Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Gravestones and Flu Shots

We walk home from school on these warm, golden fall afternoons. The neighborhood was developed in a Tudor- and Colonial-revival style in the 1920's: the homes come clad in earthy bricks or half timbers, with slate or tile roofs. Both kids are eager to catch up on what each one did during their days. It's a beautiful, pleasant walk!

photo credit:

Now that October has arrived, the Halloween decorations come creeping out. Most homes go the route of "old haunted house" with fake spider webs on bushes or an army of small plastic sheet ghosts hanging from a tree. My kids chose to stop on the corner where one house had giant pipe cleaner spiders climbing the windows and a mini graveyard in the corner of the lawn. Abigail instantly wanted to return home and finish putting up Halloween decor at our house (pumpkins and gourds on the table apparently aren't enough... she wants the skeleton and Dia de los Muertos stuff out from Oct 1. I can only tolerate it Oct 20-31). The gravestones stopped me; despite their obvious cartoonish quality, the gravestones caught my breath this year.

"Honey, we don't put up decorations like that. We have no reason to fear death as Christians, but the real day to celebrate is the day AFTER Halloween: when we remember those who have died before us, who believe in Jesus. They are with him now. One day, we will be, too."

Death stalks us all from conception. Death sometimes seems to win long before anyone is ready to receive a body that is free from illness in eternity. As creatures who inhabit a body, soul, and mind that are inextricably connected, we still try to play (cruel?) tricks on ourselves. Modernity shines like a victorious weight lifter: give illness and death a heave-ho through technology, vaccinations, surgery. Our mind dwells on the ways in which we 'triumph' over death and disease, on lengthening quality of life and lifespan. All these have a place sometimes and can be true advancements, but no one escapes death. Someday, each one of us will die.

My oldest daughter is five years old. Already, she can fill one hand with the names of people of all ages who have preceded her to Jesus. We talk about death, but more than that, we talk about the 'why' of death and the 'after' of death. Clearly, Nick and I don't believe in keeping kids "innocent." I remember vividly the great-grandparents who died when I was four and five, the time of mourning, the explanations of death and Jesus' death, and the funerals... but I also hold dear the pictures and stories that were shared as I grew up. Their lives have been an example to me. Adding it up over the last 31 years, someone close has died every three years: family, high school friends, college friends, children of friends. Death is actually very present.

Yet the gravestones caught my breath.

This is due to thinking actively and specifically about death for the past 8 weeks. It's fitting that as our time in Saint Louis comes to a close, Nick and I are revisiting our final wishes. Times of transition, of leaving and concluding, should bring to mind the ultimate concluding that is death. We journey towards it each day. Coincidentally, by October 31, we will have:

  • executed and signed our wills, powers of attorney and medical power of attorney, and guardianship of our children. It's made us think through all kinds of scenarios from one of us dying, to permanent injury or incapacitation, and both of our deaths.
  • revisited our funeral and memorial service preferences. Mostly this is which Bible verses and hymns have mean the most to us or accurately communicate the hope of eternal life that we have in Jesus. We want our children or family to begin a journey to healing after our deaths (not scramble to make arrangements and choices); this helped. The journey starts with Scripture and hymns that point to God, our rock.
  • researched how and where we want our remains buried. We've come around full circle over the past eight years. Ultimately, we don't want to be "possessed" or not given back to God by grieving family. We want our remains buried (not cremated, to show respect to the body that God created), in a respectful, appropriate cemetery (not possessively kept at home, or irreverently scattered to the wind), with a simple marker that both honors our given names and reminds visitors of the hope to be found in Jesus. It's our goal to buy a plot before this year's end.
  • helped our children memorize the basic tenants of faith in Jesus. We want the Lord's Prayer, Apostle's Creed and Nicene Creed, the 10 Commandments, how to praise and glorify God, and that God hears and answers prayer, the significance and meaning of Jesus' death and resurrection planted deeply in their hearts.

The Burial of Christ by Carl Heinrich Bloch

That last point was really driven home to me on Monday this week.

A local hospital offers free flu shots over three days in early October. We've gone each year. With age, Abigail has actually coped less and less well with shots. It would be cruel to spring it on her, so we do talk about it the morning of, and in the car on the way to the shot: the how, the why, and the how long. Nick held her on his lap, wrapping his arms around her. But in the moment, frantic fear brings our her best fight and all her energy goes to her muscles to escape. She wasn't the only kid at the clinic who cried, but I'm certain that she was the loudest screamer that hour. Good thing that Nick held her since she pretty much tried climbing him to get away. Did I mention that the clinic is about 10 tables in a hallway in the cancer center lobby? She knew what was coming, having witnessed it for 20 minutes.

On the other hand, Evan did not get a flu shot (they won't give it to him at the free clinic, since he has an egg allergy and it's cultured in egg). He sat against the wall, watching the four of us get vaccinated.

So, why did a flu shot screamer make me think long and hard about teaching our kids the basics of faith? Well, because of the shooter in Oregon who targeted Christians.

Would any of my children confess to being a Christian, if they had just witnessed fellow Christians being executed? Or would fight/flight response take over?

It's hard to say, since Abigail is five and Evan is three. Ariel has just begun to know Jesus through his love in us. We've started not just teaching the older kids the words of the creeds or prayers, but leaning into scenarios. Ones like,

  • Can anyone take God's word out of your heart? Does God ever leave you?
  • What if you were alone and scared? Which parts would your heart remember?
  • What does God promise in this life? (adult hint: it's both "take up your cross" and "it is finished" in tension)
  • How was Jesus' life hard? What was his strength?
  • When Halloween comes up, I turn back to the kids with questions like "What happens after we die?" and "What are demons? Are ghosts real? What roles do angels have?" I want to know how developed their thinking is.

Nick wants to soon focus on martyrs when we read the Bible, and then move on to others who died because of their faith in Jesus.

Christ and Mary Magdalene at the Tomb by Rembrandt

So Jesus became human like them in order to die for them. By doing this, he could break the power of the devil. The devil is the one who rules over the kingdom of death. 15 Jesus could set people free who were afraid of death. All their lives they were held as slaves by that fear. 16 It is certainly Abraham’s children that he helps. He doesn’t help angels. 17 So Jesus had to be made like people, fully human in every way. Then he could serve God as a kind and faithful high priest. And then he could pay for the sins of the people by dying for them. Hebrews 2:14-17 NIRV 

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. Galatians 2:20 NIRV 

Live under the control of the Holy Spirit. If you do, you will think about what the Spirit wants.The thoughts of a person ruled by sin bring death. But the mind ruled by the Spirit brings life and peace. Romans 8:5-8 NIRV

How about you?

How do you talk about Halloween with your kids?
When do you talk about death together?

How have you prepared for your death?
What would you like your kids and surviving family
to know about faith in Jesus?
How do you live that out today?

1 comment:

  1. I love this post: there are both the fact of death and the fact of life after death, mirroring the tension you referred to. There's nothing morbid about preparing oneself or one's children for death, if we face that while remembering the promises of Jesus!