October 11, 2015, Live Like You’re Dying; Die Like You’re Living – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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We’ve lost a lot this past week. In the last few days, we had to say good-bye to two women who are very important to us, Ruth Blanchard and Joan Ladouceur, good friends and pillars of St. Philip’s for decades. And besides that, I know that many of you, in your personal lives, among your friends and family, are dealing with other losses, and life-threatening illnesses like cancer. For me, yesterday was the anniversary of my mother’s death, so that sitting with Joan yesterday morning brought back very vivid memories of that time 8 years ago. It’s true for every single one of us: death is a regular part of human life. Death is a reality that we can’t escape, though there are times when we can avoid thinking about it as much as we have this week.
The biblical teaching on death is that death is our great enemy, and that our Lord Jesus has won the victory on our behalf by meeting death on its own terms on the cross, and then walking out of the tomb alive forever. But in this time between the Resurrection and the final restoration of all things when he returns, death still casts its shadow over us, and it is an abomination to us. God created us for life, not death, and it is right and natural to hate losing the people we love, even if we know that we will see them again. But times like this week, when death comes so near to us, can be helpful to us, by reminding us of our own mortality. Because every one of us, whether sooner or later, in this earthly stage of our journey, will someday face our own death, breathe our own last breath, and let go of this earthly kingdom once and for all.
“So teach us to number our days,” Moses prayed in Psalm 90, “that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.” Now, numbering our days is not a popular idea. The powers and principalities of this world are all about helping us forget our mortality. We are seduced by products and programs that promise to prolong our youth, and when people can’t hide the inexorable progress of death and decay any longer we hide them away in lovely modern nursing homes. We make the whole process of death and dying as remote and sanitary as is humanly possible.
But when we allow ourselves to really face the finite nature of our lives; when we intentionally call to mind, as we do every year on Ash Wednesday, that “we are dust, and to dust we shall return.” then we are given the gift of a new perspective on the things of this present kingdom. For those of us who believe that in life and in death we are safe in God’s love, and that in Christ we share an inheritance of indestructible and abundant life, we have no need to be terrified of death’s approach. Instead, we are able to see more clearly.
Things that loom large in the daily rush of this earthly life – success and power and money and popularity – suddenly become pitifully small and meaningless beside the things of real value. When we are lying in our beds at the end of our lives, not one of us will be checking our bank balance or worrying how many likes we got on our new facebook status. Not one of us will be fretting about our neighbor’s untidy lawn or care about whether our outfit makes us look fat.
At the end of life, our real needs are much, much more important and far more simple – to express our love to our friends and family and to make peace where there has been hurt: to offer forgiveness for wrongs, to let go of things and grievances and pride and jealousies. At the end of life, when we are given time to prepare ourselves, we learn to apply our hearts to wisdom.
But Moses, in Psalm 90, prays to God that we will learn to apply our hearts to wisdom all through this life: not just on our deathbeds, not just at the end of all things, but each and every day. Earlier in the psalm, Moses says to God, “You sweep us away like a dream; we fade away suddenly like the grass. In the morning it is green and flourishes; in the evening it is dried up and withered.” That’s us, Moses says, one moment going about the business of life and the next moment swept away by death. Teach us, Lord, to live now, today, and every day with wise hearts, knowing how brief this life is.
We’ve all seen movies or read stories about people who are given a diagnosis of cancer or some other terrible illness, and told that they only have a short time to live – a week, or a month, or a year. And as soon as they are given the news, those people never just go on living like they have been, working overtime to collect the big paycheck and dressing to impress and going all out to get ahead of the next guy. Sometimes the characters in those stories go all wild in a frenzy of self-gratification, but very often in a moment of sudden clarity, they begin to live according to the wisdom of their hearts. Instead of the everlasting drudgery of chasing after money and power and status or the utter waste of entertainment without real joy, they begin to spend their days with generosity and purpose, seeking reconciliation and kindness and true joy. That’s movies, idealized and dramatized for entertainment purposes. But those stories reveal a truth, too, something that we know from our own lives.
It was a blessing to me this past week to spend many hours with Joan and her family in a time of that sort of clarity. I don’t know Joan’s family very well, but I feel sure that they are a perfectly normal family with all the usual quirks and faults and disagreements. But in these last days that they were able to spend with their mother they applied their hearts to the wisdom of loving and caring for one another, offering comfort and forgiveness, being patient with one another, each respecting the needs of the other. It was a sad time and a hard and painful time, but it was also a holy time, a time of real heart-wisdom.
“So teach us to number our days,” Moses prayed, “that we might apply our hearts to wisdom.” As we grieve together in the days to come for the loss of Ruth and Joan, whose lives were such an important part of our community and who were such an example for us for so many years, in so many ways – especially, I think, in the way they faced the limitations and pains and sorrows of growing older – I pray that we would learn better how to live each and every day, in the certainty of our own mortality, so that we might apply our hearts to wisdom every day of our life in this world. I pray that by the grace of God we will be learning even now, even today, to see the kingdom of this world for the shadow-land it is, to loose our hold on those worldly things that are passing away, and to treasure always those things that are of eternal value – kindness and compassion and forgiveness and grace.
- So teach us to number our days *
that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.
- As God’s children we pray that we might learn to live every day like we’re dying – to see the people around us and the things of the world with the clear eyes and the heart-wisdom of one who is no longer enslaved to the values and pressures and foolishness of the world. We are to live like we’re dying. But the really good news – the good news that Ruth and Joan, and all those who have gone before us, now understand perfectly – is that in Christ we also die like we’re living. Because in Christ we die, not to darkness and nothingness and oblivion, but to joy and light and love in eternal togetherness with the One who loves us best: no more tears, no more pain, no more good-byes.