BYOS (Bring Your Own Sermon) Summer Series

  1. How did the death of your son impact your faith? Did the impact include changes or affirmations? Honestly, does such an event impact everything in your life?
  2. Not believing in a supernatural God, or heaven, how do you comfort people who are dying?
  3. You don’t believe in “afterlife” but would you tell a grieving person that their loved one is just “dead and done” – what would you say to them? In reading what you believe, this no-afterlife is the one I struggle with most. I agree with no heaven/hell places or no God person but I want to still believe that my loved ones are somewhere peaceful and happy and loved, or that their spirit is with me. I sense or believe in something, a creator that unites us all; science has an important role but did not give me love. Reading you has gotten me to focus on what I believe – good news – so I will ponder ‘afterlife’ some more. On a lighter note, does belief in no afterlife mean no ghosts or spirits so would you walk through a graveyard at night?

Jeremiah 31:15
Thus says the Lord:
A voice is heard in Ramah,
lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
she refuses to be comforted for her children,
because they are no more.
Sometimes I think that happiness is over for me. I look at photos of the past and immediately comes the thought: that’s when we were still happy. But I can still laugh, so I guess that isn’t quite it. Perhaps what’s over is happiness as the fundamental tone of my existence. Now sorrow is that.

Sorrow is no longer the islands but the sea.
–Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament For A Son
The person of faith is not known by which philosophical outlook she affirms, but rather by her commitment to life. She can take any stand or no stand concerning the meaning or absurdity of the universe, for faith does not operate at that level. The lived certainty of faith has nothing to do with belief or nonbelief in gods, natural law, or karmic returns. It has no regard for metaphysical systems or carefully constructed worldviews. It instead describes a lived protest against forms of life that treat existence as worthless.
–Peter Rollins, The Divine Magician
It was three years ago Father’s Day that we last saw Zach. The four of us spent the day. We went to the movies at the three dollar theater, the Real to Reel in Johnson City, and watched the classic film “the Dictator” by the Cohen Brothers. You don’t need to look it up. It is the kind of film that my son and I would watch, but don’t report that to the presbytery.

We were happy. Both our children lived nearby. We had a nice home. Our careers were going well. I had just started my radio show, a hobby of sorts, but fun and important to me. I was looking forward to being a commissioner at the General Assembly in Pittsburgh. That morning I started a summer sermon series on happiness and said in the sermon that I was about as happy in my life now as I had ever been.

Things were going so well that I almost forgot about the dark cloud on the edge of the sky that had been churning for the previous five years. We had been on watch with Zach. He had made a suicide attempt in his second year of college and had lived with us for most of the time since then.

We couldn’t figure out that magic formula that would remove whatever pain he felt within him. He courageously fought it every day. Zach was an incredible human being. He was good-looking, funny, smart, and kind. Everyone liked him. We loved him.

On June 28th Beverly and I drove the six-hour drive through West Virginia to General Assembly in Pittsburgh. While here, that first night, late, we received the call that he was gone. We drove back all night in tears and disbelief.

That is the short version and all I need to say publicly. It is important for me that the universe knows that Zach’s life was a beautiful gift to us. We are grateful for him. That makes his absence more painful.

It has been three years. I still don’t know if I am grieving correctly. Not sure if I am supposed to be grieving at all, or what stage of grief I am in, and I certainly don’t want any advice about it. I never know how public I am supposed to be about these things and again I am not interested in any opinions about it.

I am a husband and a father. A father to Zach and to a beautiful, funny, smart, kind, daughter. I am a father in a more than biological way to others as well. In addition, I am also a minister. Being a minister is not just a job or a career to me. It is that. It is my job. It is my career. But it is a profession through which I live out my passion.

The fancy religious word is calling. While that word has its origins in supernaturalism as a “call from God” nonetheless, I do consider what I do a vocation. That is a privilege. I recognize that and am grateful for that. My calling or vocation is that I seek to articulate experience and ask questions of meaning. I protect that part of my work because as a pastor in a church institution there is great pressure to spend all my time on trivialities. I consider my calling to be to assist people as they work out their own meaning. I do this through sermons, teaching, writing, radio, sharing a cup of coffee, and so forth.

I provide that background as an introduction to this series of sermons on questions brought to me by you, members of the congregation. I am starting with hard personal questions that I had solicited in order to prime the pump for this series.

One of those questions that was asked is this: “How has my faith and perhaps my calling as a minister been affected by the death of my son?” I invited people to ask that question and someone did ask it.

That is a hard question because I really don’t know. I suppose people who knew me before and after could observe changes in me. But I don’t know what they see. I know that I have lost a lot of quickness. My memory isn’t as good as it was, especially with names. It has been a challenge to get to know you and your names and your stories. I appreciate your patience with me. My energy level is certainly not where it was three years ago. I am kind of like a baseball player who has lost a few miles per hour on the fastball but compensates by being more cagey. That’s that part.

My opinion hasn’t changed on many things. But it has been validated by experience in some ways. For instance, I have never liked celebrating Mother’s Day and Father’s Day in church. I was sensitive to people for whom those days are painful, for instance parents who had lost children. It is true, now that I am in that club, I would just as soon stay home than to have to endure some big hullaballo about that in church. But losing a child has also given me a healthy cynicism about the whole thing, a dark humor. I don’t have to guess what a father or mother might feel like, I know at least what I experienced. There is a sense in which I get it and thus can cut through the crap faster when people are grieving. Let’s skip the platitudes and get to the feelings.

That leads to the question about how I might comfort grieving people if I personally don’t believe in a supernatural god. I used to worry about that. I haven’t believed in a supernatural god for a long time. I felt guilty about that. I thought that might be because I hadn’t suffered enough. If I was really suffering and grieving I would need a supernatural god. Now, it has been a relief of sorts. After my son’s death, I have legitimately entered the “sufferer’s club” and thus I have a right to own my theology. I have discovered the simple maxim, if a supernatural god is helpful to you, then great. If a supernatural god is not helpful to you, then great. It really doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks about it.

Grieving people are on their own journey. They will gather around them people they want as companions. As far as my role as a minister is concerned, I am there for those who want me there. I am a companion. I can help articulate the experience. I can be present. Those who did that were companions for me. I don’t see my role as offering comfort, especially. The verse that appeared in bold print for me was from Jeremiah:

Thus says the Lord:
A voice is heard in Ramah,
lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
she refuses to be comforted for her children,
because they are no more.

There is no more true text in the Bible than that one. She refuses comfort of course. All comfort is a joke, a triviality, a platitude, an insult. There is no comfort. I wanted no comfort. No promises of heaven, no caring deity, no assurances of the light, or that it will get better, or I’ll get through this. I wanted what was real. What was real was lamentation and bitter weeping. That is real. Don’t cheapen my loss or my son’s life with some phony booby prize of heaven or a pretend divine being.

That sounds harsh and that is what grieving is. It is harsh.

I have found that the desire for comfort comes not so much from the person who is grieving but from the friends of those who are grieving. That is why the book of Job is so great. It is about the poor, bumbling, well-meaning friends of Job who want to comfort him. What the amazing book exposes, of course, is that they are the ones who need the comfort. They can’t bear to see him suffer so and be so ornery about it so they offer him one platitude after another, one piece of advice after another, one piece of theological nonsense after another, so that they can feel some sense of protection from the void that Job knows all too well.

But there is no protection from that void. You face it. You are changed forever by it. You go on.

In Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, she talks about a sunny spirituality. That is a spirituality that denies the void. It wants everyone to be happy or to get happy again as soon as possible. It does not recognize the holiness of lament. It sees lament as a temporary loss of faith. Chin up, be happy, there is no crying in heaven. As Jimmy Dugan, the character played by Tom Hanks in “A League of Their Own” says to one of his players, “There is no crying in baseball!”

A sunny spirituality does not recognize that lament is a holy place. Rachel’s lamentation and bitter weeping, her refusal to be comforted, is not a disorder, is not the absence of God, it is a holy act. It is a sacred place. Those who are there are witnesses. Those fortunate to be in their inner circle as companions, not comforters, are witnesses.

The void is also the place of holiness. That is why neither Job nor Rachel need protection or comfort from it. They are asking of us simply to be heard. They are asking of us to be with them without comforting them, without turning away, without trying to change them or pity them. But to hear from them an offer of a gift. My lamentation and my bitter weeping is holy.

The void and the grief of it provides insight.

Christianity’s central symbol is the son of God on a cross. In Mark’s gospel the first person to utter that Jesus is the son of God is the centurion when he sees Jesus die on the cross. Jesus cries out: “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” is the voice from the void. It is a holy utterance.

There is a wonderful sermon by Robert M Price in the latest issue of the Fourth R, a publication by the Jesus Seminar. His sermon is titled, The Holiness of Desolation. He concludes:

When the illusion of human self-sufficiency is gone, and nothing is seen but the ruins of weakness, then is the time when the power of Christ becomes conspicuous by its absence. It is like anti-matter, if you know your physics. A positron appears for a split instant and then decays, leaving behind it a charged hole where it was! When human strength decays after a brief moment of visibility, it leaves behind it a void that radiates the power of God.

If you are in a frozen tundra of darkness and desolation, I charge you: do not imagine that God has abandoned you! The sunny days of religious feelings and spiritual ecstasies were a shiny temple, a fancy idol. Now you find yourself in the ruins, where true holiness maybe felt in the depth of the soul’s night or the body’s pain. It is on the cross that you are God’s son or daughter!

Enter into the mystery of the terrible spirituality of the Lamentations. Cry out to him in your forsakenness. It may be some comfort to know that in so doing you are closer to him that you have ever been. His invisible power and holiness shine the more brightly from your darkness.

The grief over the loss of my son has added an experience of depth. The holiness of lamentation and desolation. I don’t think of God as a supernatural being. God is more interesting than that. God is more cagey. More invisible. Seen, if at all in desolation.

Ok, last question, afterlife. First off, I know this topic is important for some. People have had experiences and beliefs. I mean in no way to discount any of it. I will share my thoughts. Take them for what they are worth.

Here are a few provocative statements.

Christianity is not particularly good at afterlife. It was mostly used as a promise that justice would eventually be meted out and to keep people behaving. Heaven and hell. Most go to hell. Most of us have let go of that. That is why people who really are after signs, proof and hope that our consciousness will survive the death of our bodies find New Age philosophies more sympathetic. There are many movements for those interested in that.

Hinduism and its variants of course have reincarnation as a central doctrine. What people in the West don’t get is that reincarnation is not desirable. The goal is to end it. To get off the wheel. The guru is ecstatic when he declares that it has been revealed to him to that he only has as many lives left as there are leaves on this tree. The tree is one of those big huge trees with, well how many leaves does a tree have? The tragedy of birth and rebirth is that the damn thing won’t end. It is going down the Max station every day and you try to get on the train and you keep missing it.

I don’t think a belief in afterlife is a solution to our problem. I don’t insist. I don’t care. That said, I don’t particularly like being told that my views are inadequate, or that I need to be saved, or that I am going to hell. I find all of that weird and superstitious. I also think karmic consequences or heavenly rewards or hellish punishments are forms of spiritual abuse.

If there is some way in which my consciousness survives my death and I have an awareness of self in some other realm, well great. I’m game. But it does nothing for me in terms of how I live life in the present. If folks want to live forever, that is fine. I just think it is a lot more work.

Again, this is one of those things I felt guilty about, because I didn’t think I suffered enough. Losing my son should make me interested in life after death. Yet my views haven’t changed. I just no longer feel guilty about sharing them. I don’t insist. I can’t possibly know. I am happy if others feel differently.

Some might ask don’t I want to see Zach again or isn’t it comforting to know he is watching or waiting. Actually, no, it is not comforting. I don’t want a ghost of him. I miss the real guy in the flesh. I had that. Now I have his memory.

I have developed a metaphor of my own that I call The Great Peace. Zach has entered as I will one day, the Great Peace. No worries. No joys. No sorrows. No Divine punishments. No Divine rewards. No anything. It will be the same as whatever I experienced before I was born. It will actually be same as what Hinduism and Christianity in certain forms promise eventually. Finally we reach the point in which we drop into the divine like a drop is absorbed into the ocean. I affirm the Great Peace which shortcuts through all the extra lives and the heaven and hell and goes right to it. The Great Peace is at the moment of death the drop that re-enters the ocean. Everyone goes there, the saints and the wicked alike.

In the meantime, what I want is not life after death. I want life before death. I want this life to be real. Actually, Zach’s death has highlighted that for me. I realize more than ever that life is precarious and precious. It is always far shorter than we ever expected. If there is any sense of afterlife it is that I want to live a life in such a way that what I have done will somehow impact the future in a positive way. I want to add my feeble works to what Joanna Macy calls the Great Ball of Merit. That Great Ball is a reality of its own. It is the interactions over the ages of humanity’s aspirations and good deeds that will hopefully allow our species to survive and thrive for millions of more years. Adding to that Great Ball of Merit is all the afterlife I need.

I will close with this blessing from Henry Frederick Amiel:

Life is short and we have never too much time for gladdening the hearts of those who are travelling the dark journey with us. Oh be swift to love, make haste to be kind.

Amen.