In Memoriam: Matthew Setlik (Aug. 20, 1985-Feb. 5, 2019)

I experienced a great sorrow and privilege over the last couple of weeks. The sorrow was the loss of a dear nephew, Matthew – the son of my younger sister, Mary. At the age of just 33, Matthew died suddenly from a virulent strain of cancer following a brief illness. All of us remain devastated. None of us can believe what on the surface we’ve experienced as a great tragedy. Our tears are not yet dry. They won’t be for some time to come.

Nonetheless, I found myself also experiencing Matthews death as a privilege. It took the form of an urgent call to stop my hurried and harried routine to ponder and appreciate the significance of this exemplary young man’s brief life. Even more importantly, Life itself gifted and summoned the entire community of those who love Matthew to reflect on death and its meaning in the light of the faith that formed my nephew. I share that faith with my sister, with Matthew’s family, his Methodist church community in Riverside California, and with many of his dearest friends.

My own fondest memories of Matthew are of his playing with our youngest son, Patrick when they were small children of approximately the same age. They both loved video games. Then, there were the several Suzuki music camps our families shared in Steven’s Point, Wisconsin. Like Patrick and my other son, Brendan, along with my daughter, Maggie, and, of course, Matthew’s sister, Amanda, Matthew was a musician – the son of a dedicated Suzuki mom (and only Suzuki parents know how they can be!). Back then, Matthew was doing piano. Later on, he switched to drumming. He played in a Jazz band, though I never heard him perform. Those summer times in Steven’s Point were memorable.

Afterwards, my connections with Matthew came through Mary. She told me of his studies at the University of Kansas, where he majored in business and finance. She’s described to me his work as a sports agent and with the Special Olympics organization. After Kansas, Matthew taught in Spain. He loved that country and its language. Mary visited him there three times recording it all in lovely artistic photos. She treasured every minute of her time with her son.

Mary told me of Matthew’s marriage to Emily Ann whom he met through their shared work with Special Olympics. Everyone said they were a perfect match. They bought a lovely home near Emily’s parents, Patti and Bob. Matthew loved both of them and considered Bob a father-figure.   

Then several years ago, our paths crossed again at his sister, Amanda’s wedding. My wife, Peggy, and I came away from that experience as enthusiastic members of the very large Matthew Setlik Fan Club. We were completely won over by his out-going spirit, his light-heartedness, and his desire to make everyone feel comfortable and welcome. He was a complete joy. And afterwards, we bragged about him to everyone who would listen.

And now, all of a sudden, it seems, his life has been cut off at just 33 years of age. As I said, and like everyone else we found ourselves confused and moved to tears.

And somehow that brings me to a deeper dimension of this turn of events. I’m reminded that faith was important to Matthew and remains so for Emily, his bride of just two years. To begin with, Matthew’s tragically shortened life reminds me that in our Christian tradition, Jesus himself died at that very age. His life too was cut off just as it seemed to be getting started. The same was true of Martin Luther King whose life ended at just 39 years of age.

Those numbers remind us that the length of time we’re given here on planet earth is all relative. The examples of Jesus and Dr. King tell us that in the big scheme of things, the number of years we spend here is immaterial. I mean, time itself is relative. It’s actually an illusory construct that is nothing but a measure of motion. Einstein himself said something like that. He called time “an illusion – albeit a persistent one.”

The fact is that all of our life-spans are incredibly brief. Outwardly, we’re born, go to school, get a job, some of us marry and perhaps have some children. We buy and sell a few things, accumulate a truckload of trinkets and then die.

All of that is on the outside. Inwardly however, there’s so much more going on, isn’t there? Quite early on, we begin to wonder what our lives are for. What should I do with mine?

Why are we here? Where are we going? Am I wasting – have I wasted – my life? Is there a God? And what happens after we lay our bodies aside?

Surely those question occurred to Matthew. And the choices he made during his all-too-brief life indicate the conclusions he must have drawn. Instead of focusing on money, power and prestige, he and Emily joined forces to become elementary and middle school teachers. As we all know, what an important vocation that is. Yes, it’s a vocation. No one chooses that path to become rich. Instead, the choice is made out of a sense of calling, service, and responsibility for others. Each of us, I’m sure has a special place in our heavens for our dearest teachers.

As for what happens after death . . . None of us really knows. Hindus emphasize one thing, Muslims another. Life after death has been described as a Great Banquet or a great family reunion. Some believe in reincarnation. Then there’s the approach of Dante Alighieri in his Paradiso. It centralizes the “beatific vision” and the “resurrection of the body.” It’s important to note that for all those ancient traditions, the afterlife, for virtuous people like Matthew, is something joyous and fulfilling. The fact that all traditions across the world agree on that point should give us great comfort.

For followers of Jesus, death has a dreamlike quality. It’s not an ending, but a beginning. We fall asleep in the Lord and then wake up. And there’s a reason for that dream connection. Genesis 2:24 tells us that the Lord caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam. But nowhere does it say that Adam woke up. Instead, what we have in effect throughout the entire Bible is the dream of Adam.

He dreams that death is somehow a punishment (GEN 3:19) as is his relationship with woman and nature. He dreams of a war-God who demands the slaughter of thousands – men, women, and children. He dreams of restrictive laws and of a God who severely punishes breaking them. He dreams that his ethnic group is special, and that all others are God’s enemies worthy of death.

But then come the prophets; then come Jesus and Paul to save us from that nightmare. They correct all of that. They call us to wake up from Adam’s dream. God is not a war-God, they tell us. God is not a punisher, but a loving father. Even the holiest of laws are meant to be broken when human welfare is at stake (MK 2:27).

Death is nothing more than falling asleep and waking up to fullness of life. Jesus demonstrates that by raising Lazarus to life (JN 11: 1-44). He does the same for the daughter of Jairus (MK 5:26-43; MT 9:18-26; LK 8: 40-56). (Everyone was convinced that she was dead. No, Jesus says, she’s only sleeping.) Above all, Jesus’ own resurrection – the center of our shared faith – teaches that death is not the end but a glorious beginning. Reflecting on Jesus’ death and our own, Paul asks triumphantly, “O, death, where is your victory; where is your sting?” (I COR 15: 55-57).

As followers of Jesus, we share that faith. We’ve awakened from the dream of Adam to realize there’s nothing to fear in death. Despite our present overwhelming feelings of severe loss, death is not tragic. It is an inevitable part of life. It is a bridge leading to what Jesus called “fullness of life.” For Matthew and the rest of us, it represents a promotion. Our faith tells us he is better off now than any of us. Yes, that’s our faith.

As for our feelings of loss . . .  Eckhart Tolle tells the story of a Zen master who communicated to his student the secret of dealing with such pain.

The student was about to leave on a year-long journey. Before going, he asked the master for a practice he might use while on his trip. He complained, “Look, I’ve been here in the monastery for five years. I’ve been a good monk and have done everything according to the book. But I still haven’t achieved enlightenment. Help me.”

“Well,” the master said, “here’s something I’d recommend. . .  No matter what happens to you during the coming year, simply accept it with the words, ‘This is good. It could not be better. Thank you. I have no complaints whatsoever.’”

The student was surprised. “You mean that’s it?” he asked.

“Yes,” the master said. “No matter what happens to you – good, bad, or indifferent, wonderful or tragic – say, ‘This is good; it couldn’t be better. Thank you. I have no complaints whatsoever.’”

With that, the student left on his trip.

A year later, he returned completely frustrated. He said, “Master, I did what you said. No matter what happened to me, pleasant or unpleasant, I always said, ‘This is good; it could not be better; thank you; I have no complaints whatsoever. But nothing has changed.  I haven’t yet achieved enlightenment.’”

The master replied, “Hmm. . .  This is good; it could not be better. Thank you. I have no complaints whatsoever.”

The student heard that . . .  He pondered . . . And at that moment, he achieved enlightenment.

Do you see what the story teaches? It means that even in the apparently tragic situation of Matthew’s death – keeping in mind the relativity of time, the dreamlike quality of all our experiences, and given what Jesus taught us about Adam’s dream and the triumph of life over death – there is something extremely important for us to learn. It’s that all of life is a gift. And in the light of that gift, the proper faith response to absolutely everything – even this apparent tragedy – is “Thank you Lord. This is perfect and could not be better. I have no complaints whatsoever.”

So, if you can, join me in saying that prayer now – but perhaps in the following form:

“Dear Lord, thank you for the gift of life and for the experiences we enjoyed with our beloved Matthew. Each of the moments we spent with him was infinitely precious. But so is this present one. All our lives are incredibly short. We thank you for Jesus’ teaching that death is merely a bridge to complete fullness of life. We are happy that Matthew has crossed that bridge and is now happier than he ever was here. Yes, we believe he has received a promotion and is now happier than he ever was here. We know that it’s only a matter of time before we each join him in that better home. So, thank you, Lord. We know this present moment could not be better. It is a complete blessing. We have no complaints whatsoever.

And so, it is; we all pray, ‘Amen.’”   

What Really Happens after Death? (Conclusion of a two-part series)

Last week I raised the question of what really happens after death. My jumping off point was last Easter’s Time Magazine article by Jon Meacham called “Rethinking Heaven.” There the author contrasted what he called a “Blue Sky” approach to heaven (a kind of Disneyland up above) with a “God’s Space” understanding (bringing God’s Kingdom to earth). I remarked that the “God’s Space” approach seemed more believable and adult than the “Disneyland” heaven. However, the alternative to Disneyland didn’t really help us understand what happens after we breathe our last.

Tony Equale’s blog (http://tonyequale.wordpress.com/) does help. For Equale (a Roman Catholic ex-priest) heaven has little to do with the pearly gates. At the same time he explains more starkly what entering God’s space after death might really entail.

To begin with, Equale says, we must admit our ignorance. We have little idea about heaven or what happens after death. It’s all speculation. Even Jesus himself said precious little about the afterlife, much less about the specifics of a heaven. In any case, anything the Bible might have to say about the afterlife is expressed in religious language which is of necessity highly metaphorical.  It gestures towards something else.

What we do know about Jesus is that his own understanding of death was shaped by his belief in God’s universal love. He had absolute trust in God as a loving Father. Jesus believed that God’s unfailing trustworthiness took away the “sting” of death, so that dying became irrelevant; whatever was to happen could be trusted as the best outcome possible. As a result, death had no dominion over him.

Moreover the heroism of Jesus’ witness was to actually “prove” his claims about God by staking everything on them. Here we’re not talking about a rationalistic proof, but about something existential. In effect Jesus said, “Do you want me to prove I’m right? O.K. then, I will.” So he courted death by doing the things God’s love demands (siding with the poor and oppressed) – a choice that usually brings assassination to any prophet. That was his proof. “You see,” he insisted, “God can be trusted; death is irrelevant in the face of God’s love.” A way of putting that metaphorically is to say that Jesus rose from the dead.

According to Equale, belief in resurrection in those terms — in terms of real flesh and blood people choosing to risk their lives because they trust God’s love – mostly unraveled within a few generations of Jesus’ execution.  Its place was taken by a mixture of Roman and Egyptian ideas about disembodied souls in a “Blue Sky” heaven familiar to three year olds, to Dante, Raphael, and Michelangelo.

According to Equale, where does that leave us? With one choice only, he says – either to trust or not to trust the source of our existence, which Jesus claimed is absolutely loving.  However, even if we make the choice to trust, the reality of God’s love might not be as we want it to be. Tony writes:

“But what if the reality is …that at death we are dissolved back into the elements from which we were formed, to be reused over and over until the whole meets … another implosion to singularity and another big bang — a new universe. What if our little heads and our little hearts are not equal to the unfathomable magnanimity of a “Father” who, more like a “Mother,” wishes to share, and share, and share Herself (and us as part of Herself) endlessly, … we might even add, purposelessly … for the sheer joy of it … to share being-here with ever new things and new “people” with a generosity and self-donation beyond our capacity to imagine … or endure? . . . Do we want to go to that heaven? Are we really as convinced that “God is Love” if it would mean that much love? . . . Do we love our existential source and the universe it has made, as it is — or only as we want it to be?”

These words are reminiscent of the insights of Eckhart Tolle. Tolle says there is no doubt that life continues after death. One has only to enter an untended forest to see that live trees are surrounded by dead leaves, branches, and fallen and decaying trees.  However, closer examination of the dead matter reveals that in every case, the distinction between “dead” and “alive” is misleading. The fallen leaves, branches, and trees are teeming with life. In biblical terms, their lives have been changed not taken away. Of course, it will be the same with our bodies as they decay and molder in their graves. Life will continue in our bodies too. And who knows where that life will end up – in what communities or “people?” Death is always followed by rebirth – and perhaps by rebirth in the cosmic sense of passing again through an entire evolutionary process.

As for our consciousness . . .  That too will persist – insofar as it achieved unity with the source of the profound intelligence that pervades the universe. (The reference here is, for example, to the intelligence manifest in a single human cell. The information contained in that unit is enough to fill one hundred books of six hundred pages each.) That such Source Consciousness is present is evident from the fact of our own awareness. Ours comes from somewhere. As scholastic philosophers put it “nihil ex nilhilo fit” (nothing comes from nothing).  In as much as we have achieved unity with the Consciousness that pervades the universe, “our” consciousness will surely continue. All other consciousness passes away – most of it, experience shows, even before we die.

So the ultimate question about heaven is not whether it is up in the blue sky or in “God’s space” here on earth. It’s not even a question of our attitudes towards climate change, HIV/AIDS or world hunger.  Rather, it’s a question of death and surrender.

In confronting death, in explaining it to our children, are we willing to admit our absolute ignorance?  And if we claim Christian commitment, are we prepared to think of Jesus’ resurrection as a call to complete trust in God come what may? Are we disposed to surrender our very lives, as Jesus did despite threats from those who routinely kill prophets, because of our conviction that death is irrelevant in the face of God’s love and promise? And are we ready to do that even if God’s love is so great that we find it incomprehensible, purposeless, confusing, and even disappointing to the ideas of a three year old like Eva?

Finally, are we willing to make our own the prayer of the medieval mystic, Rabia al-Basri [a woman and Muslim (717-801)]?

“Lord, if I love you because I desire the joys of heaven,

Close its gates to me.

And if I love you, because I fear the pains of hell,

Bury me in its depths.

But if I love you for the sake of loving you,

Hide not your face from me.”