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“Maps Don’t Lead to Holy Ground”

Written by: on November 3, 2019

Carved into a cemetery headstone, directly under a person’s name, are the dates of their birth and death. These dates are separated by a dash. Many have waxed on poetically about the importance of that dash, for it represents the entirety of the persons life. It’s the space where they lived and breathed, rested and worked, laughed and cried, loved and lost. The carved dates separated by the dash serve as a map of reality, “a reduction of what it represents.”[1]

The typical map of a person’s life looks like this:

Birth date.

Span of life.

Death.

Remains placed in a location as a way to honor and remember them.

 

Evidence of the headstone marks such a reality, but the map crafted is but a snapshot of that reality, for the “map is not the territory.”[2]Rather it is a simplification of the complexity of a life lived.

If we zoom in a bit more and examine a life/death map in more detail, we’d see specifics in the terrain. Based on religious affiliation, geographic and cultural location, or situation in time and space, that map would vary. Today, in the context of those who profess to be Christian and evangelical, the life/death map would likely look like this:

Birth date.

Life lived.

Dying process (sometimes tragic, unexpected, prolonged, swift, peaceful, etc).

Death in a hospital or other professional care facility.

Deceased cared for at a funeral home (cremated, embalmed, or simply not seen).

A celebration of life (slide show, favorite songs, and memories shared by loved ones).

Burial or scattering of remains (witnessed by immediate friends and/or family).

 

This map, while useful and predictable, is inherently flawed, as it remains a static “document” in the flow of a reality that is ever changing. The truth is, “reality cannot be mapped. It is beyond description or any one view. It is not a single static truth, but rather an endless, unfolding mystery.”[3]

To navigate this mystery, Parrish, in The Great Mental Models, suggests examining key components of mental models, or the ways we describe the way the world works. These models shape how we think, form beliefs, and draw analogies.[4]They do this in a simplified and organized way, and enable us to walk around in a problem with a 3-D view. This is accomplished by utilizing various perspectives and examining through different lenses. The more lenses utilized the more likely reality is revealed.[5]

Sadly, with its static rules and policies, the current evangelical life/death map has ignored the changing terrain and failed to adapt to cultural needs. In fact, few evangelicals even think through why the map looks the way it does and what the consequences are of having such a map. Conversely, secular endeavors to reclaim human connection and dignity through death are happening. Living funerals, death doulas, palliative care, and green burials, are but a few ways the death care industry is changing to help individuals holistically embrace death. Organizations, such as Grief Share, help people walk through grief in a communal and loving way.

Still, evangelicals exist in “a culture of entertainment and denial that has sanitized dying and death and put it in a world hopefully far, far away. (This is done through) entertainment. (They) want funerals to mirror church services and church services to mirror virtual lives- fun, interesting, enlightening, moving, and upbeat.”[6]

The “why’s” behind this reality are complicated and nuanced. But if Occam’s Razor is true, and “simpler explanations are more likely to be true than complicated ones,”[7]then when the complexities are stripped away, the core motivation of the current evangelical life/death map is fear. We fear losing our identity, our sense of “me.” We fear stepping out of what’s known into the unknown. By living in fear and allowing it to form the limited reality of our life/death map, we actually increase our suffering in death. Consequently, this leaves us more isolated, alone, and afraid. By clinging to the security of the knowns, we are left feeling ill-equipped and insecure in the unknowns.[8]

Maps created out of fear are not useful. It’s important “to remember…a map captures a territory at a moment in time. Just because it might have done a good job at depicting what was, there is no guarantee that it depicts what is there now or what will be there in the future.”[9]

The time has come for evangelicals to reevaluate the life/death map handed to them from generations before. Exploring and understanding the cultural geography and the shifting territory helps develop more useful maps.[10] Implementing different perspectives through various mental models, while also leaning into mystery and creativity, is necessary to create a new way for evangelicals to navigate life and death. For if we truly believe in the holy redemptive grace of God for our lives, then we have to allow that holy redemptive grace to wash over our actual dying and death process, as well. Only then will we be able to envision a fuller picture of the holy reality given to us through Christ.

In closing, may the words of TRH Blue’s poem, “Holy Ground,” be a springboard for exploration, as we move from fear into freedom:

The time will come that you

Run out of map for the road

You’ve been taking to

Get where you go.

And then what?

 

You create.

You step beyond the

Borders of the paper square

You once thought held

The whole world.

You stretch your legs

And run, let new air fill your lungs.

 

The unknown may be

Filled with unspeakable

Fright, unmatched beauty,

But whatever it holds,

You are free.

 

You are free, and you

Must keep moving.

Maps don’t lead to

Holy Ground.[11]

 

Photo by Julentto Photography on Unsplash

 

 

[1]  Shane Parrish. 2019. The Great Mental Models: General Thinking Concepts. Ottowa, Canada: Farnam Street. Kindle. Location 397.

[2]Parrish, loc 397.

[3]Frank Ostaseski. The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Fully Living. (New York: NY: Flatiron Books, 2017) 257.

[4]Parrish, loc 113.

[5]Parrish, loc 137.

[6]Todd Pruitt.  2010. “Evangelicals: Putting the “Fun” back in “Funeral.” Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, Jan, 14, 2010. Accessed Nov 3, 2019. http://www.alliancenet.org/mos/1517/evangelicals-putting-the-fun-back-in-funeral#.Xb89MC2ZOqA

[7]Parrish, loc 1617.

[8]Ostaseski, 256.

[9]Parrish, loc 497.

[10]Parrish, loc 485.

[11]https://www.notesontheway.com/products/poem-25?_pos=1&_sid=98c1c528e&_ss=r

About the Author

mm

Darcy Hansen

16 responses to ““Maps Don’t Lead to Holy Ground””

  1. mm Dylan Branson says:

    “The truth is, ‘reality cannot be mapped. It is beyond description or any one view. It is not a single static truth, but rather an endless, unfolding mystery.'”

    I was reflecting on this statement and had some musings:

    *I would say that reality cannot holistically be mapped, as it truly is beyond the description of any one view. This in and of itself is pretty cool, as it shows the complexity and diversity of the world that God’s made.

    *We need to realize the purpose of the maps we read into reality. Just as physical maps have different purposes – some show roads, some show countries, some show geography and terrain, etc. – so do our mental processes and disciplines have different ways of viewing reality. The way a biologist looks at word may be completely different from how a poet sees it (or there could be overlap).

    *Maps are reductionistic, but they give us a starting point and help us know where we are positioned. As we encounter new observations, we should have the metaphorical quill in our hand filling in the details we miss through the broad overview.

    Thanks for the thoughts and post, Darcy! ‘Twas stimulating to think through.

    • Darcy Hansen says:

      Dylan,
      Thanks for taking a time to reflect upon that statement. I agree with you about the maps. I think the challenge is to take in as many mental models as reasonable so as to construct a fuller picture of reality, and thus a more complete map. Asking different level questions and examining where our preconceived ideas/biases will be helpful in that development.

      “As we encounter new observations, we should have the metaphorical quill in our hand filling in the details we miss through the broad overview.” That’s beautiful imagery for what we are called to do with our NPOs.

      • mm Jer Swigart says:

        Hey Dylan and Darcy,

        As I read Parrish, I wondered about the possibility of adopting several different mental models. It seems like quite an undertaking to take in as many as possible. I wonder if you think Parrish is suggesting this or, if it is more reasonable to invite people who think differently (through diverse mental models) into our processes. I’m not making an arugment here…just wondering out loud.

        • Darcy Hansen says:

          Jer,
          I wonder if it’s both/and? As in personally utilize models as reasonable, and bring in other perspectives through your team? The work isn’t meant to be done alone, but even with groups, it seems there’s gaps. I think figuring out what those gaps are is the challenge. Hard to know what you don’t even know you didn’t know. Maybe?

  2. Nancy Blackman says:

    Darcy,
    I was reminded of the time when my dad passed. “Evidence of the headstone marks such a reality, but the map crafted is but a snapshot of that reality, for the “map is not the territory.” Rather it is a simplification of the complexity of a life lived.” There were so many things that occurred during his life and so many things that he witnessed in his 92 years.

    This is making me wonder if there is a different way that I could have honored my father’s life? Is there still a way that I can do that?

    “Only then will we be able to envision a fuller picture of the holy reality given to us through Christ.” What do you envision as a fuller picture for Christians in this process?

    • mm Darcy Hansen says:

      Nancy,
      I can only imagine all the life your father lived in his 92 years. I see you honoring him as you continue to live a life of courage and integrity. It sounds he instilled those traits, as well as many others, in you during your countless formative interactions with him.

      My hope for this process is to first get people talking about death. We celebrate life so well. When people are pregnant, the excitement is palatable. But when people are dying, it’s like everything goes black and silent. Death isn’t pretty, and I have no intent in glamorizing it. But the fear that surrounds it is also palatable. It’s in our “rose-colored glasses” language and our inability to walk alongside those suffering. I’ve been a Christian for 20+ years, and the closest conversations about the realities of death happen on Ash Wednesday, and that has always been within the walls of a mainline denomination.

      My second hope is that in some way, by talking about it, we can also reclaim the communal aspect and impact of death. In our individualized society, we have little understanding of how to walk with those dying and grieving. It’s often a lonely experience for many. How do we develop a community of support long before those dark days happen?

      Lastly, it is my hope that in conversation regarding our ultimate death, it will somehow impact our experiences of “little deaths,” that acknowledging and embracing mystery and unknowns will provide a sense of freedom in other areas of life, too.

  3. mm Greg Reich says:

    Darcy, One of my odd hobbies when I travel is to visit cemetaries. I am intrigued by the epitaphs we choose to sum up the hyphen (dash) between the dates that represent our time on earth. As my father drew closer to his heavenly promotion some of his doubts and fears came to the surface. It was awesome to see him come to the conclusion that how an individual faces death says as much about their life as the way they lived. Why do you think a very natural fact of life such as death can be a map we so often misunderstood? What part does regret play in this misunderstanding?

    • mm Darcy Hansen says:

      Greg,
      Great questions. I’m not exactly sure of the answers. But off the cuff, I’d say much of our misunderstanding of death comes from modernity. We are so separated from death that it’s a “that happens somewhere else” event and professionals are responsible for taking care of the “morbid” details.

      I definitely think regret is woven into our understanding. How exactly, I am not sure. But I wonder if we begin to reframe our understanding and experience, if those regrets will fade away a bit? I wonder if we begin to tackle the fear of death, if that will also encourage people to tackle other fears, especially of things undone or not reconciled? It will be interesting to see how this project unfolds and what areas of need will be addressed. Keep asking the questions. I so appreciate it!

  4. mm John McLarty says:

    I remember going with my dad on a pastoral visit when I was young. The man we were visiting was old and reaching the end. My dad bent down close and asked the man, “Do you have any fears about dying?” I was horrified. I wondered how my dad could ask such a “morbid” question. Then I noticed the dying man’s face change expression. He smiled a big smile and breathed a sigh of relief because someone had finally dared to ask him the one question he so desperately wanted to answer. He spoke about the peace he felt and the contentment of a life well-lived, how he was looking forward to the transition with gratitude. It was a beautiful moment.

    My mother was both a hospice nurse and a patient. She taught me to embrace a theology of death that recognized and rejoiced in the divine presence.

    I’m thankful for your passion to help evangelicals understand death in a better and more faithful way. You are becoming a cartographer, mapping the landscape of death and dying.

    • mm Darcy Hansen says:

      John,
      Thank you for sharing that intimate moment with me. It is a snapshot of how the process can actually be very redemptive, not only for those dying, but also for those who remain. How can we reclaim that on a broader scale? How can we begin having those conversations before a person reaches those last days? And would those prior interactions, meditations, and awarenesses make a difference? I have to think they will, though I’m not exactly sure how. I look forward to learning and growing in this area so as to better lead others through it. I love the imagery of being a “cartographer” and I am also embracing the title “thanatologist.” So maybe I’ll be a thanatological cartographer when our DMin season comes to an end?

  5. mm Shawn Cramer says:

    Great application of the text and compelling piece, Darcy. Sometimes I feel like phrases like “the changing culture” and “shifting ideologies” can be used pretty broadly and ambiguously. What else in particular do you feel like is changing in culture that impacts views of death and remembering the dead.

    • mm Darcy Hansen says:

      Shawn,
      I think that our individualistic tendencies have left us feeling very isolated. This is exasperated through social media. But I also believe that having access to very diverse perspectives is also helping to shift the death narrative. Environmental concerns initially and continue to drive many of the changes. Same with economics. But I think with the rise of spirituality and experience in various Christian denominations, the old answers and ways just don’t sit very well anymore. If you have other thoughts, I’d love to hear them:)

  6. mm Steve Wingate says:

    You wote about this idea “Maps created out of fear are not useful.” I half heartedly agree with this. Fear is a motivator that has not always been kind to me! Yet, I’ve been saved by fear. We are taught in Scripture to have fear and to not have fear. Fear can be a good teacher. I’m reminded of Lewis and Clark’s journey with this idea that they could canoe right to the pacific ocean. Fear with ingeniuty and a lot of guts, so to speak probably saved their journey.

    • Darcy Hansen says:

      Steve,
      I think there is a balance between fear and courage. If fear shuts down movement toward wholeness and health, then its not helpful. Having courage to move through difficult territory, utilizing wisdom as when to proceed, turn around, pause, or change direction, is necessary to make headway. Fear of the Lord is definitely important.

      Also apologies for my delayed response. We traveled to WA yesterday to help my in-laws for a couple days:)

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