For years I have been putting quotes in the bulletin based on the theme of the service and when I first began that practice, I collected quotes from my reading or looked up topics in Bartlett’s Quotations but now I get my quotes from the internet, most often from Goodreads, a site in which readers post their favorite quotes from authors they enjoy. Though this ensures that my pool of authors is larger and more diverse than in my pre-internet days, I’ve noticed that one thing hasn’t changed: certain topics always yield more quotes than others. There are, for example, 144 quotes on Goodreads devoted to Easter while only 25 are tagged for Good Friday, 1/6 the number (which is about the same ratio for church attendance on those Holy Days.) If I look for a bulletin quote on All Saint’s Day, Goodreads yields a paltry 109 quotes about saints, but on Blessing of the Beasts Sunday, I can choose from 762 quotes about dogs. Clearly, we like our dogs more than our saints. There are, however, three keywords, which yield so many pages of quotes that I could spend hours going through them all, the same three keywords that filled pages and pages of my Bartlett’s Quotations, three subjects that poets, authors, philosophers, and religious thinkers have written about since the beginning of time. Can you guess what they are? They are life, love, and death.
Life, love, and death describe the currents of our mortal existence. We are all born, we all spend our lives striving to love and be loved, and one day we will all die. You may feel like most of the people of the world are strangers to you, but the parameters of every single person’s life on this globe are the same as your own. That teenager bagging your groceries at Wegmans? She, like you, was born, will spend her life striving to love and be loved, and you will both someday die. So too, the policeman who stops you for speeding: he was born, he spends his off duty time with friends and family trying to love and hoping to be loved, and someday he will die. The newscaster on your television, the stock broker and the welfare recipient, the baseball player making millions and, the mother swatting flies away from the face of her baby in Sudan… and yes, you — you were all born, you will all spend your lives striving to love and be loved, and you will all someday die.
In the words of the poet John Donne: “Death comes equally to us all and makes us equal when it comes.” (LXXX Sermons, 1640)
In my series, “The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same,” I’ve been looking at issues that confronted the early Christians with which we still struggle today and certainly human mortality is the most fundamental commonality. The Christians in Paul’s churches may have lived thousands of years before the inventions of the steam engine, electricity, Google, vaccines, and the MLB network, but each of them was born, each of them wanted to loved and have someone to love, and each of them knew they would one day they would die. The way that we live, the path of love that we choose, and the way in which we approach the knowledge of our inevitable death are intertwined. When we were young, for example, and life was still a startling fresh experience, who among us even gave much thought to death, yet as time went on and we gave our hearts to men and women in love, raised children, watched parents or spouses age, lost ones dear to us and had to re-make our worlds in the emptiness they left behind, human mortality moved to the front of our consciousness. Life, love, and death became more inexorably entwined as every death we experienced brought life more acutely into focus, and every time we loved, we had to confront our fear at the power of death to separate us from that love. Life, love, and death have consumed the thoughts of writers since humanity first put words on paper because life, love, and death are the forces that mold the shape of our souls.
What happens, then, to the shape of our souls when we deny one of those trinitarian truths of our existence?
It’s hard to deny the fact of our births, and few of us want to deny the role of love in our lives, but Americans are increasingly doing our best to deny that last and greatest fact of our mortal existence which is that our mortal existence will end. Much has been written lately about Americans’ desire to deny the truth that we will grow old, that our bodies will weaken, and that we will one day die. Sociologists say that this change — that this attempt to deny death — began in the late 20th century. As people became more mobile, they no longer shared their homes with aging relatives. The medical profession developed heart monitors, respirators, and technology that required hospitalization, moving death out of the home and into the hospital. Doctors, nurses, and medical specialists were trained to do all they could to keep people alive, and so death was seen no longer as the natural end to life but was viewed as defeat and failure. When someone died, families were given a moment to say their farewells and then the body was whisked away to a funeral home where the mortician could make it look as if the loved one was merely asleep. This approach to death is a novel one that was unseen before the 20th century. In earlier centuries, sociologists say, “Each person learned about death firsthand. From caring for the dying family member through disposition of the corpse, death was within the realm of the family,” but in modern America, the family is relegated to the role of occasional visitor and death is removed from their sight.
While this seems to be a compassionate approach, saving family members from the agony of witnessing the death of their loved one, it has instead resulted in making grief more difficult for us. When we move death out of sight, when we deny its reality or see it as a failure, we also deny the reality of grief. One sociologist cited the case of Jim Stitley whose mother was terminally ill. The day before she died, his boss made him work late even though he knew Stitley’s mother was living out her last hours. By the time Stitley arrived at her bedside, she was unconscious and died soon after. Even then, Stitley’s boss demanded that he finish and fax an assignment from the funeral home.” 1 While this is certainly an extreme case, I can’t tell you how many funerals I have done in which family members have to work around tight work schedules because their workplace allows them only a day or two bereavement leave. We can blame our workaholic society for this lack of compassion, but we also must blame the modern way of death which has moved dying and death out of view giving people permission to also deny the reality of grief and loss.
Let me be clear: I am not knocking the work of doctors and nurses, or nursing homes or funeral parlors. I have seen wonderful compassion from many of the people who work in these places and they are a necessary reality in today’s mobile society. Moreover, not every boss is as insensitive as Jim Stickley’s. Nevertheless, when we remove death to the sidelines where they don’t have to fully confront its reality or acknowledge the pain of grief and loss, we also move grief and pain to the sidelines. We expect grief to be experienced quickly and in an orderly fashion, and if someone doesn’t properly move through the five stages of grief in a short time, we blame it on their lack of character instead of accepting the depth of pain that comes when death enters a person’s world.
If life, love, and death are the forces that mold the shape of our souls, denying one of those forces risks leaving our souls misshaped and unable to grow to our fullest potential.
Author Ernest Becker said, “To live fully is to live with an awareness of the rumble of terror that underlies everything.” 2
The Christian faith does not deny death; on the contrary, the Christian faith begins in the darkness of a tomb. Paul said, “We preach Christ crucified,” and the gospels declare that when Jesus breathed his last, the earth quaked and heaven groaned, and all of creation trembled with the agony of his death. Every Sunday, we gather at the foot of this cross to be reminded that the man to whom we have given our lives, even the one we call the Son of God, died. In all of the doctrine and creeds that have grown up around the meaning of Jesus’ death, we should never forget that at it’s simplest, the cross declares that Jesus died. Our Savior died. The Son of God died. Just as we too will die. There is something disconcerting about believing that the death of Jesus was a real death but the gospels are extremely clear that what came to Jesus on the cross was breath stealing, heart stopping death, body growing cold, all functions ceasing death. When we find ourselves plunged suddenly into the apprehension of our own mortality, we can be assured that we are in a place where Jesus has gone before us. When we grieve at the death of someone we loved dearly, we can find comfort in knowing that Jesus himself wept at the death of his friend Lazarus, and that his disciples literally fell apart when death took Jesus from them. Our faith doesn’t try to deny our mortality and it doesn’t try to deny the powerful hurt that comes to hearts torn to grief. It doesn’t make any false promises about what we will suffer when death comes to us or the ones we love but it does promise that we will not be alone at the time of our suffering; Christ will stay with us for as long as it takes for us to learn to walk again. Paul says, “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.”
By placing the cross at the center of our faith, the gospel compels us to consider how the reality of our mortality shapes our souls. It calls us to think about that trinity of existence — life, love, and death — and allow the reality of all three to compel us to live more fully and place our hearts in the things that last. The cross calls us to have patience and compassion for those who grieve, to have patience with ourselves and accept the pain of our own grief as our testimony to the depth of our love. The reality of death increases our wonder at each new birth and our appreciation of the fulness of life in constant abundance around us. Accepting our mortality compels us to scrutinize how we are spending our limited time and forces us into self-honesty making us more apt to forgive and quicker to reconcile. Accepting the finality of our time here on earth can shape our souls and forge our hearts to give us the power to live and love in the fullness of Christ.
As you come to this table, eat the bread of life, join in the love of this fellowship, and have the courage to drink of the cup, the reminder that like Christ, we will one day die. And then take heart in the promise of Paul: “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”
2. Anthropologist and author of the 1974 Pulitzer Prize–winning work, The Denial of Death. According to Wikipedia, “Becker came to believe that individual character is essentially formed around the process of denying one’s own mortality, that this denial is a necessary component of functioning in the world, and that this character-armor masks and obscures genuine self-knowledge. Much of the evil in the world, he believed, was a consequence of this need to deny death.”