Talking about death and dying

Talking openly about death is a rare thing. We don’t like talking about it. We prefer it go away and stay away, like rain: “Rain, rain, go away. Come again some other day.”

When someone dies, it’s often said they’ve passed, passed away, or passed on, a sentiment dating back to a Greek idea of the immortality of the soul. It was/is assumed the soul at death is set free from its mortal cage to live forevermore.

The likes of Barbara Brown Taylor, of whom I consider myself one, have different idea. “Matter matters,” she says. Flesh and blood matter. Flesh, blood, and matter matter. Christians, following the older view of the Hebrew Bible, do not share the belief in a part of us – a soul – that survives our mortal frame. Instead, we profess a curious hope that affirms the essential goodness of corporal existence. Belief or hope in the resurrection of the body may seem even stranger than the immortality of the soul.

I have no more reason to believe in the resurrection of the body than I do to believe in an immortal soul. Watching the life go out of my dogs, I did not imagine some invulnerable part of them leaving their bodies to pass on to some other state of being. They were dead. I cried. I grieved. I mourned their loss. I never thought I would see them again. If they, or we, had a future, it seems more natural, so to speak, to think of them in their bodies all over again.

But which body would it be? Would Maggie, our West Highland White Terrier-Bichon Frise, be the playful pup or the one with the tumor on her hip? Would I be the 73 year-old me, the new-born me, or the teenager with the raging hormones?

Passing away has always made more sense to me than passing or passing on. “You are dust and to dust you shall return” makes better sense to me. The Earth will go on, as will those I love … for a time … but not forever, so far as any of us really knows. I say the Nicene creed on Sundays and ponder what it means to say “I look for the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come.” The world to come, so far as I can tell, is the Earth where Cecil the lion doesn’t get killed by a dentist, and the lion and the lamb…and the dentist…lie down together in peace and hurt one other no more.

My friend Steve talks openly about death and dying. “I’m dying,” he says, not with a morose or maudlin sensibility but as a fact. It’s not a great surprise to him. Would he and we prefer the rain to go way and come back some later day? You bet. But it won’t, and even it if would, it would be back some other day. There’s great grace in the acceptance of death and the maturity to speak of it aloud, enjoy old friends when one can, laugh and cry and hug and kiss those one loves.

That we would want something more or fear death as the end is part of being human. The time of death is not time to debate philosophy or theology. It’s time for compassion, and for grace and courage to recognize our creatureliness – the distinction between every creature and the Creator, mortal life and the Immortality, the finite and the Eternal.

– Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Dec. 29, 2015

Imagine there’s no heaven

This morning’s news of a State of Emergency in Brussels is chilling. Less so than the deadly attack in Mali, but one doesn’t need to be a mathematician to add up the increasing number of threats, deaths, and States of Emergency and conclude that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Whether one calls it Daesh or the Islamic State, we are dealing with something worse than insanity. The killers are not insane. They do not qualify for a pass, as do those who commit criminal acts but are judged as “criminally insane.”

One wonders, then, what draws a young Belgian, Frenchman, or American to ISIL.

The late teens and early 20s are a peculiar stage of human development,  which may help explain, in part, the attraction of idealistic younger people to an organization that promotes an ideal society – the caliphate. Younger men in particular are looking for vocation -a call, a purpose larger than themselves – to which to give their lives and, if necessary, to die for.

In America in the ’50s, ’60s, and early ’70s those of us who were idealistic found a calling in the Civil Rights Movement and the Peace Movement. We marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and William Sloane Coffin. We sought to stop the enemies of racism and war, to create a more perfect world without either.

At first the notion that it is idealism that draws young, disillusioned western men and women to ISIL strikes us as a contradiction in terms. But idealism is a grand vision worth living and dying for. That it is illusory or demented does not negate its essential character as idealism.

The 21st Century was supposed to be better than the 20th, the deadliest century in the history of the world. Clearly it is not, and any previous projection of a religionless world at peace with itself – remember john Lennon’s “Imagine” – has proven as unreal as the hope for peace and mutual understanding. Religion will not go away. The only question is what kind of religion we practice irrespective of whether one is Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Sikh, Pantheist, or Animist. Do we practice it humbly or arrogantly, confessionally or righteously, as penitents begging for mercy for participation in the evil we deplore, or as righteous crusaders for the Kingdom of God or the Caliphate; as those who accept our mortality as a precious gift, or cheapen life by sacrificing others and themselves for their vision of eternal life?

In a recent presidential debate candidates were asked to name the greatest threat to national security. One answered Islamic terrorism. The other answered Climate Change.

Today defeating ISIL and its extremist counterparts seems more urgent than action on Climate Change, but Climate Change is the more important and longer-lasting threat. But there is a common belief that underlies both crises. It is the illusion that we are immortal, the consequent denigration of earthly life, this miraculous life we experience on this planet between our births and our deaths.

The lure of an afterlife is ludicrously represented by a French imam’s sermon warning children not to listen to music. Why? Because listening to music puts the children at risk of being “turned into monkeys and pigs.”

No monkey or pig has organized for killing in the name of heaven. Neither should we.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Nov. 21, 2015

 

 

An Obvious Conclusion

Author Frederick Buechner puts into words the feeling at the 55th high school reunion last weekend.

ON AGING

As time goes by, you start picking [your contemporaries] out in crowds. There aren’t as many of them around as there used to be. More likely than not, you don’t say anything, and neither do they, but something seems to pass between you anyhow. They have come from the same beginning. They have seen the same sights along the way. They are bound for the same end and will get there about the same time you do. There are some who by the looks of them you wouldn’t invite home for dinner on a bet, but they are your companons de voyage even so. You wish them well.

It is sad to think that it has taken you so many years to reach so obvious a conclusion.

– Frederick Buechner, originally published in Whistling in the Dark. Re-published today by The Frederick Buechner Center.

55th class reunion

55th class reunion

Mortality and Morality

‘Mortality’ knows nothing of ‘morality’.

The words are separated by one letter, but they are foreign to each other. Mortality always trumps morality. The young die before the older without explanation or moral reasoning.

Tonight 92 year-old Bob Cuthill will participate in the celebration of his younger 72 year-old friend Phil Brown. Bob and Phil became friends professional colleagues years ago. Over the years Bob had been to Phil the wise older mentor, confidant, and friend.

Phil, 20 years Bob’s younger, was not supposed to die. He was the picture of health until two months before they diagnosed a rare, hidden Lymphoma, performed emergency surgery, and watched his life ebb away organ by organ in the post-surgery ICU. If life were ordered by moral reasoning, Phil was not supposed to die before Bob.

Tonight I’m thinking of Bob and Phil’s dear wife, Faith, gathered with Phil’s local friends at the White Bear United Methodist Church for pizza, vanilla ice cream (Phil’s favorite flavor), and story-telling back in Minnesota.

The older survivors of the deceased often ask Why? Why him? Why her? Why not I?  The answers never come. What comes instead to the fortunate is a great thanksgiving for the life that has passed and the life one has for yet awhile before others gather for pizza and ice cream.

– Gordon C. Stewart, friend and classmate of Phil Brown (1942-2015), July 6, 2015.

When the Breath flies away

It takes only a moment to see oneself in the experience of Andy Catlett in Wendell Berry’s story, “Fly Away, Breath!” Our experience is of time flown away and flying away.

Most of us, most of the time, think mostly of the past. Even when we say, “We are living now,” we can only mean that we were living a moment ago.

Nevertheless, in this sometimes horrifying, sometimes satisfying, never-sufficiently-noticed present, between a past mostly forgotten and a future that we deserve to fear but cannot predict, some few things can be recalled.

Wendell Berry, “Fly Away, Breath (1907),” A Place in Time: Twenty Stories of the Port Williams Membership,” Counterpoint Press, 2012.

We are creatures of a specific time and place — and relationships with loved ones, friends, and enemies, a plot of land, a town or city we call home, a state, a nation, a world in time sandwiched between past and future that we call the present.

A ghost town is a reminder of time. Southern Cross stands on the mountain high above Georgetown Lake, Montana, where the vistas are breathtaking, and the past is barely remembered except for the abandoned miners’ quarters and mine shafts below the surface of the place that remind the visitor of the fickleness of time.

“All flesh is grass” and yet, despite our intuitive awareness of it, we unconsciously pretend most days it is not true that “the grass withers, the flower fades….” [Isaiah 40:8].

“Nevertheless,” says Wendell Berry, “… between a past mostly forgotten and a future that we deserve to fear but cannot predict, some few things can be recalled” — things like my friendship with Phil, now ended unexpectedly by a rare nearly undiagnosable lymphoma in his spleen. Hours before his death, the interventionist ICU doctor described Phil’s case and his 10 days in the ICU as “a real shit storm” because of the many ongoing complications that mystified the medical staff. In all of medical history only 10-15 cases have been reported where lymphoma originated in the spleen. By the time it was discovered in Phil, other organs had begun to shut down. The first organ to go was the gallbladder, which was already abscessed when they operated to remove the spleen.

Medical professionals are no different from the rest of us, except for their skill and training in how to treat illness and preserve life. Despite every effort to keep the present from slipping into the past, against every attempt to retain some kind of future, the breath always flies away.

Phil’s death, as I had come to see it days before he passed, came as an act of mercy, a release from the torturous interventions of advanced medical technology that asks the question ‘How?’ without first asking ‘Why?”

I’m increasingly convinced that the denial of death (mortality) and the search for immorality are the opposites of the Christian faith in God – on Hebrew YHWH (“I am Who I Am/ I will Be Who I will be”) who alone is Eternal. All else is species hubris, the refusal to live thankfully, graciously and peacefully within the limits of finite, mortal goodness.

We are all standing in line, not knowing at what time or place our time will come. We’re all headed for the ghost town, thinking of the past or dreading the future we deserve, but also, in moments of grace, remembering with thanksgiving the tender mercies along the way that cannot be denied.

I do not know what of Phil or any of us may lie beyond the grave, an odd thing to say for a minister of the gospel whose faith lives out of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Knowing my unknowing, my best friend reminded me of “Jesus’s question to Nicodemus at night about the not entirely unrelated matter of being born of the Spirit: ‘You are the teacher of God’s people, and don’t know these things?’”

I confess to knowing very little, especially when what Chaim Potok calls the four-o’clock-in-the-morning-questions wake me in the middle of the night between a present now gone and a future that remains inscrutable. However that may be, what I do know is that bodily life — mortal life in space and time in the midst of Eternity — is what we have and it is to be cherished. Bound to the limits of time and place, it is God’s good creation.  Yet only God is the Eternal One.

Whatever lies on the other side of my years is beyond my mortal knowing. But I can and do affirm the Eternity of God and the scriptural point of view that whether we live or whether we die, we belong to the Lord. “All flesh is grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of our God [YHWH, the Eternal] shall last forever.” Right now, in good conscience, that’s enough bread to live on today as I recall the blessing of Phil to our lives and pray for all who loved him.

– Gordon C. Stewart, written at Georgetown Lake, Montana, July 26, 2015.

Bemused by Time

Gordon C. Stewart, August 8, 2013 copyright.

I have always been bemused by time . . . and place. I am on a train listening in the night to the eerie sound of the train whistle and the constant click-clacking of the wheels. Where were we? Where are we going – and why, just my mother and I?

We were between times and places. My father had shipped out for war in the South Pacific. Hewas somewhere on a ship and might not return. My mother and I were on our way from LA to Boston. Two different places: one hours behind, one many hours ahead. But for the time being, there was only the now of the train, the whistle, and the steady clickety-clack from the track carrying us from there to here to there, from then to now to then. Perplexity with time and place is my earliest memory.

We are all in transit. But from where to where and from when to when have become less and less my questions.

I do not share the popular view that time is an illusion or that the material world is the prison from which we will be released at death. Time and place are gifts of creaturely existence, boundaries within which we live our lives appreciatively or scornfully in the midst of the Eternal. To scorn them is to deprecate existence itself in the Promethean hope that we can steal fire from the gods to become what we are not: timeless and placeless.

Time and place are set within the larger Mystery that Rudolph Otto called the Mysterium tremendum et fascinans – the Mystery that makes us mortals tremble and fascinates us at the same time, the Mystery of the Eternal without which we are nothing that draws us to itself like iron to a magnet. Time and place – birth, finite life, death – exist within the Mystery of that which does not die: Eternity.

I am not amused by the denial of death that is so rampant in our culture. Surveys show that roughly 90% of Americans, regardless of religious affiliation, believe in life after death, by which they do not mean that life will go on without them, but that they themselves will never die.

I have come to believe that the denial of death and the fear of death lie close to the core of American culture at its worst. Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death informs how I see the world and myself; Becker sits beside me as I turn to the Scriptures in the morning.

Psalm 90:1-5, paraphrased by Isaac Watts (1719) and sung as the hymn “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” is as much in my early memory bank as the train whistle on the ride to Boston. It has always represented a mature faith that takes seriously Otto’s Mysterium:

Before the hills in order stood,
Or earth received its frame,
From everlasting Thou art God,
To endless years the same.

A thousand ages in Thy sight
Are like an evening gone;
Short as the watch that ends the night
Before the rising sun.

Time, like an every rolling stream
Bears all its sons away;
They fly forgotten, as a dream
dies at the opening day.

O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Be Thou our guard while life shall last
And our eternal home.

Standing at the gravesites over the years, I have prayed the same prayer so many times that it has become an essential part of me. I confess that I don’t know what it means exactly but it expresses the sentiment of good faith as I have come to understand it for myself.

O Lord, support us all the day long,
until the shadows lengthen,
and the evening comes,
and busy world is hushed,
and the fever of life is over,
and our work is done.
Then, in Your mercy,
grant us a safe lodging,
a holy rest,
and peace at the last.

The shadows have grown longer since the trip to Boston and the first time I sang the hymn. Evening is closer now. The sense of the Mysterium tremendum et fascinans is different but no less real now than it was on the train to Boston. The hush of the busy world will come soon enough. Between now and the day my work is done, I want to listen more attentively for the Hush in the midst of time, and give thanks that the Silence is not empty. It is full of Eternity. I am bemused by time.

Click O God, Our Help in Ages Past for a video that captures the spirit of the hymn and the prayer.

Why is pop culture fascinated with the end of the world?

Minnesota Public Radio’s Public Insight Journalism asked the question after release of the film Seeking a Friend for the End of the Earth. Here’s how I responded.

Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death makes the case that our culture is death-denying.

One could argue that our fascination with end of the world films and stories is an entertaining and objectified way of dealing with one’s own personal destiny. Every death is “The end of the world.” The end of the world writ large on the planetary screen moves the issue into the world of fiction, fantasy and myth from which, like all cultures before ours, we create meaning in the midst of time.

There are other reasons for our fascination, of course. Supreme among them, in my view, is the dualism and the violence that saturate Western culture: God/Satan, Good/Evil, Moral/Immoral, Saved/Damned, Blessed/Cursed.

It is this misreading of ancient Jewish and Christian texts that makes the will to power the central theme of our time. The late Japanese Christian theologian Kosuke Koyama said that all “sin” has the same root. It is the claim of “exceptionalism.” Under the banner of nationalist exceptionalism’s shameless stealing of the metaphor of “the city set on a hill” away from its proper setting in Jesus’ nonviolent Sermon on the Mount, we assume Western Culture and the U.S.A. to be the Golden City and the agent of divine will. The exercise of that fallacious conviction results in wars of foreign intervention, occupation, and “pre-emptive strikes” in the name of national security.

We have become a national security state. The “end of the world” fascination in our time is heightened by the knowledge that global destruction – nuclear night – is entirely possible. We fear it. We know it. Yet we are also a culture addicted to entertainment where our worst nightmares get projected onto a movie or television screen where we know that what we’re watching is fiction. The fiction is almost always a high-tech version of the old racist and xenophobic dualism my generation grew up on: cowboys and Indians.

Beneath the question of why our culture is fascinated with end of the world is human nature itself. We human beings, like all other animals, are mortal. We may be exceptional in that we are (more) conscious and self-conscious, but first and last, we are animals. We are born. We live. We die.

As conscious animals, we are capable of great feats. We are also, so far as we know, the only animal capable of self-deception, denial, illusion, and species suicide. The denial of death is the great denial, and immortality is the human species’ great illusion.

The fact of death looms over life for each of us existentially and for the species itself from the beginning and in the middle, not just at the end.  Death is our shared destiny. Death is extinction. Our fascination with the end of the world is a strange Molotov cocktail comprised of all of the ingredients of the human condition, most especially the spiritual terror of annihilation, and the illusion of winning. It is the ongoing legacy of the biblical myth of Cain, humanity’s “first-born” who kills his brother Abel, the myth that describes our time and place in history.

If, like in the movie, you had only three weeks left before the end of the world… What would you do?

I’d do what I’m doing now only more consciously. I’d continue to write each morning. I’d do my best to live gratefully, attending to beauty in nature and in art (classical music and paintings) and to family and friends. I’d pray more thoughtfully. I’d walk my dogs more joyfully, stop yelling at them for barking, and find a place on the North Shore to look out to the horizon of Lake Superior. I’d eat lobster and Dungeness crab with lots of hot butter and salt, rib-eye steaks, garlic mashed potatoes. I would avoid Brussels sprouts! I’d end each meal with a Maine blueberry pie, flan, or Graeter’s ice cream, and a Makers Mark Manhattan.  Then I’d settle down on the couch next to the love of my life, Kay, by the fireplace, turn off the news, see if we can make a little fire of our own, get anchored again in the Sermon on the Mount, and return to sources of joy and laughter in the poems of Hafiz. I’d give up being intentional/purposive. I’d live in the moment.