Reflections on Death and Faith

Since there are many paths to God, I asked a dear friend, family member, retired Presbyterian Minister and religious scholar to begin a discussion of beliefs surrounding loss, death, grief and  the afterlife.

I’d like to encourage each of you to visit the Forum page to share your personal thoughts regarding faith.  We all benefit when we acknowledge our beliefs, whatever they may be.

Rev. Dr. William C. Poe:

'Death and the pain of loss, being universal human experiences, have been subjects of deep thought and feeling in communities of all kinds as long as there have been sentient people.  All of the major world religions try to deal with these issues in varying ways.  My own tradition, Christianity, displays multiple approaches to death and suffering and the questions they raise.  In some places, dictated by a theology that requires God to be actively engaged in all that happens in life, Christianity has made God the primary actor in causing suffering and death, often as punishment for sins known or unknown.  In other places, it is life and its inherent vicissitudes that cause suffering and death, and God’s role is to walk lovingly and graciously with us through such times.  Personally, I find the latter view much more compatible with whom I perceive God to be.

The same could be said of Judaism and Islam, the other two “Abrahamic” religions.  They, too, speak with many voices about these universal life experiences.  In fact, however, all three portray suffering and death as not being part of God’s original intention for the human creation.

Although not much is made of it in the mainstream traditions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, reincarnation in some form has been a common way of approaching these issues at different times.  It is present in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, as well as in the Quran.  Of course, it is much more explicitly a part of Hinduism and Buddhism, with the addition of notions about karmic debt.

First we need to recognize that neither faith, belief, nor trust can save us from experiencing loss and grief – nor, in fact, do they lessen the pain of either.  But we also need to recognize that faith, belief, and trust can provide us the wherewithal to go through such life experiences, to wherever and whatever might be on the other side of them.

“...there is nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.”
 (Romans 8:38)

Those are powerful words, and more far-reaching than we might credit.  For we, all of us, are “of creation,” subject to all the triumphs and tragedies, the ups and downs, the joys and sorrows, the unexpected gains and losses of life.  We can be amazingly resilient, and we can be tragically fragile.  We know what it is to rejoice, and we know what it is to grieve.  We know what it is to love a great love, and we know what it is to lose a great love. . . .

Scripture is not silent on either the joys or the pains of being “of creation.”  This powerful affirmation that we have shared from Paul’s writing reflects the reality of God’s intention to be with us through whatever life, whatever being “of creation,” might bring us.  Even the untimely tragedies that draw us together fall under this assurance of gracious presence, of lovingly “standing with.”

One last thing should be said, and I think it is part of the value of this interactive book, seeking as it does to incorporate the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of many who will contribute to it over the months and years to come.  It is that no one person’s experience of suffering, loss, and grief should be taken to be normative for any other person’s experience.  While we can stand with and provide comfort and compassion for others who are grieving, we cannot finally understand all that they feel.  But we can let them know that we care, and that we are willing to offer what we can -- our presence and love, sometimes even without words.  In doing so, we give flesh to the “standing with” of God.’

Presbyterian minister, and author Frederick Buechner, writes the following about prayer:

“Keep on praying, Jesus says – not, one assumes because you have to beat a path to God’s door before God will open it, but because until you beat the path maybe there’s no way of getting to your door. . . .  Keep on praying, keep on beating the path to God’s door, because the one thing you can be sure of is that down the path you beat with even your most half-cocked and halting prayer the God you call upon will finally come, and even if God does not bring you the answer you want, God will bring you God’s own Self.  And maybe at the secret heart of all our prayers that is what we are really praying for.”

Thank you, Bill, for sharing. Your words are a comfort, your faith, an inspiration.                           

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