Buried outside the gates

Daily Office Readings for Sunday, July 18:

AM Psalm 118; PM Psalm 145

2 Samuel 17:1-23; Gal. 3:6-14; John 5:30-47

Ahithophel is one of six suicides in the Bible: Saul, his armor-bearer (both in 1 Samuel 31:1-5,) Samson (Judges 16:28-30,) Ahithophel (2 Samuel 17:1-23,) Zimri (1 Kings 16:18,) and Judas (Matthew 27:5.) Their methodologies vary: Zimri set fire to his palace with him in it, Saul and his armor-bearer essentially committed hara-kiri, Ahithophel and Judas hanged themselves, and Samson…well…through our 21st century lenses, where the news always has story after story of “shooters,” it seems quite noticeable (and a little creepy) that he was credited with killing more people in his final act than he had ever killed prior to that.

The thing that stands out in all of these suicides is that each of them found their situation so hopeless or untenable that there seemed to be no reason to do otherwise. Ahithophel seems quite set on his fate–so much so he puts his affairs in order, just as many in this day and age do when they have set their mind on ending their own life.

I think it’s important to note that in all six of these suicides, not a single thing is mentioned about their fate after death–yet for so many years, the institutional church (up until only very recently and even then, not universally) bought into the theology that suicide consigned a person to Hell. Frankly, it always seemed to me that those people’s Hell was on Earth, and to project an eternal spot for them in eternity was downright cruel. I’m grateful that I don’t have to buy into that theology.

All one has to do is cruise around the countryside around these parts, however, to see how we historically played out that theology in the little country cemeteries that dot the region. It’s not unusual to occasionally find a grave marker just outside the boundaries of the cemetery. In northeast Missouri, that usually means one of two things–either the inhabitant was someone’s slave, or was a suicide. (Well, ok, three–on rare occasions, the grave’s occupant is a dog.)

For the most part, we don’t do that anymore. The vast majority of cemeteries have no issues about burying a suicide within consecrated ground. However, I do think that emotionally, when someone we love kills him/herself, our grief and unease often causes us to emotionally bury some things “outside the gate.” We often don’t talk about that person or grieve in quite the same way, and we keep it outside the consecrated ground inside our own souls. Perhaps it just hurts too much, or we have somehow allowed shame or regret in the gates of our souls, while keeping love out. Perhaps we simply don’t know how to start talking about it. Yet there it is–outside the gate, and in plain sight.

Oddly, it actually is the story of a dog that serves as a reminder that there is room for both that person who tragically ended his or her life, and our grief, within the confines of physical and emotional consecrated ground.

I grew up absolutely fascinated with Jim the Wonder Dog, perhaps one of the most famous canines who ever lived in the state of Missouri. In fact, I worked very hard at teaching my dogs tricks, hoping that I was going to be the owner of the next Jim the Wonder Dog. (I think, deep down inside, I believe it could still happen, although I’m pretty convinced it’s not going to happen with my present dogs, Boomer and Little Eddie.)

I read everything I could get my hands on about Jim the Wonder Dog, and an interesting fact is, after his death, he was buried just outside the gate of the cemetery. The good people of Marshall, MO, Wonder Dog or not, couldn’t bring themselves to let him be buried in consecrated ground. But over the years, more people in Marshall died, and the cemetery expanded, and after a few decades, Jim’s grave was squarely ensconced within the bounds of Marshall’s Ridge Park cemetery, and it is the number one most frequently visited grave there.

You know, in a way, it’s such a silly arbitration–“consecrated ground.” All the ground belongs to God. It’s already consecrated. We slow-on-the-uptake humans just got around to acknowledging the fact on a particular bit of ground.

So it is with suicides and grief, I think. The more we allow some things to die in us, which creates the expansion of what we consider the consecrated ground in the world and within our own souls, love will grow to the place where those feelings and that tragic lost life grow around it, drawing it into the property line of the holy.

Our reading in Galatians today seems to affirm that, reminding us that Christ has ALREADY redeemed us from the curse of the law. All that we claim to have put outside the gates? Well, it’s a delusion. Christ has already brought it inside the property line.

What is something in your life that you once shoved “outside the gates,” only to find, after time, that love grew until it was surrounded and safely inside?

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid

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