Feliz Dia de Los Muertes (or, for the gringos, “Happy Day of the Dead!”

Feliz Dia de Los Muertes (or, for the gringos, “Happy Day of the Dead!”

While many in the U.S. will observe today as Halloween – a night for Jack-o-lanterns, costumes, parties, and “trick or treating” – our neighbors to the South will be observing a much more ancient tradition called “Dia de Los Muertes” – the Day of the Dead.  The Day of the Dead, originating in Mexico and observed to varying degrees throughout Central America, is a special celebration for honoring loved ones who have died, in hopes their spirits will return for a visit.  Families build altars in their homes, as places of loving remembrance, and they visit cemeteries for family feasts, and to decorate family tombs and grave sites.  Day of the Dead celebrations often include parades, feasts, decorations, and colorful skeletal costumes.

Probably, the most familiar image, to most, from the Day of the Dead is the “Sugar Skull” – images of skulls or skeletons, decorated with elaborated dress and beautiful flowers.

I’ve heard some say the Day of the Dead is evil, or morbid, or, at least, weird.  But, I love it!  If you ask me, Halloween is weird!  Whether Halloween is an opportunity to adorn a different persona, or self-indulge in parties and candy, or, at worst, glorify evil, it’s all a bit strange to me.  But, I think the Day of the Dead is kind of beautiful.

The Day of the Dead embraces death as an inevitable part of the life experience.  The Day of the Dead keeps the love and memories of the deceased alive in ritual form.  The Day of the Dead celebrates life!  The Day of the Dead imagines the distance between the material and spiritual world as being rather thin.

And, frankly, though the Day of the Dead traditions arose from the indigenous peoples of Mexico, aspects of the traditions feel very Christian to me….

  • We believe Christ has conquered death, and opened the gates to eternity.
  • Hebrews 12:1 says we are “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses,” which I understand to mean the souls and spirits of those who have died in the Lord.
  • We believe in honoring the “saints” who have gone before us, and on whose spiritual shoulders we stand, whose lives deserve to be remembered.
  • We believe life is a gift to be celebrated fully.

No, the Day of the Dead is not, technically, a Christian holiday.  But, it is a rich cultural tradition, celebrating life, death, and the life after death.

In ancient times, Christian monks would keep the skull of a deceased and decomposed brother on their prayer desk, as a reminder of their own mortality.  Can you imagine praying, with the hollow eye sockets of a deceased brother staring at you?  Tibetan Buddhists sometimes meditate with prayer beads in the shape of tiny skulls, sometimes carved from yak bone, for the same purpose.

Death is a reality we inevitably face.  There’s just no escaping it!  Though Christians believe we will live forever, none will do so without passing through death.  While death is an enemy, in that it is the end of our earthly existence, it is also a defeated enemy, in that it is not the final ending of our eternal existence.  Really, death is nothing more than a transition from life to more life.  In some ways, death is akin to birth, passing from one existence to the next.

Dare we also say death can be a friend?  After all, death, if we will embrace it, reminds us that each and every day is a gift and blessing.  Death is a reminder to live every day on earth to the fullest, and strive not to waste even one.  And, death is a promise that when the struggles of this life are over – and some of us struggle a lot – there’s a better life waiting for us on the other side.

Feliz Dia de Los Muertes, mis amigos!

The Unquenchable Thirst of Grief

The Unquenchable Thirst of Grief

I recently led a memorial service for a 23-year-old man, whose family attends my church.  23-years-old is obviously too young to die, so his death was unexpected, a terrible shock, and particularly tragic.  After years of addiction, successful recovery, and then a recent relapse, he died of a drug overdose.  Tragic.

Exactly one year prior to the memorial service, I was moving in to my new home and job in Coral Springs.  As this young man was living in Boston, and I’ve only been at my current church for a year, I never had the opportunity to know him.  As a pastor, I find that leading memorial services on behalf of strangers is difficult – even more difficult than for those I personally know.  A memorial service is a very personal thing, and it’s impossible to speak personally, with any credibility, about a stranger.

So, instead of talking about the all-too-short life of this young man, I felt led to speak as a father of a 23-year old daughter and a 22-year-old son.  I spoke from the perspective of what I might need to hear from a pastor if the roles were reversed, and I was the grieving parent.

This is what I said…

Though I’ve never experienced this particular kind of grief – the loss of a child – I believe that the one common reality for all humans is that we will experience grief.  We will all experience loss.  We all hurt.  Scratch the surface of any human being, and you will find some degree of pain and suffering inside of us.  Everyone.  All of us.  No exceptions.

When I am in pain, when I doubt, when I’m uncertain, I’ve found comfort and strength in the honesty of Psalm 42…

As the deer longs for streams of water,
so I long for you, O God.
I thirst for God, the living God.
When can I go and stand before him?
Day and night I have only tears for food,
while my enemies continually taunt me, saying,
“Where is this God of yours?”

My heart is breaking
as I remember how it used to be:
I walked among the crowds of worshipers,
leading a great procession to the house of God,
singing for joy and giving thanks
amid the sound of a great celebration!

Why am I discouraged?
Why is my heart so sad?
I will put my hope in God!
I will praise him again—
my Savior and 
my God!

Now I am deeply discouraged,
but I will remember you—
even from distant Mount Hermon, the source of the Jordan,
from the land of Mount Mizar.
I hear the tumult of the raging seas
as your waves and surging tides sweep over me.
But each day the Lord pours his unfailing love upon me,
and through each night I sing his songs,
praying to God who gives me life.

“O God my rock,” I cry,
“Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I wander around in grief,
oppressed by my enemies?”
10 Their taunts break my bones.
They scoff, “Where is this God of yours?”

11 Why am I discouraged?
Why is my heart so sad?
I will put my hope in God!
I will praise him again—
my Savior and my God!

I deeply appreciate the Psalmist’s honesty, vulnerability, rawness, and questioning.

The Psalmist compares himself to deer in the desert, desperately searching for a drink of water.  Often, in my opinion, this Psalm is incorrectly used as inspiration for prayer or worship, as though this is a gentle thirst.  This is no gentle thirst!  This animal is parched and may not survive. This is the desperate search of an animal clinging to life, in need of water where there’s not even a puddle.

As the deer longs for streams of water,
so I long for you, O God.
I thirst for God, the living God.
When can I go and stand before him?

 Just as the deer pants desperately for water, the Psalmist is desperate for God – a God that feels far away.  Desperate for answers.  Desperate for comfort.  Desperate for a sense of God’s presence.  And, none can be found.

Day and night I have only tears for food.

 Throughout the Psalm, you can hear the anguish the Psalmist is enduring…

  My heart is breaking
as I remember how it used to be:

Why am I discouraged?
Why is my heart so sad?

Now I am deeply discouraged.

 I hear the tumult of the raging seas
as your waves and surging tides sweep over me.

“O God my rock,” I cry,
“Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I wander around in grief?

Six times, the Psalmist asks “why?”  The most common question I’m asked following any tragedy is, “why?”  We desperately need to make sense of the pain or loss.  We desperately need to hear something to make it “ok.”  Nothing anyone could possibly say could make a tragedy “ok.”  And, yet, we ask.  We can’t help but ask.

Even for Christians, who believe in Heaven and eternity, death is still an enemy.  Even for those of who believe that Jesus defeated death on the cross, and rose from the dead, it is still an enemy that we must face before we can pass from this life to the next.  It is still an enemy that robs us of people we love, and long to be with. The enemy has been defeated.  Yet…

Death undeniably shakes our foundations.  Death pushes us to confront mysteries we can’t possibly comprehend. Death makes us ask questions about justice – “how can this be right?  How is this fair?”  Death makes us question the goodness of God.

“Whys?” are normal.  Inevitable.  Yet, there are no meaningful answers.

 Yet, peppered throughout this Psalm our words of faith…

 I thirst for God, the living God.
When can I go and stand before him?

 I will put my hope in God!
I will praise him again—
my Savior and my God!

  But each day the Lord pours his unfailing love upon me,
and through each night I sing his songs,
praying to God who gives me life.

 I will put my hope in God!
I will praise him again—
my Savior and my God!

The key, I think, is that even when we doubt God’s goodness, God’s presence, or even God’s existence, direct those doubts to God. Don’t turn your back on him.  Direct all of your pain, emotion, and questions AT God – not away from him.  He can take your worst anger.  He understands.  He hurts with us too.  He gets angry too.  He grieves for tragic loss too.

Though I undeniably struggle sometimes; though there is so much I don’t understand and can’t explain; I believe 3 things with all of my heart and soul.

  1. There is a God.
  2. He is good.
  3. He is for us, and not against us.

 If we cling to those things, even when we go through the darkest valleys of this life, those simple truths will get you through.

 I think, if the roles were reversed, and I were the one in mourning, I would need to hear a pastor say…

 Everything you are thinking and feeling is ok – including anger and doubt toward God.  The pain, the terrible sadness, and the grief is NORMAL.  It doesn’t feel normal.  But, how could you expect to feel anything else in a moment like this?

 It’s ok not to be ok – any time soon.  You will be.  But, it will take time.

 It’s ok to yell, scream, cry, and even cuss if you need to – even if it’s toward God; even if it’s toward the one who has died.

 And, most importantly, God is with you.  He knows that, if you had the choice, you would choose to be with the one who has gone.  God gets that.  But, God is with you none-the-less.

 And, you can be sure, even now…

There is a God.

He is good.

He is for us, and not against us.