Monday, March 16, 2015

I Struggle Against the Thunderbolt's Ways

Vajrayana Buddhism, one of the major schools of Buddhism, literally translates into English as "the Way of the Thunderbolt."  It derives its name from the vajra, the thunderbolt that in Sanskrit refers to the toughness or even indestructibility of the spirit.

I don't claim to even remotely be an expert on Buddhism (far from it--something that my total crank of a Buddhist professor in college could confirm), but that is really a pretty amazing thing to name your religion after--the resilience of spirit itself.  It is something that English doesn't really have a word for, but it should.

We don't have a word for it, I think, because of how differently we think of the thunderbolt in the West.  Going all the way back to ancient Greek mythology, Zeus would hurl them from the sky as his weapon of choice, and even today, to be struck by lightning is often the result of freak chance, and we even refer to a complete rarity as the equivalent of lightning striking in the same place twice.

Yet the bolts still strike us, and just like in a literal thunderstorm, when National Weather Service warnings go out and we retreat for shelter, we might see the specter of their possibility coming, but it does not diminish the shock of standing there as the full force of heaven seems to strike you into full stop.

Two weeks ago, I got an email from the senior pastor of my former church in California that Ryan, a 21-year-old who was a youth when I was there, died from a brain tumor.  And yesterday, just as my current church's praise band was getting our morning worship service into full swing, a message was being left on our drummer's voicemail that her mom, Florence (who was also our lead singer's grandmother) had just died from metastatic pancreatic cancer.

They got that voicemail right as my sermon was starting, and what they did afterwards amazed me: they stayed through the sermon, and despite the tears, they went up and performed their remaining songs to close out our worship with a poise I had not yet known existed in humanity.  There are no words for how impressed I was (and am) with them.

The thunderbolt had struck, and my fellow servants put forth an indestructible resilience.  They showed their own toughness, their thunderbolt of spirit.

In both of these vivid deaths, the lightning struck, once because the person was by almost any standard far, far, too young to go, and once because the person was not young, but went when her family was not by her side and couldn't be for another hour.  Both times, I felt an immense pang of pain over the circumstances, like I had just been kicked full force in the gut.

And that was before the flood of memories had even started: memories of his drum playing, of her Bible study prayers, of his love of competitive swimming and her cardplaying prowess.  Those pangs would continue on and on.

I don't know, maybe the "so-and-so hung on until everyone could be there" stories are hokum.  People die when they are going to die, and we try to make ourselves feel better about their dying because of how they went.  I felt--feel--horrible that my church matriarch's family wasn't there, and that my one-time youth's family will now have to live out their lives without his physical presence.  There isn't timeliness in that, there just isn't.  Families should be present and want to be present, but we all know that doesn't always happen.

And make no mistake--it is incredibly important for someone to be able to go from this life to the next in a state of comfort and in an absence of pain.  We're people, humans, and children of God deserve to die with their dignity intact.

But we cannot control our time of death, not really.  We like the stories about how someone hung on, or how a spouse died just hours after their spouse did, because those stories imply, however subtly but still dangerously, that we do have some measure of control over our deaths.

And boy, do we hate a lack of control.  We need control, we crave it, it's our fix, our Cocoa Puffs that we're absolutely cuckoo for.

Yet...isn't religion all about that giving up of control?  Aren't we exhorted to "let go and let God?"  (And for *bleep*'s sake, I absolutely LOATHE that saying because it is so tritely bandied about, but that doesn't mean there isn't at least a germ truth in it.)  Isn't religion supposed to proffer hope that this life is not our last life, that death does not have the final word, and that God is indeed in His heaven, prepared to roll out the welcome mat to us when our number is called?

Our fear of death remains, though.  And after seeing these two deaths, on the polar extremes of life, I have come to believe that fear of death is really another manifestation of our fear of a lack of control.  I wish like hell my praise leaders could have been at their mother and grandmother's bedside when she went, even if it meant we had to wing it and sing a cappella yesterday.  I would have wanted to do that for them--that's my own need for control rearing its own head.

But I can't.  I couldn't.  The lightning had struck, the future had been uprooted from the present, and a new future was written.

In the face of the bolts that strike us, then, I know only to display just enough toughness to endure it.  I learned how, for I have seen it on display, from grieving parents and grieving children alike.

I reckon it is better to embrace that toughness, that inner thunderbolt way, when the thunderbolt's ways come crashing into your little bubble.  Because they do so for other people constantly, around the world, by the second.

Which I do not say to be all doom-and-gloom.  Nothing I have said here should be heard in Eeyore's voice.  Quite simply, I struggle with how unpredictable death can be.  Even though it is part of my job to bury people, and to commit their souls to paradise.

But I'm working on it.  Maybe that's the best I can do right now.

Yours in Christ,

In memory of Ryan Morgan and Florence Latham.  Ad vitam aeternam.

1 comment:

  1. This is so spiritually and emotionally open. Lovely. Thanks for posting Eric. It made me think about my mother's death and how woefully unprepared I felt. I have spent many years reconciling myself to that.