Monthly Archives: October 2016

Scared to Death

lowering-a-casket-into-grave

I’m scared to death of dying. Not because I’m uncertain of where my soul will go but because I’m concerned about what will happen to my body. Funerals can be impersonal, expensive, and hard on the environment. With the professionalization of the funeral industry in America loved ones and churches have been largely removed from the preparation of the body and its burial.

Funeral homes are staffed by good people but aren’t charities. They’re in the business of making money. The national average for a full-service funeral is $7,000 – $10,000. Cremation lowers the cost to $2,000 – $4,000. For those who have the money and desire, a full-service funeral can show the family’s love and respect for the one who has died. But funerals don’t have to be expensive to be respectful and meaningful.

It seems crass to shop around for a deal on a funeral as if you were buying a car but it’s perfectly acceptable. Some areas of the country have funeral co-ops that will do the bargaining for you.  Members pay a small one-time fee to join a funeral co-op. At the time when the services are needed the co-op negotiates a discount with funeral homes. Typical savings range from several hundred to over a thousand dollars. Another approach has been nonprofit funeral homes, which keep costs down by removing the profit motive. For areas without a co-op or nonprofit there’s the Funeral Consumers Alliance (www.funerals.org), “a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting a consumer’s right to choose a meaningful, dignified, affordable funeral.” A quick perusal of their website led me to a helpful article titled, “What to Do When You Can’t Afford a Funeral.”

Another concern about full-service funerals is their impact on the environment. First, there’s the toxic embalming fluid pumped into bodies that poses a threat to the environment. (Embalming became popular in America after the Civil War when it was used to preserve the war dead until they could be shipped home, but it’s rarely practiced in Europe.) Second, each year millions of pounds of metal, wood, and concrete are made into caskets and vaults and put in the ground to shield bodies from their surroundings (ashes to ashes and dust to dust?). The caskets and vaults must be manufactured and transported, adding to the environmental impact. Finally, cemeteries must be mowed, watered, and sprayed with insecticides indefinitely. All of this adds up to a huge impact on the environment, since almost 2.5 million people die each year in the US alone. Natural burials or “green burials” have a low impact on the environment. Typically, the body is wrapped in a shroud or placed in a biodegradable coffin and buried in “natural cemetery” without a manicured lawn, often in a peaceful, wooded area.

My final concern about the funeral industry is the way it separates the dead from their loved ones and religious communities. When a person dies, the body is whisked away almost immediately and prepared for burial apart from the family by professionals. The entire process, except the religious service itself, is handled by funeral directors and their staffs. For centuries families prepared the bodies and churches buried them without the assistance of a funeral home. Thank you very much.

Home funerals, which were common until the mid-20th century, allow families to care for a loved one’s body without using the services of a funeral home. Home funerals are legal in all but eight states. Burials on private property outside a cemetery are also permissible but check with the county or town clerk and the health department to understand the applicable laws.

Joseph of Arimathea lovingly prepared Jesus’s body for burial and laid it in a tomb (Mark 15:42-46). We can follow his example by caring for our loved ones’ bodies after death. How we do so is a personal decision. My goal here has not been to tell anyone what to do but only to give some options to consider.

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Disappointment in Prayer

disappointment-sign

“Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart” (Luke 18:1). Jesus understood how easy it is for his followers to become discouraged. That’s why he told his disciples “to pray always and not lose heart.”

The first time I remember being disappointed with prayer was when I was 12. My uncle was dying of lung cancer. The phone would ring early in the morning. It was my Aunt Laura calling from Connecticut to give my mother the latest update on Uncle Ray’s condition. When she hung up the phone, my mother would do two things. She’d go in the bathroom and throw up. The stress was too much for her. And she would pray. She prayed more for my Uncle Ray’s healing than I had ever known her to pray for anything. She sent money to a prominent televangelist, because he said if she did God would work a miracle. As my uncle slid closer toward death, she prayed more and gave more. It didn’t work. Despite all the praying and giving, Uncle Ray died.

What do we do when we pray and are discouraged because God doesn’t answer, or says no, or gives us a different answer than the one we wanted? Jesus said the answer is to “pray always and not lose heart.” Easier said than done.

Psalm 136:1 says, “Give thanks to the Lord for He is good.” God isn’t just good. He’s good to me. Even when he doesn’t give me what I want, God loves me dearly and wants what’s best for me. The only way I can persevere in prayer is when I trust God and believe in his goodness.

The Parable of the Unjust Judge (Luke 18:1-8) reminds us we need to keep on believing and keep on praying no matter what. Nowhere in the Bible will you find a verse that says to just ask God once and then stop asking.

An important part of persevering in prayer is humility. We have to be humble enough to realize that what we want isn’t always what God knows is best. That’s why Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but thy will be done” (Luke 22:42).

According to William Barclay, judges like the one in the parable were paid magistrates who were notorious for taking bribes. A defenseless widow like the one in the story stood little chance of winning her suit. She prevailed because she wore the judge down by her persistence. The story has a happy ending, even if real life often does not.

What do we do with this parable when we know that God doesn’t always fix things the way good people want it, even good people who pray persistently? We have to remember that every promise of scripture isn’t absolute but relative. If God promises to heal or perform miracles for those who have enough faith, that doesn’t mean God is under any obligation to heal or perform miracles. Faith doesn’t just mean believing you’ll get what you want.

Faith means trusting in God, regardless of whether he does what we want him to do. Faith means praying, “Thy will be done,” not “My will be done.” Faith means believing that God will answer us but understanding that he may not give us the answer we want.

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Hungry For Change

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Woman picks through food waste in Kampala, Uganda

October is World Hunger Month. It’s an important time to remember how daunting the problem of hunger is. One billion people in the world are hungry, and over 46 million Americans are “food insecure,” meaning they skip meals or cannot afford to eat healthy. That’s surprising since 1.3 billion tons of food are thrown away annually. That’s enough to feed all the hungry people in the world. There’s no shortage of food. There’s an abundance of poverty. Those with enough money eat well whether they live in Washington DC or Timbuktu. There’s also an abundance of greed, corruption, and infrastructure challenges that contribute to the problem of food insecurity.

While I was in Africa I saw up close the devastating effects of a broken global food system. I remember watching a woman picking through a pile of food waste in Uganda and children begging on the streets in war-ravaged Somalia. The hunger problem in America is less obvious. Poor families rely on cheap, unhealthy processed food to get enough calories, which has led to an obesity epidemic. We usually think of skinny, emaciated people as hungry. Overweight people may not be hungry, technically speaking, but obesity is often due to a lack of affordable, healthy food.

Giving food to the hungry is a stop-gap that treats the symptom, not the root problem. What would it look like if we got serious about trying to end hunger and poverty, not just put a Band-Aid on the problem? I’m not sure, but it should start with building relationships with the poor, not just giving them food or money (though sometimes that’s what they need most to help them through a crisis). Using our God-given time, talents, and resources, we could empower those in need to work toward getting out of poverty themselves and helping others to do the same. A hand up rather than a hand out. What’s needed is an approach that captures the spirit of the following quote by Lao Tzu:

Go to the people:

live with them,

learn from them

love them

start with what they know

build with what they have.

 

But of the best leaders,

when the job is done,

the task accomplished,

the people will say:

“We have done it ourselves.”

What would that look like in the context of relief for the poor? Scholarships to help pay for education and job training. Microfinance programs to start small businesses. Childcare co-ops for single mothers. Ride sharing. Community gardens. The possibilities are endless.

Sometimes the challenges seem so overwhelming that paralysis sets in. We don’t know where to begin, so we don’t. But the problems of poverty and hunger won’t solve themselves. We need to take action. We need to begin. To quote Lao Tzu again, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” So let’s get moving.

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Gone Missing

Kindly reader, I am a blog without a blogger

He has gone missing for weeks

and my house is empty. Suffer me awhile,

or go, and if you meet him—

he with a distant look and shambling gait—

tell him the hearth is cooling down.

 

I won’t know a thing for days,

he takes to a walk-about

and never pays me notice.

What kind of life is that?

 

Yet I’ve never expected different—

I’m glad he just comes back at all.

And you could say absence

sometimes makes for a better blog.

 

Adapted from Paul Quenon, “Gone Missing,” in Unquiet Vigil: New and Selected Poems (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2014), 13-14. The words “poem” and “poet” have been replaced with “blog” and “blogger.”

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