Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Life as Tragedy

Farther Along

My Parents' Gravesite

He went to Paris looking for answers 
To questions that bothered him so...
Jimmy, some of it's tragic
and some of its magic
but I had a good life all the way.
He Went to Paris,  Jimmy Buffet

This is the way the world ends, 
not with a bang but a whimper. 
       The Hollow Man, T.S Elliot

The busy tribes of flesh and blood,
with all their lives and cares,
are carried downwards by the flood,
and lost in following years.
Time, like an ever rolling stream,
bears all its sons away;
they fly, forgotten, as a dream
dies at the opening day.
O God Our Help in Ages Past, John Newton

I think about death - a lot. I come from an obituary reading family. When I was in my 30's and he near 60, my father told me that as one grows older, he comes to greater acceptance of death's reality and inevitability. I doubt it. Humans hate death. I have witnessed even the strongest of Christians, who so far as I knew lived transparent and holy lives and affirmed with Paul that death is gain because absence from the body is presence with Christ, fight approaching death and do everything they could to prolong life even in a compromised condition. We want to live.

Death is a harsh reality - oft denied, oftener still pushed down in our consciousness. Like the existentialist who knows life has no meaning yet must live heroically as though it did, a great many people know that death exists yet try to live blissfully as though it doesn't.

Death makes life in this world a tragedy. Carl Trueman* in his First Things article Tragic Worship (Read it here) makes this point profoundly and eloquently:
Yet human life is still truly tragic. Death remains a stubborn, omnipresent, and inevitable reality. For all of postmodern anti-essentialism, for all the repudiation of human nature, for all the rhetoric of self-creation, death eventually comes to all, frustrates all, levels all. It is not simply a linguistic construct or a social convention. Yet despite this, Western culture has slowly but surely pushed death, the one impressive inevitability of human life, to the very periphery of existence.
A Cousin I Never Knew
Death makes it hard to make sense of life. Recently I read columnist who said that "everybody has a story with God, with a beginning and a middle and an end." In one way that is true. Every life is related to God and every life, however short, has a beginning, middle, and end. But the statement also makes life sound like one of those "satisfying" plays or movies with plot development, climax, and denouement. But our lives' stories seldom make that kind of sense. We die without all the loose ends tied up. You are 35 and alive, and the next moment you are dead from a heart attack. You are 75, you get cancer, you fight it, and you die without speaking memorable words and without the sense that life has reached its meaningful end. You pass away without a bang. Just a last whimper. Trying to make sense of it yourself as you come to the end, or others trying to makes sense of it when you are gone, is an exercise in futility. You live your life in a fallen world, and with all creation you do a lot of groaning. Only, "father along we'll know all about it, farther along we'll understand why." (Listen to Johnny Cash)

And  the thing makes death so awful is the human sense that life has meaning, however tragic, and that there  is something after death. I have thought many times that, if there were no existence after death, death would not be such a big deal. The organism comes to its end. When you die, you die. There's nothing to worry about afterwards. Manage the unpleasant and painful aspects of the process with the best medical science can do. But you live, you die, and that's it. However, the vast majority of human beings can't pull that off.  There is the nagging sense that there is some kind of meaning and purpose to life and that there is something yet to come when biological life ends for humans. That "something" has to do with God, with judgment, with whether what comes after is to be good or bad. Try though humans may, it is all but impossible to escape the voice within that says "it is appointed to man once to die and after that judgment."

After pointing out that Pascal said in the 17th century that man's obsession with entertainment is an attempt to distract himself from the reality of death, Trueman* goes on to point out that the denial of death extends even to the church:
It is therefore an irony of the most perverse kind that churches have become places where Pascalian distraction and a notion of entertainment that eschews the tragic seem to dominate just as comprehensively as they do in the wider world. I am sure that the separation of church buildings from graveyards was not the intentional start of this process, but it certainly helped to lessen the presence of death. The present generation does not have the inconvenience of passing by the graves of loved ones as it gathers for worship. Nowadays, death has all but vanished from the inside of churches as well.
The refusal to face the reality of death extends even to the services that mark the end of this life. Several years ago, I attended the funeral service of a distinguished elder. The service took place in one of those historic, traditional Presbyterian churches. There was a large congregation. Dress for all situations and occasions has descended into chaos and degeneracy. Yet I was surprised to see an elder's wife walk past me on the way to her seat wearing white pants, a yellow blouse, and sandals. Her dress was not tacky - she had style. But it was inappropriate and, I think, disrespectful. She couldn't wear a black or navy blue dress or suit and change afterwards for whatever else she had to do that day? Death is serious. The death of a human any human being, but especially of a Christian, even though he/she "is with the Lord" is an occasion for somber reflection and dignified conduct. A funeral is not a celebration.

Trueman* points out that the church's funerals reflect the church's failure to face death:
Even funerals, the one religious context where one might have assumed the reality of death would be unavoidable, have become the context for that most ghastly and incoherent of acts: the celebration of a life now ended. The Twenty-Third Psalm and “Abide with Me” were funeral staples for many years but not so much today. References to the valley of the shadow of death and the ebbing out of life’s little day, reminders both of our mortality and of God’s faithfulness even in the darkest of times, have been replaced as funeral favorites by “Wind Beneath My Wings” and “My Way.” The trickledown economics of worship as entertainment has reached even the last rites for the departed.
Trueman* argues Christian worship is so trite is because it no longer has the resources to deal with the the tragedy that is life the grief and death. One of the abandoned resources is the Psalms that deal with the full range of human experience - triumph and tragedy, victory and defeat, exultation and despair, life and death.
The psalms as the staple of Christian worship, with their elements of lament, confusion, and the intrusion of death into life, have been too often replaced not by songs that capture the same sensibilities”as the many great hymns of the past did so well”but by those that assert triumph over death while never really giving death its due. The tomb is certainly empty; but we are not sure why it would ever have been occupied in the first place.
There are other ways than Christian faith and worship to live life and face death on the plane of the trivial and jolly. Christianity is not for those in denial about about life and sin, frustration and death, tragedy and grief. It is a realistic and substantial religion. By its realism and sustantiveness Christianity is the most help to us. In life we puzzle. At death we grieve. Till Christ comes. Only then will tragedy become triumph and death become life. In the meantime our faith enables us face the harsh realities of life and death without giving way to cynicism and despair but with trust and hope.

A number of years, as we were talking about his father's funeral, a man said, "Dad was a meat and potatoes guy." I asked what the meant. He replied, "He was an Psalms and Ecclesiastes sort of guy." Those are not empty calories for the Christian.

Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay. 
In the midst of life we are in death: of whom may we seek for succour, but of thee, 0 Lord, who for our sins art justly displeased?
 Yet, 0 Lord God most holy, 0 Lord most mighty, 0 holy and most merciful Saviour, deliver us not into the bitter pains of eternal death.
Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts; shut not thy merciful ears to our prayer; but spare us, Lord most holy, 0 God most mighty, 0 holy and merciful Saviour, thou most worthy judge eternal, suffer us not, at our last hour, for any pains of death, to fall from thee.
Forasmuch as it hath pleased Almighty God of his great mercy to take unto himself the soul of our dear brother here departed, we therefore commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ; who shall change our vile body, that it may be like unto his glorious body, according to the mighty working, whereby he is able to subdue all things to himself.
The Burial of the Dead, The Book of Common Worship 

* Dr. Trueman, of course, bears no responsibility for the contents of     this blog, including the use I make of quotations from his article.

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