The Sting of Death

While I was in California, an old friend of mine died suddenly. He was 42 years old with a beautiful young wife and four lovely children. I hadn’t had a conversation with him in several years – but he always held a special place in my heart. At one point in my life I had hoped that we would marry. My life would have been very different had that happened – my own three great kids wouldn’t exist and I very likely wouldn’t be doing the work I’m doing now. Though I couldn’t see it at the time, God had different but good plans for me. His wife and children have come to my mind and heart a lot since hearing the news. As I pray, I feel what I hope is consistent with what Jesus felt at the tomb of Lazarus recorded in John 11:33: “When Jesus saw her (Mary) weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” The Greek word that is translated “deeply moved in spirit” in this verse is “embrimaomai,” which is a combination of two words, “en” meaning “in” and “brime” meaning “strength” (Vine’s Expository Dictionary). The Greek word used for “troubled” in this verse is “tarasso,” and it means “to stir or agitate” (Strong’s Concordance). It’s important to clarify that Jesus wasn’t troubled in the sense that he was worried or perplexed; he had a holy rage toward death and its devastation. Jesus, of course, knew that he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead – but none-the-less – raged against the reality of death … “This isn’t how it was meant to be, this isn’t how it is supposed to be.” And when I think of my friend’s wife and young children left behind – something in my spirit rages. I have had an odd relationship with death through my life. I’ve shared before in this forum of my mother’s death when I was 18 months old. I’ve not known a day of my life when her death was not part of my reality. She was 25 years old when she died. So, when my older sister turned 25 I found myself holding my breath. And when I turned 25 I think I finally exhaled. Having turned the milestone 40 this year, it does not escape me that I have lived 15 years more than she did. In that sense, every day is a gift. I live with the awareness that death could happen at any time to anyone. (My mother died of an aggressive cancer that took her within three months of diagnosis.) My relationship with death isn’t particularly morbid …. But I did think about it probably more than most kids. It wasn’t a foreign concept, not something that just happened to people out there somewhere …. But it was something that was close to home, part of my everyday reality. The deaths that I have experienced during my life have caused a deep sense of loss. At the same time, having lived my life with the confident hope that someday I will meet and get to know the person my mother was, I want to laugh in the face of death and say, “Where is your sting?” I want to …. But sometimes I can’t. When I think of four young children without a father, I can’t. Instead, I’m angry. I’m angry at the senseless loss. I’m angry at the invasion of death. This isn’t how it is supposed to be. Why you might be asking, is she writing this on “Bridging the Gap”? I was sitting with friends this morning over coffee at the Christian family camp we’re at for the week. One mom was telling another friend about her daughter’s experience in Uganda this past year. This university student went on a co-op for her science program and worked with our denomination’s relief and development organization. (As an aside, I had contacted her when she was over there to speak to leaders about the anti-homosexuality bill. She reported to me later that some of the pastors she tried to speak with actually warned her to not pursue the discussion because, “nice white girls can disappear here”.) When she came back, one of the things that struck her about development in that nation is that many of their systems seem broken and often corrupt such that long-term improvements can be difficult. Part of this whole complex reality seemed to be a cultural ethos related to death. A story she shared was of a night when grasshoppers came to the town where she was. We’re talking raining grasshoppers. The locals eat these grasshoppers – so when they come down like this – a big party ensues and people collect grasshoppers into the night. Because it is dark and children are largely unsupervised, every year one or more children die as they chase a grasshopper and get hit on the roads or meet some other tragic accident. This year was no exception, and several deaths occurred in the region. My friend was just astounded at how pragmatic the local people seemed to be about these deaths. Death is at their doorstep all the time – whether from disease, war, poverty etc. So the combination of culture and reality result in what seemed to my friend to be an almost cavalier approach to death. I was reflecting on this story walking back to our trailer and asked my son how his time in program had been. He said that the leader had talked about the concubine from the book of Judges. (If you recall this story is about gang rape and murder.) As you might imagine, I was like “Whaaaat?” Apparently, this youth pastor had talked about sin through the course of the Old Testament, beginning with Adam and Eve but especially focusing on Sodom and Gomorrah and the Judges concubine account. He then talked about how wrong he thought homosexuality was. My son was quite upset and confused by it all – not sure what point the pastor was trying to make. I asked my son how he thought a gay boy or girl might feel if they’d been there – and he said, “I think they would have walked out.” (Unfortunately, I think they would have stayed and internalized the tragic negative message.) As I pondered what recourse I should take given the clear lack of pastoral concern for any kids who may be questioning or dealing with the reality of same-sex attraction, the two stories seemed to intersect in my mind. (Weird I know – but hey it is about 100 degrees with really high humidity – so I don’t think my brain is actually working all that well.) I thought about the kind of theoretical Christian teaching that is so black and white, so certain, so lacking in any awareness of the complex realities people navigate in their real lives …. The kind of teaching that seems driven more by fear than confidence in the unconditional love of God …. The kind of teaching that gets hi-jacked with superstition, stereotype, and exaggeration to fuel profound systemic hatred….. The kind of teaching that creates, promotes and defends legislation like the anti-homosexuality bill in Uganda ….. combined with potential desensitization to the devastation of death ….. and in a moment I was overwhelmed in my spirit to pray for a revival of “embrimaomai” and “tarasso” in the hearts of Ugandan pastors. When death is so common – does it become easy to think about putting people to death? Death has played a big part in my life’s story. But I never want to lose touch with the ebrimaomai and tarasso in my spirit in confronting the reality of death. I have not been to Uganda. I do not know their culture. I do not understand how Christian pastors can promote the death penalty for anyone. I don’t want to make too many assumptions on the basis of the stories and impressions of another Westerner who lived there a few months. But what I do know is that each life is precious to God. Each life matters. Each life taken by death should be met with outrage and holy distress – even when there is confidence and comfort in God’s economy. I’m afraid that if ebrimaomai and tarasso are lost, we lose our very humanity. Update: So I met with the youth pastor who spoke in my son’s chapel this morning. Poor guy he was nervous as heck when he heard who wanted to speak to him. What can I say, a fairly typical fundamentalist kind of Christian guy from a holiness tradition who’s sense of the Christian faith is quite different than my own. He meant well basically. He wanted to encourage the kids to pursue holiness. But I talked to him about the twelve year old kid who might be sitting there questioning his own sexuality (with his frontal lobe not fully developed) with whom he has no relationship or ongoing contact who internalizes a message that says, “I’ve got to fear God, I’ve got to be holy, or I’m going to hell.” This kid who may struggle for years to know that God loves him as he is. This kid who may feel disqualified from pursuing intimate relationship with God. I talked to him about that 12 year old kid who might be sitting there who is homophobic and walks away feeling justified in his attitudes because “clearly those people don’t fear God”. I talked to him about that student sitting there who has gay friends who now feels torn and confused about whether loving their friends would make God angry. I talked to him about the inappropriateness of using Sodom and Gomorrah and the concubine story in Judges 19 as examples of homosexuality given that they tell stories of violence and violation of strangers. And when he told me that he thought the core of the gospel was holiness ….. I told him that I thought the core of the gospel was God’s unconditional love and welcome to all people ….. and that unless people know they are loved they can never pursue holiness from any other place than fear. And then I told him that I would make myself available anytime for conversation with any students who had further questions about this topic. This camp doesn’t allow women to speak …. so I don’t know if they’ll make that announcement to the students or not …. but I pray they do ….. and if there is a kid who is fearful and confused, I pray that they will come and talk with me so that I can share God’s outrageous and lavish love with them.

-WG

#approachtoscripture #homophobia

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