew passed away. Like Tammy, they had left the faith of their childhood and weren’t living what you might call a “righteous” life. This time, however, things were much different. The same people who judged Tammy clung to hope that this particular person had gotten right with God in the final moments of their life, and the funeral was filled with admonishments about letting God be the final judge. There’s nothing at all wrong with that line of thought, but I wonder why Tammy was treated so differently?
If God is truly love and if God truly loves us more than we can possibly love each other, why would he cast a young person into Hell before they even have a chance to figure things out? I can’t think of anyone who deserves an eternity of torment, nor can I reason what it would accomplish. Even the worst criminal is given a shot at redemption.
I saw Tammy in a dream a few years ago. She looked lovely, and we walked together for a while as I wept. It was probably just a meaningless creation in my sleeping mind, but I treasure it. I prefer to think of her happy and at peace. I just wish those who call themselves “Christian” would give her the same courtesy.
Happy Birthday, Tammy. I remember your lovely smile and your wonderful sense of humor. I remember the fun we had driving with the windows down and the music turned up loud. I hope I made you feel even half as loved as you always made me feel. Maybe I’ll get a chance to see you again one day. Until then I’ll see you in my dreams.
I ask no paradise on high with cares on earth oppressed; the only heaven for which I sigh is rest, eternal rest.
Solomon Northup, ‘Twelve Years A Slave’
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 always have a piece of Lemon Cream Cake when I visit Olive Garden. It is so good that we have decided one day (hopefully soon!) it will be our wedding cake.
I don’t talk to you much any more. I used to pray quite a bit, but now it just feels like there’s no one listening or I’m being incredibly selfish asking for anything when my life is so blessed. Typically, when I do come to you, it’s to offer a prayer of gratitude for something simple, since those are usually the things that make life so grand.
Still, there are times when I do ask for little favors. Like today when I requested protection for my partner – who had literally been up all night long writing a paper for school and had to drive 25 miles to class and back. I knew he was so tired and the roads were wet from rain, so I wanted to make sure that you realized how much his safety meant to both of us. I don’t know what I’d do if something happened to him. The thought is almost more than I can bare.
I’ve lost alot of my belief in prayer over the years. I remember begging you to make me like everyone else when I was a teenager. It felt like you just ignored my requests, even though it seemed like you would have surely wanted me to change. I remember crying out to you when I was drowning in despair and feeling like you were a million miles away and my pleas were just bouncing off the ceiling.
I’ve been feeling like that quite a bit lately. Not really desperate, but certainly disconnected. It’s hard for me to separate you from all of the ways that the world tries to package you – in little despicable and distorted forms that we call “religion.” I wonder if you ever have a good laugh over the absurdity of it all.
A few weeks ago, a new friend told me a story that has me rethinking this whole prayer thing. Her story was one that might have made me roll my eyes a few years ago, but she told it in such a beautiful way that it just had to be true.
She said she died on the operating table and was clinically dead for fifteen minutes. She described going to heaven and what she saw and how she felt. She said she couldn’t even look at you because you were so bright, but that she felt the most intense love – so intense that when she was told that she needed to return to her still-living husband and daughter, she didn’t want to leave.
As she drifted slowly back down to earth, she noticed little beams of light passing her on their way up to heaven. Some of them were moving fast and some were slow, but they were all rising. She said she suddenly realized that they were prayers… and the fastest moving ones were the prayers of mothers. Despite all my cynicism and doubt about most things spiritual, I believed this story with all my heart.
So, I’m going to start praying more. And I’m going to imagine those prayers as little beams of light slowly rising to where you are. It’s okay if they don’t get there the fastest, because some of those other prayers are much more important, but I’m going to keep the faith that they’re going to arrive eventually, and that you’re going to know how grateful I am for every opportunity to communicate with you.
Until next time,
Then Job arose, and rent his mantle, and shaved his head, and fell down upon the ground, and worshiped, and said, “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” – Job 1: 20-21
He called to tell me that he was considering asking my cousin to go out with him. His nervousness seemed out of character with the bravado that he normally exhibited, but I found it endearing. Having known both of them from the time they were born, I encouraged him to go for it, and it was only a few minutes later that he called back to tell me that she had accepted and that he wanted me to be their chaperone – something that her parents had apparently insisted on.
Their first date consisted of us riding to her house, taking her to church, and then taking her back home afterwards. I could tell that they hit it off immediately and it wasn’t long before they were married.
Yesterday, some twelve years later, she placed him in the cold, hard ground – the victim of a senseless and brutal crime, gunned down by a crazed neighbor in their driveway for no apparent reason. It was torturous to watch her weep and to realize that their precious three year old son will never know his father.
The minister who officiated at the funeral service reminded us of Job in the Bible, who lost all of his children and his wealth, but fell to his knees and worshiped God anyway. He said that instead of mourning what has been taken from us, we should be thankful that we were allowed to know him for as long as we did. It is a difficult challenge, but I will try.
Dear Heavenly Father, I don’t know why this tragedy had to happen, but I trust that You see the bigger picture. I thank You for the good memories and for the outpouring of sympathy for this man’s family. I trust that Your love is boundless and beyond our comprehension, and that he is now resting in eternal peace with You. Amen.
The personal website of my now-widowed cousin had the following poem on it well before this happened, and I found it to be both beautiful and uncannily appropriate given her current circumstances.
Comes The Dawn
By Veronica A. Shoffstall
After a while you learn
The subtle difference between
Holding a hand and chaining a soul
And you learn that love doesn’t mean leaning
And company doesn’t always mean security.
And you begin to learn
That kisses aren’t contracts
And presents aren’t promises
And you begin to accept your defeats
With your head up and your eyes ahead
With the grace of a woman
Not the grief of a child
And you learn
To build all your roads on today
Because tomorrow’s ground is
Too uncertain for plans
And futures have a way
Of falling down in mid flight
After a while you learn
That even sunshine burns if you get too much
So you plant your own garden
And decorate your own soul
Instead of waiting
For someone to bring you flowers
And you learn
That you really can endure
That you are really strong
And you really do have worth
And you learn and you learn
With every goodbye you learn.