Tag Archives: Death

Messy Faith

This post first appeared at https://medium.com/@revkylenorman/  under the title “Embracing the Messiness of faith” 

Someone once told my mother that eating chilli peppers would cure her cancer.

I wish I was making this up.  Upon hearing of her diagnosis, this individual informed my mother that the Lord had led him to discover a certain brand of chili peppers, and that if she would but eat of them she would be healed.  This was not the only ridiculous thing spoken to her.  Another offered these words: “don’t you worry, we are going to pray for your healing, and God always answers our prayers.”  Don’t get me wrong, prayer is good.  It meant a lot for my mother to know her church community was praying for her.  But to boldly promise a healing, based on the greatness of my mom’s faith, or on the superb eloquence of their own prayers, is simply mistaken.  The reality was that my mother knew three months into her treatments that she was not going to get better.  She died six months after the date of her diagnosis.

I would like to say that the crazy comments stopped upon her death.  Sadly, they didn’t; they just migrated to other members of the family.   Upon her death, someone said to me matter-of-factly that the reason she died was because “she had finished her work on earth.”  This may sound like a nice sentiment, a simple explanation providing an easy logic for why people die.  It is even covered in a thin veneer of spirituality that makes as if it is a faithful response to death.  It might seem this way, that is, until you realise my mother was only 62.  She died before her own father; she will not get to see her youngest daughter get married or watch her only grandchild grow up.   I have no doubt that, given the chance, there would have been a whole lot more “work” that my mother would have loved to do.

I bring these things up because I feel we do not always give voice to the messiness of our Christian faith.  Our faith rarely exists in palaces of simple logic and problem-free solutions.  We face difficulties, we struggle with God’s silence in prayer, we sometimes are left bereft of an answer for what is occurring in our lives.  When we rationalize such difficulties by resting upon easy answers and stock phrases we reduce our faith to something safe and palatable.   For example, a church in my neighbourhood recently posted the quote: “When the answer is simple, God is speaking.”  Now, there are two things wrong with this quotation.  Firstly, this is quote from Albert Einstein, a man who fundamentally rejected any notion of a God who loved you, cared for you, or spoke to you.  Einstein’s god was a non-personal, non-affective, non-redeeming God.  But more importantly, what does that say to the person going through a tumultuous time?   What does this say for the one struggling for direction?  If God is speaking only when the answers are simple, then any difficulty in life necessarily testifies to the absence of God.  In promoting this easy answer, we step away from the very incarnational reality testified to in scripture.

The fact is, scripture is filled with messy situations.  From Adam and Eve to King David, from Job to Jesus, we see faith lived out amongst the muck and mire of regular life.  In scripture we uncover many questions, yet interestingly, very few answers.  The book Job is a prime example of this. Upon Job’s suffering, Job’s friends put forward the answer to his plight:  Job is suffering because he deserves it.  Their theological outlook is quite simple, really: Bad things happen to bad people. The logic of easy answers are direct and pointed: Sin means suffering; Death means God has no more need of you; Chilli peppers cure cancer.  Yet such statements offer nothing to the grieving or struggling person.  They only serve to let’s us off the hook, to move us away from actually wrestling with our life with God.

Faith does not make us immune to difficulty or struggle.  The good news, however, is we are not alone as we bear the difficult things in life. We see this throughout all of scripture, starting right from page one. In response to their sin, God enters the garden (that has just become infinitely messier) and calls out to the hiding Adam and Eve.  We see in Job.  Despite all his questions, God provides no easy answers.  Instead, God provides Job with an understanding of his presence. Job final words are “now my eyes have seen you.” It is in this reality that Job finally rests.

Of course, we see this most profoundly in Jesus.  God steps into the world to take our mess upon himself and to bear it with us.  Christ is born in backwater town of Israel, surrounded by animals, unclean shepherds, and gentile mystics.  Although perfect and without sin, Jesus is baptized in order to take up Israel’s need for salvation.  In the wilderness he experiences the temptations that so often besiege us.  He is hated, despised, and rejected.  Jesus is beaten mercilessly and suffers an excruciating death on the cross.  Such physical agony is only matched by his spiritual anguish as he cries out “My God my God why have you forsaken me?” Make no mistake, the messiness of Christian faith is that Christ is there in the mess.

Rarely do easy answers make us feel better. I can’t answer why, despite all the prayers, my mother was not physically healed.  But I can claim that Jesus held her each and every moment of her difficult journey.  And that gives me comfort. See, when we fail to embrace the messiness of our faith, we may just fail to meet the one who embraces us in our mess.  It is the presence of Jesus in our lives, not safe and easy answers, that makes all the difference.

As you journey through the rest of Lent, allow me to pose a question for reflection: Where is your faith a little messy at this moment?  Perhaps you have some questions that remain unanswered.  Or possibly those easy answers you have been previously offered just don’t seem to cut it anymore.  Maybe you are facing a hard conversation, a difficult road, an unforeseen circumstance.  Whatever it is, what might it look like for you to embrace that mess?   Because having a messy faith is not the worst thing in the world.  It is within that mess that you may just uncover the presence of the Lord.

View at Medium.com

The Language is Important: Michael Coren and the Problem of Pastoral Insensitivity

This is my response to The Reverend Michael Coren’s CBC opinion piece regarding Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID), posted on February 4,2020. (You can find his article here). Let me be clear about what this response is and is not.  This is not a position paper wherein I pose a counterargument to Coren’s support of MAID.  My intent is not to convince anyone of a certain ethical stance regarding this complex issue.  Coren’s support of MAID will go unchallenged. I do, however, wish to highlight how Coren discusses MAID, and suggest why, I believe, Coren’s piece is unhelpful and harmful.

Before I jump in, let me first tell you who is writing. I am someone who was born with a rare congenital heart condition.  I had open heart surgery when I was 6 months old, and while I have largely lived my life without complication, at 41 years of age, my heart has begun to decline in function.  Every passing year brings more reduced functionality. To put it bluntly, my heart is failing. Due to the rarity of my condition, my cardiologist cannot tell me how my condition will progress or what awaits me in the future.  All of this is to say I am not someone unconcerned with how this conversation is occurring.  Furthermore, while I am not someone who would choose MAID for myself, I understand why someone would, and I recognise that, in the future, I may be in the situation where this is presented as an option to me.  Now, onto my issues with Coren’s article.

Most disturbing is Coren’s position that the alternative to assisted dying is “unassisted dying.”  Coren writes that unassisted dying amounts to “dying in pain, anguish, and often totally alone.”  This is simply not true.  For starters, I would hope that as a clergy person Coren doesn’t believe that someone is alone when they die. More to the point, however, Coren completely dismisses the valuable ministry provided by Hospices throughout the world.  It is as if he assumes that MAID is the only resource available in which one can manage how they die.  Again, this is simply not true.  Coren ignores the simple reality that every single day there are countless medical staff who lovingly and ardently attempt to make an individual’s journey toward death as easy and painless as possible. I have had the privilege of visiting many people in Hospices over the years, and I am constantly touched by the care taken to ensure that no patient feels alone or abandoned.  Furthermore, letting “death come like a thief” does not equal dying alone.  My mother died in a Hospice room after her cancer ran its course.  She was surrounded by all her children, and her husband holding her hand.  We all had a chance to say our goodbyes and to trust her into the hands of God.  To suggest that opposition to MAID amounts to willfully condemning our loved ones to a painful, lonely, and agonizing death is ludicrous, and I would add, pastorally insensitive.

This brings me to another point. Apparently, Coren doesn’t believe that other people have adequate experience with death and dying.  Coren writes: “I have to wonder, how many of these people have sat with an ailing loved one and heard them beg and plead to be permitted to go just a little early” (my emphasis).  Does Coren really believe that people are living in blissful ignorance of death and dying?  Does he really believe that anyone who opposes MAID do so because they have never experienced the death of a loved one?  Frankly, I don’t believe that Coren thinks this way.  This sentence obviously is a rhetorical device designed to bolster Coren’s own position.  It suggests that Coren alone has done the hard work of journeying with people as they die, and no one else has.  But again, this is simply not true.  Personally, I have sat with parishioners as they have relayed to me their sense of frustration that death was taking too long.  I have held the hands of the dying; I have watched life-support be removed from a comatose patient.  I have been called to the bedside as someone breathes their last.  And in each of these situations I was never alone.  I was but one of many. Every day, millions of people spend time at hospital beds and hospice wards as they surround the ill and dying. Coren doesn’t have a monopoly on these experiences, and to suggest otherwise is disrespectful.

Lastly, let me touch on how Coren ends his opinion piece.  Coren, who has not spoken of matters of faith at all during his post, concludes this way: “Pray God – and I use the name of the deity purposefully – we will all come to our senses.”  Obviously Coren is suggesting that God agrees with him, that he somehow has an inside track on God’s view on life and death.  Without typing the words, Coren essentially concludes his opinion piece with “thus saith the Lord.”  It is always dangerous for a clergy person to suggest that he or she has an inside track on how God views matters of morality and ethics. “Who can discern the mind of the Lord?” the scriptures say (Romans 11:34).  Don’t get me wrong, we can have our positions.  We can even believe that our position is a faithful response to God and the scriptures.  But we cannot suggest that disagreeing with my position is akin to disagreeing with God. This does not convey respect to others, or to the God we serve in humility.  By using the name of God “purposefully” here, Coren is labelling those who disagree with him as godless fools.  As a clergy person tasked to help others seek and serve Christ in all persons, this is uncalled for. At best the statement is misguided, at worst it is manipulative clericalism.

The very manner in which Coren speaks of MAID is detrimental to any discussion of the complexity of this matter. Coren caricatures those who disagree with him in the most ungraceful, unchristian, and insensitive of ways. The language he uses does not convey the spirit of humility, respect, grace, or love that we as Christians (or as clergy) are to evidence in the world.  In the future, may we all do better in listening to others and respecting the various complexities of our life together.

 

 

Requiem for my mother

On the last day of this year, just hours before the flipping of the calendar, my mother died after an extensive fight with Cancer.  The road had been long and painful, but the death itself was relatively quick.  Time after time my mother had shown her resolve, living even in her last moments with a desire to care for those she loved.  Since her death, the family has talked in length about her self-sacrifice, her love, and most importantly, her faith.

A few days following her death, I took some time alone.  I sat in a coffee shop with my journal, and began to write whatever words flowed out.  I wanted to put to paper the myriad of thoughts, memories, and emotions that whirled within me.   As part of this time, I began to reflect on my mother’s faithfulness.  Here is what I wrote:

All the stories of her selflessness, her constant desire to put others before herself, to bless them, this was drawn from her deep love for Jesus.  It was because she fed herself constantly on the grace of God that she could, even in her most painful of days, look to the blessing and betterment of others.  She longed to put on Christ, to serve as he served, to bless as he blessed – to be a witness and a sign to the very kingdom in which she lived.

As such, her faith was not an escape.  It did not shield her from the difficulty of life – it provided no retreat from the torment of cancer.  Her faith did not make the road easier – for in some respects it led her more deeply into her own suffering.  It highlighted the home she longed for – the mansion to which Jesus would lead her.  She embraced those painful days knowing she was embraced by the one who walked his own suffering road.  She sat and cried knowing her tears were matched by the one who wept blood in the darkness – but over whom the darkness would never prevail.  And so she could, in the midst of all pain and hurt, live in faith and hope.

With her eyes fixed upon Jesus, the author and perfecter of her faith, she grasped the eternal hope rooted in his victory. Where, O Death is Your Victory?  Where O death is your sting?

And now she resides in blessed rest, experiencing the fulfillment of the longing of her soul.  She breathes in full  the grace and joy only partially experienced in this fragile world.  She is embraced in the loving arms of Jesus where she again weeps – not in sorrow or sadness – but in joyful eruptions of delight at the vision of the Lamb upon the throne. Her eternity is one of rejoicing for she spends it in the very activity she loved here on earth – the praise and worship of her Lord and Savior.

And so even in this loss we can join in her song and say Hallelujah.