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Spring Harvest's Theologian-in-Residence Malcolm Duncan has observed some Christians suggesting God will protect them from getting coronavirus. He believes we need a more robust theological understanding of suffering, death and what it means to have hope
"My face is red with weeping, and deep darkness is on my eyelids". As Job’s loss and sorrow engulfed him, his life was changed forever. His reputation, his family and his livelihood, his health, finances and his friendships were in tatters around him. His assumptions shattered and his self-righteousness exposed, Job is forced to explore of the ultimate questions of faith – how do we make sense of life amidst profound sorrow and suffering? Will there ever be an end to the sorrows and pains of life? Where is God in the midst of such darkness? He comes to regard his own life with deep contempt and resentment and cries out to God in words that send a shudder down the spine: "withdraw your hand from me". Job is tormented and stretched by death and by loss. He cries out, "If mortals dies, will they live again?" Here is a man who is deeply acquainted with death, with sorrow and with uncertainty. His story has something to say to us as we walk through the shadowlands of the Coronovirus pandemic.
His words echo down through the centuries, rebounding in the chambers of our own hearts at a time with sorrow and loss seem to be engulfing the world. Grief, loss and death, so often kept at bay by our sanitised language and cultural concealers, have come banging on the doors of homes around the world. Watching the news has become a ritual of astonishment and heartbreak. Across the world numbers of deaths rise exponentially from on a daily basis. In Italy more than 20,000 people have died. The United States is estimating their death toll could be as high as 240,000 people; and the UK government thinks it will be doing well if deaths from the virus are held below 20,000. Other countries face devastating losses in the wake of the pandemic. Mali has an estimated 1 ventilator per 1 million people; Kenya has only 550 intensive care beds for a population of more than 50 million people. On a continent that has faced the pressures of Ebola, tuberculosis, HIV and other infectious diseases, this pandemic could be catastrophic.
Affecting all of us
The reporting of death can become so overwhelming that we turn it into a news item, a story that we read about or a set of statistics that we analyse. There is good reason for that. How can we possibly imagine the suffering and the sorrow that this pandemic is carrying in its wake? Behind every single statistic, however, is a human face, a story, a tragedy. Families are not just losing numbers, they are losing loved ones. It’s happening everywhere, and it is happening to everyone.
Christians are not immune to this heartbreak. While many believe that scriptures such as Psalm 91 are a panacea that will protect us, I am not so sure. Godly people are dying from this virus. We aren’t immune from it. We shouldn’t pretend that we are. A theology that claims protection but doesn’t face reality does more harm than good. It might work for those who feel that they have been spared because of their prayers or their faithfulness, but it will leave shards of despair like cut glass for many who lose loved ones because of this outbreak.
I, like many others, am praying for grace, wisdom and protection for all people, and particularly for those that I love and care for – but I am also aware that many whom I know and love have already become sick because of this virus, and some have died. Either I am not praying properly, or my approach to the outbreak needs to be carefully considered. I want to help people face death, sorrow and uncertainty, and to walk through sorrow and loss authentically. I don’t want to indulge short-term escapism. Nor do I want to declare false promises.
Instead of promising people that they will be fine in this season, and quoting Bible verses out of context, the Covid-19 infection that is killing people should remind us, that we believe in life more than we fear death
As a pastor and a public theologian, I am trying my best to guide my congregation and others through the pain and the uncertainty of this time. We have daily prayer times when thousands join online. I am calling a number of people every day to check on then. We are involved in the community, helping our hospitals, serving and supporting the vulnerable, sharing the hope of God’s grace and the promise of God’s comfort to those who are sick, worried or grieving. Over 100 people a day are contacting me from around the world who have lost loved ones to Covid-19. What do I say to help them? How can I ‘walk’ with them through this dark and uncertain season?
I am trying to help and support my own family. My wife is a respiratory specialist and lectures in nursing and respiratory care. She also has brittle asthma and is in shielding. Our son has a severe lung disorder. Our first grandchild was born in March and we feel desperately disconnected from him and his mum and dad. Our daughter had to make a dash home from university to be with us. Our son-in-law has caught Covid19. My father-in-law is in a nursing home and my mother-in-law and the family cannot see him. My sister lives alone and is facing periods of mourning where she cannot visit a grave. What can I do to help them deal with grief and with pain and with loss?
A theology of death is not a theology of despair
A theology of death is not an admittance of defeat or of despair. Humans hate death because we were made for life. We struggle with it because it is not part of what we want. We run from it as an ultimate enemy. Too often, our theology of death is one of fear, anxiety and uncertainty. That’s probably the root reason that so many Christians take a stance of ‘declaring life’ over themselves and others. If you are always living in the shadow of death, you will do everything you can to avoid it. When we fail to adequately reflect on life and death theologically and biblically we end up taking positions that are broken at best and damaging at worst. It is only when I can be honest about what I hate about death that I can begin to form a response to it that will carry me through the pain of it. In order to separate feelings of ultimate despair (and therefore ultimate fear) from my experiences of death, or to help others do the same, I have to find a way of facing it that is honest, hopeful and helpful.
1. Facing death honestly
"The last enemy to be defeated is death", Paul writes (1 Corinthians 15:26). Understanding that for myself, and helping others understand it, opens a door to being honest, vulnerable and open about my heartbreak, my pain, my confusion and my loss. Job’s story teaches me a great deal about that. The "deep darkness" that was on his eyelids as he walked through sorrow and loss is actually the same phrase used in Psalm 23:4, that speaks of God walking with us through the valley of the shadow of death: "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me."
Death does feel like a darkness descending. It does bring uncertainty, pain, and a questioning of faith with it. If I fail to acknowledge those realities then I am locking myself, or others, into a world where sorrow, pain, heartbreak and loss are only negative things. Darkness is used as an image of sorrow in many places in our cultural landscape, and in Christian imagery. To enter the darkness, biblically though, is also to enter a place where God can be encountered.
So much of my life has been lived in shadows of so many different kinds. Death has been a shadow. Despair has been a shadow. Disappointment has been a shadow. Tragedy has been a shadow. Hurt has been a shadow. Uncertainty has been a shadow. Failure has been a shadow. I can no more avoid the darkness of death than I can the light of life. Darkness as a metaphor for death, shadows as a metaphor for sorrow, and mists as a metaphor for mourning, all open ways of me being honest about death. These metaphors are used in scripture in positive ways too. God is encountered in the darkness. Shadows prove the presence of light. The mists of uncertainty or questioning can lead to new discoveries of faith and hope – Job teaches us that. Being honest about the darkness and uncertainty of death helps us to avoid the great moral crisis of being afraid to be honest.
Thomas Merton wrote: "One of the moral diseases we communicate to one another in society comes from huddling together in the pale light of an insufficient answer to a question we are afraid to ask…There is the laziness that pretends to dignify itself by the name of despair and teaches us to ignore both the question and the answer. And there is the despair which dresses itself up as science or philosophy and amuses itself with clever answers to clever questions – none of which have anything to do with the problems of life."
If I am to address death and loss honestly, for myself and with others, I must find a way of facing it as an enemy, being honest about how it makes me feel, and finding a deeper, better, clearer Biblical answer than, "well, it will never happen to me or anyone that I love". This might feel harsh, but actually, this is the path that leads to hope and to being able to address mourning and grief honestly, because Christianity believes that alongside the honest pain and heartbreak of death, we can have hope.
2. Facing death hopefully
When I name death as a squatter, rather than a friend, I am able to wrestle with it and fight its negative impact on me and on those I love. When I understand that my sorrow may try to consume me and make me feel like the world should stop, but that the world doesn’t actually stop, I am able to plot a pathway through my daily choices and change my posture so that I can face death and loss. When I understand that sorrow is a jumbled journey, not a linear one, it helps me realise that I am not going mad when everything seems to go backwards one day and forwards the next.
When I root myself in understanding grief as seasonal, I am able to notice the positive (and negative) impact of sorrow and loss in my life and adjust my actions, timetable and emotions accordingly. By naming my feelings, and by being honest about them, I can enter into them more fully, and I can set them aside when I need to. When I learn to live with life as written in both the major and the minor key, I am able to hear the deeper music of hope in my soul.
Nowhere, other than in Christ’s own Resurrection, is this more powerfully evident than in the story of the resurrection of Lazarus. Jesus allows his friend to die and as a result is confronted by the deep pain and heartbreak of Lazarus’s sisters, also Jesus’s friends, Mary and Martha. His probing exchange with them (John 11) around the nature of life and death should be read slowly, meditatively and humbly, with our ears open to the hope of God’s promise that death is not the end. When my brother died unexpectedly, it was this story that carried me through, particularly the promise of Jesus to Martha: "Your brother will rise again" (v23).
Yet Jesus let Lazarus die. Jesus did not tell Mary and Martha not to grieve. He did not dismiss their heartbreak. He did not assure them that everything would be fine in an hour. Instead, Jesus himself went to the tomb of his friend and wept. He entered into the grief and the sorrow and the loss as part of the journey to resurrection. He redeemed sorrow as he resurrected Lazarus.
This is the hopefulness that is the heartbeat of Christian faith, not that we avoid death but rather that death does not have the last word. It is swallowed up. We are still on this side of the experience of death – but we will not remain on this side of it. Christ, by resurrecting Lazarus, shows us that we will all be resurrected. The foundational reality of the New Testament is not that we avoid death, but rather that we pass through death into life. Death is not the end. Death does not have the last word.
Instead of promising people that they will be fine in this season, and quoting Bible verses out of context and lulling them into a false sense of security, the Covid-19 infection that is killing people should remind me, should remind us, that we believe in life more than we fear death. Our security, our hope, our peace, our strength and our ultimate satisfaction and fulfilment is not rooted in whether we are healthy or sick, rich or poor, free of Covid-19 or infected; they are rooted in the promise of Christ that he has overcome death, he is the way, the truth and the life, and nothing, not even a pandemic, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. We are not defined by our circumstances; we are refined by them. When we realise that, we at last come to a place where we can face death helpfully.
3. Facing death helpfully
Our assumptions are exposed by death. Our broken theology is revealed. Our penchant to cling to circumstances more than Christ is shown. This may feel unhelpful, but in the end, it is extremely helpful. The idols that we built our lives upon are dethroned as we face death honestly. So much of our Christianity has become focussed on the here and the now; what God does for me now, what God gives me now.
While we have run away from the old idea that we can be too heavenly minded to be of any earthly use, I think perhaps we have run too far. Many of us are now too earthly minded to be of any heavenly use. Facing death hopefully, even in the midst of a pandemic, means realising again that we have the hope of heaven, and that even death cannot separate us from God.
Of course, this all leaves us realising that there is much that needs to be thought through in our faith, our view of the world and how we live. It forces us to a position of humility, where we acknowledge our frailty, our weakness, our fears and that (perhaps) we need to honest about the fact that our faith may not be as strong as we want others to think.
Letting go of those we love is painful. I do not think we ever fully let them go? We hold their memories and their love in our hearts like droplets of love. They scent our souls; their memory lingers as we look at a photograph, approach an anniversary, or simply recollect moments shared. Their impact on us lingers. We feel their loss acutely, and if we could, many of us would want another moment with those we have lost. None of this is weak. None of it is wrong. It is just honest.
I have been changed by grief – and I have been changed for the better. My mourning has meant something. My heartbreak has opened my soul to more of God’s grace. My suffering has re-ordered me. It has changed me forever. If we let him, this is what God does with the heartbreak we face and the sorrow we endure. I have come to see God more clearly and love him more closely while understanding him less than I ever have. He has taken the torn fragments of my soul and held them tenderly in his hands.
Grief, sorrow, and loss have helped me to put him back at the centre of my life and allowed me to leave my broken heart in his hands.
This is good grief.
And I am grateful to God for it.
Rev. Malcolm J. Duncan F.R.S.A. is the author of Good Grief: Living with Sorrow and Loss (Monarch) available from malcolmduncan.co.uk. He is Theologian-in-Residence at Spring Harvest and the Lead Pastor of Dundonald Elim Church in Northern Ireland. Follow him on Twitter @MalcolmJDuncan
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