I recently spent a week with my parents to mourn the death of a woman in my home congregation who died very unexpectedly of a non-covid related heart attack. She seemed healthy and had only retired this last year. She fought for her life for two weeks in a coma, but eventually she died. The hardest thing for the family was that they only got to visit when it became clear their mother would die. A gnawing doubt creeps in: Could we have supported her more? Would she still be alive, had we pressed harder to be with her earlier?
Some of this is rational, people do have a higher rate of recovery when surrounded by loved ones. But there is also a side to this that has more to do with what Elisabeth Kübler-Ross identified as the bargaining stage of grief. It’s hard for us to accept death as reality, especially in our societies where we sanitize and outsource death to hospitals and use euphemism to veil the reality of death. For me, it was incredibly powerful to be home for the funeral, see her one last time at the open casket, and gather outside with others to honor her memory and accompany her to her resting place. The work of grieving isn’t over, it will continue for a long time, especially for her children, who are all adults, but were so hoping to spend decades with their mother still.
We who are enstranged from death have to relearn that death is a part of life, and in some cases holding on to life is exactly what is stiffling life abundant.
Yet we also need to remember that „Death is the last enemy to be destroyed.“ (1 Corinthians 15:26) Death is a principality and power, arguably THE essence of what is wrong with the principalities and powers, and the biblical hope is that through Jesus‘ life, death and resurrection the death-dealing powers have been exposed and their downfall has begun.
Yet the downfall takes time and in the meantime it may seem that they are stronger than ever! This is exactly the situation that gave us the New Testament: the first Christians were convinced that Jesus‘ death on the cross was not the end, but confessed his resurrection as the beginning of God’s new creation! Yet they did not shy away from recognizing the powers of evil, or explain them away by eloquent theological constructs. Rather they drew on the apocalyptic imagination they found in the book of Daniel and Jesus‘ own teaching about „the Son of Man.“
This apocalyptic tradition is one of the most misunderstood biblical traditions and it is often twisted to justify conspiracy myths and other nonsense. These last few months I have been invited to preach over Zoom at a number of different Mennonite congregations and chose to recycle and revise a sermon on apocalyptic prayer as bifocal glasses and anchor in the storm. Here’s the gist of what I was trying to say:
- Apocalypse is a vision born of prayer that sees the world as God does:
- exposing the injustice and violence hidden by the veils of ideology, and
- revealing the shoots of God’s new creation incarnated in protest movements for justice, experiments with truth and unforeseeable beauty.
- Prayer is also and an anchor to hold onto as we recognize the extent of chaos around us.
You can watch one version with Rianna’s awesome pictures here:
The apocalyptic image of „birth pangs“ has stuck with me especially, as I reread apocalyptic texts like John’s Revelation, or the Little Apocalypse in the synoptics, but also throughout Paul’s letters.
Birth pangs is the Bible’s reframing of the turmoils that happen as one system gives way to another. Where others only see the death of the old, the Biblical story invites us to learn to see the birth of the new. This is important, because what we pay attention to shapes who we are and how we act in the world. I’m reading Rebecca Solnit’s book Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities right now and am constantly reminded about the importance of telling hopeful stories. Not optimistic stories of inevitable success, but hopeful stories that enable us to envision the uncertain possibility of a better future, and that through their power and beauty seduce us into acting to make them reality.
But I also think it’s important not to focus only on birthpangs to the exclusion of death. In this last year, death has been so clearly all around us, yet also so often ignored and suppressed in public discourse and in our private conversations as well. It is much easier to be upset about mask mandates and or complain about missed family gatherings than to sit with the reality that thousands of people die every day. People who loved others and were loved by many. People like my friend’s mum whom I mentioned earlier.
It is therefor important to notice what is dying and what is being birthed. Van Jones of CNN said, watching the storming of the Capitol on January 6:
‘We don’t know what we’re looking at yet.
Is this the end of something?
Or the beginning of something?’
This reminds me of Antonio Gramsci, head of Italy’s Communist Party reflecting in a Fascist prison cell on the failures of scientific Marxism and its promises of an inevitable utopia achieved by the working class:
“The old world is dying and the new world struggles to be born. Now is the time of monsters.”
But even more of Paul’s words in Romans 8:19-23
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as children, the redemption of our bodies.
What if we are witnessing the death throes of white supremacy and toxic masculinity? What if that is exactly why the monstrous powers and principalities are intensifying their grip on young white men who find the future of careers and no accountability that racist patriarchy promised to them crumble and see no alternatives of who they could be before them?
What if the most revolutionary thing we could do is to not only continue eroding the pillars of support propping up the old system of patriarchal, racist capitalism, but also build up cities of refuge? Places that prefigure the new world we long for and that keep repeating loud and clear: there is a place at the table for white young men (like myself) should we choose to accept it.
It’s too early to tell, as always in history. But what if we took these questions not as certainties causing us to lean back and let history do its work, but as a summons to embrace uncertainty, pregnant with possibility? What if we put our faith into this future, remembering that we both push and breathe?
I recently came across this video and have rewatched at least a dozen times.
It paints a picture of the world we want. Because we can’t become what we can’t imagine.