You return unto the ground; for out of it were you taken: for dust you are, and unto dust shall you return.
Genesis 3:19b KJV
On Wednesday the bishop dipped her hand in the ashes of charred palm fronds, sketched an ancient instrument of execution on my forehead, and told me, gently but firmly, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return.” The middle of the work week and my boss tells me I’m going to die. In any other line of work, I suppose, that would be ethically troubling. But our deaths are not a threat, they’re a promise: an inevitability, a poignant and inescapable equality we all face.
For many people, this is just the problem with Christianity. Our tradition can seem, and can be, violent and regressive and sombre. I grew up with fiery Pentecostal preaching telling my the just wage of my childhood sins was death and hell. I spent my adolescence with Mormon prophets and apostles lecturing in monotone that in a world full of violence and cheating and inequality the second greatest category of sin in the world after murder was sex in its all forms, from R-rated movies to fornication. (The combined psychological effects of a Pentecostal-Mormon upbringing are a question for another day.) This leads many to flee religion outright and for many of us in the realm of liberal Christianity to dismiss talk of sorrow, sin, and death as dangerous and harmful. We would prefer to live in a word where we’re all happy and nobody is a sinner and there is no death.
I understand the desire. I believe it is also God’s desire. It is the eschatological vision, God’s grand end plan. But the Christian story is that we get there through Gethsemane and the Cross, not through denial.
I, for one, cannot longer accept a faith of rainbows without storms, joy without sorrow, mercy without sin, resurrection without death. I will not celebrate Easter without Ash Wednesday and Lent and Good Friday. I don’t believe we really can. We rob Easter of its glory if we do not face the death that preceded it. If life were all beauty, rainbows, and love, Jesus would have nothing to save us from. We would have no griefs to comfort one another through. In denying the hard things, we deny both Christ and the Christian community. If I pretend that this world or my life or your life is all happiness for the sake of anyone’s comfort, mine, yours, or anyone else’s, the pastoral sensitivity of offering that comfort will be fleeting and will backfire.
An unforgettable moment for me in seminary came when a classmate, radically progressive in his own estimation, said passingly in a theology class, “I don’t believe in the category of sin.” My professor, I was about to learn, did not let prim propriety interfere with the most blunt ways to describe her theology, paused, and then asked, “Have you seen the world? The fucking world. That we live in?”
Indeed. I have. And there is beauty in it. But there’s also hate, and violence, and corruption. There is sorrow. There is sin. There is death. And the church proclaiming that we’re all good people and all is beauty is not hopefulness to me. It is lying. It is painfully spiritually unsatisfactory lying. The world is broken. I am often part of the problem. I am broken, too. Telling me I’m not a broken sinner is ultimately no more healing than a doctor telling me to feel good about myself when I’ve contracted a virus.
Our cultural compulsivity to deny the hard truths is nothing new to me. When I was in elementary school, my mother was fighting against, and eventually undeniably dying from, cancer. Once a classmate asked me how my mother was doing. A fourth-grader’s sincere compassionate curiosity to a classmate, and I told her truthfully. A teacher overheard and pulled me aside. She told me to not talk about it. The other children should not be bothered with the reality that their parents were also mortal just because one of mine was dying. It might make them sad.
Well, yes, facing the realities of life and being empathetic to others is devastatingly sad sometimes. But my teacher’s impulse to preserve the other children’s “innocence” and peace was in defence of a fragile lie. Silence didn’t heal my mother of cancer. And silence didn’t make all my friends’ parents any less mortal.
Perhaps we go to church wanting to be “filled”, to “get something out of it,” or to feel good. And I should be clear: I am all in favour of joy as part of a balanced emotional and spiritual diet. I’m all for shouting “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!” I am all for shouting “Hallelujah!” I am even for Paul and Silas singing praises in prison. But I am not in favour of them pretending they were not, in fact, in a prison.
When life is hard, when tragedy strikes, when trauma happens, we can and are permitted to be sad. To be distraught. To grieve. Jesus, the very one we call the resurrection and the life, heard his friend died and, poignantly, the shortest verse of the Bible said, “Jesus wept.” Happiness for its own sake under all circumstances is a false idol. The cult of happiness, creeping into our religious life, is to look at Jesus, call him our perfect example, see him weeping, and to insist we’re stronger than that.
Sometimes we phrase our aversion to sorrow, sin, and death as a protection for our children. Working in, and primarily academically specialising in, children’s ministry, I have seen children’s ministry as the forefront of false Christian happiness. We want Sunday School to be pure joy. We don’t want our kids exposed to violence or scary imagery. We whitewash the destruction of Noah’s Ark into a very cute story about pairs of all of God’s most cartoonishly adorable creatures in neat little lines on the gangplank. And let the record show, I believe we should teach our children with abundant caution, in light of the best practices of psychology and pedagogy, in developmental appropriate ways. But we should teach them. We should them that sometimes we’re all sad. That is sorrow. We should teach them that sometimes our choices hurt others and, frankly, make the world harder. That is sin. And we need to teach them that everyone will one day will stop breathing. Their grandparents. Their parents. Themselves.
I believe the church is called to teach the children these things well. These are lessons they will learn. Denial stalls, it does not solve.
I want my kids to know I forbid cruelty to one another because it is sin, because it turns our home into a vision of hell on earth rather than a vision of the kingdom of God. I want my kids to know that I am so uptight about “look both ways before you cross the street” and innumerable other paternal nags because they can die, and I don’t want them to.
Beyond the children only, when the church enforces happiness, we do not create a safe space for mourners. We isolate them. We create a myth of loneliness in the very community that should be the source of solidarity.
I will not ever reveal parishioners secrets to other parishioners. But to some extent, I wish they would to each other a bit more! In university chaplaincy, a common pastoral care pattern I have seen is the myth of the other-person-who-has-it-all-together. It goes roughly like this, “Why I am such a mess… Everyone else at church has it all together.” TALK TO EACH OTHER.
Each person who confides in me has a unique combination of challenges and obstacles, a unique set of sorrows, a unique blend of sins—both their own and sins to which they have been the victim, unique risks and fears of death itself. But I would be hard pressed to name any one situation that is utterly and entirely unique, any suffering that someone has faced that nobody else in the community could nod and say, “I know, me too,” even in the small communities I serve.
At first it is miserably depressing to think about it. Everyone I see has sorrows. Everyone I see is sinning. Everyone I see will die. And that all includes when I look in the mirror. But it becomes liberating. I am not alone. I live in God’s world.
The sunshine and rainbows and eternal joy are coming. God does not ignore reality. God will conquer it and renew it and recreate it.
Who will separate us from Christ’s love? Will we be separated by trouble, or distress, or harassment, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, We are being put to death all day long for your sake. We are treated like sheep for slaughter.
But in all these things we win a sweeping victory through the one who loved us. I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created.
Romans 8:35-39 CEB
But for now, I remember, I am dust. To dust I will return. And so will you. And we’re all in this together.