Faith & Spirituality

A Tradition That Needs to Die

For those of you out there with blood pressure that’s in a low enough range that you wouldn’t mind bringing it up a few notches, I have just the thing: the disingenuous idioms Christians have latched onto in order to avoid speaking words associated with death and dying.

Death is the “doorway to the new life.” Funerals are “home-going celebrations.” Dying is “going home to be with the Lord” or “being ushered into His presence” or “receiving our promotion to glory.” (That last one is so ridiculous, I wish I’d thought of it first.)

These substitute terms supposedly reflect our knowledge that death is not simply the expiration of the body, it is something more. We are privy to inside information. Everyone else thinks death is a tragedy, but not us Christians—we know how things really are! We get to feel smug and superior to those heathens who say that their loved one has “departed” or “passed away.”

This is wishful thinking at best and hypocritical at worst. If we truly have no reason to fear death (as we claim), then to say that someone has “died” should not bother us in the least. But it obviously does, because the Sunday School vocabulary we use in its place means we’re avoiding the d-word, just like everybody else.

And what’s the real difference, anyway, between saying that someone has “gone to glory” instead of saying they’ve “passed on”? Both of these expressions are idiomatic — sincere attempts to reckon with a painful reality. The only difference is that one is Christianized; the other is not. Neither one alters the facts of the situation in any way, but one sure sounds an awful lot more like some sort of transcendental exercise in denial than the other one does.

Those who vote conservative at election time like to poke fun at the opposing side for advocating “politically correct” terminology. One side favors such terminology because they don’t want to give offense; the other side says that’s lame. Well, I’m afraid it’s speakers of “Christianese” who must accept the prize for lameness. They have to have their preferred terminology because it’s their very own selves they’re afraid of offending!

Now I know that some people like to use the phrase “with the Lord” because the Apostle Paul did (2 Corinthians 5:8). When he said it, I bet it didn’t come off so trite, so extraneous, so passe as it usually does when people say it now. In fact, I’m sure it didn’t. Paul wrote to at least one audience — possibly more — who, at that time, did not possess complete assurance as to the reality of heaven; this is why he prefaced one of his messages about the afterlife with “I do not want you to be ignorant” (1 Thessalonians 4:13).

Nowadays, ignorance is not our problem. Heaven is old news to us, so we tend to use it more as a dismissal of feelings (our own or others’) rather than as a statement of fact. It is true as a statement of fact, but boy, does it make for a lousy attempt at comfort.

There has to be a better way. Perhaps we should resurrect the Old Testament ways of putting it: “He slept with his fathers” and “He was gathered to his people.”

No? …Well, I’ll keep thinking.

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