On Tuesday, my family held a funeral and buried my 90-year old grandmother, who died in the living Christ. This is how I preached the gospel.
To me, Boh Boh was always invincible. Even in 2018 before Cami was born, when we were thinking about childcare, I even wondered aloud to my mom if 88-year-old Boh Boh might take a shift. Now sure, some of that was due to me being a selfish, spoiled grandchild, but a lot of it was due to my implicit belief in Boh Boh’s invincibility.
Her quiet strength and self-sufficiency resulted in a recurring refrain that you’d often hear in our family: “Boh Boh is amazing!” She fled Communist China, successfully settled as an immigrant on the rough streets of Oakland before the end of Chinese Exclusion, and then put four kids through university with Ang Ang.
Then more recently living independently into her 80s, tending her large garden, fixing six-course meals every other Sunday for 30+ years to feed a family of 18, being the primary caretaker of Ang Ang through his years of dementia all the way to the end, and never complaining – she was always steady and stable, calm and collected, and fiercely independent, easily the strongest person in our family. She seemed invincible.
But then cancer, and then metastasis, and then invasive surgery, and then frailty, and then dependence, and then discouragement, and then decline, and now death.
And our family now faces the reality that even the strongest person in our lives, the one we believed to be invincible, the one whose love and loyalty knit us together into a uniquely privileged family – she’s not invincible. She’s dead.
Boh Boh’s dead.
Perhaps this makes you uncomfortable – the D word repeated so unapologetically.
I think it’s because the D word reminds us, not only that Boh Boh was not invincible, but that neither are we.
This week on Ash Wednesday, when many Christians across the globe receive the imposition of ashes on our foreheads, we hear the words originally uttered from God to humanity when we turned our own way in the Garden, fracturing our relationship with him and compromising our very own identity and destiny. We hear these words: “Remember that you are from dust, and to dust you shall return.”
As someone who has been both on the receiving end of the ashes, as well as having administered the ashes to a 6-year old and a 60-year old, to an expecting couple and to a widow who’s experienced great loss, I wish I could communicate to you how sobering of an experience this is.
Looking a precious child in the eyes, who is told everyday that she has her whole life in front of her, and yet saying to her, “Remember that you are from dust, and to dust you shall return” – a poignant reminder to all of us of our mortality, no matter what stage of life.
And this reality fills all of us with anxiety and terror. In his Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker described it like this: “Anxiety is the result of the perception of the truth of one’s condition…It means to know that one is food for worms. This is the terror:…to have a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feelings, an excruciating inner yearning for life and self-expression–and with all this yet to die.”
And so Becker argued that what human life is about is the denial of death, entertaining what he called the “vital lie,” that is the dishonesty we indulge about ourselves and the world in order to avoid despair. The vital lie is what we tell ourselves, lest we forever shrink into a hopeless fetal position under the shadow of death, overcome by grief.
This lie comes in many shapes and forms.
Some of us tell ourselves that death is normal and natural. We say: “She lived a good long life,” or “It was her time to go,” and we treat death and sadness as all part of the meaningless circle of life. Maybe we don’t put it so crassly, but we basically accept that the chief end of humanity is to become worm food in the dirt.
Others of us tell ourselves that death is neither real nor regrettable. We say: “She’s in a better place now,” or “She’s freed from suffering,” or we say “Rest in Peace” and we treat death just like a prolonged and peaceful slumber.
But think about it. If death is just as natural as life, then what makes one better or worse than the other? If death is normal and natural, it makes no more sense to grieve over death versus life, than to grieve over a sunset versus a sunrise. If death is normal and natural, then our grief is empty and meaningless.
Or if death is neither real nor regrettable, then death is not actually tragic. And if death is not actually tragic, then our grief is even irrational and our tears inappropriate.
See, just as soon as we entertain such lies about death and feign our invincibility, we forfeit any explanation of the grief we most deeply and inescapably feel in the face of death.
But as much as we seek to console ourselves with such lies, these lies will never do. I think we all know this at a visceral level. Humankind has tried so hard to avoid grief by downplaying the darkness of death, but our innermost being betrays these efforts.
Death demands our grief because every human being is made in the image of God, and this God has put eternity into every one of our hearts. And so, there really is no more fitting response to death than grief.
Our tears for the dead are not pointless droplets of irrationality and impropriety, but precious beads of love and loyalty. We grieve because we love.
To grieve over death is to acknowledge that this is not the way things were meant to be. It is to honor the goodness of God’s original creation, and the grievous ways it has gone wrong ever since humanity turned its back on God and insisted on an invincibility independent of God.
It is so ironic, really. We were already like God. We were already invincible because we were God’s beloved children. But in a futile attempt to be somehow more like God in the Garden of Eden, to make ourselves invincible independently from him, that is precisely when we became less like God and vulnerable without him, children of wrath.
For creation broken from its rightful relationship with its Creator can lead to nothing but demise.
See, according to the Christian story, death is far more than a biological and/or psychological event. It’s the rotten fruit of a broken relationship with our Maker that afflicts us all. And day in and day out humanity continues to seek invincibility on our own, only ever succeeding in slightly delaying death, not realizing that the path to invincibility is neither striving nor self-protection, but a restored relationship with God.
Christians, of all people, have the most reason to grieve because we confess the devastating effects of a fractured relationship with God on the entire creation. According to the story of Christianity, to grieve this broken world is the most human thing one could possibly do.
But at the very same time, we confess that to grieve is also the most God-like thing we could possibly do. The God of Christianity doesn’t indulge the lie that brokenness and death are not that bad. He grieves it with immeasurable passion. He is not a God who is far off and detached, but enters into our grief and empathizes with us.
In Jesus, he entered and subjected himself to this broken world and humanity. The invincible became vulnerable. He tasted the bitterest grief, death on a cross, though completely innocent and blameless. And so to grieve is not only to properly be human in a sin-stained world, but it is to sync oneself with the very heart of God, full of compassion.
So contrary to popular belief, the way of Jesus is not about denying death or avoiding grief. It’s neither wishful thinking over empty promises, nor the opiate of the masses, nor a sociologically constructed coping mechanism, nor an otherworldly escape plan where we go to heaven and float on fluffy clouds.
The way of Jesus involves the deepest grief over this world’s darkest brokenness, namely death and suffering.
But then why would anyone want to follow Jesus into such grief?
Well, the richness of the Christian story does not simply consist in its accurate assessment of death and its realistic justification of grief. If this were the whole truth of Christianity, the best expression of Christian faith would indeed be to curl up into the fetal position under the shadow of death for the rest of our days. But the full beauty of the Chrisitan story is that even though death is darker than we could ever imagine, and our grief too bitter to swallow, we need not grieve over death as those without hope.
The cross informs us that even the most horrific, unjust, and God-forsaken death cannot defeat God, nor elude his good and loving purposes for the world.
On the contrary, the murder of God’s one and only beloved and blameless Son, Jesus Christ, the worst possible event in all of history, God somehow subverted this death and made it the ultimate demonstration of his passionate love.
As the Scriptures say: “For God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us….”
Jesus Christ, the blameless one, invincible from eternity, took on flesh and lived the life the rest of humanity failed to live, and out of his great love for undeserving failures like you and me, he bore the very source of death, our sin, and put it to death in his body on the cross, dying the death we all deserved to die, to do away with our sins and adopt us into his family.
And not only did he subvert death and embed it with eternal meaning and significance, but he conquered it by his resurrection.
He is risen!
This is the great hope of the Christian faith, that death is neither meaningless, nor the sad end of the world’s story.
Death does not win. Jesus wins! He already has!
The way of Jesus goes from cross to crown, from funeral to feast, from grave to glory, and from vulnerability to victory. This is the greatest story ever told.
And we are all invited into this story of hope, this story that always ends in good news, no matter how tragic the news we encounter along the way. Jesus’ victory and glory can be ours too; invincibility restored, not by our own might, but by reunion with God in Christ, if we would simply hope in him, giving our whole selves to the one who loved us, and gave his life for us.
This is the gospel. This is the good news of God. That though we truly have every reason to violently grieve over death and darkness, we have yet the securest of hopes in Jesus Christ, who died for us in immeasurable love, and is risen for us in imperishable life.