death

'Greater Works Than Mine'

THE SAGA OF Elijah that we are following in 1 and 2 Kings culminates in a poignant parting as the prophet prepares to be taken up into heaven. His disciple, Elisha, makes a final all-or-nothing request: “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit” (2 Kings 2:9). Elijah states a condition for the fulfillment of Elisha’s prayer: “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not” (2:10). It is as if Elisha has to look unblinkingly into the reality of their separation. If he is to inherit the prophetic mantle and spirit of his teacher, he must claim the vocation in its entirety. He is now to be the prophet.

The story is an uncanny pointer to the truth that John the Evangelist highlights in Jesus’ last words to his disciples: “I tell you the truth: It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you ...” (16:7). John even echoes the “double spirit” theme in 14:12, when he has Jesus assure us that our prophetic endeavors will be more abundant and powerful than Jesus’ own!

The season following Pentecost helps us realize that we are the prophets now, vested with the mandate and endowed with the gifts for enacting the good news of liberation.

Martin L. Smith, an Episcopal priest, is an author, preacher, and retreat leader.

[ JUNE 2 ]
A Climate of Relativism
1 Kings 18:20-39; Psalm 96; Galatians 1:1-12; Luke 7:1-10

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A Mother's Love

Katie and Kay, photo courtesy Kay and Gordon Stewart
Katie and Kay, photo courtesy Kay and Gordon Stewart

Yesterday Kay Stewart shared this at the cemetery as we laid to rest the ashes of her first-born daughter Katherine (“Katie”).

For Christ to have gone before us,
To have kept us from ultimate sadness,
To be our brother, our advocate,
The One who ushers in the Kingdom,
Here
And the One to come,

Does not keep us from our digging today.
We still gather here and throw the dirt on our sacred dust,
We take the shovel like all those gone before us
And surrender to the Unknowable—
The place where
Love and Beauty and Kindness grow wild.
Where sorrow has no needs,
Where there is all beginning and
Nothing ends.

...

What We Find On Higher Ground

Higher ground sign, Andy Dean Photography / Shutterstock.com
Higher ground sign, Andy Dean Photography / Shutterstock.com

Here in the Upper Midwest (I live in Minnesota), the importance of higher ground is not just metaphorical, as snowmelt-fed flood waters rise to envelope communities. People, quite literally, are forced to higher ground by floods.

It is interesting, too, what happens when that higher ground, the literal higher ground, is sought. Necessarily, there are more people in a smaller area; that’s the nature of it. Diverse groups are forced together. We know these images from the news:  the floating cars, and then the displaced people together in a school gym, talking.  The power of that second image is that it shows an unexpected, shared space. People have grabbed what they could and fled to this place, often by walking uphill, and now they find themselves together.   

When the metaphorical waters rise and destroy what we know or count on, people do the same thing, but that higher ground is a broad mutual faith that encompasses the belief that there is something greater than ourselves, that there must be a reason for these tragedies; we turn to God. Recently, we have seen this happen in Boston and in West, Texas. At the memorial for the victims of the explosion in West, held at Baylor University, President Barack Obama spoke openly about faith.  

‘Death Cafes’ Normalize a Difficult, Not Morbid, Topic

Cafe scene, kgelati / Shutterstock.com
Cafe scene, kgelati / Shutterstock.com

No one wants to talk about death at the dinner table, at a soccer game, or at a party, says Lizzy Miles, a social worker in Columbus, Ohio.

But sometimes people need to talk about the “taboo” topic and when that happens, they might not be able to find someone who will listen, she says.

“Whenever people hear I’m a hospice worker, they talk to me about death. It doesn’t matter if I’m on an airplane, gambling in Las Vegas, or in a grocery store line,” she said. “I really see firsthand the need to let people talk. It’s my gift to others.”

Her gift sparked the birth of “death cafes” in the U.S., a trend that started in England and is about to take off across America, she said.

Life, Death, Taxes, and the Common Good

Abstract heart cardiogram, Petr Vaclavek / Shutterstock.com
Abstract heart cardiogram, Petr Vaclavek / Shutterstock.com

The common good is not only about politics. The common good is about life and how we live it. It is ultimately about how we are all connected. It is about how our love or lack of love affects our families, our neighbors, our communities, our cities, our nation, and our world.

The common good is about personal brokenness. Have we taken the time to let Jesus come in and heal the wounds that distort the image of God within of us — wounds that drive daughters and sons, mothers and fathers to self-destruction? Have we taken the time to let the Great Physician heal the personal wounds that break families and friendships, slicing the central fabric of society? We are all connected.

And Now for Something Different

WHEN A COLLEAGUE told me Sojourners had received a review copy of the latest Thursday Next novel by Jasper Fforde, I was delighted—and confused. My delight came because I’m a huge fan of the series, whose protagonist Thursday lives in an alternate-reality U.K. and, in previous novels, has worked for Jurisfiction, the policing agency within fiction. My favorite scene was when, several novels back, she helped Great Expectations’ Miss Havisham moderate an anger management group in Wuthering Heights, set up to keep it from going the way of “that once gentle comedy of manners, ‘Titus Andronicus.’”

However, it was unclear why anyone would send a book from this series to a Christian social justice-oriented magazine. My best guess, as I gleefully devoured The Woman Who Died A Lot, was that some hilariously over-optimistic publicist thought we’d be interested in the novel’s subplot in which God reveals Godself by smiting various cities with columns of fire—sometimes in response to sin, sometimes to “unimaginative architecture, poor restaurants, or even an overly aggressive parking fine regime.” Thursday’s hometown of Swindon is next on the smite list, possibly to increase God’s bargaining position against the locally based Global Standard Deity church. The GSD, having unified the world’s religions, plans to use its “collective bargaining powers” to open formal negotiations with God, starting with the question, “What, precisely, is the point of all this?”

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New & Noteworthy

Whom Shall I Send?

Drawing on years of pastoral and executive experience in churches and parachurch organizations, Sherry Surratt and Jenni Catron deliver on the pragmatic promise of their book's title, Just Lead! A No Whining, No Complaining, No Nonsense Practical Guide for Women Leaders in the Church. Jossey Bass

Giving Thanks

Dreams. Wind. Bread. Oriental rugs. Puppet shows. These are a few of the inspirations for Benedictine Brother David Steindl-Rast's 99 Blessings: An Invitation to Life. These short, concise, sometimes whimsical prayers of gratitude for gifts great and small are invitations to increase our awareness of life's daily wonders. Image

Thine is the Power

An anti-nuclear-weapons activist and a pastor, Tyler Wigg-Stevenson has had ample experience with fervor meeting disillusionment. He writes of how to avoid compassion fatigue and cynicism without retreating to solely personal piety or apathy in The World is Not Ours to Save: Finding the Freedom to Do Good. IVP Books

A Way Forward

Life after Death: Practical Help for the Widowed, by Elizabeth Bookser Barkley, offers guidance on the nitty-gritty of finances, self-care, finding emotional and spiritual support, caring for children while you're all grieving, and more, all framed in a frank, grounded spirituality. Franciscan Media

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From the Archives: April 1985

IN THE EARLY weeks of the Eastertide lectionary, there appears a series of texts from the third and fourth chapters of Acts ... Peter and John, on their way to temple prayers, heal a man begging at the beautiful gate. His joy begets a sermon from Peter on the resurrection, at the close of which the disciples are arrested and spend the night in jail. The next day in court they again testify boldly, refuse to comply with the court's order, and are released after calculated threats from the authorities. Their release prompts prayers of thanksgiving in the community.

It shouldn't be, but always is, a surprise that healing in the New Testament is cause for political trouble. It is for Jesus. His healings are carefully surveilled; they are the topic of elaborate "grand jury" investigations (John 9). More than eyebrows are raised; they conjure conflict and plottings against him. In John, it is the raising of Lazarus—the ultimate in healing miracles—that finally precipitates Jesus' arrest.

Why so? You'd almost be led to suspect that political authority rules by brokenness, infirmity, blindness, division, and by death itself. Authority over death would be an affront to any such rule.

Bill Wylie-Kellermann was a United Methodist pastor in Detroit and a Sojourners contributing editor when this article appeared.

Image: The stone being rolled away from the tomb, Cardens Design / Shutterstock.com

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The Juxtaposition of Death and Life, or Church on a Bike

Girl riding a bike, Michal Durinik / Shutterstock.com
Girl riding a bike, Michal Durinik / Shutterstock.com

“What? What happened?” My co-worker asked, sensing the solemn look on my face.
“Another patient died,” I reported. Grief and thick silence hang in the air as I thought back to the last time I saw this person, hospitalized, unable to speak, but for a brief moment our hands met in an embrace, and although he couldn’t speak, his demeanor and soft touch of the hand said it all.

I brought myself back to the present moment. It was the end of the work day and I strapped on my helmet to bike home, a Lenten commitment I’ve found to be incredibly rejuvenating.

I pedal past the housing projects and turn the corner around the city jail. Activists holding bright colored placards protest peacefully against the death penalty. I smile at them. “Keep up the good work!” I enthuse, giving them a thumbs up from my navy blue mitten and pedal on my way.
A second later, it hits me. Tears rush to my eyes but refuse to come out. The taut muscles in my throat contract; that familiar lump in which no words can come out, just expressions of the heart. Yes, it hit me.The juxtaposition and irony of it all. Life and death. One man died today from four letters that no one should ever have to die from, but globally, some 1.8 million do every year. Another man protested for the life of another to not be cut short before the redemption and healing and forgiveness began.

'Memento Mori' and Living Today to the Fullest

Crucifixion image, Heather A. Craig / Shutterstock.com
Crucifixion image, Heather A. Craig / Shutterstock.com

I awoke in the middle of the night last evening and walked the house in the dark. Kenneth and Caitlin were still stirring, as the older children sometimes do on the weekend. As I climbed the stairs back to our room I felt a wave of gratitude.

Here we are all under one roof for who knows how much longer, yet such a privilege to still be together even as four of seven attend college and work hard and make us proud as they figure out what's next.

I got back into bed and Debbie put her arm around me in her sleep. I said "I love you," and she whispered, half-asleep "I love you, too," and for that moment all was well, and I had a sense that all would be well in the future, come what may.

As I lay there in the stillness, an encounter from five years ago came back to me in vivid color. I had just preached the funeral of a man taken unexpectedly following a routine surgery. I was at the wake afterward and sat next to an unassuming man in his mid-50s whose suit was impeccable and whose polite manners suggested a quiet grace and a bearing of humility in his obvious accomplishments, but also a bit of world-weariness.

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