When I did a search for quotes on death, one site listed around 4,000. You could triple that, and triple it again, and I still don't think that would be enough...
Saturday morning, my mom called me. I had woken up only a short while before and was getting ready for a brunch meeting I had. Asking her if she was okay, she responded in the negative. One of our dear friends, Brenda, a woman who lived only a few doors down from my grandmother, who was one of the most staunch Bapti-costal women I knew, and who made one hell of a cornbread salad (if you don't know what that is, we need to have a conversation) died Thursday... in a car crash... in the same fashion as Nanny, my grandmother.
It wasn't until later that day that it hit me. You see, about a month ago, I called Brenda. She was always of the mindset that a person could lose his or her salvation, and she believed that sexual immorality (read: homosexuality) was definitely one thing that could take your ticket into eternal bliss and rip it to shreds. She always thought that one day, I would "wake up," come to my senses, leave this "sinful lifestyle," and marry a woman the way God had intended me to. Needless to say, we butted heads on a few things.
Still, after I got home from brunch, both exhausted and edified from the conversation I had with my friends, I laid down on the couch and the tears surfaced. I wouldn't have a chance to talk to her again, to hug her (or attempt to since the woman was, well, top-heavy). We wouldn't cook together again, listen to Southern Gospel (don't judge me). We wouldn't have debates over our interpretations of scripture. She is gone, and I'm still here. Then I thought to myself...
...I wonder where she's at right now, what she's doing
When I was growing up, I remember countless funerals where people would remark on the current state of the person being mourned. "She's with her Savior." "God called her home." "She's not in pain anymore." "It was her time." Back then, blanket statements used to bring me comfort. When your grandmother was one of fifteen siblings, and the generation before had almost as many, you went to a lot of funerals. Back then, I didn't ask questions.
Then I went to seminary. Then I lost Nanny. Then I formed friendships with people who were not members of the Christian faith, people for whom Jesus wasn't savior, people whose lives were still filled with love and lived out in service to others. A couple of times, I went to funerals for people deemed "non-believers" by some Christians I knew. It saddened me to hear people question whether or not these individuals ever "came to know Christ." Some survivors even had the gall to say that these persons were in hell and that we should learn from their mistakes and "accept Jesus."
I get what they're saying, but at the same time, this kind of mindset—especially these days—sends chills down my spine, ties knots in my stomach, and sets my scalp on fire. Who are we to make claims about the eternal well-being of anyone? Who are we to pretend to have all the answers? Who are we to condemn?
As I see it, no one really knows what happens after we die. Even in the canon, all I see is best guess: people trying to make sense of the reality of death as an inevitable part of life.
In What Dreams May Come, Chris Nielsen dies and, after taking some much needed time to acknowledge and accept his own death, wakes up in a world of paint. Harry Potter's infamous death scene has him waking up in a pristine white version of King's Cross Station where he talks with his friend and mentor, Dumbledore, about the possibility of returning to the land of the living. The Lion King's Simba hears the voice of his dead father, Mufasa, in the rumble of thunderclouds. The list of films that address the nature of death could continue, including some of my favorites like Steel Magnolias and Philadelphia. Still, the fact remains that our knowledge of what happens after a person's life ends is, at best, speculative. We can try to make sense of it all, and there are times where we're given glimpses of insight. But I firmly believe that a person's death should never be used as a manipulative tool or scare tactic. Never should it be used as a way of separating the wheat from the chaff.
I realize that I am in the minority by being a Christian whose theological slant is more pluralistic and universalist than separatist or exclusivist. I know that I might even lose some friends (and some credibility) for my belief that, while there might be a Hell, it's existence does not mean that anyone is there. And I'm okay with that. I also recognize the strong possibility that I'm wrong, and if I am, then I'm sure the Creator will have a good, stern conversation with me after I enter the world of pushing daisies. It would be the first time she's done that. And it probably won't be the last.
Death, as I see it, is a fork in the road. We don't know what lies on the path ahead. But when we reach that point, we leave people behind. People we love, and people we don't. People we know in a deeply intimate sense, and people we've never met. I miss Nanny and Brenda, and I miss the countless LGBT teens who have ended their lives over the last few years. I miss Matthew Shepard, and I miss Jerry Falwell. No life is without value. No one is unloved. And no one has all the answers. Sometimes, all we have is ambiguity, and as hard as it might be to live with, it can also be a true gift.