"I'm Not Fine"

I've been reading a lot about death recently. As a pastor I've been around a lot of people who are near death, and I've worked with a lot of grieving families, but the death of my brother at 39 brought death home in a way it never had before. I've suddenly become aware of the strange attitude our culture has built up about death. Likely some of you are already a bit uncomfortable with the fact that I'm talking about death so directly--maybe you're beginning to worry that I'm becoming a bit morbid in my grief. That's a unique aspect of our society: we've adopted a strict code of silence regarding death. We avoid the words "die" and "death." We hide death in hospice homes and hospitals. These are trends I was already aware of. But our avoidance of death goes farther than that. In our quest to avoid death, we try to keep any sign of decay or even failure out of our view. "Listen to Americans greet each other," Arthur McGill writes in Death and Life: An American Theology. "'How are you?' 'Fine… fine… fine.' The question and answer are always affirmative…. We are expected… to relate to one another only with the assurance that our pains and inadequacies, that the shadows of death in us are no more than passing accidents, that each of us already possesses resources for every contingency." What he's saying is that we Americans are expected to act like we're always "fine," because we want to fool ourselves into thinking that "fine" is normal, and experiencing pain, loss or failure is an exception--something that all of us can avoid. 
Of course, this goes against everything scripture teaches us, and yet our churches often buy into this cultural of avoiding death. In The Slavery of Death, Richard Beck writes, "Vast portions of American Christianity are aimed at propping up the illusion, giving religious sanction to American death avoidance. We see this in the triumphalism within many sectors of Christianity--the almost manic optimism of church culture that cannot admit any hint of debility, disease, death, or decay. These churches are filled with smiling cheerful people who respond with "Fine!" to any inquiry regarding their social, financial, emotional, physical, or spiritual well-being." One of the dangers of sinking into our culture's avoidance of death, according to Beck, is that "Church members become too afraid to show each other their weakness, brokenness, failure, and vulnerability." In short, we don't feel like we can be honest with each other.
This bothers me. If you cannot be honest with your church, where can you be honest? If you can't admit that life is hard with your Christian family, when can you admit that it's hard? And if we are focused on pretending that everything is fine, how will we see the real need in our neighbors who are definitely not fine? That's not the kind of church I want us to be, because that is not a Gospel church--that is not an Easter church. The Gospel does not say, "Everything is fine and everyone is fine!" The Gospel doesn't even say, "Things used to be bad, but everyone is fine now!" The Gospel says, "Everything will be made right. You will cry, but the tears will be wiped away. You will be hurt, but the wounds will be healed. You will die--but Jesus will raise you to eternal life!"
So let me lead by example. I confess, I am not fine. I am mourning my brother. I am stressed about getting ready for Easter and leading our neighboring initiative, all while preparing for this summer's Northwest Christian Convention. I am worn down by three kids, two ER visits and at least one existential crisis. I am having a hard year. But let me be clear: I am not complaining. In the midst of all of this, God has blessed me with an incredible wife, beautiful children, an amazing staff and church, everything I could ask for to get me through. Most of all, he has sent his son to conquer death so that I can face this life with hope and a certainty that everything will be made new. Now, with whatever authority I may hold as the senior minister, I hereby grant you permission not to be fine. You can be honest about your struggles, disappointments and failures. They do not discredit your faith or disprove the Gospel--they demonstrate the exact reason why Jesus came, and they provide us opportunities to be Jesus to each other. 
As spring brings renewed life to our neighborhoods, and as we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, remember: things don't have to be fine, because one day that will be completely renewed!

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