It is often assumed that younger people have no respect for their elders and even less reverence for history. While people in their 20s now may be as suspicious of institutions as their baby boomer counterparts were 25 years ago, my experience has been that there is in fact a healthy respect for individuals who have lived more than we, particularly those who experienced the hardships of depression and war.
We know that the particular social and economic challenges of our times are different, but the basic emotional fortitude needed to survive is not. We are familiar with despair, and so we are grateful for generations that have shown us how to move through life gracefully, how to live for the good of future generations, how to persevere in the face of trouble, and how to live and die with dignity.
In my congregation of mostly younger people, we tend to focus more on the spiritual challenges of this life than the rewards of heaven. Promises of eternal bliss fall on deaf ears for those who think they have 50 or 60 years of misery until then. Nevertheless, we are not as disinterested in the hereafter as one might assume. In my senior year of college, no fewer than five classmates lost a parent. AIDS has been a reality as long as we've been adults, and cancer rates for younger people appear to be rising. Death is no stranger to us, even if few of us expect to meet it any time soon.
WHEN PEOPLE BEGIN TO share stories of death, we of course remember grandparents, uncles, and friends who lived full and productive lives. But there is another group of stories that inevitably come outthe stories of those whose deaths were untimely and ungraceful: the high school friend who ate so little that her heart gave out; the buddy who drank so much that his liver failed; the college classmate who thought it better to swallow a cabinet full of pills than to face the next day.
There was a time when it was believed that God's grace could not possibly extend to those who took their own lives. If a person acted on such despair, the reasoning went, she would have no time to repent of it, and therefore God could not forgive. While there is no doubt that self-abuse in any form is sinful, a denial of God's own self-image in us, as a pastor I have to proclaim that God's mercy reaches deeper than even the deepest despair. It's for that reason the Nicene Creed insists that Jesus "descended into hell" before the resurrection to conquer even that tremendous gap between eternal life and eternal despair.
It is a difficult thing to honor those who so thoroughly despaired of their own purpose. We dare not romanticize or lionize their choice to die. We must call out hope and life in the face of death and despair, practice gratitude and forgiveness, and sing "Praise to life though ones we knew and loved/loved it badly, too well, and not enough" (Adrienne Rich). We must honor God's image in them, giving thanks for that which they could not seethe hope, beauty, and goodness of life itself. Perhaps by doing so we may assault the gates of hell in our own lives, remembering that nothing, absolutely nothing in life or in death, can separate us from the love of Christ.
PAM FICKENSCHER is pastor of Spirit Garage, an alternative church for young adults in Minneapolis. Visit Spirit Garage's Web site at www.webinsite. com/spirit.