Second-lifers

It looked like the death of the saints, all over the town. One by one the saint figurines were found, toppled over. The town authorities were sure it was teenagers, bored and unsupervised, but the usual suspects had verifiable alibis. No, this was an event of a different sort.

They decided to look with different eyes. All of the saint figurines on the East side were female, and all were pointed in the same direction. The seemed unusual. At first they thought maybe the perpetrator was right handed, and had pushed the statues down going across himself. But then when the detectives looked in other parts of the town, they realized that the statues were oriented in slightly different ways. So some looked like they were pushed forward, some backward, some to the right.

The lines were plotted on a map and all led to the oldest funeral home in town. “Doc” Brown had run the place since his grandpa died, having inherited the business since he failed out of medical school. His grades weren’t good enough for living people, but his skills were plenty for the dead.

His grandpa took him on as an apprentice all those years back, getting him to drive the pick-up van to transport the bodies. His Papa wasn’t too thrilled that his son wasn’t going to be a doctor. He wanted his progeny to carry on his dreams, not understanding that each generation has its own burdens to carry and doesn’t have time for the past. It isn’t fair to expect somebody else to live your life for you, after all.

Was that the reason the saint statues were pointed towards it? A dream deferred, an accidental career? Was that the reason, or was it something darker? Psychics were called in after the detectives drew a blank. The newspapers weren’t informed of the true nature of these outside consultants, but they suspected. The police had no need to be so cautious – the town was a lot more open-minded than they could have ever suspected.

The psychics pulled out their cards and sticks and crystals. They lit incense at sites. They dowsed, they chanted, and still they had no idea what it all meant. It was only when Bessie Maguire had a dream about the statues that anybody had any clue what it all meant.

Now Ms. Maguire was as quiet as a church mouse most of the time. She kept to herself and never caused a fuss, as you might expect of an elderly spinster. She’d taught kindergarten most of her life, and if you can’t trust a kindergarten teacher I don’t know who you can trust. She didn’t want to share about her dream, but it was so vivid she knew she had to tell somebody. So she went to talk with her pastor. He said she’d have to tell the police, and who was she to go against the pastor’s orders? So down she went to Central and told them all about her dream.

The statues were pointed to the funeral home not because of what it is, but because of what it was. Long ago, way past living memory, that part of town was an oak grove. Not maple, or even chestnut, but oak. That was important. The trees had all been tall and thick, creating a sanctuary of stillness. No pagans worshiped there, but that didn’t matter to the oaks. This was long before the old religions had been rediscovered, or invented, by New Age folks. Nobody in these parts knew the old ways, divorced as they were from the old country. But the oaks still knew. They knew the same way all the cherry trees across the world knew when it was time to bloom and when it was time to drop their petals like some kind of spring snowfall.

But what the oaks knew was darker stuff that spoke of more than just impermanence, but transcendence. The oaks spoke of living on in the next generation, not just as an ancestor or as a memory, but in actuality. The oaks knew that they could hide themselves within every acorn, not as a half but as a whole. It was parthenogenesis. The whole grove was a shrine to Athena, goddess of wisdom and it was filled with owls.

So it was fitting that this Ms. Maguire, this maiden, had a vision about this place, as Athena was not only a maiden but born from the head of her father Zeus, the God of the gods. There was no coupling in her creation. She was fully made, complete, not half of her parent, but whole. She was Zeus, but in a different arrangement of elements, in the same way a lump of coal is also a diamond. One wasn’t better than the other, in spite of the dollar amount. A diamond won’t keep you warm or cook your food, after all.

And then the strangest thing started happening. The bodies in that morgue didn’t stay dead. But only the female ones. It didn’t matter if they were maidens or not, they woke up, completely healed of whatever had ailed them. Maybe this is why it was only the female saints who were affected. But even stranger, the newly reanimated acted differently. They looked the same as long as they been in the cooler when the Event happened, but they were different somehow.

Nobody knew what triggered the Event. All they knew was that there had been a strange advance notice that something was up when the saints all toppled over. Had it begun then? Or long ago? When does a person begin – when they are born, when they are conceived, when their parents meet for the first time? Or even before that?

Does it matter? Because now was all the town could handle. They didn’t have the energy for philosophy. Now they had to deal with people coming back to life. The relatives had already moved into their old homes. The estate process had already begun. The casseroles that had been brought over by kind neighbors and dutiful church members weren’t finished, but that was to be expected.

Here’s one of the ways that the second-lifers acted differently – they could talk with owls. I don’t mean that they could imitate their calls, but that they could actually understand what the owls were saying. It turned out that the myth was true – the owls were indeed speaking about upcoming deaths. They didn’t cause the deaths. They just knew, somehow, and talked about it in the same way that some people talked about the weather. But the second-lifers didn’t share this information with the regular people. They couldn’t handle the truth anyway.

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A watery resurrection

Marley awoke and there was water everywhere. Dark, murky water filled her mouth and lungs, but she didn’t need them anymore, because the same water filled her grave.
She’d resurrected the moment Jesus had appeared in the sky overhead. Even though there was 6 feet of earth and well over 20 feet of water between her and the air, she still knew. She knew the same way Bradford pears knew it was time to bloom, when all at once, seemingly overnight, every one of them burst into shimmering snowflakes of petals, all over the city. How did they know? Scientists still couldn’t figure it out, but scientists couldn’t measure the Spirit, and that was what was at work, both with the trees and with Marley.
She was lucky she’d been buried before “professionals” took over the laying out. When she died, her mother and her aunts had cared for her, just like they had when she was born. They took her down to the creek, a branch of the Stones River, and washed her body. It was like a baptism she’d never had.
She’d died at 11 in 1843 of diphtheria. One week she was fine, and then she got a sore throat that seemed to take over all of who she was. It weakened her heart and that was enough to send her out of this world. Little did her family know but if that disease hadn’t killed her, the strain of her having a child later would have. Better to die now, with no obligations, nobody to leave behind.
Her Granny had told her about Jesus, about his coming back, so what was happening now wasn’t a surprise. There’d been many quiet talks over the years while they quilted together or snapped beans for the evening meal out on the back porch. They had been looking forward to formally including her in the local congregation. That wouldn’t have been until the next summer when the preacher came by to do the yearly baptizing in the creek.
Sure, she went to church, when she could, when she remembered, when there wasn’t something she had to do at the house. There were always chickens to feed or weeds to pull, and these things didn’t do themselves, as Marley’s Pa was always saying when she tried to put the chores off until later. “Best do them now, Marley girl, before something else comes up what wants tendin’.” He was right, of course, but all those “have to” things took away from the “want to” things, and to her mind the creek needed swimming and the flowers needed picking and the insects needed catching just as much as the chores needed doing. The days were just filled with things that had nothing to do with chores, but there was no way of getting around to it all.
Marley always kept the Sabbath in her heart all her days. She was a simple girl, never one to pry or gossip. All children start off good, the only problem is that the clever ones were a quick study on how to be bad. It took smarts to figure out ways around the rules, and Marley was lucky in that she never had cause to worry about that being a problem. There was no school to go to, not for her, not for anybody in Old Jefferson. There weren’t enough families to pay for a building and a teacher, and there weren’t enough children to fill it. The nearest school was a three hour’s walk away and her family couldn’t spare her for that long with so many things to do around the homestead.
She knew it was time to rise from the grave, the same as if it had been a school bell calling her. The call was silent but just as insistent, just as impossible to ignore. And why would she? Who would want to play hooky from heaven? She shoved against the rotten pine boards of the coffin, sending them swimming lazily to the side along with thick clumps of mud. It took her about 20 minutes to reach the surface, which in this case was the bottom of the lake. It didn’t take long after that to swim up to the air, but it was hard work, hard for muscles that hadn’t been used in over a century.
Why was her grave underwater, she mused? Where did the lake come from? Where was her house? For that matter, where was the rest of her family? Surely they’d be rising with her, but she saw none of them nearby. Perhaps they were buried elsewhere? She didn’t dare consider that they might still be in the ground, like iris bulbs that had gone mushy, with no spirit left in them to bloom from the dark earth in which they were planted.
The Corps of Engineers had flooded the town of Old Jefferson late in 1966 to make a hydroelectric dam, big enough to bring clean, reliable power to them and half a dozen other little towns to boot. The only trouble was that the towns had to relocate to higher ground to benefit from that progress. Power doesn’t do you any good if your farm is at the bottom of a lake.
Moving the people and their livestock was hard enough, but then someone remembered the graves. There were hundreds of family cemeteries in the valley, often tucked away at the ends of farms, at the highest point, so that the well water wouldn’t be affected. Here the dead were laid to rest at the tops of hills so they be closer to heaven. But with the water coming, all the dead had to be relocated the same as the people. It wasn’t an easy task – living relatives had to be located, permission forms had to be signed and notarized. Many of the dead were moved to the Mount Juliet cemetery, but some stayed right where they were laid to rest however long ago that was.
Sometimes the family had moved on or died out, meaning they couldn’t be asked for permission. Sometimes the remaining relatives decided it was more respectful to leave their loved ones alone after seeing some of the other graves exhumed. Plain pine boxes and fancy mahogany ones all rot the same after a few years under the pressure of 4 tons of dirt from a standard size grave. It was a hard sight to see, all those coffins being dug up and falling apart. It wasn’t respectful, to their mind. Better leave them where they were.
In Marley’s case, it was a little of both. The family had moved away not long after she had died, too distraught to live in the same place where their child had died. It didn’t make sense for her to go so young. Mama blamed herself for not taking better care of her, while Pa lamented that he’d not had enough money saved up to take her to the doctor. They’d left rather than have to answer all those ugly questions hanging around like dead fruit. It didn’t solve the problems, of course, just pushed them off until later. Unanswered questions always have a way of not staying quiet.
The family had left the tending of their graveyard to the neighbors, who promised to keep the small plot mowed and free of trespassers. They assured her kin that they’d treat them like their own, and sent them off with sandwiches and a jug of fresh apple cider on moving day. In return they got the house and the farm signed over to them. Her family was ready to start again from scratch. They figured it was the only way to make up to Marley for letting her die.
When the time came to move that plot, the neighbors had said no, in part upset at the hullaballoo created by the other exhumations, and in part hopeful that the Corps would give up on their plans. They thought that if enough people left the dead where they were, the government would have to relent and let the living stay. They didn’t count on the fact that the government doesn’t have feelings about people, whether alive or dead.
It sure was a sight to see the dead come up out of the grey-green water that late August day. It was a Wednesday when it happened in Davidson County. The Rising had started a day earlier in Israel, and had traveled like a wave over the world, spending just as long in each area as the number of dead required. Some areas took longer than others. Some were full of the faithful. Some took barely a moment, in spite of the many thousands of graves there.
The Messiah appeared in the sky, exactly as promised, trailing clouds of glory. Signs and portents had pierced the skies for weeks beforehand, but only a few people heeded them. Likewise, dreams and visions occupied the nights and days of many people, but most wrote them off to stress and took another Xanax or drank some Nyquil. They complained about their insomnia on their Facebook pages, not taking notice of how many others were having the same experience.
It was a lot like when the first raindrops started to fall when the Flood happened. Nobody but Noah and his family thought it was going to keep on raining. It was a lot like when Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed – all those people died, and only Lot and his daughters were mindful enough to leave. Noah, Lot, Joseph – they all heard the voice of God and took it seriously and lives were saved. Only those who took the messages seriously were saved.
This time, many preachers told their flocks to ignore the messages, because they hadn’t heard the voice themselves. Surely God would speak to them, they thought. Why would God waste God’s time on the sheep and forget the shepherd, they mused. The problem was that they forgot that Jesus was the Shepherd, and they were the same as their church members. They’d forgotten that they weren’t in charge of anything at all. When they’d decided to take up the role of minister and do all the talking, they’d given up the most important part of following God – listening. Only those who’d remained humble pastors were called to the great awakening. They were the ones who remembered the One who was the true leader of the Church.
Marley was listening, that was for sure. She rose up, high in the sky, and was greeted personally by Jesus. She asked him how this could be since she wasn’t baptized, and he said that she’d been baptized with the only baptism that counted, the one of the Spirit. He told her that a water baptism is something people do, for show. It wasn’t real. It was a hope, a promise. It pointed towards the real thing, but it wasn’t it. It didn’t mean anything at all when it came to being saved. That was something between the person’s soul and the Spirit, the presence of God in the world.
Like called to like, with the Spirit calling and the soul responding. Water wasn’t necessary, because the Spirit could use any element it wanted. An element from the Earth was helpful, because it was a sign to the body. The soul knew when it was recognized by the Spirit, when it was welcomed home. The body needed a little more convincing, however, so some sort of ceremony was needed to remind it. That was all baptism was, he said, a reminding, a remembering, a joining back together with the side that had been forgotten during childhood. He told her that we are created in heaven, in the Spirit, and as babies are still attached to that world. Marley, having never truly left it, didn’t have any work at all to do to be part of that world again as a soul in a body.
Many others had a lot more work to do, because being a soul in a body was distracting. It was so needy, the body, so demanding. It made them forget their commitments by replacing them with cravings. It provided daily (sometimes hourly) reminders that they couldn’t possibly survive in this world without constant and persistent re-turning towards the Light that is God.
So Marley rose, far up into the sky, flying among the great crowd of people who truly followed God. They were people who were humble and pure, those who could hear the Master calling his faithful home. They had waited for a long time, asleep in the earth. Today was their true birth-day.

Resurrection of the dead?

I think it is cruel to bring up the stories of Jesus raising people from the dead during a funeral service.

There are many of them:

A widow’s son restored to life (LK 7:11-17)

The synagogue leader Jairus’ daughter – (MT 918-19 and 23-26. Mark 5:21-23 and 35-43, LK 8:40-42 and 49-56)

The story of Lazarus (JN 11:38-40)

And of course we can’t forget Jesus’ own resurrection (MT 28:1-8, MK 16:1-8, LK 24:1-8.)

It is part and parcel of the Christian story to talk about everlasting life and the resurrection of the dead, especially at a funeral service. Many preachers use a funeral as a not-so-veiled attempt to push this message onto a captive audience, rather than comforting them in their grief.

Sometimes the message of eternal life just sounds like magical thinking.

Perhaps the hope in the resurrection, in the body itself being restored to life, is what drives the funeral industry to preserve human bodies by pumping them full of toxic chemicals and to put them in metal coffins and then put those into concrete vaults under six feet of dirt.

We must remember that Jesus is Jewish, and Jews don’t do any of this. The Jewish way of taking care of the deceased is to ensure that the body decays naturally and returns to the earth that it came from. In Israel, bodies aren’t even put into coffins. In America, there are different laws so at a minimum a plain pine casket is used, preferably with no vault. The idea is to make it as easy for the body to return to the earth by having as few barriers as possible. Often, Jews would buy land to have their own cemetery so they would not have to use vaults.

As for me, I would not want to be resurrected only to find that I was locked into a solid metal coffin, inside a concrete liner, six feet underground. This would be beyond cruel.

If God is going to resurrect us, then why are we going to all this effort to preserve the body? This is saying that we are responsible for the miracle – not God.

God made the first human from dirt, remember? God can restore us however we are to perfect form.

Also, think of this – say everyone who has ever died comes back to life. The Earth is going to be even more overcrowded than it is.

The resurrection of Lazarus

Jesus was filled with a deep anger when he heard this and approached the tomb. The tomb was in a cave and there was a large stone covering the entrance. Jesus asked them to roll the stone aside.

Martha said “He’s been dead for four days. The smell will be terrible.”

But Jesus said “Did I not say that you would see the glory of God if only you believe?”

So they rolled the stone away from the entrance to the tomb. Jesus raised his eyes and said “Father, thank you for listening to me. I know that you always listen to me, but I’ve said this now because of the crowd which is here, so they can believe that you sent me.” After saying this Jesus shouted, “Lazarus come out!”

Lazarus walked out of the tomb covered from head to toe with the linen cloths that he had been buried in. Jesus said “Remove the burial cloths and release him.”

JN 11:38-40

Jesus weeps

Martha then went to speak privately with her sister, saying “The Teacher is asking for you.” Mary immediately got up to go to him. Jesus was still where Martha had met him just outside the village. The Jewish leaders who had been consoling Mary noticed how quickly she had left, so they followed her. They thought she was going to cry at the tomb.

When Mary saw Jesus, she said “Lord, my brother wouldn’t have died if you had been here!”

Jesus was distraught when he saw that she and the others with her were crying. He asked “Where have you placed him?”

They answered “Come with us and see.”

Jesus wept.

The Jewish leaders said “Look! He must have loved him deeply!” But others said “Couldn’t someone who healed a blind man have prevented this man’s death?”

JN 11:28-37

The Resurrection and the Life

Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days by the time Jesus arrived in Bethany. The village was about two miles away from Jerusalem, and many of the Jewish leaders had come to comfort Martha and Mary about their brother’s death. Martha went to meet Jesus as soon as she heard he was approaching, but Mary stayed sitting right where she was at home.

Martha said to Jesus “Lord, my brother wouldn’t have died if you had been here. But even after all this time I know that God will grant any request you make.”

“Your brother will live again.” Jesus assured her.

Martha thought that Jesus was talking about the resurrection of the dead on the last day, but then Jesus said “I resurrect people and restore them to life. Anyone who believes in me will never really die. Even if his body dies, he will have eternal life. Do you believe what I am saying?”

Martha answered “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the long-awaited Messiah, the Son of God.”

JN 11:17-27

Lazarus dies at Bethany

A man named Lazarus from the village of Bethany was sick. He was the brother of Mary and Martha, who also lived there. Mary was the lady who had anointed Jesus with fragrant oil called nard and then used her hair to wipe his feet. The sisters sent a message to Jesus, saying “Lord, someone that you love is sick.”

When Jesus received the message, he said “This sickness will not lead to death, but to the glory of God. The Son of Man will be glorified through it.” Even though Jesus loved the three of them, he didn’t start to go to them until two days later.

The disciples challenged him when he told them that they were going to Judea, saying “The Jewish leaders want to stone you to death, and you want to go there again?”

Jesus answered “There are twelve hours of daylight every day, where people can walk without stumbling because of all the light. People stumble at night because they don’t have light.” Then he said “Lazarus has merely fallen asleep, and I’m headed there to awaken him.”

The disciples said “Lord, he’ll get well if he has just gone to sleep.” They did not realize that Jesus was talking about his death, so Jesus spoke plainly to them. “Lazarus has died. I’m glad that I wasn’t there at that time so you will have another reason to believe in me. Let us be on our way.”

Thomas, nicknamed “Twin,” said to the others “Let’s all go and die along with him.”

JN 11:1-16