death

New & Noteworthy

Hagar’s Story
Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, by Delores S. Williams, now professor emerita of theology and culture at Union Theological Seminary, is a landmark in womanist thought. The recently released 20th anniversary edition has a new foreword by Katie G. Cannon. Orbis

Moving Music
Jon Batiste and his band, Stay Human, have played on the New York subway and in other public spaces in free-ranging, mobile performances they call “love riots.” Their album Social Music offers that same positive spirit and a fresh take on jazz. Razor & Tie

Tears & Fears
Children, sadly, can’t always be protected from loss. What Do We Tell the Children: Talking to Kids About Death and Dying, by grief counselor Joseph M. Primo, offers insights and tools for creating space for age-appropriate grieving and development of coping skills. Abingdon Press

Blows Where It Will
In an overview of church history with her usual eye toward the future, Phyllis Tickle, with Jon M. Sweeney, looks at the power and mystery of the Holy Spirit in The Age of the Spirit: How the Ghost of an Ancient Controversy is Shaping the Church. Baker Books

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Beyond Fire and Brimstone

MANY PEOPLE HAVE been given a very tame and uninteresting version of Jesus. He was a nice, quiet, gentle, perhaps somewhat fragile guy on whose lap children liked to sit. He walked around in flowing robes in pastel colors, freshly washed and pressed, holding a small sheep in one arm and raising the other as if hailing a taxi. Or he was like an “x” or “n”—an abstract part of a mathematical equation, not important primarily because of what he said or how he lived, but only because he filled a role in a cosmic calculus of damnation and forgiveness.

The real Jesus was far more complex and interesting than any of these caricatures. And nowhere was he more defiant, subversive, courageous, and creative than when he took the language of fire and brimstone from his greatest critics and used it for a very different purpose.

The idea of hell entered Jewish thought rather late. In Jesus’ day, as in our own, more traditional Jews—especially those of the Sadducee party—had little to say about the afterlife, about miracles, about angels and the like. Their focus was on this life and on how to be good, just, and successful human beings within it. More liberal Jews—especially of the Pharisee party—had welcomed ideas on the afterlife from neighboring cultures and religions, especially the Persians.

To the north and east in Mesopotamia, people believed that the souls of the dead migrated to an underworld whose geography resembled an ancient walled city. Good and evil, high-born and lowly, all descended to this shadowy, scary, dark, inescapable realm. For the Egyptians to the south, the newly departed faced a ritual trial of judgment. Bad people who failed the test were then devoured by a crocodile-headed deity, and good people who passed the test settled in the land beyond the sunset.

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Life, Death, and Beyond

Chrstphr/Shutterstock
God does hear us. Chrstphr/Shutterstock

I’ve been thinking about what it means to be chosen, and conversely how we choose to be chosen. I’ve also been thinking about life, death, choices, and what happens to us after our earthly body dies. Do we remember who we are here? Do we remember our friends, lovers, enemies, acquaintances? Do we remember events, important moments, unimportant moments, or forgotten moments? I believe we do. The problem is that all we know and have experienced about the Divine is limited by our own thoughts and words.

Stop Comparing Mandela to Jesus, British Journalist Says

Mandela photo, left, courtesy www.sagoodnews.co.za, Jesus statue, right, court. Onderwijsgek. Both via Wikimedia Commons/RNS

Few would deny Nelson Mandela’s greatness, but one of Britain’s best-known journalists, Dominic Lawson, has taken the media to task for comparing South Africa’s first black president to Jesus.

Writing on the eve of the departure of world leaders to Johannesburg to attend a memorial service for Mandela, who died last week, Lawson wrote in the Daily Mail: “He was a giant — but how absurd for the BBC to compare Mandela to Christ.”

Lawson singled out BBC presenter Evan Davis who told listeners on a Dec. 7 radio program that Mandela should be ranked alongside Jesus in “the pantheon of virtue.”

The BBC radio program included former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who emphatically dismissed the notion of Mandela being on par with the founder of Christianity.

Nelson Mandela and the Power of Elders

Republic of South Africa postage stamp. Circa 2008. catwalker/Shutterstock

The world lost a hero yesterday.  Nelson Mandela, 95, died at his home in Johannesburg, South Africa, after a long illness. 

From prisoner of 27 years to President of his country, Mandela exhibited courage and vision for a country that had feared a bloodbath in its transition to a post-apartheid society. Mandela united the country through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

A less-noted aspect of Mandela’s work was his founding of The Elders on his 89th birthday. With a mission of “offer[ing] their collective influence and experience to support peace building, help address major causes of human suffering and promote the shared interests of humanity.” Mandela gathered Jimmy Carter, Kofi Annan, Mary Robinson, Desmond Tutu, Muhammed Yunus, and others to harvest the wisdom of their years for the good of the planet. Founding member Peter Gabriel further explained: “In traditional societies, the elders always had a role in conflict resolution, long-term thinking, and applying wisdom wherever it was needed. We are moving to this global village and yet we don’t have our global elders. The Elders can be a group who have the trust of the world, who can speak freely, be fiercely independent, and respond fast and flexibly in conflict situations.”

Americans Divided on Facing Death: Fight It, Choose It, or Let It Come

“Personal Preference by Religion and Race/Ethnicity” chart courtesy of Pew Research Center. Via RNS

Death may be inevitable, but one in three Americans – including most blacks and Hispanics – want doctors to never quit fighting it.

And that number has nearly doubled in 23 years, a new survey finds.

In 1990, 15 percent of U.S. adults said doctors should do everything possible for a patient, even in the face of incurable illness and pain. Today, 31 percent hold that view, according to a report released Thursday by the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project.

The majority of U.S. adults (66 percent) still say there are circumstances when a patient should be allowed to die. At the same time, however, the never-say-die view calling for nonstop aggressive treatment has increased across every religion, race, ethnicity, and level of education.

A Pilgrimage Not of Her Choosing

I CAN’T WRITE a completely unbiased, academic review of this book: Nora Gallagher is a friend, and I know the medical world that she must still navigate, and how wonderful it is when you arrive at the Mayo Clinic. This book is for anyone who plans to die one day and wants to live daily with purpose and with a real God. Those who are or have been physically ill will find a kindred soul in Gallagher, while the healthy will wonder how they will handle the sad, sympathetic gazes from others in the pew when their names are placed on the prayer list.

When she is 60, the vision in one of Gallagher’s eyes begins to fail. She limits the use of her one good eye for fear of losing sight in it too. Not so bad, you might think—except that as a writer, seeing is key to paying for the medical tests and travel she will endure for two years.

Of course all good patients become writers in a way. At first you take random notes in scattered notepads. Finally you redefine yourself as a full-time patient whose life demands documentation of every symptom and test in a little black book that becomes your constant companion. You have now entered what Gallagher calls Oz, the land of illness.

For Gallagher, Oz is strange. Oz is blurry. She is lonely. She is a patient not a person. Oz has many disrespectful, condescending doctors working in machine-like hospital systems that allow 10 minutes for a consult; they must get to the next patient, not solve the mystery of her now-painful, debilitating state.

In comparison, the Mayo Clinic, where Gallagher eventually goes, is Kansas. Mayo is set up to meet a patient’s needs first. There is art and music to calm the soul and mind. I commend to you her descriptions of the place, the people, and the entire thought process of being a Mayo patient. One teaser: There is rarely a line, because the doctors are waiting for her!

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What Happens When We Accept Our Own Mortality?

Experienced as the Butlers were in suffering and loss, they were not prepared for the technologically enhanced torments of old age.

Knocking on Heaven's Door tells what can happen when a person's mind and body endure a series of shocks that would naturally lead to decline and death — except that, through various technological interventions, the body is not allowed to decline along with the mind.

In Professor Butler's case, a major stroke wiped out most of his ability to function independently and set him on the road to dementia. At the same time, his heart was slowing down. A year after his stroke, over the opposition of his primary care physician, Butler was fitted with a pacemaker. His cardiologist strongly recommended it. He needed hernia surgery, the doctor said, and his heart was not likely strong enough to survive the operation. So he had the pacemaker installed, he had the surgery, and he was rewarded with another six years of increasingly hellish existence — not only for himself, but also for his wife and his daughter. His mind was shot. His body would not do what he wanted it to do. But his artificially assisted heart kept relentlessly ticking away.

Supreme Court Affirms Monks’ Right to Sell Caskets

Novices Joseph Eichorn, left and Dustin Bernard move a handmade wooden casket. Photo via RNS, by Ted Jackson/The Times-Picayune.

A group of Catholic monks can continue selling their handmade caskets after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from Louisiana funeral directors.

“We really can now move forward without worrying about being shut down,” said Deacon Mark Coudrain, manager of St. Joseph Woodworks in Covington, La. “This is going to affect a lot of other people. A lot of people are going to have opportunities to do things that are their legal right to generate revenue.”

In a little-noticed ruling on Oct. 15, the Supreme Court declined to hear the case between the brothers of St. Joseph Abbey and the Louisiana State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors.

Bringing America Back to Life

Photo courtesy of Shane Claiborne
A mother who lost her child to gun violence beats on the barrel of a handgun from the streets. Photo courtesy of Shane Claiborne

Yesterday, I read about the 2-year old child who shot herself by accident in North Carolina over the weekend. Then I read about the horror of another school shooting in Nevada. Only hours later — shots rang out again on our block in North Philadelphia, for the second time this week.  This time a bullet went through the window of one of the houses owned by our non-profit.

I was talking to a friend about my anger over the 300 lives lost in our city this year to gun violence. With the most sincere intentions, my friend said in an attempt to console me:  “It’s just the way the world is.” 

I’m not willing to give up that easy. It may be the way the world is today, but it doesn’t have to be the way the world is tomorrow.

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