Depart in Peace

Sunday, February 2, 2002

Attribute - Death
Bible Verses - Luke 2:29-31



Bath 2-24-02

Deuteronomy 31:1-13 Hymns: **202

Luke 2:21-32 *124

Responsive Reading from Psalm 90 368

Secrets of Heaven 8939:2

Now, Lord you let your servant depart in peace according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples.

Luke 2:29-31

Part of the liturgy for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonment, is a memorial service. There is one paragraph in it that stood out for me when I first heard it, and that still commends itself to me. It reads as follows:

If some messenger were to come to us with the offer that death should be overthrown, but with the one inseparable condition that birth should also cease; if the existing generation were given the chance to live for ever, but on the clear understanding that never again would there be a child, or a youth, or first love, never again new persons with new hopes, new ideas, new achievements; ourselves for always and never any others-could the answer be in doubt? (The New Union Prayer Book, p. 484)

No, if we step back for a moment, if we lift our thoughts above our own immediate selves and our own immediate concerns, the thought of physical immortality is not comforting at all. It is frightening, terrifying. The physical world could not sustain it. Matter is transient, impermanent. Our physical bodies age, inevitably. We consume earth's resources maintaining them, and immese as our planet may seem to us, it is a finite object. We are stressing its resources by population growth already-imagine what would happen if people suddenly stopped dying!

The spiritual world is different. When we are told that there is no space there, only the appearance of space, it simply means that space, and therefore time, are not fixed. They are responsive to our states of heart and mind. They expand and contract freely. We are close to the people who are dearest to us and far from those with whom we have little in common. There is always time to do what needs to be done. There is always room for new friends. There is no shortage of resources in heaven because heaven is supplied directly by the infinite love and wisdom of our creator, the Lord. The other side of life is more life, life in full abundance.

We have foretastes of this here and now. We can see in ourselves, for example, that loving others does not diminish our capacity to love. We can see that sharing our knowledge does not diminish our knowledge. The physical laws of supply and demand, the laws of scarcity, simply do not apply to our hearts and minds.

They do apply to our bodies, though. Matter is stubborn, sluggish stuff. It does respond to spirit, but often it seems to do so only reluctantly. It takes us time and effort to get from here to there. The new house does not spring into existence as soon as it is conceived. The inches to do not vanish from the waistline the moment the resolution is made, the words do not leap to the tongue at the first moment of insight. We might think of those dreams in which we are trying to run but find that our legs feel as though they were immersed in molasses.

Luther presumably believed in the ultimate resurrection of the body, but at one point (Table Talks No. 5534) he wrote, "It would have to be a foolish soul who, once living in heaven, would want a body!" Why, this implies, would we want to give up the freedom of spirit for the restraints of matter? It is not that matter in itself is evil. We do not subscribe to the classical Greek maxim that "the body is a tomb." It is more like recognizing that our physical life is a foundation for eternal life. It is good to build it well, and under the Lord's providence, the building process has its own joys; but it is not an end in itself. the time comes for us to move upstairs.

This means that the number of years we live is less important than the quality of those years. This was brought home to me very poignantly during my ministry in Cambridge, when an elderly parishioner left the big Victorian home that she loved and went into a nursing home on recommendation of her doctor. The intent was to lengthen her life. The result was that she had nothing to live for, and basically she died of depression not all that long after the move.

Our responsive reading from the ninetieth Psalm included the words, "We spend our years as a tale that is told." The basic idea of the Hebrew verb translated "spend" is "to bring to an end." The years of our lives are not given us to hoard but to use, and to use up. When Isaac died, we are told, he was "old, and full of days" (Genesis 35:29). The image is one of a life that has not just come to a close, but has reached a point of completion. Think too of Simeon: "Now, Lord, you are letting me die in peace, because my eyes have seen your salvation." It is time. A life is full, whole.

Of course, everything is not rosy. The fact of death is one thing, the process of aging is quite another. For some, it is prolonged and painful, and a significant part of the pain centers in the fact that we do not know why. We can sometimes figure out the physical causes, but we are in the dark as to the spiritual ones. We are told that the Lord does not allow anything bad to happen to us unless some good can come from it, but until the good actually comes, we do not know what it is. In a general way, we cannot help but realize that some people who have suffered have become profoundly compassionate; but it is equally clear that others have become resentful and embittered. Even in such instances of hell on earth as Auschwitz, according to the testimony of Victor Frankl, some individuals grew in their care for others, while some became vicious.

Then too, the fact that death is a blessing to us when we experience it does not make it a blessing for those we leave behind, at least not immediately. Every death leaves an empty place in this world. Every death stills a voice, and sometimes it is a voice on which we have come to depend. In the larger view, then every death calls on us to grow, some more, some less; and often we do not feel ready to grow, at least "not right now." If it is pointless to feel sorry for the one who has died, it is folly to pretend that we have suffered no loss. Perhaps if we were spiritually conscious, that would indeed be the case, but we are very much immersed in this physical world, and the loss of a physical presence is very real and quite decisive.

Again, if we take the longer view we cannot help but realize that if our parents or grandparents had not died, we would not have grown up as much as we have. We cannot help but realize that the same will hold true for our own children, and in due time for their children as well. There is a profound wisdom in the design that, you might say, makes room at the top for each successive generation.

We can indeed glimpse the wisdom of that design. That is the point of the paragraph from the Yom Kippur liturgy, the compelling fact that only death can make room for new life. Seeing the wisdom of the design in this general way, though, is a far cry from seeing it in individual instances. Why should this parent die young when that parent lives far beyond any apparent usefulness? Why do some people die who want desperately to live while some live on who desperately want to die?

The obvious answer is simply, "We don't know," and the corollary is that we should not feel obliged to know or pretend that we do know. We are so much embroiled in the process ourselves that we cannot gain the perspective necessary to see everything in proportion. Perhaps, though, gaining some glimpse of the wisdom of the design in a general way can strengthen our trust that the same wisdom extends to individual cases.

Then too, I have no doubt that all of us have had times when from our limited perspective it looked as though things were going very badly, only to discover that the people in charge did know what they were doing. There can be a profound wisdom in the admission of ignorance, it facing the fact that we simply do not know. It brings us down to earth from the heights of omniscience, down into the middle of finite, mortal humanity, where we belong.

I should like to close, then, with words penned by John Donne in 1624, partly because of their grace and beauty, and partly because in hearing them the distance between 2002 and 1624 may vanish for a moment, and we may be together in that spiritual time that is proper to our souls.

Now, this Bell tolling softly for another, saies to me, Thou shalt die.

Perchance hee for whom this Bell tolls, may bee so ill, as that he knowes not it tolls for him; And perchance I may thinke my selfe so much better than I am, as that they who are about mee, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for mee, and I know not that. . . . As therefore the Bell that rings to a Sermon, calls not upon the Preacher onely, but upon the Congregation to come; so this bell calls us all: but how much more mee, who am brought so neere the doore by this sickness. . . . No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends, or of thine owne were; Any Mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.


Secrets of Heaven 8939:2-3

"What good does it do us if we gain the whole world, but lose our soul?" (Matthew 16:26) If we are caught up in worldly and earthly concerns, we will not grasp what this is saying because worldly and earthly concerns stifle this meaning and prevent us from believing that there is any such thing as eternal life. However, I can assure you that as soon as we die we are in the other life and are living as spirits among spirits. We then seem to ourselves and to others just as human as we did in this world, with all our inner and outer senses (1881). In fact, physical death is nothing but the casting off of things that have been useful for our functioning in this world, and death itself is a continuation of life. But it is life in a different world, a world we cannot see with our earthly eyes but see there in a light that is a thousand times brighter than noonday light on earth. I can assure you of this because I know it from so many years of constant, first-hand experience. As I have done before, I still talk with all the people I have known in this world who have died. I have talked with some of them two or three days after their decease; and most of them are outraged that they had not believed there would be any life left for them after death. I have talked with them not only for a day but for months and years, and have been allowed to see their successive states of life as they made their way toward heaven or toward hell. So if people want to be happy to eternity, let them know and believe that they are going to live after death.

Let them think about it and bear it in mind, because it is the truth.

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