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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 62 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

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Sunday, April 01, 2007

The Meaning of Meaningless Death*

*Saint's Herald May 2008

Copyright © 2007 by Ralph Couey

1 Peter 3:18 For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit.

John 11:25-26 I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.

"If there is a God, why does he allow all the suffering in the world?"

The eternal question; the stumbling block most Christians run into when trying to explain God. It is also the attitude of many who have suffered the untimely loss of a family member or friend. It is the question that intrudes into the consciousness of even the most devout believer when confronted with the awful reality of violence and cruelty. It is the question that haunts me when reading reports of the unspeakable tortures inflicted on innocent people during the Rwandan civil war, the diamond wars in West Africa, and over 100 million people worldwide put to death by regimes of oppression and aggression throughout the history of civilization.

The easy, quick answer is that God doesn’t allow such suffering; we allow it. God’s gift to us of free will and agency puts the responsibility for controlling such acts squarely on the shoulders of humans, both individually and collectively. Although succinct, such cold logic fails to embrace the larger picture.

Adding to the imponderable nature of The Question is an undercurrent of unease felt by educated Christians. Some of the notable mass-deaths in history were undertaken by fanatics proudly waving the banner of Christianity. For some reason, humans are prone to line up behind the banners of causes, and leaders, whose rhetoric may be emotionally satisfying, but whose actions are at least questionable, and at worse, despicable. In addition, there is always the danger that any movement, no matter how moral it may start out to be, will attract those whose only interest is engaging in acts of violence and hate. The devolution of the Irish Republican Army in the late 70’s and 80’s is a good example, as are the reactionary elements of the anti-abortion movement in the United States.

There are three levels of “followership” to consider: Acceptance, belief, and fanaticism. Acceptors have arrived at their current point after a healthy round of skepticism and inquiry, yet continue to ask questions. Believers, on the other hand, are less likely to entertain the hard questions, counting on faith rather than critical thinking to carry them through periods of doubt. Fanatics are completely and unquestioningly committed to their “-isms,” with a complete lack of tolerance for the rights of others to follow different and inimical paths.

Questioning increases knowledge. By constantly challenging beliefs, a person can continually push back the boundaries of ignorance, increasing knowledge and wisdom. The price, of course, is that some of the questions posed simply have no easy or obvious answers. For some, the pursuit of these answers can consume an entire lifetime without resolution. One can cudgel together a long string of spiritually and intellectually comforting suppositions and rest on them as an answer of sorts. But eventually even the most tenacious of researchers must give way to the knowledge that questions of divinity can only be answered by The Divine, which is where the discussion of eternal life usually ends up.

In Star Trek, Dr. McCoy presses Mr. Spock for an answer to his question about the Vulcan’s experience of death and resurrection. Spock’s reply, “It would be impossible to discuss the subject without a common frame of reference” is both maddening enigmatic and yet instinctively truthful. Many people, myself included, have had what are known as “near death experiences,” or NDEs. In our testimonies, we always struggle to convey in words the totality of our experience. However, on those rare occasions when I encounter another member of the NDE family, our conversation usually consists of:

You know…”
“Oh, yeah.”

For the committed Christian, the NDE is a glimpse of the divine nature of heaven and eternal life. To the agnostic, it is simply the frantic activity of a human brain struggling to survive. Which is truth? There’s no empirical way to know for certain.

Every human culture has held beliefs about an afterlife. It was simply inexcusable to assume that mortal death was the absolute end. The belief exists that the human body is occupied by a nebulous life-force, or soul and it is that entity that powers the body during life. At death, the soul leaves the body, and coincidentally, researchers have discovered that the human body at the point of “death” becomes lighter by 21 grams. The ultimate destination of this soul is peculiar to each culture’s dominant belief system.

The ultimate test of faith is how we face that point of transition. The Apostle Andrew, just before his crucifixion, said:

"I have long desired and expected this happy hour. The cross has been consecrated by the body of Christ hanging on it."

In contrast are the hopeless words spoken by World War I spy Mata Hari before her execution:

"Death is nothing, nor life either, for that matter. To die, to sleep, to pass into nothingness, what does it matter? Everything is an illusion."
What we do know for certain is that there is a definite division. Call it life and death, this life and the next, or mortality and spirituality. Everyone agrees that at a certain point, the body ceases to function. Mortal life is terminated. But, is that all there is?

To really grasp the scope of eternal life, we have to try to view life, and death, as God might see them. We acknowledge that presence within us as “spirit” or “soul,” will live on with God. For the true disciple, death has no power; life does not end. Yet, the lack of visible evidence of this afterlife causes a hesitation, that last reluctance to fully embrace the gospel.

What causes this reluctance within us? For many, it is the departure from the familiar on a journey to the unknown. The trappings of our earthly life form a comforting infrastructure to our mortal senses and we are loath to leave that comfort for an empirically unknown destination. I’ve never been to Cleveland, but should I fear to journey there out of ignorance? Or should I embrace the adventure and travel in faith? The scriptures have given us ample testimony of what awaits us in Heaven. Should we not rely on our faith to quell our fears? We are, after all, spiritual beings temporarily existing in the flesh, so if anything, we should embrace with joy the thought of being with our Heavenly Father. For Him, the definition of life is not just confined to our terrestial years, but encompasses the limitless span of eternity.

A word of caution here: Just because Jesus has promised this gift, does not mean that we should seek to prematurely end our time on earth. All of us are here for specific reasons and our journey should end by the hand of God, not by our own.

Now, for the hard question.

It is all too often that the news brings us stories of lives cut short by tragedy. The eternal question of “why?” most often surfaces when children are the victims. We find ourselves in a numbing aftershock shaking our heads in utter incomprehension. These acts are as a big splash in a pond, but we should observe the actions of the ripples as well.

On July 27th, 1981, six-year-old Adam Walsh was abducted from a Florida mall and later killed. Turning his grief into action, Adam’s father became a nationally recognized leader for victim’s rights.

To date, John Walsh’s “America’s Most Wanted” has resulted in the capture of over 900 felons and the safe return of almost 150 missing children. The death of Adam Walsh was an unspeakable tragedy. But without that loss, would Walsh have undertaken those efforts?

On May 3, 1980, 13-year-old Cari Lightner was walking along a quiet suburban street. A man on a three-day drunk drove up and struck Cari from behind, killing her instantly. Cari’s mother, Candy Lightner started an organization called “Mothers Against Drunk Driving.” Through Candy’s tireless efforts before lawmakers, MADD was responsible for inspiring, not only traffic safety and victim’s rights legislation, but a fundamental change in how we view drunk driving. Her grief became the catalyst for change that saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

Is it possible that if Cari Lightner had safely completed her stroll that day no one would have been moved to stand up and demand change?

In 1988, 7-year-old Ariel Glaser died of pediatric AIDS. Her father, actor Paul Michael Glaser became the lead advocate in the fight against pediatric AIDS. Those efforts led to the near-elimination of mother-to-child transmission of this deadly disease.

If Ariel had survived, would the lives of those thousands of infants been somehow spared?

These are the ripples; accounts where the tragedy of untimely death inspired works which have benefited millions, such as Megan’s Law, Code Adam, and Amber Alerts. We can look at these deaths and ask why; or we can look at how those tragedies became the stimuli for actions that kept uncounted others from a similar fate.

So. Did God allow the deaths of those children in order to save the lives of all the others?
That is a very big question.

When an unexpected death happens close to us, the hardest part of that experience is trying to carry on. It is natural during the grieving process to search for meaning or reason. There will always be memorials of granite and marble, but the best memorial is the sense of purpose in the lives of those who continue on. And there will that loss find meaning.

John 3:16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

For those who embrace God and follow Jesus, no death is meaningless; life is truly eternal, whether on earth, or in Heaven.
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