Uncertain Raptures

My mind and heart are full today on this latest instance of Adventist disappointment. Most of my friends have enjoyed reasonably good-natured if sometimes hostile humor at the expense of the current iteration of muddled arithmetical exegesis, this time by a Protestant entrepreneur named Harold Camping. I’m sympathetic to their responses–the way Protestant millenarianism often presents itself is both arrogant and xenophobic. But one of my closest friends lost his mother this week, and today we bid her farewell in the LDS chapel that sheltered me for a crucial decade of my life. My heart is not in the Rapture parties staged by my friends and coworkers because my heart is with my friend and his family. As I reflected on the juxtaposition of C*’s funeral and the mostly good-natured mockery of Camping and his followers, I felt to attend more closely to the meanings that lurk behind Rapture rhetoric. In our shared grief, I want to draw out some of the important meanings hiding behind the half-silly, half-spiteful rhetoric that circulates around Rapture predictions.

It was my older brother, I think, who first emphasized to me that the “second coming” comes all the time, at different times for different people. In a very important sense what we call the Second Coming is a sublimation and generalization of the fact of each individual death. When we pass from this scene, our mortal work is done. We rarely know when that exit will occur, but we sense that when it does come we will no longer be able to rectify the injustices of which we are guilty.

While the historian in me is curious about the social and political aspects of millenarianism, the believer in me sees Rapture ideology as intensely personal and practical. Rapture theology is based not just on the anticipated destruction of the present world, it also gives expression to our desire, difficult sometimes for us to say aloud, that we find death a desperately sad way to leave this earth. Rapture ideology also allows us to express our occasional reluctance to continue through the stresses and miseries of mortal life. People who endorse the Rapture are not suicidal. But the Rapture seems to me to provide a way to express misgivings about just how hard life can be. In the promise of a transformation in the twinkling of an eye stands the fervent plea that our mortal probation end easily and quickly.

Saying goodbye to C* was hard. Her son eloquently invoked the testimonies of the Lehite prophet Jacob and the metaphysical poet John Donne to emphasize that death is both monstrous and superable. Crucially, it is both. We cry because death is a painful way to separate and because life is hard enough with those we love still at our side. I suspect that bereavement and the specter of death are good for us somehow, I really do, but they are not pleasant by any stretch of the imagination. I understand why people would hope for the freedom from death that the Rapture promises even as I suspect that it is an ultimately childish hope.

The fears that Rapture sublimates remind me, ultimately, of the fragile majesty of human life. On today’s date of misguided hope and fear, I feel to remember that I will not always be able to touch my hand to my wife’s cheek and watch her smile, will not always have my youngest pulling on my thumbs as she twirls about the living room, will not always be able to share a meal with C* in the home that she and her husband opened to my friends and me for all those years. I, or they, may leave unexpectedly, dashing any procrastinated aspirations for greater kindness or tenderness, for greater commitment to our shared vision. On this day made trivial by our culture wars and the occasional eruptions of demonstrably false millenarian predictions, I feel called to mourn with those who mourn, to hold close against my chest the people whom I love and who have loved me all these years, to grieve and to honor the people who have departed and the way they depart.

And I remember that death is painful. While we mostly heal from bereavement eventually, these are the wounds that are our lot in life, and perhaps that is what makes us most like Christ. It seems to me that in that dark and exhausting garden he felt our grief, experienced a colossal bereavement of which ours are just shadows. There is in our sorrow something both godly and brutal.

As Mr. Camping and his predictions recede from view and soon from collective memory, I remember C* and her bereaved family, and I cry a little here at my desk.

Comments

  1. Thanks for extending yourself with such marvelous sympathy. “Tired of livin’–Scared of dyin’” probably sums it up for most of us up on our best days. If there’s any real escape it must be through these physical and mental exercises of charity, which you exemplify here.

  2. What a beautiful, thought-provoking post! Thank you, Sam.

  3. CS Eric says:

    Sam,
    This tracks pretty closely my thoughts this morning. My wife passed away about three weeks ago, and I am teaching in Priesthood today as the the Teachings for our Time lesson Elder Anderson’s talk “Preparing the World for the Second Coming.” Part of me still feels that the day my wife met her Maker was the day the world ended for me. I didn’t need Camping’s predictions to make it real for me. We’ll see how the lesson goes today.

  4. Death is sad and painful for the living but if we can believe near death experiences it is not sad or painful for the dying and their consciousness and knowledge makes the journey with them. With the exception of legitimate issues of separation the pain and sadness we feel is not about them but about us and often belie our fear of death. At death the spirit leaves the body and it’s richly entertaining senses behind but if you’ve ever had a prayer answered you know that divine telepathy must endure.

  5. Eric, I’m desperately sorry to hear that your wife passed. God bless as you make your way through this misery and particularly as you try to find the energy to see the good intentions in the platitudes that will rain incessantly on your ears as people struggle to find language to express themselves in the presence of the vast grief of spousal bereavement.

    Howard, I’m grateful for your hopeful attempt to be helpful, but I wonder whether I could respectfully suggest that a) JFS’s vision of the afterworld suggests that the spirits do mourn their separation from the body, b) various sermons from JS suggest that the spirits of the dead feel sadness on our behalf, and c) in my experience these kinds of very well-intentioned phrases tend to backfire by suggesting that the intense, sometimes blistering, grief experienced by people like CS Eric or C*’s husband derives from ignorance or a lack of vision. I believe that such debates and claims have a place, probably in the Mormon equivalent of a pub, but they do not generally belong near the acutely bereaved.

    Jesus, Joseph Smith, and (according to the Prophecy of Enoch in the Pearl of Great Price) God himself mourned. According to Mormon folk belief, God’s great sadness at Jesus’s death cracked the cosmos. Surely they are not limited in vision.

    I love and cherish the Restoration teachings that support the persistence of identity and relationships beyond death. Those glorious doctrines can, and should, coexist with the reality of grief.

  6. I’m flying to meet my family in Florida today. They’ve already been there three weeks and we miss each other. I was talking to my eight-year-old daughter last night and she asked me about the possibility of my plane crashing. I told her that if I die on the plane: first, It will be quick and (I assume) painless and she will be taken care of; second, We believe that family relationship are eternal and I would be with her in spirit until it is her time to go. She responded by saying that she knew all that, but that she wanted me here and now. A knowledge of a glorious future only takes the slightest edge off of our current griefs, much as the knowledge that someday that broken bone will heal does relatively little to lessen the pain felt when it breaks.

    Mortality is about pain and suffering, things are we can apparently experience in the hereafter, but, it seems, only in a more abstract way.

    In any case, the death of a loved one is always terrible. I’m sorry for your loss, Eric. And yours, Sam.

  7. CS Eric says:

    Thanks, Sam.
    My High Priests Group Leader works in an organization that I support. Everybody else who signed the group card offered sympathy, and he signed his “Families are Forever.” That may be true, but not what I need to hear right now. I need to know that you feel the loss, too.
    One of the most profound moments in the Gospels to me is where, before He called Lazarus from the dead, Jesus cried with Lazarus’ family.

  8. Well Sam I wasn’t intending to raise a pint or quart in celebration or speculation nor did I mean to offend you or anyone who might be grieving by suggesting ignorance or lack of vision as the source of their pain nor do I believe that rather I intended to share an optimistic outlook and touch on the psychological issues we ALL face regarding death. I’m not aware of the JFS reference and would love a link if you have one. The D&C does say “For the dead had looked upon the long absence of their spirits from their bodies as a bondage.”

  9. Eric, the image of Jesus mourning Lazarus’s death is one of the most powerful in scripture (it’s one I juxtapose to the Weeping God of Mormonism often).

    Howard, I hope not to have given offense. I have no doubt that you are well-intentioned. What I hoped to emphasize was that in the midst of acute bereavement many people do not feel nourished by discussions about NDEs or spirit telepathy. I personally think Mormon pubs would be a great idea, and it would be there people would try to hash out such questions.
    The other thing I would emphasize is that in my experience people in the throes of bereavement do not find statements of knowledge not based in nearly identical bereavement to be persuasive. That we all face death is why I think pub talk ought to exist (in “pubs”), but in my experience what people seek is rather like what CS Eric requests in his comment here, which is acknowledgment of the magnitude of the rent in the cosmos occasioned by the loved one’s physical absence.
    While not everyone has benefited from it, I think CS Lewis’s Grief Observed is very useful for those who care for the acutely bereaved because it masterfully indicates how flimsy theology seems in the face of death, particularly in the first awful weeks and months.
    The JFS reference is indeed to his 1918 vision, occasioned by the flu pandemic, canonized as D&C 138.

  10. Ok Sam I’ll look for a Mormon pub and leave this funeral to you. Cheers!

  11. Sorry indeed for your loss, Sam.

  12. I cried while teaching about Mary, Martha, and Jesus’ grief for Lazarus in Gospel Doctrine this morning. And I was surprised to see several in the class crying as well. I didn’t really teach it. I read it. Martha running in her grief. Mary sitting. Jesus weeping with both, a reminder that death is a mortal wound that shakes His divine and human soul. Eric, I am so sorry for your loss; and you for yours, Sam.

  13. Thanks for this, Sam, and I’m sorry for your (and especially your friend’s) loss.

    Jesus, Joseph Smith, and (according to the Prophecy of Enoch in the Pearl of Great Price) God himself mourned. According to Mormon folk belief, God’s great sadness at Jesus’s death cracked the cosmos. Surely they are not limited in vision.

    The image of a God weeping (especially that described in the PoGP) has always resonated with me, though I’ve never been able to articulate why. I think your comments here have helped me make sense of that a bit. Thank you.

  14. One of the more somber facebook statuses I saw yesterday was, “Every day is the end of somebody’s world, and the start of another’s.” Easy to forget when I don’t work in a hospital, or with the elderly, or really have any connection at all to the shattering moments that bring us in and out of life.

  15. Thanks for this, Sam.

    God bless you, Eric – and may mortals bless you by mourning with you.

    There is a power in “blessed are they who mourn” – and I also believe the best thing we can do in most situations is cry with those who cry. Members who lose loved ones will hear that they will be together again many times following their loss just by being in church; they don’t need that from us as individuals, by and large. What they need to know is that we understand and accept their need to grieve – and it helps immeasurably when we actually grieve with them for the loss of a wonderful person we also knew and for whose loss we also truly grieve.

  16. Sam, would that be “exegesis” or “eisegesis”? Seems to me they were interpreting scripture to fit their viewpoint, and not trying to obtain the original thought in scripture.

    Other than that, I’ll let everyone else tear apart your blog. :)

  17. Sam I hope you and others who grieve will take more comfort in Joseph’s words than mine: The King Follett Sermon, one of the classics of Church literature, was given by the Prophet Joseph Smith at the April 7, 1844, conference of the Church. Some twenty thousand Saints were assembled it was the funeral sermon for Elder King Follett, a close friend of the Prophet’s. These are the first principles of consolation. How consoling to the mourners when they are called to part with a husband, wife, father, mother, child, or dear relative, to know that, although the earthly tabernacle is laid down and dissolved, they shall rise again to dwell in everlasting burnings in immortal glory, not to sorrow, suffer, or die any more, but they shall be heirs of God and joint heirs with Jesus Christ. What is it? To inherit the same power, the same glory and the same exaltation, until you arrive at the station of a god, and ascend the throne of eternal power, the same as those who have gone before.

  18. Howard, everyone here knows that sermon and those words. They do provide profound comfort in their own way, but comforting those who stand in need to comfort, especially in the moment, often doesn’t include “preaching to them” – which is what reading words from a sermon is.

    Generally, especially in the moment, for those who already believe, simply being there and being willing to mourn and grieve actively with someone means far more than hearing something that will be heard plenty of times in the future. Most people in that situation don’t need an answer; they need a shoulder, a listening ear, a crying eye, arns to hold them. Often, they just need a silent friend who will shut up and just “be”.

  19. I’ll keep that in mind Ray. I wonder why Joseph took that opportunity to discuss those things.

  20. Howard, I recommend two books on this point.
    First, an excellent book by a much-respected Presbyterian preacher/theologian: http://books.google.com/books?id=c9MmKV_0LiUC
    Second, (confessing my conflicts of interest), in my book I try to clarify some of what was going on in the King Follett Discourse by way of social and cultural contextualization: http://www.oup.com/us/catalog/general/subject/ReligionTheology/HistoryofChristianity/American/?view=usa&ci=9780199793570 (until the book comes out this January, I think the BYU Studies article provides a reasonable introduction to some of the cultural issues at play: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1030284 )

    The basic point is that life, and succor, are highly contextual, and what must come from the pulpit is not the same as what should come from the mouths of coreligionists in the pews.

    Long’s beautiful argument is that those of us who are not bereaved must keep these hopeful beliefs in trust for the bereaved so that, months or years later, those beliefs can ease their transition from bereavement into normal life.

    Giving the antibiotic before the infection ever occurs only makes the bacteria resistant to that antibiotic. Providing theological platitudes (however true they are, and indeed they are true) before the bereaved has been able to mourn runs the risk of souring the mourner on those theological verities.

    I really do believe that the scriptural injunction to “mourn with those who mourn” very specifically does not mean “assure the mourning that there is ultimately no reason to mourn.”

  21. From the BYU Studies article: Conclusion…The cultural context of the Smith family deathbeds also clarifies the emotional and spiritual impact of the rites and doctrines revealed by the Prophet. These were no theoretical doctrines; they spoke to some of the deepest emotions held by early nineteenth-century Americans…In the end, I believe that the significance of this research lies in our capacity to better understand the family at the center of the Restoration. Knowing what death and bereavement signified for the Smiths is both illuminating in our study of their personalities and compelling for our own modern-day experience of these same significant events.

    Coreligionist closes mouth reads and reads then shrugs from the pews.

  22. Thanks, Howard. I’m not entirely sure what your last paragraph means, but if it’s useful to you, I do not recommend my book to people during acute bereavement. I argue more strongly in the book that Joseph Smith felt these great tensions and rebelled against what he saw as the failures of the holy/beautiful dying traditions.

    I have been pondering writing a book that might be more useful to people during acute bereavement, but one thing that holds me back is the realization that acute bereavement is so personal and specific that general treatments such as one would find in a book are likely to fall flat or even perhaps be offensive.

  23. Eric, I’m so sorry to hear of your wife’s passing. (You don’t know me but I’ve long read your comments here and elsewhere and always appreciated your perspective.)

  24. I have only just now been able to read this, Sam. It is a beautiful meditation and I thank you for it.

    At the first funeral I attended, long before I lost anyone truly close to me, our bishop spoke and quoted something from (I think) Russell M. Nelson that has always stayed with me–something to the effect of “You can’t take the pain out of death without taking the love out of life.” It has reminded me that the pain of losing someone you love can’t be mitigated, not really, by the comfort of gospel truths. The gospel is to counteract despair and hopelessness, but pain is to be expected and must be endured if you are going to live a meaningful life and enjoy the love and friendship of other people, who inevitably will be taken from us at some point in mortality. The reassuring messages of the gospel are to get us through our pain, not over it.

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