A good death depends upon a good life. -St Robert Bellarmine
I’m starting a new sermon series this week at the Highland Church of Christ called “How to Die” It may sound like a strange series for Easter, but I believe this Sunday is the best day of the year to talk about what we are the most tempted to ignore.
One of my most vivid memories of my childhood was burying my grandma. I’m not talking metaphorically, like I attended her funeral, I mean my grandma’s funeral plot was dug and covered by her siblings, kids, nieces, nephews & grandkids.
My mother comes from a line of people who dug wells for a living and when it came time to dig a grave we just did it ourselves. Looking back I realize I was one of the lucky ones who was able to say goodbye to someone they loved back before we stopped doing it in a way that would get our hands dirty, back when death was more a part of life.
The Denial of Death
Remember this prayer?
“Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the LORD my soul to keep, but if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.
Did you know there was another verse?
Our days begin with trouble here, Our life is but a span, and cruel death is always near, So frail a thing is man.”
Millions of children used to pray this. Parents wanted their kids to know that life, as they know it, is not permanent, that we have a soul, and that God can be trusted with it.
These days, we lean more toward the “Goodnight moon” route in our kids betime, but there was a reason that parents did this. Interestingly enough, a few weeks ago there was a NY Times Op-ed piece written by a parent lamenting the fact that it was so difficult to talk to their kids about death.
I get it, I’m a father of 4, and I don’t want to go back to the “cruel death is always near” with our 4 year old, but people of the past were on to something that I think we need to revisit.
The best kind of life starts with a deep awareness that life is a gift, and it is a gift that one day will come to an end.
In 1974, Ernest Becker wrote his watershed book The Denial of Death. That was a significant year for Becker because it was the year that he found out that he had cancer, it was the year that he died. It was also the year that Becker turned to God.
Becker’s work has been so significant because he shined a light on all the ways that we try to avoid the most obvious truth. We will die. No matter how much money we accumulate, no matter how many Twitter followers we have, or how big our house is, we will die, and Becker’s question was, “Why does every human culture try so hard to pretend that this isn’t true?”
If that sounds a bit too philosophical for you, try this on for size. Why is cosmetic surgery a multi-billion dollar industry? Why have we so thoroughly removed death from our society?
Last year, the well known actress Frances McDormand noticed in an interview that this fear of death had developed a “perverse fixation on youth” in how Hollywood told stories:
There’s no desire to be an adult. Adulthood is not a goal. It’s not seen as a gift. Something happened culturally: No one is supposed to age past 45—[in terms of dress, cosmetics, or attitudes]. Everybody dresses like a teenager. Everybody dyes their hair. Everybody is concerned about a smooth face.
The Art of Dying
Ernest Becker saw all the ways we were marginalizing death and recognized it was a way we were lying to ourselves:
“We don’t want to admit that we are fundamentally dishonest about reality, that we do not control our lives, that we always rely on something [an institution, our job, our family] that transcends us.”
So we collect trophies, we put overwhelming amounts of pressure on our families, careers, and status to prove to ourselves that we matter, unaware that we aren’t even really in control of our pulse.
This is the Denial of Death, and it should be particularly troubling for people who are followers of Jesus.
Jesus talks about his death a lot. A whole lot. His death was something that his whole life was oriented around, and he had this strange notion that his death had something to do with every other persons death who would ever live. But Jesus doesn’t just talk about His death,, he forcefully insists that people who would follow Him would willing face their own mortality, as if that would help them become fully alive.
This week we celebrate that God raised Jesus from the dead, but we also acknowledge that he died the worst kind of death.
Think about the life of Jesus, he never turned anyone away, he-little by little-poured out his life for the people who needed him the most and stood against the people who would diminish them, and then He asked them to do the same.
And this is, of all the world religions that Ernest Becker looked at, is the great triumph of Christianity. As he approached his own death, Ernest Becker said:
This is the most remarkable achievement of the Christian world picture: that it could take slaves, cripples, imbeciles, the simple and the mighty, and make them all secure heroes, simply by taking a step back from the world into another dimension of things, the dimension called heaven. Or we might better say that Christianity took…—the thing man most wanted to deny—and made it the very condition for his cosmic heroism
Jesus stands in solidarity with all of us who die without getting the right headlines or obituaries, he both starts and stands in a long line of nameless, obscure saints, who when the day comes where their strength fails, when the end draws close and their time is near they go home to be with God.
For the longest time, Christians took great care to die differently than the rest of the world. In the middle ages, when the Black Plague was rampant, there were books written and church classes taught on “The Art of Dying Well” They were taught to look death in the face, primarily by looking past it and seeing God.
Interesting thing about that “Now I lay me down to sleep” prayer. It’s origins are unclear, but many people believe it was created precisely in these moments of disease and high death rates. And the prayer has one more verse that I think is beautiful.
Wake I morn, or wake I never. I give my soul to Christ – for ever.
That’s how to live. It’s also how to die.