Alterations of Death

The image of a blanket, woven with various patches, filled with stitching, and mended with quilting, is not one uncommon when we describe our human experience. Often have writers invoked the image of a patchwork quilt to describe the many pieces that constitute our lives.

Many of us have quilts made by mothers, or grandmothers, to which our mind immediately races when this image is invoked. We may even go to our closet, pull out those quilts, and gently pass our hands across the patches, the stitches, and the signature where our loved one’s hands had once been. Even as they made this quilt, and this quilt is a thing itself, it is not hard to imagine that that quilt can be an analogy for our lives: we are all nothing more, or less, than pieces of a whole that has been placed together by the relationships in our lives.

We are a whole quilt, but we are not whole without the many parts that make us who we are.

Any quilt, however, no matter how well made or how many times stitched, will eventually become worn if it is used. Quilts can remain pristine if we keep them in a closet and never use them, but the quilts that are used will eventually need to be repaired; they will need to be altered.

But what happens when our quilt is altered without being worn out, when something happens that rips the quilt into 2 pieces or pulls the stitching out and destroys two patches? What happens when the quilt cannot be turned back into what it once was and it has now become something that cannot be repaired? It just can’t. It has become something else.

This is what death does. Death alters the quilt and it alters it to such a degree that this quilt cannot be fixed. It turns the story of your life into another story even as it is the extension of the same story.

Some will come by and say that “the quilt gets easier to use” and that “missing piece will one day be a spot for a new piece” but all of that is crap. The quilt doesn’t get easier to use with time and it never becomes what it once was. Even if you try to repair it it can never get back to its originary state. It can be functional but even in that function it’s destruction is clear.

But why? Why can’t we repair the quilt and move on?

Because using the quilt forces one to continue looking at what it isn’t. If the quilt is in fact your life then being alive is a reminder of the part of the story that has taken an unexpected, and unnatural, turn for something that is not part of this quilt you’ve been unintentionally weaving.

Death alters our quilt; it alters us. The only way it doesn’t is if a.) that part of your quilt didn’t mean much and hence finding a new piece to fit into the torn spot isn’t too difficult or b.) we sedate ourselves from our own materiality with the allure of not death (I”ll fly away O Glory). Response “A” means that that part of your story was not consequential and response “B” means that perhaps we have not rested with death long enough to realize what it is: Death…the cessation of that which makes us alive.

It is hard to describe how death alters a person or changes our quilts beyond repair. All deaths are not equal.

I am not special. Many people have had death visit them through their family. In my immediate family, I have lost a cousin at 19, all of my grandparents have died within the last decade (I lost my first grandmother exactly 10 years ago this week), and I have experienced the untimely and sudden loss of my 65-year-old father. Going through the death of my cousin, and grandparents, did not prepare me for losing my dad; not even close.

All deaths are not equal but that does not mean we do not love all those that die. We can love them and say goodbye to them. We can see their contributions to our quilt and come to a resolution that this part of the quilt is finished but it is not destroyed. Our quilts can stay intact. But sometimes death visits in such a way that your life literally changes after it happens. Sometimes the quilt is mangled beyond repair.

We have all been to funerals, paid our respects, left, and then went about our daily lives as if we had never attended the funeral. We have all been to funerals of grandparents we mourned, yet we understood that 89 years of age is an honest age and it is part of the human condition to live, and die, in time. We hate it but accepting it is not an impossibility. We go to the church for the funeral, have dinner, good conversation, and then go to our homes…business as usual.

This doesn’t mean we are bad people; it just means that there is a season for everything and when things happen in season it is easier to accept.

When it snows in January we are fine; it’s the snowstorm in July that shakes us up.

THEN, there is that death that after it happens your life literally changes. It is not the same afterward. You cannot go back to business as usual. It alters you, sometimes physically. It destroys the quilt and there is nothing that can fix that loss. That patch is not made anywhere else and even “moving on” or “recovering” or “getting better with time” does not make the quilt what it was. It’s just irreparable.

People who have never had a loss in what I call “out of time” have no idea what I’m talking about. I have experienced “in time” and “out of time” loss and the latter is torture in its immediacy. There is something especially tragic about premature, sudden, untimely death. In this kind of death, you have the benefit of not seeing your loved one suffer, but you carry the eternal burden of no final words, no more moments, no more embraces of love. As quickly as you blink that person is gone…without warning. Depending on how interconnected your life was will determine on how this moment presents itself to you.

The quilt changes; its not the same and taking advice from people who have never had their quilt destroyed beyond repair…or living in a culture that just replaces quilts…leaves no room for the real-life PTSD that can follow death.

Death, the kind of death you feel in your bones, alters you. The quilt is never the same and it is hard to describe if you’ve never lived through the kind of death that is only beginning once you put your loved one in the ground.

I said at my father’s funeral that his death would change history. Probably not world history, but my history, my family’s history. Like Back to the Future an alternative 2017 was created when my dad died, and we have been on that alternative timeline ever since. Unlike Back to the Future, I am unable to go back to that time in history and make it right.

When I consider the alternative history, it is shocking how much has changed even though so much has stayed the same. My quilt is jacked up but places I take it are still familiar.

What alterations have happened?

For starters, and sadly, it has now been long enough for my little girl to begin forgetting her grandad. My daughter is 2 and when my dad passed those 2 were just beginning to develop a relationship. Her personality was coming out and my dad always loved the babies. He loved how the babies would be captivated with him and reciprocate his childish demeanor. First it was my 3 boys, then my sister’s girls, and my little girl was next to be the apple of his eye. But now…he is a faded memory. For a few months after she would mention that “grandad was sleeping” because that is how I described him at the funeral home.

But now? She’ll see him in a picture and ask who he is. He died just 2 weeks after her 2nd birthday. Their relationship has been altered.

My boys were 11 and 9 when my dad died. They did a lot with him when they were younger. My dad loved his boys; they were, after all, the first grandkids and twins to boot. As they got older my dad would wrestle with them, take them four-wheeling, and toss them around in the pool. He would bring them home pizza, share his A&W Root Beer with them, and teach them Karate. Two of my oldest boys have autism so they did not always reciprocate affection to my dad as he would have liked but that’s not because they didn’t love him; it’s because they have autism and relate to people around them differently than the norm. My dad struggled to understand that as my boys got older.

Now? They have no grandparent to do that with and cannot learn to develop the kind of relationship with an active grandfather that would have been so pivotal for them.

In business, changes have been drastic. After getting a crash course in self-discovery of all the things my dad never showed me, I became chief executive officer. Don’t let the title fool you; it really means I just get to do more work. My sister and I split up the office work, but I believe I may have taken any stress on myself that my dad used to carry. My work weeks went from a standard 45 hours to 60. My focus went from strictly operations to wearing all the hats one needs when running a small business. I now find myself in the sort of job that will not get done even if I work 16 hours a day 7 days a week. When you own your own business there is always something to do and you bring work home with you every day. I didn’t realize how much I didn’t have to think about when he was here. Now…I get to be concerned with all of it.

As the CEO and CFO of our company, my dad was the gatekeeper. All of the family, and even employees, could come to him in confidence with any item. Now that privacy was over. What was once hidden became transparent as I know needed to have that knowledge.

Familially, my mother, who had been married to a man that owned his own business, suddenly had to rethink her relationship to myself, my sister, the business and what it means to be a widow at only 58. She is still struggling with that transition and experts say widows can take up to 5 years to adjust to the loss of a spouse. My dad was kind of the intermediary between all of us in the family and since his death we have had to renegotiate how we relate to one another, and in many instances, discovering we do not know one another as well as we thought.

Academically I have had to put on the brakes. I had just begun my 2nd year of a Doctor Of Ministry program and was doing some intriguing research when my dad passed. Suddenly, I had 0 motivation to write and no inspiration to do so. I found myself questioning the very academic enterprise itself. If life could be snuffed out without warning, then what am I doing wasting my life writing papers no one will read and reading books that I can discuss with maybe 5 people? When I am dead I doubt anyone will recall the articles I’ve written or the books I helped edit. Most likely some poor student will come across them incidentally but for the rest of the world my meager academic contributions will be swallowed by the oblivion of academic prose.

Death caused me to question the value of everything. Those that know me know academics was a big part of my life. I love to learn, write, do research, teach. I was not a smart kid in High School but in the liberal arts I had found my passion. Suddenly my dad’s death made me question my motivations and how I spent my time. What once had supreme value became almost meaningless. I had to take an “incomplete” in the class I was taking at the time of my dad’s death and it took my 9 months to write the last two papers I needed to finish the course. It seemed like a monumental task that beforehand would have been chump change for me.

Recently I received emails about registration for classes and I had to be honest with my advisor that I am still not in a place where I can meet my own expectations. I believe I can do good work and I want to finish. My thesis project is novel and would be a fine contribution, but now I have business responsibilities that take precedent over my passion for learning and working in the faith. If my dad had not died, I would be starting year 3 of my Doctor of Ministry and probably have a few chapters of my thesis written. I would be 1 year from graduation. Instead, I have completed 1 year with nothing but academic ambiguity lying in front of me.

Personally, one of my main hobbies was powerlifting. The night before my dad passed I was in the gym prepping for a power meet in the late spring. I was weighing 180lbs at 5’7 and deadlifting 450lbs, doing sets of 315 for 10-15. My lifts were strong. I would spend about 4/5 days in the gym, getting workouts in when I could depending on work. My goal for my meet was a 400lb squat, 500lb deadlift and 330 on bench. Even if I had to hit the gym from 11pm-after midnight I would get it in.

Since my dad has passed, I am lighter than I have been in a decade. I stopped eating nearly half as much and found minimal time for the gym with my added responsibilities and lack of mental focus for heavy weights. I weigh 150lbs and have lost most of my strength gains. I have went from benching 315 lbs to having a max of 230. Now I can’t pick up 400 lbs and I used to be able to just bend down and pull that for 5 reps like it was nothing. Spending hours in the gym is no longer appealing to me. The killer mental focus I used to have for weight training is gone and I am unsure if it will ever come back.

Basically, none of my clothes fit. I went from needing XL T Shirts to now being able to wear Medium shirts I haven’t worn since 2010.

Lastly, his death altered my view of things. Things I used to enjoy buying, like vintage baseball cards, have lost appeal. The problem is that when he died all his stuff stayed here. Stuff that he loved, like his car and some of his coin collection, just sits to be eaten by moth and rust. We all know we can’t take it with us but when someone leaves suddenly, and the things they loved are left behind just taking up room, we realize that so much of what we “enjoy,” or pursue, is worthless in the end.

In addition, things usually only mean something if you can share them with others. It’s no fun to buy a car, a new ring, or even an Al Kaline rookie card if you have no one to show and share it with. Our relationships make things matter but in the end the thing is nothing more than a token that deepens the relationship.

There used to a bumper sticker that read “he who dies with the most toys still dies.” Its cliché and when I read it back in the day it seemed obvious…but when I really learned that lesson it changed how I think of things and how I spend my money. Stuff is just stuff; it is meaningless. So why do I work, if not for things? If not to have more money to buy more stuff?

Now I work for my family and for those that work in my company. I don’t work to have things; I work to make my company the best it can be to provide for my family and be the best it can be for my employees. A job well done means more to me than any money I can make from the job because that is how I will be remembered when I die.

No one will care what I had in my house, but they will remember how I treated others and handled my business. My family will remember how I put them first.

Death that you feel alters you. You don’t have to seek it out. You won’t have to wonder if this death is an altering death. You will live it and it will change you. It won’t leave you alone; you won’t get over it; you’ll basically learn to live with it even though you’ll suck at living with it most days.

The trouble with deep death is that it alters the quilt we’ve been working on and not time, a trip to Hobby Lobby, or looking forward to the final eschaton will make that better. The quilt is just jacked up and that’s kind of not fair because the ones that die don’t have to deal with death like us.

This is where death gets tricky. Only the living experience death. The moment of death is felt by the dying but only those left behind get to live through death. Those that die are relieved of that burden. The only way to live past death and avoid it is to die ourselves. Ain’t that some crap?

Death is full of irony, dialectic if you will, in that death is the only release from death; it’s the only way to save the quilt. For us unlucky ones that get the quilt destroyed without proper wear and tear we are just stuck with the reality that death alters us, the quilt will never be or feel the same, and the journey toward remaking that quilt is one that will most likely end only in the death of ourselves.

 

Leaning Into Death: An Alternative Reading of Acts 2.42-47

buddha death

Preaching from Acts 2 this Eastertide, it dawned on me this familiar passage was saying something much simpler, yet more profound, than providing fodder for theological arguments between Pentecostals and, well, every other Christian.

The early portion of this chapter (tongues of fire, upper room, etc.), gets most of the attention in the chapter, and rightly so.  It’s bizarre, unusual, and produces a proclamation that had never happened before.

In Chapter 1, Jesus ascends into heaven and the disciples go to Jerusalem (to the Upper Room) to wait, for something unaware.  Chapter 2 continues the action answering the proverbial, “so what now?  If Jesus isn’t here, what happens and where are we going?”  The tongues of fire episode is the first part of the answer.

But the tongues of fire is the easiest part of the answer.

I mean, who doesn’t like a religious experience?  Plenty of people thrive on experience, feelings, euphoric highs that charge our life.  We have all been witness to the power of religious experience, perhaps even experiencing something religious ourselves.  The two fastest growing segments of Christianity in the world are the two that offer an experience, a doing, with God: Pentecostalism and Catholicism.

Ok, so you’re not religious and don’t like that analogy?  Do you like sex, the experience of sex?  Or is it better to think and talk about sex as opposed to having sex?

Do you enjoy the experience of cheering for your favorite sports team, cheering for your child, experiencing joy?  If you’d rather go to Disney World than talk about it, you prefer experience because participating in something powerful makes you feel.

Thus, we understand how powerful, and preferable, great experiences are.  You don’t have to be religious to appreciate that we humans LOVE to experience FEELINGS.

It is little wonder Acts 2 and an experience of the Holy Spirit gains the traction it does.  Its powerful, it’s refreshing, it’s renewing.

Yet, the early portion of Acts 2 is not the end game.  The end game begins when the experience of the first part of this chapter takes a form of life, a form of life in Acts 2.42-47 that is a daunting reminder/request.

Acts 2.42-47 is a troublesome text that offers a vignette of life in the early church while simultaneously making the rest of us nervous at the consequences.  It reads:

42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”

There’s just something about the implication that we should fellowship, commit ourselves to the teaching of the apostles, pray, break bread and praise God that seems like too much work.  And lest we get too comfortable, let’s not forget this idea of “holding all things in common and selling our possessions” in order to provide for those who have need that makes us spiritually wriggle and physically convulse.

While this list seems odd to us, it is not uncommon for Luke to give us these summary statements about life in the early church, brief portraitures of how they organized their communal living.  He does so in several places throughout Acts, such as chapters 4, 6 and 9.

In so doing, Luke is not only telling us how the early church lived, but he is gently nudging us to go and do likewise.

The trouble with these summaries, however, is that they are often lifted out of the chapters in which they occur.  These summaries, like Paul’s lists of “dos and don’ts” that keep people out of heaven, are summarily read and rehearsed with little regard to the stories preceding and following them.

While debates about religious experience and the political ideology of Acts 2 are intriguing, I have a different question: Why does this summary occur here, in this part of the Acts 2?  What larger narrative is at work behind this summary?  And why does the Lectionary ask us to read this text at this point in the Easter Season?

The problem with reading Acts chapter 2 is that it is read as two separate texts.  We have a 2.0 and a 2.1 version: a Pentecostal experience and a purview into life in the early church.  We preach an experience OR we preach a political obligation.  Rarely do we seek the coherence of this chapter.

Simply put, Acts 2.42-47 is impossible apart from Pentecost.  This is a way of life that cannot be lived apart from the Spirit.  The episodes of this chapter are episodes but they must remain a singular chapter, parts of a larger whole.  But let’s not stop there.

Acts 2.42-47 cannot happen apart from the Resurrection in Luke!  The Resurrection of Jesus in Luke, the Ascension of Jesus in Acts 1, and the Giving of the Spirit in Acts 2 are three stages of a singular event in which Jesus is glorified and given back to creation.

If Christ be not raised, then living in the kind of community discussed in Acts 2 is laughable.  If Christ be not ascended, then there is no giving of his presence to the Church.  If there is no giving of the Spirit, there are no tongues of fire, no empowered proclamation, and no Church.

Therefore Acts 2 is part of our Easter readings.  At first blush, one would surmise we should read Acts 2 during the season of Pentecost, but if we understand this larger movement we see that Acts 2 is not describing a Pentecostal community; it is describing an Easter community empowered through Pentecost.

It is because Jesus is raised, and the end of time marked by the outpouring of the Spirit, that those who believe on Jesus are compelled to live a life in which they sell their things, hold all things in common, break bread together, worship, and commit themselves to the apostles teaching.

Easter has empowered this early group of believers to not hold so tightly to life and empowered them to grasp more tightly to one another.

In a world without Easter, we cling to our life.  In a world with Easter, we grasp our death, and through death find life.

The early church knew how to grasp their death.  They understood it to such a degree that they lived their life toward death, leaning into it.  They leaned into to such a degree that they held loosely to all that was theirs and committed themselves to one another, anticipating that the end that had started in the Resurrection of Jesus, and been confirmed in the giving of the Holy Spirit, would overtake them all soon.

The early church took Joel 2.28 seriously,

“After this I will pour out My Spirit on all humanity; then your sons and your daughters will prophesy, your old men will have dreams, and your young men will see visions.”

Here is the kicker: only people who are convinced that in Jesus’ Resurrection the end has begun can live according to Acts 2.42-47.  Only people who have received tongues of fire to proclaim the ridiculous message that Jesus is raised and that we can share in his resurrection can live as Acts suggests.

Moving one step further, people who believe this, and have experienced the outpouring of the Spirit, can do no other than live as Acts 2 suggests because they understand they are living toward death, living toward the end that is God.  People who know the end is near have no time to be consumed with grasping to a life they will lose so they lose the life they have.  The Apostle Paul insinuated something similar when he proclaims, “I am crucified with Christ.”

In the debate between paradox or dialectic, in this instance, we side with paradox.

One may believe this end will come in the clouds with Christ, or believe it comes at the time of our own death, either way, we must lean in toward the end.  This is what the early church does and why Acts 2.42-47 is odd; it’s a way of life that doesn’t grasp life.

I call this a hermeneutic of loss, a hermeneutic grounded in the death of Jesus and the loss of the world.

As such, Acts 2.42-47 really functions as more of a reminder of what matters than a dictum to be followed.  The texts job isn’t to exacerbate our failings, but to remind us that this is how people live who live toward the end: People who believe the end is now in the Resurrection, Ascension and Coming Holy Spirit of Christ.  When we forget life is found in death, we live life for life-sake and when death comes we wish we’d lived toward death, because we will regret living as if the end wouldn’t happen.

But this reading shouldn’t come a surprise.

I have never known a hermeneutic of loss, or read scripture as texts toward death, until I lost my own father nearly 12 weeks ago.  After suddenly losing him, scripture has just as suddenly become a new land.  I see in it things hidden before; I feel in it things I never knew to feel.  Eerily, parts scripture make more sense now because it too was born out of a series of traumas that led to life in/through loss.

After my father’s death, all I wanted to do was do these things in Acts 2 with him.  I wanted to sit in his Sunday School class one more time, hearing the apostles teaching.  I wanted to eat with him again, break bread.  I wanted to fellowship more, visit his house after work.  I wanted to pray for him, with him, share in the simple pleasure of hearing him pray one more time before dinner.  I wanted to be thankful more, enjoy life more, not let the trivial things of life irritate me when I was around him.

When he died, he left behind all the things he loved and enjoyed.  His family, his hobbies, his business: it is all still here.  Yet, my father lived as one who never held too tightly to these things.  He left them behind, he knew he would, so he spent his days doing as much of Acts 2 as he could.  If you knew him, you lived Acts 2 with him as well.

Acts 2 reminds us that at the end of our days, either at the appearance of Christ in the Clouds, or in the face of death when it comes for us, we will not regret anything except that we had lived more like the picture given to us in Acts 2.42-47.

My suggestion?

Discover the resurrection of Jesus.  Discover death.  Lean into it.  Find life.  Find Freedom.