Cultural Vignettes at the End of a Life


I’m still going through some of the materials from a recent course I took on death and dying, and reflecting on the lessons I learned, especially as I engaged much of this course around my deepest experience with death–the passing of my grandfather in 2010.

I previously spoke about how this shaped me personally and vocationally, and how I often felt I was on the outside looking in, taking in the scene at my grandparent’s house almost as an observer. No doubt this retreat into my mind was protective, for better and worse.

But one thing this granted me was the chance to look at this from a bird’s eye view and observe some of the subtle cultural dynamics here, ancient and modern, and their collision with human tendencies around death and grief.

Death–awaiting it, grieving it, and even approaching it ourselves–is wrapped up in a myriad of cultural forces that shape our inner and outer lives. One could even argue that most (perhaps all) of our cultural rhythms are a response to mortality: a denial of it, a distraction from it, outliving it, or an attempt at delaying it.

My grandfather passed passed away the day after Christmas, so our grief and vigil in that last week happened against the backdrop of the holiday (and my birthday, which was another odd dynamic). It was an unusual paradox, to say the least.

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Vigil & Vocation: My Grandfather’s Death & My Life


Two weekends ago was the birthday of my late grandfather, who died a decade ago. I just finished a social work class on end-of-life issues, and that class had me thinking a lot about him, the impact of his death, my own life and legacy, and how that has all changed and morphed over these past ten years.

So I’m going to spend a few posts reflecting on this. Today I wanted to share how the experience of his death shaped my life personally and professionally.

But first, a little about him. Due to a mispronunciation by the first grandchild, we called my grandfather “Peep”; and Peep and Mammaw’s house was where the entire family came for weekly dinners and holidays. He was the quintessential man of his age: the quiet, stoic, Texas man’s man. He was my mother’s father, the patriarch of the family, and exerted a great centrifugal force in the system. His death left a large hole which I don’t know we’ve recovered from, honestly.

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Race, Liturgy, & My Great Awokening


My wife will tell you I have a “both sides” problem. I reflexively think through hard things by trying to see them from all sides and treating them equally. But inevitably, while this makes me think I’m acting “enlightened” and “objective”, that’s largely an illusion–and quite often, it does more harm than good.

At least when I employ it, it gives me a false sense that I am hovering above the conflict and that I am not actual mired by my own bias, defensiveness, and not actually being affected by the conflict itself.

But too often, rather than nobly making space and elevating other perspectives and voices, it leads me to prioritize my own voice and simply invalidate that of others.

And that’s precisely what happened in 2012 after the death of Trayvon Martin.

After Martin’s death at the hands of George Zimmerman, I watched the struggle and lament from black America, and felt an odd disconnect. I felt like I could “see both sides” and “understand” why white America was confused why this particular moment was so galvanizing for blacks.

I wrote a blog post about my frustration that me, as a white man, did not feel like I was culturally “allowed” to speak to these issues. The post is bad. I’m still incredibly embarrassed and ashamed of it–but I’ve kept it online (with a note) to document change and repentance.

I had great friends that really laid into me about that post. They took me to task, were patient with me, fully articulated their thoughts, and demonstrated the implications of and ideas behind the things I was saying. It gave me a lot of pause and made me wonder what I was missing–because while I trusted them, I simply couldn’t see what they were seeing.

* * * *

Around that time I watched a special by the comedian Dane Cook at Madison Square Garden. His final joke of the night was about religion. To set it up, he began with “I was raised Catholic…” but was interrupted by cheers in the crowd.

He stops, takes note, and says, “Peace be with you!” and in return tens of thousands of people responded in unison with the ancient liturgical reply: “And also with you”.

Now, huge numbers of those people had probably abandoned their Catholicism long ago, and yet the repetitive week-in, week-out liturgy of their Catholic upbringings had embedded itself in their psyches so they knew how to reflexively respond in that moment to the words of the liturgy–even if they had left the Church decades prior. 

I don’t know how or why this happened, but it was in that moment that everything my friends had been telling me about race and privilege clicked for me.

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Systematizing the “Right” Way to Grieve


When I watched my grandfather die, the weirdest thing to me was that I had no idea what to feel or how to respond. Humans have been dealing with death for hundreds of thousands of years and we still are paralyzed by it. We click into any number of different responses ranging from shutting down to explosively acting out.

For my current class on caring for those at the end of their life, we went over some theoretical models for grieving and bereavement. Going through the history, it was fascinating just how desperately humans have wanted a framework for how we respond to death and dying.

Part of the problem is this: how do you define “successful” or “healthy” grief? Moving on with life while living a joyful, grateful existence full of robust social connections? I think most would agree that’s a good picture of it. But the real difficulty when you’re sitting in front of a grieving person (or are going through it yourself) is: how do we get to that place?

I think many of us believe that you really need to feel the sadness, stare it in the face, deal with it, process it, sit in it for a time. But why? My gut thinks that’s the way it should go, but the research says otherwise.

Plenty of people go through a huge loss, feel a twinge of sadness, and then get up the next morning and move on with life, with no discernible negative impact on the rest of their life or relationships. When people aren’t actively in emotional distress, there is little evidence that forcing someone to do “grief work” is actually helpful.

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When Death and I have met


I’m currently in a class on caring for those at the End-of-Life. At the beginning of this course, we were given an assignment (which you can do yourself) to give us a baseline as to our feelings and experiences around death and dying, and begin cultivating an awareness of how we cope with it.

I thought I had a good sense of my relation to death in my life, but this really clarified and confronted me in some profound ways. I saw just how unacquainted I am with death, and struggled to recall times it had entered my life.

The first death I knew of was my great-grandmother, with whom I had an oddly strong connection. But I was 10 or 11 at the time and heard about it from my mom, I think, while we sat in the car in our driveway. I remember numbness and confusion, not really knowing how I was supposed to feel. I felt solace in how religious she was, and I felt a responsibility to carry on her “legacy”.

But still, we did not return from Virginia to Texas for her funeral. This meant that my first funeral for a little boy at my church who had drowned. I was maybe 14 at the time. I did not know him, nor his family, and had no connection with them other than we went to the same large church. I went more out of curiosity and was confused at how detached I felt.

My biggest acquaintance with death was that of my grandfather. It was the first dead body I saw, and I was present for the hospice care and process of dying and grief over the course of a couple of weeks or so. But I will have more to say about this death another time.

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Lent, Accompanied by Death


I am back in school. After having received my Masters of Divinity several years ago, I am now completing the other half of training for my desired career path: a Masters of Social Work.

I’ve been working in the social work field for over a decade and have known that I’ve wanted to move towards more clinical therapy-type work. All along, I have imagined this would be your run-of-the-mill outpatient counseling with adults dealing with addiction, marital issues, mental health concerns, etc. I have respected those that work in inpatient settings, with kids, with the elderly, and such–but I have not imagined that would be my route. And I still don’t.

However, here in my second semester, just as the Christian Church is in the season of Lent, I am taking a course on End-of-Life Care, and it’s shaping up to be one of those courses that will profoundly affect me in the long run.

I’m taking the class not only because my desire in clinical work is to try and bring some greater sense of wholeness, health, and dignity to the hardest parts of human existence, but because death is an aspect of human life I’ve not had a lot of experience with. I’ve had some family members, a few acquaintances, and plenty of clients die over the years; and I’ve walked with others in their grief over the loss of others. But still, I’ve had relatively little training and direct experience with it.

Also, while religious faith can provide a structure and a sense of resilience, coping, and meaning in the face of death–that’s certainly been true for me–it can also sometimes serve as a distraction from our mortality. It can be used to minimize death, prevent us from taking it seriously, or keep us from really grappling, internalizing, or accepting it.

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Ideas for Lent: Fasting, Prayer, & Generosity


Tomorrow, Lent begins. The Lent tradition began in the 3rd-century and is a 40-day season of meditation and repentance in anticipation of Easter celebration. Whether you are just beginning to explore Christianity, or have been a Christian for some time, Lent is a perfect season to allow God to shape your life in fresh ways.

Historically, Christians have used three broad categories of practices to engage in this season: fasting, prayer, and generosity.

These practices are external means and postures for shaping one’s soul and interior life. Fasting removes things to create space in your heart and life, prayer is a way to fill that interior space, and then generosity is giving out of the overflow we trust is there.

Below, you’ll find some brief words helping us think through these categories, followed by some ideas for how you can it in your life. Pick one, or pick several. The important thing is to try and do it consistently, and use times of frustration or skipping as a chance to meditate on your own limitations, and how God meets you in that. Continue reading

No, John MacArthur: Pandemic Church Restrictions are Not Persecution


California has experienced a huge surge of COVID-19 cases in the past month or so. In response they have placed further restrictions on gatherings and businesses, including restricting churches with capacity limits and no singing.

On Friday, California pastor John MacArthur, with his elders, posted this piece saying they “respectfully inform our civic leaders that they have exceeded their legitimate jurisdiction, and faithfulness to Christ prohibits us from observing the restrictions they want to impose on our corporate worship services.”

Positive Points

First, I want to commend MacArthur and his team. Not enough churches engage in civil disobedience against the government, oftentimes letting political interests tempt churches into compromising their core values and commitments.

It was refreshing to see a large, conservative church say once again that Jesus is Lord, not Caesar, and to reclaim the sense that the Church is fundamentally opposed to the ways that government and politicians do things, especially when they will obviously receive the scorn of a watching world and local government for the sake of their convictions. However…

Good Faith, Bad Faith, Insecure Faith

I really want to avoid whataboutism throughout this piece; yet, one cannot look at MacArthur’s letter without some confusion. This is a church and denomination that has given themselves so totally to one party in our political system, they have little integrity in saying they are now following Christ, not Caesar.

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This Easter just might be a lot like the first. [quote]


One of my church’s seminary interns, Tara (who did the Holy Tuesday video, by the way), wrote out this little reflection on our Slack channel and I thought it was a beautiful reminder during our social distanced Easter this year.

This is an unusual Holy Week–one that is perhaps not so far off from that first Easter. Anxious people huddled in their homes. Jesus mysteriously appearing not to crowds or synagogues or throngs of people–but to individuals like Mary, alone and grieving at the tomb, and to two disappointed disciples on the road to Emmaus, and to others in such small solitary groups. Jesus mysteriously appearing in their midst. Perhaps like us indeed this Easter.

Tara Ann Woodward

Holy Monday Prayer & Reflection: The Fig Tree


Here is the Holy Monday prayer and reflection from my church. Leaders from the church are doing videos for each day of Holy Week, going through our prayerbook liturgy for the day and offering some personal reflections. You can also find the audio version on our podcast.

Confess

We cannot come before God
unless we are first honest with ourselves
about who we are,
about the mistakes we make,
and about how well or poorly we care for others.
In this spirit, let us offer our prayers to God.

O God of peace,
I have built up walls to protect myself from my enemies,
but those walls also shut me off from receiving your love.
Break down those walls.
Help me to see that the way to your heart
is through the reconciliation of my own heart with my enemies.
Bless both them and me,
that we may both come to grow in love for each other and for you, through Jesus Christ. Amen.

~ Silent Confession & Reflection ~

Read

Selection from Mark 11.20 – 13.36

Then he began to speak to them in parables. “A man planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a pit for the wine press, and built a watchtower; then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the season came, he sent a slave to the tenants to collect from them his share of the produce of the vineyard. But they seized him, and beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. And again he sent another slave to them; this one they beat over the head and insulted. Then he sent another, and that one they killed. And so it was with many others; some they beat, and others they killed. He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ So they seized him, killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard. What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others. Have you not read this scripture:

‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is amazing in our eyes’?”

When they realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowd. So they left him and went away.

Practice

Jesus was rejected and overlooked. Take a moment to have a conversation with someone who is often overlooked — perhaps an acquaintance you know is lonely, perhaps someone living on the street. After your conversation, spend some time praying for that person.

For Families: Ask your children if they have ever felt rejected or overlooked (explain these concepts if necessary). Ask them if you, as their parent, have ever been the cause of them feeling that way. If so, apologize and repent to them. Help them connect this feeling to Jesus’ experience and let them know that, whenever they may feel that way in their life, Jesus knows and never rejects or overlooks us.

Lent, the End of the World, & the Coming of the Son of Man | Mark 13.1-27


This meditation on Mark 13.1-27 is expanded from the Liberti Church 2020 Lent Prayerbook

__________

If you participated in Ash Wednesday a few weeks ago, you may have felt the shocking way Lent sneaks up on us. It refuses to ease us into its contours and instead hits us in the face with as much blunt force reality as it can: You are ash. You will die.

For those uncomfortable with these sorts of truths, the text  below does not let up. It is a scary and confusing one, speaking of death, torment, wars, and destruction–even among those most innocent in society. The confusion of this text led some Christian traditions (especially the 19th-century American Church) to separate these words from their original context and history and see them as terrifying images of the end of the world. Perhaps you grew up in such a tradition and read these words with that filter.

To the extent there is good news in this, it is that these words are not in fact talking about the end of the world. The bad news? Well, the truth of what it is saying is even scarier.

Jesus is not talking about an end-of-the-world Armageddon here. Instead, he is predicting the destruction of the Jewish Temple (which happened at the hands of the Romans 35 years later) and telling his people what to do when it happens. Just look at the verses immediately preceding the scary ones. Jesus says the Temple will be destroyed, his disciples ask when that’s going to happen and what will it be like, and then Jesus says all this stuff. When you start reading it that way, it’s pretty straightforward. But why does this matter?

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