#borders #lifebeyondwalls #lifegindsaway #liberated
DEATH, the theme that is common to the texts today, technically means cessation of life. It is the end of breath and heartbeat and brain activity. For some people, it implies cessation of being. Our faith promises a different outcome … that our being endures, perhaps in another form.
DEATH often means the ‘enemy’ in our culture. It is considered the enemy, even in Biblical imagery. Death is also considered a failure, when we think of science or medicine.
In some traditions, death becomes a teacher, a mentor, and a way of understanding the fullness of our mortality. This has become more true through hospice and palliative care in our own society, too.
Certainly death has something to teach us. In part, it reminds us to live fully while we are in this world, on this earth. Claim our time with joy and intentionality.
The imminence of our own endings is one of the lessons of Lent. We journey in the shadow of our own human frailty, brokenness and vulnerability. And our whole Christian story walks toward Jesus’ death at the hands of the Romans.
Yet the story doesn’t end there. It ends with post-resurrection sightings. With people who broke bread with the Messiah after he died and returned to us. The story ends with the hope of a life beyond death.
Death, as we say, is not the final word. Yet it is a word that we often, nowadays, fear. We use euphemisms, like “passed away” or “lost” or “gone.”
And I would say that one of our human challenges is to find a way to know that DEATH is part of our human experience. Once more, let it become a natural part of our journey, just like childbirth.
We may not want or welcome DEATH. Yet in the past few hundred years, we have become so afraid of death, we have lost language and rituals that make it part of our cultural experience. We tend to isolate those who are dying. We want people to snap out of it, or hide grief, and grieving.
We often medicalize the experience of dying. We offer escalating interventions, which may or may not gain us time, but may also compromise the quality of ouyr loved ones’ remaining time. Finding a different equilibrium is one of the ways of being we may be called to seek in these contemporary times.
More people have surgeries in the last week of their lives, and fully half of all medical expenses occur in the last six months of human lifespans, due to the forms of life-extending treatments and interventions that are possible.
Too often such endings mean that people die in institutions. Yet most people, when asked, say they’d like to die at home.
We will all die. And yet we are promised life beyond death.
Meanwhile, consider entering into conversation about this reality with the more vulnerable members of our family and community. If the subject comes up, explore it. Find out what people hope for the remainder of their lives. And what they fear. What gives meaning and purpose to life, what is worth trading away for more time, and what is worth preserving?
If you want to have a conversation, consider these resources:
Excerpts from today’s lectionary:
- Isaiah 53:12a — Because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.
- Hebrews 2:9 — But we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
When we speak of roots, we are speaking of the context in which we are deeply situated, the history from which we have grown, and many facets of identity that shape us. These may include religious, social, economic, cultural, geographic, racial, linguistic, and gender-based elements, for instance.
Interestingly, we often become more firmly and healthfully rooted in our own traditions and identities when we come into contact with people and cultures different from our own. In this way, we grow and explore. As we lean out and rise up, reaching for something else, our roots go deeper, offering a counterbalance to our maturing movements up and away.
Roots seek out the essential ingredients of life even before the shoots appear. They are a sign of strength and vitality. Yet they are tender and need their own home, their own share of soil, in order to thrive.
God offers to be our home, the place where we plant ourselves and go deep, even as we reach out for God’s self with branches and fruit. This infinite, boundless love that expects much of us, but meets us where we are, is essential to our wellbeing. All the journeys we take, all the ways we stretch and grow, start and finish in the place where our roots find life.
Brief excerpts from lectionary passages:
- Ezekiel 17:6 — It sprouted and became a vine spreading out, but low; its branches turned toward him, its remained where it stood.
- Ezekiel 17:7 — And see! This vine stretched out its roots toward him; it shot out its branches toward him, so that he might water it.
- Romans 2: 15 — They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them.
The lectionary texts today offer up the word WAKE. It’s a call out of sleep, out of rest, and even out of death in these texts. It’s a call to be alive and attentive, to be active and present. Its a call, ultimately, to be connected to self, others and God.
In our times, we’re bombarded with messages vying for our attention. Sometimes we’re hyper-aware, and we need the chance to be peaceful, if not asleep. We require a way to distinguish between the busy-ness of responding to countless demands for our time, energy, and resources versus being awake and present in a more focused, fulfilled and beneficial way.
Sometimes, I feel worn out or frazzled all day long. As if I never catch up on rest and renewal. Usually when I feel so depleted, that’s when I’m neglecting forms of self-care, from eating well and exercising and sleeping enough to maintaining a healthy spiritual practice. At such times, when I’m too exhausted, even though I’m theoretically awake, my attention is divided. Then I’m not ‘awake’ in a way that becomes meaningful in my relationships to others, or in my capacity to work or play. So my own ‘wake up’ call is often noticing that I’m stretched too thin and overloaded, overwhelmed, and tired. Then it’s time to restore self-care practices that contribute to greater psychological and emotional balance, better mind-body connection. From these practices come more attentiveness, more energy, and more capacity to ‘do.’
We can be at peace when we’re awake. For instance, we can become centered and focused by drawing on bodily spiritual and contemplative practices such as breathing, meditation, and prayer. This can take place, varying by the style of practice you use, either in a still position or while moving (you can pray or meditate as you walk, for instance).
We can use such spiritual practices to calm and prepare ourselves for the demands of the day, or to renew ourselves in the midst of such multitasking. We can become more alert and attuned, connecting spiritually with our own emotional and psychological selves, or connecting outwardly to broader consciousness and energy.
In sacred texts, sleep is sometimes equated with being unaware, complacent, or unguarded. Sometimes sleep in Biblical terms is not desirable. Sleep is also used, at times, as a euphemism for death. By contrast, being awake is a chance to revive from an altered, helpless state into a transformed state of agency, authority, and activity. Wakefulness becomes a form of vigilance and activism.
At other times, sleep in sacred texts is the chance to dream and commune with God’s messengers. Thus wakefulness can be the chance to return out of dreams into this reality with a message from God. It offers enlightenment and wisdom. This is true in Christian traditions, and the concept of being awake as an enlightened being is an ideal in other religions, too.
What wakes you up? And I don’t mean the alarm clock. For me, sometimes it’s caffeinated tea that kick-starts my body and lets my mind catch up. More often it’s the ritual of greeting my husband in the morning, going outside for a walk along the river with the dog, checking in with my daughter, connecting with a friend by phone or in person, and singing along to the radio. Small moments recharge and renew me, so that by the time I arrive at demanding, busy parts of my day, I feel more than just awake … I feel alive indeed. I am excited to be where I am, and ready to engage in whatever the day may bring.
Excerpts from today’s lectionary texts:
- Daniel 12:2a — Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life.
- Revelation 3:2 — Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death, for I have not found your works perfect in the sight of my God.
- Revelation 3:3 — Remember then what you received and heard; obey it, and repent. If you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you.
Such a small word today: LIFE. It contains the measure of our whole beings from beginning to end, and even beyond. When we speak of life, we mean so many things. We speak of ‘life’ as the actual quickening of cellular activity itself. Yet it is also the spark of intellect and soul that animates the flesh of our bodies.
In this word is one of the ultimate questions. What is the meaning of life?
Sometimes we’re referring to the viability of an individual being, and other times we define it as any form of organic and sentient existence at all. We use ‘life’ to mark the span of time from one creature’s birth until death: moving and breathe and operating as sentient beings. Yet we can also refer to eons of time, such as the age of a planet or a cosmos, as measured by signs of life.
As spiritual creatures, we are always looking past the veil of our own senses, toward a greater and deeper meaning. We reach and imagine beyond the shape and contours of our own mortal bodies to something we cannot quite touch, detect, or cognitively encompass. Our sense of possibility is somehow defined by the limits of our corporeal selves and what we are and are-not.
The concept of life holds, in so many ways, all that contains our meaning. We weigh and express the value of all other ideas and experiences, emotions and thoughts, tangible and intangible treasures, against the weight of our own being, our own lives.
We measure risk by the threat of death and the end of life. Yet isn’t it interesting to consider that sometimes the greatest risk isn’t to face death, but to live our lives fully? To risk life? This is the challenge that today’s texts expose to us.
In today’s text, God’s divine love and presence is considered more valuable than the Psalmist’s own life. Is the writer euphemistic? Could the writer extol God’s love, except by being alive to do so?
In the prophetic text of Daniel, three characters put their lives on the line to defy an unjust law, and to continue faithfully worshiping their own God. Their lives are delivered,. So their faithfulness is measured by their willingness to sacrifice their own mortal span of being. And the power of Godself is revealed to the unjust leaders of the land, when God saves their lives, despite the affliction and torture turned upon them.
In Revelation, Christ is once more described as the one who was dead and then returned to life. Divinity is inextricably bound up with life, survival, and being. The ultimate promise of Godself is that we will have a second life, a different life, a life after death. If life contains all of our meaning, then a life that defies the very strictures that form the boundaries of our capacity to understand and experience the world, a life that overcomes death … that is powerful indeed.
So how do I measure the meaning and value of life? I cannot measure the impact of life by time alone. The import of my younger child Jessie, who lived 9 years, cannot be encapsulated by days and years. That is a poor standard to describe the value and impact of her presence among us.
So how do I describe her life? It’s easier to consider her life, versus my own, since I’m in the middle (I assume) of my own life. Her life was comprised of the relationships she formed and influences through her being. Her life could be measured by her way of being a teacher and mentor to older folks, through her approach to balancing suffering against all that made life worthwhile to her as a child. What made life rch and good to her? Engaging in fierce and deeply-rooted relationships, being able to move and claim her own body, feeding and stretching an inquisitive mind that always wanted to learn and question, acting ethically to support causes she cared about and to change unfair circumstances when she could, experiencing sheer joy through playing and laughing or taking risks … Her life was ultimately measured by her loves.
Whether it’s 9 hours, 9 days, or 90 years … our God’s presence fills up the measure of life for us. What are we willing to put at risk for this love, if not life itself? And as I mentioned earlier, isn’t the greatest risk not to die for this love, but to live for this love?
Excerpts of today’s scriptures:
- Psalm 63: 3a — Because your steadfast love is better than life.
- Daniel 3:28 — 28 Nebuchadnezzar said, “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants who trusted in him. They disobeyed the king’s command and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God.
- Revelation 2: 8b — These are the words of the first and the last, who was dead and came to life.
- Revelation 2: 10b — Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.