My friend Matt passed away a short while ago. Earlier on the day he died, he called the only man who ever really acted as a father toward him, and said that he was on his way from one Northern Ontario city to another in order to get into rehab. Instead, he stopped along the highway, trudged to a nearby barn and took his own life. He was in his early thirties.
I’ve never actually written a eulogy before, although I’ve delivered too many of them to count, and this certainly won’t be the kind usually heard at funerals. I suppose I’ve known dozens who committed suicide, as many more who were murdered, and probably the sum of whatever those numbers are whose bodies fell apart because of abuses that began in childhood and pursued them through their shortened adult years. A distressing percentage of this tragic host were people I had come to love.
But that’s not why I’m writing about Matt. I called him a friend, but really, I didn’t like him much, let alone love him. He was intelligent, and could be charming and energetic – he never had trouble getting jobs, but he could never keep them, either – but was too often destructive, disruptive, disrespectful and dishonest. He hurt the people that loved him in ways that seemed so casually deliberate it was all the more shocking. The way he treated Steve and Rachel Tulloch, the Elumirs, and the Hatlem Johnson family, who all loved him so well, made me want to punch him far more often than I had any impulse to embrace or even be kind to him. Other folks, like Kevin Barrett and Thea Prescod, found ways to care for him too, but I’d say I never did. At best, I put up with him.
Yet I find his death moves me strangely, and not because I feel guilty about my own attitude toward him – I don’t, frankly. I know how human I am. I never had any illusions about being his saviour.
Matt’s death moves me because, if you’ll forgive the theological terminology, he was well and truly fucked before ever he was born. I don’t know how to express it more honestly than that. All you need to know about his family of origin is that he was born with a severe case of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. This left him unable to really empathize, compute the consequences of his actions, understand the value difference between truth and lie, plan for the future, or give and receive any recognizable form of love. And that, as you can imagine, screwed his life: twisted it round and round into a tighter and tighter downward spiral until it came to a final, sharp point. It’s entirely possible that Matt wasn’t even thinking about committing suicide when he phoned Steve Tulloch to relate his rehab plans. It may very well have been one particularly dark moment of despair and the matching impulse of the moment to which he responded.
The Tulloch family embraced Matt when he was still in high school. They loved him with extraordinary strength and commitment for a couple of decades, and others joined in, but while that love should not have been too little, it was certainly too late. It had always been too late for Matt.
Anyone who knew Matt as an adult would have predicted that he would die early, and by one of the typical means in our community as described above. His death was shocking only in the sense that death always is. And that’s the festering splinter that sticks in me.
Because how is it just, let alone merciful or loving, that Matt never had a chance? If you say, “Well, Matt still had to make his own choices”, I’ll respond, “You don’t understand FAS.” FAS snipped the capacity to make rational choices right out of him as neatly as if it was an organ removed by a surgeon. And it did so while he was still in the womb. Where was God in all this? How are we supposed to make sense of Matt’s life and death?
Woody Allen would say, “Life sucks, and then you die”, which makes sense if you’re an atheist. People inclined to defend doctrines of election or free will do theological gymnastics in order to rationalize the experience of people like Matt with a God who is, nevertheless, good, loving and all-powerful. I lean toward the “open view” of God these days, which posits that he chooses what he will foreknow and pre-ordain, and what he won’t, so that he can ensure that his relationship with us, and ours with him, is truly free.
But none of this satisfies, none of it, when an unmitigated tragedy like Matt’s life and death unfolds. I may not be able to figure out how free will for all and protection from the kind of evil that engulfed Matt are reconcilable, but I’m only human. Shouldn’t God be able to manage it? It seems to me that the system, instituted by God, is badly flawed. You may say, “It’s not God’s system that’s flawed, it’s us.” And I would respond, “Whatever – that’s not really the point! What about Matt? That’s the point! Did his life matter to God or not? Was he just a useless bit of excess trimmed off by the great machine that produces The Redeemed? If God loved Matt, how could he stand by and watch what happened to him?”
It makes me angry. It’s the hurdle I’ve never been able to get over in my relationship with God. He knows I’ve tried – in the wake of death after death after death, and in the midst of the trauma, pain, abuse and resulting addictions that afflict friends who were or are fucked just like Matt. What I know at this point is that turning away from the loving, just God I still choose to believe in only makes it worse; it doesn’t stop the evil, it only means there is no hope of healing, redemption or even meaning in the midst of the suffering. So I find no relief in either embracing or dispensing with the theological systems that are supposed to explain such things, and fail so dismally.
I do find some comfort in knowing that, two thousand years ago, Jesus sat on a hillside and preached a sermon about Matt. What he had to say gives me hope that Matt, even now – especially now! – has a great future ahead of him. That he isn’t, and never was, disposable, or damned from the start.
Jesus began to preach that day because the large crowds that had gathered from the surrounding regions included “people who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed.” In short, the crowd included a lot of Matts, plus the people who loved them and had brought them in hope that Jesus could do or say something to make it better – people like the Tullochs, and others in our Sanctuary community who loved Matt and bore some of his pain with him, and kept bringing him to Jesus.
Jesus didn’t start out with a funny story, or by railing against the injustices of the world. Instead, he cut right to the chase, announcing the Charter of Blessedness – infinitely better than mere rights – of the Kingdom of Heaven. He described what that kingdom looks like by describing who is important in it; to the surprise of the pain-filled, powerless, demon-harassed people who listened, he described them.
Most of us have at least some familiarity with the famous sermon that begins, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Over the past few years, I’ve read a fair bit of exegesis of the Beatitudes from noted scholars, and I’ve done my own exegetical and lexical study. This is what I think that suffering crowd understood him to say:
Blessed are the spiritually bankrupt, for all the riches of the kingdom are available to bail them out.
Blessed are those whose life is a litany of loss and destruction, and who are so blasted by grief they cannot stand, for they will find a new and strengthening intimacy among others who grieve, and with the Comforter by their side.
Blessed are the shoved-out, put-down and ripped-off, for they will discover that everything – everything! – belongs to them and nothing can contain them.
Blessed are those who are starving for justice, dying of thirst for someone to treat them right, for a feast is coming.
Blessed are the guilty ones who, knowing their own guilt, show mercy to others; they’ll receive mercy too.
Blessed are those whose whole being – body, soul and spirit – is so focused on discovering God for themselves that nothing in this world ever seems good enough; they’ll find what they’ve been looking for at last.
Blessed are the ones who stand in the middle of other peoples’ disputes and are hated by both sides; it’s a horrible place to be, but it’s where they are claiming their identity as children of God.
Blessed are those who are battered and bruised because they try to treat others well; they are displaying their citizenship in the kingdom of God here and now.
All the Matts I’ve ever known are right there in at least the top three or four categories of important, blessed citizens in the kingdom of God. Not Matt as I wanted him to be, or Matt as he could have been if he’d only trusted God enough. Matt as he actually was: spiritually bankrupt, destroyed by loss, oppressed still more because he started out oppressed, fruitlessly desperate to be able to do and experience the right thing. And, not in spite of those factors, but because of them, he was and is blessed.
In all my reading of commentary on the Beatitudes, I’ve never found anyone who went so far as to say this straight out, so I will: what Jesus taught that day means that Matt, regardless of what he believed about doctrinal concepts like “the person and work of Christ”, is a citizen of the kingdom of heaven. Was, in fact, so blessed from the moment of his birth – you could say, in his case, that he was born into the kingdom, and carried the passport all his life, even if he didn’t realize it.
Because God was paying attention, after all. He knew how apparently hopeless Matt’s situation was, knew that Matt was never really going to be “free” to make a choice, and so guaranteed justice, mercy and love for him in the end and forever. He did so in a fashion that would not, unfortunately, negate the hellish choices others would make, choices that affected Matt so deeply. Maybe there really is no way to answer that conundrum, and maybe God wishes there was as much or more than I do.
I will say that this does not completely answer my anger about what Matt, and many others to whom I have been far closer, have had to go through in their blighted lives. It does, however, get me wondering if my own anger is a dim echo of God’s – a terrible wrath that has been building century after century as people betray and abuse the vulnerable ones in their care or sphere of influence. I cannot believe that God stood back and watched what happened to Matt as an infant, child and adult with equanimity. When I think of God having to watch up close as the pain and indignities were heaped on this child, on these children he loved, it makes sense to me of the anger of the God of the prophets. I wonder, then, that he can hold it in abeyance.
But where my anger simply looks for someone to blame, and ultimately rests on God himself, his transmutes through Jesus into a fiery determination that those upon whom every evil force has been concentrated, such that the opportunity of meaningful choice has been negated, will nevertheless see salvation instead of damnation, redemption instead of condemnation, healing instead of ultimate decay, reconciliation instead of banishment, and honor instead of degradation. This is not a get-out-of-hell-free card; this is a key to the city, a last-shall-be-first miracle.
The “person and work of Christ” – his life, death and resurrection – does, in fact, make it possible. The teaching of Jesus in these Beatitudes confirms it. I think that when Matt awoke in the waiting room of eternity, and then approached the glorious gate before him, he was recognized immediately and welcomed as a citizen of the kingdom of heaven. Nobody checked his passport or inspected his luggage. He wasn’t admitted with a kind of grumpy by-the-skin-of-his-teeth acceptance, but with what must have seemed to him like inordinate joy, as if he was some returning hero. I would imagine Matt is still wondering how he made it in, if there was some clerical error, and when he’ll get booted out.
Soon and very soon, if it hasn’t happened already, Someone will explain, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” And Matt, at last, will understand.
 Matthew 4:24 NIV
 Matthew 5:3 NIV
 God bless Dallas Willard, too soon gone, whose work in The Divine Conspiracy, together with that of Kenneth Bailey’s in Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, inspired and (alongside simple lexical study of the text) informed this admittedly very “free” version of the Beatitudes.