Thursday, September 20, 2012

An Open Letter to Mari-beth

Dear Mari-beth,

I am so sorry to learn of the death from cancer of your friend Beth. You said on facebook that Beth was a wife and a mom, and that you "can't understand why God would be taking her away."

That "why" is an awful tough question. It goes to the heart of our human-ness. Why do we have to lose people we love? Why do we have to die? Our ability to ask this "why" is what makes us human beings. Strange, isn't it, that we'd often rather deal with anything else in the world but this awesome question.

I was thinking about you and Beth and this "why" as I was looking at the gospel lesson for 17 Pentecost:

"...he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, 'The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.' But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him." (Matthew 9:31-32)

Yup. They didn't understand that he had to die, and they were afraid of the very question.

Remember in school when the teachers used to say, "The only silly question is the one you don't ask?" And yet, as kids, we sometimes failed to ask the important question because asking might make us look stupid. We thought we had more to lose by the act of questioning than we had to gain by actually knowing the answer. Now, as adults, we do the same thing. We don't ask "Why did Jesus have to die?" or "Why do I have to die?" "Why does the person I care for so much have to die?"

What I love about this bible story is that Jesus' disciples are so desperately avoiding the questions of death and immortality that they focus instead on a vain and trivial argument over their own self worth (Matt. 9:33-34). Maybe the question of death scares them so much that, in defense, they have to start boasting about their own accomplishments in order to make themselves feel less helpless.

I think the reason why important questions about God, life, and suffering go unasked is because we fear that the answers--or the very lack of answers--will lead us to unbelief. We fear we'll have to toss away a comforting Sunday School faith. We fear betraying the beliefs of our ancestors. We fear we'll lose the warmth of the baby Jesus in his mother's arms and the sweet glow of a sunny Easter morning. In short, we fear losing a part of ourselves should we reach into the black hole of such questions and come up empty handed.

But you, MB, aren't afraid to ask--in fact, you even ask  on facebook!

So I offer you the same--probably inadequate--answer I always give. We hurt because we can never say "I love you" without risking loss. Life and people are precious because they are, in this realm at least, perishable commodities. We could avoid pain if we just didn't care about anyone, but that would be a very empty existence.

You'll miss Beth, but you will never forget her courage in the face of sickness. You'll worry about her husband and children, but you'll acknowledge that they will have a much different and much deeper relationship now--even if that relationship is forged in grief. You'll be angry about the unfairness of it all, but you'll be more compassionate and more aware, too.

For me, I take solace in the notion that the God who is our very existence is not just jerking us around, but is giving us constant opportunities to choose love.

Thanks for putting it all out there, MB. Please know that Marilyn and I, as well as your whole Faith family, will keep you in our prayers as you miss your friend.

Monday, September 10, 2012


Iconic. I seem to be hearing that word a lot in the media lately. I guess it's the new favorite expression. Michael Jackson is referred to as a pop icon. Commentators on the Republican National Convention call Clint Eastwood an iconic figure. Hucksters on home shopping television dub NFL logos iconic. Even the illustrious Oprah Winfrey has self-applied the term, claiming her popular TV talk show contained "those iconic moments."

But what does the word mean? The New World Dictionary defines an icon as "an image, figure, or representation," and, secondarily, notes its ecclesiastical usage as "an image or picture of Jesus, Mary, a saint, etc. venerated as sacred."

Venerated as sacred. You see, that's the part that gets me. By this definition, THIS would be an icon:

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THIS, in contrast, is NOT an icon:

Why? Because dear old Clint, however much we may enjoy his movies and recognize him as a favorite, is not to be venerated as sacred.

Now, I might just be letting my middle-aged grumpiness get the better of me, but I'm starting to resent how the words "icon" or "iconic" have morphed from their original theological meaning into secular usage. If we consider Clint Eastwood, Oprah Winfrey, and the NFL to be icons, what does that say about us as a society? What do these images represent for us? What are we venerating as sacred? Are we saying that we now find holiness in machismo, fame, and material success? There is, you know, another old-fashioned theological term for such veneration:


Let me just say that I have no problem with the English language evolving, but my old-fashioned heart yearns for clarity. The British playwright Tom Stoppard said it like this, "Words are innocent. Neutral. Standing for this. Meaning that. If you get the right ones in the right order, you can build a bridge across incomprehension." I like that. So I ask you: Can we please restrict this one word to its original ecclesiastic usage? There are plenty of excellent words in our language for Clint, Oprah, and the NFL. I'd like to suggest "classic," "emblematic," "evocative," or even "quintessential."

But I would prefer it if we reserved "icon" and "iconic" for those images which lead us beyond ourselves and our own sense of frivolous vanity. Let the words be used for images which lead us to sacrificial love, faith in God, admiration for goodness, and belief in eternity.

Let me know what you think.

Thanks for reading!