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Happiness Is Not Hope
Easter Sunday was once again a triumph, a magnificent celebration of ultimate hope. But the spiritual life is a wily animal, and the very thing that seems unquestionably good is often questioned by the spiritually wise.
The prophet Isaiah saw synagogues packed with people praising God with heart, soul, and sacrifice, but he felt compelled to shout down the tumult:
"What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?" says the Lord; … Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. … learn to do good; seek justice … " (Isa. 1:11-17, ESV).
Jesus looked at the paragons of religious propriety and moral goodness in his day and all he saw, he said, were snakes, hypocrites, and whitewashed tombs.
There's not much in the religious life that's excluded from spiritual probing, then, even those moments of seeming triumph.
Thirty-five years ago, Ernst Becker began his now-classic The Denial of Death with:
The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity — activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny of man.
It is now commonplace to note the many ways our culture has sidelined death. We live at a frenzied pace and with myriad distractions that keep the thought of death at bay. As I noted a couple of weeks ago here, we fixate on any piece of scientific evidence that suggests that a change in diet or lifestyle might add a year or so to our lives. Graveyards no longer surround churches, nor can they be found at the centers of cities, but only at their peripheries. Let the dead lie with the dead.
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The rising popularity of cremation is due to many causes, some of them rooted in fine motives. But no matter the motive, it often amounts to a denial of death. Many who request cremation ask that their ashes be spread in some beautiful, scenic, life-affirming place. We released my father's ashes, for instance, beneath the Golden Gate Bridge in the San Francisco Bay. It was a beautiful moment at a beautiful place.
I thought it a splendid idea at the time, believing that from then on, whenever I might see a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge or visit San Francisco, I would think of my father. I just visited the Bay Area, and drove across that magnificent span, and while a thought of my father crossed my mind, I can't say it was any more than that. There was too much to distract me. The Golden Gate Bridge is stunning, with those magnificent orange towers rising up, framed by the city skyline and Marin, overlooking the vast blue expanse of the Pacific Ocean — well, one can think of hardly anything else at such a moment. That setting has a way of making one forget about the beloved.
During that same weekend, I visited my mother's crypt. My father had wanted to bury her in San Francisco, a city where she had spent many happy years. But the closest we could come was a suburb called Colma, south of San Francisco.
Her crypt lies in an unimaginative square building lined floor to ceiling with shiny marble, a place where every footstep and whisper bounces around for minutes before coming to rest. Mom lies four or five rows up — each row lined with names and dates of demise — and we had to find a ladder to add some fresh flowers to the little vase that sticks out from the crypt. For all the sterility of the setting, it has this going for it: There is nothing there that distracts one from thinking about the dead.
In "SoulWork," Mark Galli brings news, Christian theology, and spiritual direction together to explore what it means to be formed spiritually in the image of Jesus Christ.
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