Lonely life, lonely death…the church might learn?

Another DOA yesterday. Apparent OD, probably suicide. This one was just getting life back on track, too. Living in a halfway house, about to get out. But didn’t. It wasn’t ruled a suicide yet, but it’s a distinct possibility.

I was struck again by the absolute loneliness of death. Everyone dies alone, whether surrounded by loved ones or in an empty apartment. I’ve seen more of the empty apartment variety, honestly. Even if it’s expected it’s sudden. And in those hours of shock immediately following that death, that unnatural act, the same things are almost invariably said: “If only….” Fill in the blank.

But at this moment I’m struck by some of the beauty of the halfway house. It’s not a place you want to end up, but it’s a far sight better than many places. Each has a room to sleep in and to keep some personal items. There’s a common shower, a common family room, and a common dining room. It’s a place you’d inhabit because you’ve seen worse. But it’s a place you’d inhabit because you’re stepping back from that abyss in which you used to live. You’re there because you’ve been there, but you’re not there anymore, and someone is giving you a second chance.

And honestly, I think this place is the epitome of community. And I think the church could take some lessons.

When I pulled up I didn’t quite know what the place was. I met a couple of the residents outside who were mourning together over a pack of smokes. They pointed me inside, where I found the body and the officer working the scene. I nosed around for the information I needed, and went out to the common room where some fellow residents were mourning together. It broke my heart and lifted me up at the same time to watch them together. The heartache and empathy that they expressed together was unlike almost any I’ve ever seen. But when I stop and think about it, it makes sense.

They were like forgotten Nam vets. Not like your neighbor, the one you’re talking to while watering the lawn and you learn he’s a Nam vet, and all of a sudden you switch into your most sympathetic and respectful and awestruck nodding as he tells you. These are like the Nam vets you don’t notice as you walk by. These are like the guys who have taken up post around the Wall, to keep faith with their fallen brothers–the forgotten patriots you hope not to see as you pass so as to keep guilt at a distance.

They’re bound together by shared experience. They know what it is to hurt. There’s an honesty about the pain, about weakness and human frailty that sits like a weight upon them. They don’t pretend it’s not there. They acknowledge it. They admit it. They own it. And they share it. They take it seriously, and they work to support each other in it. They all know that they’re there because they are weak, and they need that place. They need shelter and they need that community because they’ve been written off by most of society–even by their families in some cases. They become family to each other. And they, weak as they are, are stronger together.

And death just dealt a palpable blow to that community.

We could learn from this as a church. We tend to play death off like it’s no big deal, like it’s just a doorway to heaven. It’s not just anything. It’s death–the cessation of life. It’s as unnatural a thing as they come. It’s the ripping of soul from body, a state human beings were not intended for. The soul goes to rest for a time while the body is subjected to decay. It aches and pleads for resurrection. And it has to wait.

But there’s more. We go to church and, just like every other corner of our lives, we seek to maintain an image that nothing’s wrong. What the church might look like if we came as the broken people that we are, with all of our baggage, with all of our weakness and the knowledge of our frailty. Like it or not, we are wounded, broken, battered people, and the church is there to pick us up, to bind up our wounds, and to be a refuge for us. It’s the place where, if it happens nowhere else, we can stop living in the denial of our self-righteousness and self-justification. It’s where we can fall, bloodied and bruised at the foot of the cross, to be picked up in the nail-scarred hands of our Lord Jesus. And there he heals us, taking our wounds upon himself. And there at the foot of the cross we can look left and right, and see our brothers and sisters, who have been just as bloodied, just as downtrodden as we have been. And we can know, “Yeah. We’ve all been there. And by God’s grace we’re all here now.” And we can show that genuine care and intrusive concern for our brothers and sisters, because we’ve been there and we know what it’s like. And we know full well our need for the Savior Jesus.

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