measured hope?

Measured hope. As a Christian the essence of my faith is hope. That is what resurrection is, hope. When Jesus was killed by the Romans on a Cross, the way political enemies of the state were put to death, everyone thought that hope was dead. But it wasn’t, God had other plans. The surprise ending to this story was Jesus’ appearance to the women, to the disciples running out of town, appearing as a stranger, appearing in a mysterious and strange form, but appearing in hope. The early church had hope because Jesus’ resurrection was a demonstration that living in faith begets life and that life is eternal.

So in the early church persons will illnesses, terminal illnesses, diseases, were not shunned or judged to be sinners, rather they were embraced, care for, healed, if not to better health, then to a good death. As Rodney Stark writes in The Rise of Christianity the early church grew and grew because those whom the state and religion gave up on found a home, literally, in the church. Despite the stigma and the illegality of being a Christian in that time the church grew and eventually the state would take note of this and make Christianity the state religion. The church has been living with that accommodation since the year 300 AD.

But if hope is the essence of Christian faith how do we measure that hope when a person is lost and hurting and hopes for a reality that appears beyond their reach? Is it fair to say to someone who wants X that s/he will find X with faith and new life when we know in our heart that X may be a bit much to hope for? Is it better in those circumstances to subtly suggest lowering one’s sights just a tad and working for a more realistic outcome? Or is that setting our sights too low, short-changing the Gospel of hope? I think we Christians struggle with this tension, I know I do!

I have found myself saying to the person who calls themselves lost and is hoping for a grand liberation and new life that s/he can certainty hope for what they call new life but it may be best to start small and work up. I don’t want to deny or undercut a person’s hope in a miracle but I also don’t want to overpromise and thus lead them to disappointment. I find myself encouraging small steps and cheerleading every step of this new path. I find I am most authentically present to the other when we are moving slowly and purposefully in a positive direction, no matter how small the steps or marginal the change.

Still I know that I am a Christian and we live for and in hope so miracles and liberation are always possible. I don’t want to snuff out a person’s hope in something large and transformative. I know this can happen, even if the odds do not look strong. I have found myself resting in this notion of measured hope, a hope of small steps, of victories celebrated and built upon.

Is this the right approach? I don’t know, but with faith and prayer I move forward confident that in holy conversation I will learn what I need to, in the spirit of humility, to be the best support I can be to those who are struggling.

Open Casket

When I began my work as a Minister serving the Church one of my first assignments was organizing a funeral for an elderly woman. This woman had a large family, most living far away, so the coordination took some time. One of the requests the family made was unique to my experience, they wanted an open casket, not only for the visitation (I had seen that on a few occasions) but for the funeral itself. The funeral director told me that within some denominational and cultural settings this was the norm. I confess that my reaction then was one of shock, it felt a tad maudlin and morose. Subsequently others who have had the experience of attending funerals with an open casket have felt likewise.

But I am shifting that perspective. Lately in our death-avoiding, aging-phobic, and positive-thinking obsessed culture the idea of looking at a dead body would seem strange, even wrong. But the funeral I attended yesterday featured an open casket and it felt “right”. As I watched the interactions between family and friends with the open casket I saw genuine connection and understanding, their loved one was dead, it was final, there was no turning back. The reflections shared by family members all made reference to conflicts that needed to be addressed “before we die too”. Death has a way of reminding us that we can’t put things off indefinitely, there is a time when things are “too late”. Further, there was a sense of “getting to it” from those who spoke, a reminder that the deceased had shown the way and now was the time to focus and make changes to get there.

There was also a powerful and beautiful dance offered by great-grandchildren, a moving tribute to a life of strength, compassion and resilience. The children looked to be pre-teens and all danced with poise and skills. But they also danced in front of the open casket. I could just hear many parents of our current culture, “what will this do to the children?” I have sympathy and I agree with much of the shift in parenting; I do not believe in spanking or striking a child or any other type of discipline that involves violence, I would not use toxic substances around my house, and I think praise and affirmation always trumps shaming and carping criticism. But I also think children need exposure to death, albeit with support, listening and feedback. Mortality is part of the life experience and children who grow up going to funerals, visiting nursing homes and hospitals seem to be better adjusted to the reality of human misfortune and are not so terrified when death comes to those they love.

Maybe an open casket is a healthy way for all of us to acknowledge death. You will never see me walking toward the casket during a funeral and kissing the deceased but is there anything wrong with that, is it not a human reaction to a painful separation, a final and complete separation we tend to walk through with little acknowledgement of the real feelings going on inside us. Is there not a danger in rushing through the funeral without giving the grieving family and friends the outlet to express their pain? I wonder.

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