Let the dead bury the dead


I go to church most weeks and I’m not always sure why. Sometimes I go because I’ve been asked to do something specific like read a poem or help coordinate the evening. Other times I go because I want to see people and share a meal and resist the isolating effects of the city and my psyche. Often I go because my church is a beautiful community and I want to help that community thrive. But in all these reasons there is something deeper that calls me, and I’m rarely sure what that is. It’s by going that I find out.

I know why I went this week.

This week we read from the Gospel of Matthew and heard Jesus admonish those who would follow him to do so directly, and to let the dead bury the dead.

And then, during a time of reflection after the sermon, my pastor put the question to us, to me:

“What is dead in your life that you don’t need to bury?”

Not “Have you experienced the death of something?”

Not “What do you need to let go of, what do you need to let die?”

Not “What isn’t really a death, but a beginning for new life?”

Not “What death do you need to accept?”

Rather, “What is dead in your life that you don’t need to bury?”

It was the kind of question that struck me at an intuitive level before I knew how to articulate my response. What struck me first was that the question didn’t linger on whether there were dead things in my life. No time for hemming and hawing about what’s not dead yet. The question confronted me: “There are corpses in your life. We’re starting with that truth.”

 

 

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Will Schaff. Click to enlarge.

 

 

There was no question that death had not shown mercy. It wasn’t up to me to let anything die. Death had done its work and now was the time for me to do mine.

We were given sheets of paper to write down our responses, and all the dead in my life came tumbling out onto the page. My sense of failing others when my marriage failed. My repeatedly crushed hopes for affirmation from my father. The ridiculous expectations I continue to burden myself with because I am a stereotypical first-born. My unkindness to myself for this ridiculousness. My unkindness to others because of my unkindness to myself. All the neatly stacked corpses.

 

 

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Will Schaff. Click to enlarge.

 

 

I’ve tried to bury the dead for years, but they keep rising from the grave. Dead sorrows can’t be drowned. At some point, I began dragging the dead around with me as if they were some sort of badge of honor, to show how “real” and “honest” and “deeply human” I was. I accepted these deaths boldly and wasn’t that kind of bad-ass of me? I was so hardcore.

 

 

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Will Schaff. Click to enlarge.

 

 

It seems to me now that I needed the dead to prove I was living. But as long as my focus was on the dead, I wasn’t actually taking the risks and exposing myself to the vulnerability of living, let alone the hazards of following the call I heard in Christ’s words. You can’t risk death until you’ve fully embraced life.

I didn’t need to deny the dead, I didn’t need to accept the dead. I didn’t need to get closure. Instead, I needed to let the dead remain unresolved, to let the dead bury the dead.

In his collection of essays titled “The Examined Life,” psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz writes against the notion of closure. Contra the work of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, he writes: “My experience is that closure is an extraordinarily compelling fantasy of mourning. It is the fiction that we can love, lose, suffer and then do something to permanently end our sorrow. We want to believe we can reach closure because grief can surprise and disorder us – even years after our loss.”

Not closure, then, but openness. Following where Christ is leading me, even if I’m not sure where that is or exactly why I’m following. Trusting that in seeking, I’ll find what I need to keep going.

 

 

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Will Schaff. Click to enlarge.

 

 

Q: Science or Religion? A: Art

When people learn that I have a background in physics and am now studying theology, they are often surprised, seeing the two pursuits as divergent. I often stumble through some inadequate explanation that both fields ask “the big questions”, so really, I’ve just been doing one thing this whole time.

And there’s something to that, but that’s just a shorthand way of explaining my interests.

Of course, I’ve gone to grad school in both fields, so these aren’t just casual interests. Both pursuits stem from my insatiable curiosity coupled with my anxious, all-too-often desperate, need-to-know. To know what? Everything. And that just gets exhausting.

There’s a question certain music fans like to ask to sort out someone’s tastes, “Beatles or Stones?” My answer, invariably, is “Velvets”. There’s just too much that gets left out of the Lennon/McCartney vs Jagger/Richards dichotomy. Namely, Lou Reed. The underside, the dark side, the wild side, the truth.

That’s where I’ve come in my travels in science and religion. Both have helped me immensely (which is more than I can say for the Beatles). Yet neither has the corner on reality. Something more is needed that moves beyond the confines of each while simultaneously calling out something more from each. Art doesn’t trump science or religion, art stands as a reminder that there is no trump. That any claim of trump is bullshit.

Over the next few weeks I’m going to post works from some of my favorite visual artists. People who have called me out on my pretensions, and have opened me up to worlds I hadn’t imagined. I’m not going to say a whole lot about what I share. I might offer some context or share a little of why the artist or piece matters to me. Mainly, though, I just want to bear witness to a little of what I’ve seen that has helped me see better. I hope you find something good here.