In my role as Senior Minister of Old South Church in Boston—a role I have held for almost 11 years—I confess to some of those matters that keep me up at night.
I am kept up at night worrying over the possibility of an electrical fire in the roof of the great sanctuary … or somewhere deep in these old walls.
I worry about Cyber-attacks and computer viruses … about being shut down and off-line.
I worry that through our open door there might enter a person armed with a weapon or a bomb, but also with fierce anger, or a grudge, or in thrall to his or her own untamed demons.
I worry over income and expenses … about the costs of our ministries, building, and staff.
I worry over the possibility of an earthquake.
I angst over the safety of our children in this church with Open Doors.
I worry over our mission: Is God pleased or disappointed with us? Is God boasting over us in heaven or not so much?
There is another matter that worries me, over which I fret. Have we, has Old South Church done you some good with respect to how you relate to your mortality? Has your faith eased your fear of dying? Are you at peace with the inescapability of your own death? Of your own demise?
As St. Paul writes: our/your outer nature is wasting away. To put it differently: Our bodies have expiration dates and every day, every minute that date draws nearer … the clock ticks.
Because death and dying can be difficult, unpleasant, even terrifying, humans like to invent ways to avoid or evade or minimize death’s power and presence in our lives.
The French writer and philosopher, Voltaire said, “One great use of words is to hide our thoughts.”
His is a concise explanation of the use of euphemisms – the substitution of an inoffensive word or phrase for something generally considered offensive or insensitively explicit.
Due to the sensitive, and to many, offensive nature of death, we have invented more euphemisms for death than for most anything else. Here are a few of my favorites:
Kick the oxygen habit / Join the majority / Pop one’s clogs (English)
So, having gotten that out of the way (the euphemisms) let me get straight to it. You are not going to beat it … death, I mean. You’re not. You are going to die.
Now having said that, we Christians like to think we have found a way through death, onto a farther shore, where the saints gather in a greater light; where our beloved dead are not dead but alive, wondrously alive in God’s transcendent love.
For Christians, the sting of death is lessened by the hope of resurrection. Even so, death haunts us, chases and pursues us.
So what’s a mortal to do?
Here’s one option: Ignore it. Shun it. Have nothing to do with death. Go to no funerals. Read no obituaries. Write no will. Make no arrangements. Avoid it for as a long as is humanly possible.
Here’s another option, this option is attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. Embrace death. Befriend it. Give it a name. Address it. Call it, call her: Sister Death.
And, having named her, prepare for your sister’s approach. Harken as she nears. Look her in the eye. Write a will. Prepare your own funeral service. Read books on mortality and heaven and the afterlife. Read the Bible! Talk with your family about end of life wishes … about medical interventions or whether you have a preference for dying at home.
Because Option 1 is a bad idea, and Option 2 is a pretty good idea, let’s get started:
Repeat after me. I’m not afraid to die today.
Now, turn to someone near you, look them in the eye and say: I’m not afraid to die today.
And maybe, maybe repeat that sentence every morning and every evening—I’m not afraid to die today—repeat it when you arise up and when you lie down. For each morning’s rising is a little resurrection. And each evening’s lying down is a little death.
And, do this: remember the best little word in the whole Bible. Yea. From the 23rd Psalm. Yea. Yea, though I walk through valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.
There is so much to worry over in life … matters over which we do have some control. So, why worry about death? Why waste the effort? You are going to die. You are. Face and embrace her. Give her a name. Call her Sister Death.
And then: Live. Live! Live large. Wring out of life every last sweet drop. Having faced down death, have named and tamed her: Live! Live large! Live for all you are worth.
And take heart, Christian: For we know that when the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.