I See Dead People

By Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom

I see dead people. They scare me. I don’t know how they do it. Die, that is. I’m a born Christian, a born again Christian, and I’ve been baptized (once). That means, I am supposed to believe in conversion, salvation, and eternal life. I do, but I’m still afraid to die.

I heard a story on NPR last week. It chronicled the last few weeks of Doctors Without Borders working with Ebola patients in Sierra Leone. Health educator Emily Veltus’ spirit generates hope as she tells the story of returning members from quarantined hospitals to their communities. Veltus describes hugging an Ebola survivor as a public gesture signifying that the individual is no longer contagious. As she tells the story, Veltus has a hard time holding back the joy of death’s defeat and the power of the hug in an otherwise no-touch climate. NPR’s David Greene asks whether a corner has been turned in managing the disease. “No. No, no, no, no. Not at all. Absolutely not.” In spite of the dark ending to the interview, the embrace remains the story’s center.

What does death have to do with new life? The Covenant’s affirmation is a good one, but its description has a glaring omission. It forgets the thing that we all fear but nevertheless is part of new birth—baptism. Baptism is about conversion, salvation, and eternal life. Baptism bestows on us that wonderful identity that Geila named last week—children of God. Yet baptism is also about death and confronting our failures to live. I worry that the wonderful church I am a part of has neglected this aspect of new birth because, like me, it is afraid to die. It needs to remain in control. I get it, but I think Veltus’ life of facing Ebola every day, living for those one-in-less-than-four hugs, is an unproductive but faithful lesson.

Many churches today form their programs based on growth, numbers, and just plain “more” without asking ourselves what needs to die or even, how should we be honest in the face of the kind of utter submission that a life based on new birth in Christ calls us to. Birth and death are the two things that we have no control over, and it is interesting that they are among the most theological rich metaphors for describing conversion, salvation, and eternal life. I believe birth and death are the two things we are most afraid of, and our Savior took on both in one lifetime.

The necessity of new birth is not simply about saying yes to Jesus Christ. It is about painful growth that requires death. Usually, it’s the death of those things we hold most dearly—especially if one has security through power (of position, gender, ethnicity, class, age). The necessity (not option) of new birth is about taking the kind of risks that push us to face the fear of losing control of our well-ordered lives. We take the risk of embracing the things that might kill us, knowing that the embrace itself is a public witness to the healing potential of God.

I see dead people. None of them chose to die, they did it out of necessity. They have a name in Scripture. They are called the cloud. In what area of your life does the cloud confront you?

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  9 comments for “I See Dead People

  1. August 18, 2014 at 11:57 am

    “…taking the kind of risks…”
    That is a good phrase Michelle, especially in light of Doctprs attending to victims of Ebola in west Africa, or in light of people attending a Sunday morning worship service. How easy to get comfortable, and forget that faith and new birth in Christ is about taking risks, life or death risks. Thanks for the challenge. I wrote on risk taking this week as well in my Jonah Project blog, now in week 38 at http://cannonbeachcommunity.blogspot.com/2014/08/jonah-project-38.html

  2. gailsongbantum
    August 18, 2014 at 1:21 pm

    “The necessity (not option) of new birth is about taking the kind of risks that push us to face the fear of losing control of our well-ordered lives. We take the risk of embracing the things that might kill us, knowing that the embrace itself is a public witness to the healing potential of God.” – Beautiful, Doc. I can’t help but read these as prophetic words to the Church, especially in the context of this summer and the sad ongoing evil we’re witnessing once again when it comes to issues of race and power disparity in this country. The cloud is calling me to speak up and stand in solidarity…

    I, too, see dead people. But sadly, the dead people I see are literal. Lord, help us all!

    • Michelle
      August 23, 2014 at 2:49 pm

      Thank you Gail. I just saw this on Lisa’s page: “I was just anointed with oil for the March in Ferguson by an 18 year old who was arrested on the first night of protests. He is a soft-hearted young man who simply wants to live without people fearing him and without fearing for his own life should he make the mistake of walking in the middle of the street. I receive his anointing and I am humbled.” This has many similarities with the Ebola outbreak– in Liberia especially. Those who risk death by offering health care to one of the most fatal, fast moving diseases ever known. The difference is that one is a non-human enemy and the other an enemy that lies within a people who have the security of power. Michael (below) is absolutely right about cannot and would not. What needs to die? Power. Then perhaps the literal dead people we see will not be victims of power abuses but simply the cloud of witnesses. And, Gail as you say, Lord help us hear that witness now.

  3. August 19, 2014 at 10:53 am

    The Apostle Paul said, “I have been crucified with Christ, I am no longer living.” Unfortunately, most American Christians cannot say this and would not want to. The ‘gospel’ as preached in American churches usually leads to little more than the baptism of the human ego. That the ego NEEDS to die has not yet even occurred to us…

  4. August 19, 2014 at 11:01 am

    Michelle, thank you for your candid remarks — “Many churches today form their programs based on growth, numbers, and just plain “more” without asking ourselves what needs to die….”

  5. jengillan
    August 22, 2014 at 12:23 pm

    Hi Michelle! I love this idea of underscoring the necessity of death that leads us to new birth in Christ. As a pastor, I always have to think through how I word this idea of death to the self that is broken in the context of abuse that has mostly effected women. How do we teach this core Christian idea and nuance it with its full force, while being careful to not reinforce erroneous and hurtful ideas based on terribly interpreted/applied texts? I have some ideas and have tried to teach this with care, but am curious to hear other thoughts.

    • Michelle
      August 23, 2014 at 3:06 pm

      I interviewed Brain Bantum (author of Redeeming Mulatto: A Theology of Race and Christian Hybridity. http://books.google.com/books/about/Redeeming_mulatto.html?id=MpgsAQAAMAAJ) with my theology students, and we asked him what he thought about ideas of power as they pertain to those who already are in positions of vulnerability. We wondered if some are called to give up more because they have more, etc., and others less.

      Bantum’s response was that we all have to give up power. That’s the way of Christ. And in doing so, it makes us vulnerable to Christ and one another. While it may seem a simple answer, it’s not. He’s basically calling all Christians to be vulnerable and to be completely open to the other. To share differences. All the time – and that is usually work that only those in minorities do (not because they have the option, but because it’s necessitated by a hierarchical culture).

      We are reading a book about 2 women (sisters) for the North Park fresh(wo)man class (“Short Girls” by Bich Minh Nguyen). Some have raised the question about the men reading it (it’s very much a woman’s world!). My response is that we are inundated with male main characters all the time – let’s hear the story with female characters and start correcting the ethos that it’s fine for women to hear men’s stories but not vice versa. (I have to share this as a side note. Maybe we need to develop some kind of Bechdel test for gender and diversity: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/11/29/gender-inequality-in-film_n_4360012.html)

      The core of Brian’s words are that the particular, embodied identities of all people get brought into the arena and held by the group, and so while there is a kind of death to self, there is not a death of self – it just birthed in other, additional places. Please tell us your ideas Jen!

  6. September 9, 2014 at 10:23 pm

    I know I’m so late joining this conversation, but it’s just so appropriate for this time in my life – I had to comment! Four days before this post, we welcomed a new little life into our family. My recent labor and birth experience reminds me of what an appropriate metaphor it truly is for the Christian journey. Birthing is a wild, untamed process. There is pain, fear, and at moments it honestly feels like you can’t go on. But there is joy at the other end. Michelle, I appreciated your words, “We take the risk of embracing the things that might kill us, knowing that the embrace itself is a public witness to the healing potential of God.” That baby was coming on August 14th whether I wanted him to or not, but there was a psychological/spiritual embrace that was necessary for me to experience it as a beautiful, although painful, moment.

    I recently saw an interview between Stephen Colbert and Oprah from a few years ago. Stephen Colbert made the distinction between joy and happiness (which he said was overrated.) Joy connotes God’s presence. He said he’d rather be sad with the people he loves than experience a shallow “happy.” I believe this connects to your thoughts on the church focused on growth, numbers, etc. It can lead to focusing on what makes us happy rather than taking up a cross that faces suffering. It’s not pretty or even popular, but it leads to new life. There is a depth to joy that happiness doesn’t come close to, but it requires following Jesus through suffering and death.

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