Saturday, March 18, 2006

What Happens When We Die

In our readings from I Corinthians, this week and next, Paul talks about death, about the reality of death for the followers of Jesus. That is what I want to talk about this morning -- about death, about our dying and about our dyings. I want to talk, first, about what happens when we die and what Scripture says. And then I want to talk about our dying and our dyings in a broader context.

So, first, what happens when we die? What can we expect when we die? From all the research and from most of the recounting of near-death experiences, we can expect calm, serenity, light and, perhaps, a welcoming presence to guild us across the threshold into our new life.

A friend of mine, Jim, who had a temporary death, or near-death experience, told me that it was all light and peace. He said, "Tom, I may be afraid of a lot of things, but there is one thing I am not afraid of anymore -- and that's death." And Jim was a rough character: in fact, if anyone I've ever known had reason to fear what death might bring. . . it was Jim. What we can expect is calm. Serenity, light, and a welcoming presence to guide us.

What the Scripture says is this: in our Baptism, we are joined with the risen Christ. That is where our reality (our being) is rooted -- in the resurrected Christ. After Baptism, we don't belong to this order any more. As St. Paul writes, we are in, but not of the world. That is the basis of almost everything about the Christian faith. We are in. but not of the world. So our identity, our home is not changed by physical death. We remain Christ's. We continue in another dimension. We belong to Christ in life and we belong to him in death, though in another dimension of life.

Second, there will be a resurrection of the Body. There is nothing in the Christian Scriptures about "immortality of the soul." It is resurrection of the body. We will be persons, recognizable persons -- just as the Risen Christ was recognized and known by his friends. We will not be amorphous souls, all kind of blended in with one another. We will be embodied persons.

What will we be like? This is what John writes: "Beloved we are now God's children, but it is not yet clear what we shall become. We know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he really is." (I John 3:1-2)

The healing, the compassion, the commitment, the beauty and power and love of life and living that we know in Jesus -- that is what we grow into, that is what life will be like. "If you want to know what our new life will be like," says the Bible, "look at the Lord telling the stories, holding the children, eating and drinking and trading stories with his friends, that bursting in of life upon life -- that is what, that is who it will be like." Serenity? Identity? Joy. How can we face our dying? The first emotion most of us feel as we face our dying is fear. To fear. . . for us to fear the process of dying is natural, just as it was natural for Jesus. We speak of the Agony in the Garden and that was true. There was deep, deep agony in the heart of Jesus as he faced his death. But that was not all . . .and that is not all of it.

There comes a time for many people in their dying when they decide to let go . . .to let go of life and begin that process of transformation into resurrection. It's like allowing yourself to be carried, simply, in the arms of God. It is such a blessing to come to that point where we simply let go . .and allow ourselves to be borne by the loving hands of God.

For others, dying is dominated by a struggle to stay alive, a determination to fight death as though death were really an enemy. So there is a holding on at any and all expense.
There is, as the writer of Ecclesiastes says, "A time to live and a time to die." And it is important for us to know which time it is. My father knew: I have told many of you about the time when my father, living in Wickenburg, Arizona, was very sick. He had been living in near constant pain for several years and was very weak. He and I were out walking in the desert when we spotted a large group of buzzards circling overhead. My father looked up at them, raised his by then emaciated fist at them and shook it, shouting, "Not yet, you sons of bitches! Not yet!!!"
He was not ready to die. He was not ready to let go of anything.

There is a time to live and a time to die and, for us, the necessity to know which time it is.
And there are other kinds of dying, just as important. . . maybe more important than our physical dying. Life is, in reality, a series of dyings. When we go off to school for the first time, life is changed. . . and we have died to something. When we do off to school for the first time, when we begin middle school, high school, college -- if the transition is to be a healthy one, life is changed and there is a dying. . .as well as a rebirthing.

The same is true with a change in jobs, a change in the size of our families, changing in housing, living, change in anything. There are deaths to experience, to live through. When we marry, we promise to forsake all others. That does not mean just the old boy friends and girl friends, but anything and everything that might threaten the life and the intimacy of the marriage.

Life is not a continuum, but a series of deaths. The heart of our belief, as Christians, is that we can let go and entrust our lives to God. The basic creed of the world is backwards. The world's creed is, "First you live and then you die." The Christian faith reverses that: "First you die, then you live." That is the rhythm of our lives.

I see it so often in those of you who, through one thing or another, have come face to face with your own dying, physical death, or the death of a part your life. There is, so often, then, a commitment to life on a whole other level, a whole other level of life and intimacy and grace. What that involves is a letting go and entrusting ourselves to God and to the process of resurrection. . .in this life. . . or in the life to come.

We were so fortunate to celebrate just that at our Annual Meeting as we stood to applaud Charles Schriver for his courage in living a resurrected life. . .among the living. And Charles is not alone: he is a visible symbol of what God is doing in all of our lives.

We do not belong to the expectations or the limitations of this world. We do not belong to beatitudes or the precepts of this world. We have been, we are being born into another order. First, you die . . . then you live. That process of moving into the light. Always there is that opportunity, always we have that choice. Bless us, dear God, in all our living and in our dyings.

Recent Entries in God's Diaries I

Written: August 2001

Friday, August 3
The worst thing about being the one who neither slumbers nor sleeps is late night television. I made a big mistake last night and watched three hours of Pat Robertson re-runs. I must not do that again. I think there is a real possibility of contracting spiritual diabetes from the show if I spend more than twenty minutes more with that man's smile.

Saturday, August 4
Sabbath. At last! My day off. This could not have come at a better time, given how hard Monday will be for me. Off to the hot tubs.

Sunday, August 5
This morning, Francis Assisi stopped by the gym, just as I was in the middle of my stretching exercises. He said he wanted to know my favorite day of the week. I told him that Sunday was my favorite day of the week. He nodded and then asked, "So what is your worst day of the week?"

"That's easy," I said. "Sunday is my worst day of the week." Francis looked puzzled. then he asked, sarcastically if I had been studying Buddhism on the side. Francis can sometimes be a jerk. I closed my eyes, counted to ten and then went on.

"Look, " I said. "I probably hear more prayers on Sunday than any other day. That's good and that's bad. The good part is that so many of the prayers come from people's hearts. It's like they are lifting up their pain and asking me to care about it. And that is one of the things I do best . . caring about their pain and their hopes." Actually, I love the way Jesus put it, that not a bird falls from the sky without my noticing . . . and grieving.

"So what is the bad part?" Francis asked. I told him I didn't want to talk about it. The truth is I was still mad about his Buddha remark. Anyway, Francis left graciously, saying that he knew I wanted to get back to my exercising. He remembers about tomorrow.

So why is this the worst day of the week for me? I know the answer and I'm glad I didn't share it with Francis. He would have been very disappointed and he probably would have thought less well of me.

So why is this the worst day of the week for me? I think because in praying their own pain, most people don't seem very interested in mine. My heart breaks for those who don't have people to pray for them -- young kids, old people, those millions of men and women in Africa who are dying with AIDS. When people pray to me for their own concerns, don't they realize, don't they know how much I hurt deep down inside? I know it's not their place to comfort and console me, but it's terrible to feel so alone. They pray to me because they feel powerless and because they trust my love: I know I would like to have more of a reciprocal relationship and to trust their love a little more. I know what Buddha would say. He's talked to me about this more than once.

Monday, August 6: The Feast of the Transfiguration
The Feast of the Transfiguration. This used to be my favorite day of the year -- better than Christmas and Easter and St. Francis Day all lumped together. It really is the point of it all, the transfiguration of people and places and relationships and troubles and. . .and then on this day, of all days, Hiroshima. Those arrogant Americans have stolen my feast and replaced it with The Feast of the Disfiguration. And outrage of outrages, those bastards named the project "Trinity," after me. Tomorrow can't come fast enough for me.

Tuesday, August 7
At breakfast this morning, Jesus called me grumpy. Actually he said I had been grumpy all day. I told him I was entitled to my own feelings. He said I was a romantic. He said my feelings had compromised what I knew had always been true. He said he wanted to remind me that his own life was lived not amongst the lilies of the field, but in constant struggle with the darkness.

He said that, in Psalm 23, it was "though" (inevitable), not "if" (maybe). It was "though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil." He said he wanted to remind me that the light shines in the darkness (not just in Church School).

I tried to remind him that those were the Psalmist's words and John's words, not his. Jesus waited a long time, then reached across the table to put his hand on my arm and said, "I'm sorry you hurt so much."

Wednesday, August 8
I hope I didn't look bad at breakfast yesterday. It wouldn't have the first time. In retrospect, I know Jesus was right -- but I was right, too. Anyway, I should not have sent him to his room.
I think I will take the day off to listen to stories, but stories of heroism, not of goodness. I've heard too many, way too many goodness stories. Give me adventure stories, stories of bravery and heroism -- stories about goodness put me to sleep.

The Mystery of Sex

When I was thinking about what to preach about this morning, I had three thoughts. The first, was why don't you preach about something which is really wonderful? The second thought was, try for something different. Why don't you preach about something that is really confusing and difficult?

My third thought was this, Why don't you preach about something that people struggle with, fight about? Then I thought, why don't you put all together in one sermon? Why not preach about something really wonderful, pretty confusing, and that people struggle with --all at the same time? In other words, why not say something about sex?

One of my favorite writers, Frederick Buechner, writes, "Sex, contrary to the prude, Mrs. Grundy, sex is not sin and contrary to the publisher of Playboy, Hugh Heffner, it is not salvation, either. It is more like nitroglycerin: it can be used to blow up bridges or to heal hearts."

I think the first and most obvious thing to say about the religious meaning of sex is that sex is --or should be, personal. But to tell you the truth, that is not a very obvious thing about sex: in our culture, most of what passes as sex is not about persons. It is about body parts.

The problem with Playboy magazine, Baywatch, pornographic materials and male hunks is not that they are too sexual. It is that they are really anti-sexual. They have little, if anything, to do with two people in relationship. I think most of the people involved in those things are the real Puritans, because they are frightened to death of a sexual relationship between two people.

When we learn to relate to one another as body parts, when we learn to objectify others, turning them into objects for our gratification, we kill them -- spiritually, we kill them. Or we kill ourselves by taking away the human, the personal dimension of sex.

In the Episcopal Church, we talk of sex as sacramental. It is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. In a kiss, four lips in closest proximity, a kiss is sacramental. The outward and visible and pleasureful sign...communicates an inward and spiritual grace -- or something else quite different.

A kiss can be an act of love and affirmation or it can be a lie -- it can be an inward and spiritual lie, an inward and spiritual manipulation, an inward and spiritual homicide. When we touch one another, we are sacramentally involved with that person, whether that is a touch on the arm, an embrace, a kiss, or an act of sexual intercourse.

It is no wonder that so much of our healing comes through touch, because God works sacramentally, incarnationally. God works through our touching, through our embracing. I think one of the reasons the church takes sex so seriously is that the sexual act mirrors the relationship between God and the Church. God becomes incarnate in who we are, in what we do -- there is that interpenetration of being with absolute commitment. We offer ourselves to God: God becomes one with us through the Holy Spirit. There is nothing casual about it, though its purpose is joy and rejoicing and communion. Sex is meant to be personal: it is sacramental.

And, third, sex is only one of hundreds of ways one human can love another.One of the terrible things drilled in the minds of so many men is that there is only one way to love, really love a woman -- and that is sexually. There are hundreds, thousands of ways to love a woman or a man that don't involve sex. I think that's part of the problem for our young people. There is such pressure to go from A to Z in one fell swoop -- too many miss the rest of the alphabet of loving and learning to love a partner. And it's all those letters between A and Z which provide the context for sex. It's all the myriad ways of learning to love another person that give the depth and the sacramental quality to the sexual expression of love.

So what do we say to our children? What do we say to ourselves? Most importantly, I think, is that we need to think about the context for sex -- all the ways we can love another person or be loved by that person. I think most of us find it difficult to ask for what we want or need -- sometimes even to know what we want or need. Some of that has to do with our level of self-esteem. I think of a teen-age girl who wants nothing more than to be heard and to be told she is special and to be honored for who she is and for how she is trying to deal with all that's been handed her; but what she settles for is sex -- because she doesn't know she's worth asking for and receiving what she really needs.

I think of middle-aged and older men who need above all else personal support and encouragement and a way of dealing with all that middle-age and the later years bring, who judge their lives or their marriages or themselves by the amount or quality or quantity of sex in their relationship.

Here are some questions and concerns for any of us, maybe especially for teen-agers, but probably for us all. For that teen-age girl: What do you want -- what do you really want with him? How can the two of you work toward that? What would it feel like to be honored. . .really honored by someone you adored, by someone you are drawn to? Don't skip over the letters of the alphabet.

And a second thing: there is a difference between having a feeling, an urge and acting on that feeling, that urge. We know that about our anger; but we have trouble with our sexual urges. I can be so angry with someone that I want to kill him. . .but I don't. I know the difference between having the feeling, the urge and acting on it. But with our sexual urges we have such trouble -- like there is no choice. It is like that urge is inextricably bound up with action.

There is a ctitical difference between having a feeling, an urge and acting on that feeling, that urge. The more deeply we know that, the more control we have in our lives, the happier our lives -- and the more we can enjoy and appreciate our urges without being dominated or victimized by them.

In the context of struggle and deeply shared lives, sex really is like nitroglycerin: it can heal hearts and make them strong. In the context of fear and insecurity and the absence of shared trust, sex can blow up bridges, leaving things and people in shambles.

In the Episcopal Church, sex has always been seen, at least officially, as a gift for pleasure, for procreation, and for the celebration of loving relationship. And that gift has been given to us by God.

Three last things, briefly. First, I am very much aware that in talking about sex, I have talked about sexual intercourse, while there is an enormous range of ways we can be sexual with one another -- holding hands, flirtatious looks, embracing, kissing. Our being sexual covers a lot of territory -- and it shortchanges our whole sexuality to talk about it only in terms of sexual intercourse.

Second, I wish we had better ways to reassure people that masturbation is not sinful. It can be misused, but on the whole it can be a matter of self-affirmation and self-care. When I try to tote up the amount of guilt, shame, and furtiveness that surrounds the whole matter of masturbation, I am appalled. Masturbation is nothing to feel guilty about, ashamed about. . .it's part of our sexuality.

And third, our sexuality is tied up with our spirituality. There is a built-in sense of incompleteness in each one of us -- that wanting to be known, that wanting to give ourselves completely, that wanting to be held, to be reassured that we are completely safe and secure. All the way through the Bible -- not just in the Song of Songs, but running all the way through the Bible -- there are sexual images of our relationship to God. There is Christ the Bridegroom, the Church the Bride; the notion of incarnation, of giving ourselves over to the loving arms of God. But. . . now we see dimly.

Each of us is on a journey. Some parts of the journey are easy. Some are so very, very difficult. How we deal with ourselves, and with others, as sexual beings is one of the most puzzling and difficult things there is in life. . .for everyone. And no wonder our young people are so confused. Sex, again, is not sin, but neither is it our salvation. Again, much more, so much more, it is like nitroglycerin: capable of blowing up bridges or healing hearts.

Let us pray:Our hearts are restless, dear God, and our hearts will be restless until they find their home in you. Help us as we live our lives, to be wise, to be thoughtful and loving, help us to rejoice in all the gifts you give us, help us to honor ourselves and all those you have given us. Forgive our confusion, guide us into the paths of joy, all for the sake of your kingdom. Amen.