Exploring the interplay between ortho-doxy (right belief) and ortho-praxy (right action)...

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13 September 2007

mary elizabeth toalson cottingham

My grandma passed away early this morning.

She lived in Columbia, Missouri, with my aunt Mary Jane, which is about a 3 hours drive from where I grew up in Bolivar. We probably went up to see them a couple times a year, and I always enjoyed grandma.

There are two memories of her that I will always cherish:

1. She had this really... well... unique way of greeting you. (this was when I was young - and shorter than her!) She would hug you really tightly and press her teeth -- yes, her teeth! -- against the top of your head - hair and all! It was the strangest thing AND the most endearing at the same time! :)

2. Much later, after she had one of her strokes (and when she could still for the most part recognise who you were), I went up by myself to visit. I brought my guitar and we all sang some hymns together. My favourite song that we did was 'Trust and Obey.' The chorus goes: "Trust and obey, for there's no other way to be happy in Jesus - than to trust and obey."

The reason it was my favourite song was not the theology of the song or whatever. It was the experience of singing it with my grandma, and seeing the smile on her face. And most of all, the fact that it didn't matter at ALL that she wasn't articulating all of the words too well. I remember her sort of singing, "Trust and obey, for is no other way ...(mumbling)... Jesus - ...mm... trust and obey."

Priceless moment.

Where is my grandma now? That depends on how you define what a human being is, and how you interpret reality.

Some 'spiritual' religions would say that her 'soul' has finally been 'freed' from it's prison-like cage, and is now able to perhaps be re-incarnated into another body, or in other religions re-join the 'oneness' of the universe. I talked to a Hare Krishna guy the other week that said that the state that the soul is in when it leaves the body is the state it will stay in afterward. Therefore, the goal is to get your soul in a 'good' state before you die, I guess...

Some versions of Christianity (not completely unlike the 'spiritual' religions) would say that her 'soul' went either to 'heaven' or to 'hell', depending on whether she had signed on with the correct religious group. The goal for some of these people is first to ensure that they are in the correct group, and second to get everyone else in their group. Choose carefully, I guess...

The atheists/naturalists would say that my grandma, like all humans, was only made up of atoms, chemicals and elements, and that her body will simply decompose. They would say that the best thing to do is remember her. Well, lucky for me, I've got good memories! Unlucky for those whose deceased family weren't so nice... I guess you try to forget them...

I can't make sense of the 'spiritual' worldview where your 'immortal soul' floats around somewhere and perhaps does something interesting every once and a while for the rest of eternity. A soul without a body seems to me like software with no CPU (central processing unit) - a set of strings with no guitar - words with nobody to say them. I'm very nervous about this sharp distinction between soul and body.

I also can't make sense of the worldview that says reality is only material. I can't make the logic work that the universe of matter and ideas caused itself into being. I'm not interested in hiding from scientific discoveries or trying to prove God from what science has not discovered yet. I think every discovery science makes simply shows how interesting and bewildering God's universe is.

I also can't make sense of the obsession of some Christians with trying to ensure that you've got the right group, the right list of beliefs, the right day of the week, the right rules and regulations. It seems ironic how consistently each type of group assumes that their group is the right one. And wasn't this kind of assumption about being the right group precisely the kind of thing John the Baptist (not to mention Jesus) warned against when he said, "Don't say to yourselves 'We have Abraham as our father.' For I tell you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones!"

It does, however, make sense to me that the universe, reality - Life; is the result, intention and action of a Creator. It makes sense to me that a good Creator would create a creation that was not mechanistic, predictable and tied-down, but rather a creation that was alive, teeming with chance and possibility - a free creation full of danger, mystery, beauty and grandmas that press their teeth against your head.

It makes sense to me that human beings are just as dangerous and free as the rest of the universe. It makes sense to me that human beings are more than atoms and particles. It makes sense to me that a soul and a body would be so over-lapping and intertwined, you wouldn't know where one stopped and the other began.

It makes sense to me that these heart/soul/mind/body/spirit/strength interwoven realities called human beings would be God's primary means of caring for each other and creation. It makes sense to me that the Creator would have a plan to renew all things. It makes sense that a Creator would re-create things at the end of the story.

It makes sense to me that my grandma is not merely decomposed forever. It makes sense that her 'soul' is not flying laps around Jupiter. It makes sense that my grandma is somewhere between now and the end of the story. It makes sense that the finer details of the end of the story are not things I've got advanced information on. It makes sense that we'll all be surprised.

It makes sense, to me at least, that I'll be able to feel teeth on my head again some day.

8 comments:

A. J. Chesswas said...

Thanks for sharing this with us Dale, in a moment which is deeply personal, but a moment that helps us all stare in the face the reality that is death.

May your grandmother rest on the presence of our mighty and gracious God.

dale said...

Many thanks, A.J.

Cheers,

-d-

Mom said...

Dale,

How touching. I wept when I read this. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and giving such honor and tribute to your Grandmother Cottingham...my dear Mother.

Love, Mom

Sherri said...

Dale you have a way with words. Thansk for that. Grandma would be honored. I share many wonderful memories of her as well. One of my most profound memories is when I stayed with her as a very young girl. I was sleeping in the bed with her and she thought I was asleep. She sat upright and began softly whispering. I couldn't make out her words but knew she was talking with the One she lived for and loved deeply. That made an impact on me as a child. I realized that He was real, and I know God used that to plant seeds in my own heart to love Him too.

I also remember a funny thing she said after one of her more major strokes. We were up celebrating her birthday, I think, and mom, several aunts, my cousin Mary and myself were sitting around the table. She looked around the table innocently and with a questioning voice asked, "Where are all the men?"

I'm comforted that "wherever" grandma is today that she is indeed in His awesome hands. I too look forward to feeling her teeth on my head again someday.

Sherri

Elliot said...

Thanks for that Dale. Great piece...

John said...

Well said, Dale.
Your piece is full of great memories, a bit of philosophy, a bit of theology, and hope.

My prayers and condolences to you and your family.

John

dad said...

Wow! Very well said. Made a tear come to my eye as well. Moments like these remind me how great is our hope in Jesus, even though for now we may not have all the details.

Dad

Kevin Beck said...

Dale,
You have my deepest condolences. My grandmother meant more than the world to me. I talked to her the day before she died, and I'll never forget the conversation. She showed me in everyday life exactly what God's love is -- without ever saying a word about it. Love never fails.