Mortality was this year’s final Lenten theme at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. This post will discuss the Scriptures and sermon for the theme and conclude with personal reflections.
The Old Testament text was the familiar Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8 (New Revised Standard Version, emphasis added):
- “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
- a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.”
The New Testament text was from Chapter 15 of Paul’s first letter to the believers in Corinth: 1 Corinthians 15: 15-20, 35-38, 42-44, 50-55 (New Revised Standard Version:
- “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.
- But someone will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?’ Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body.
- So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body.
- What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’”
Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen’s sermon reminded us, “We began our walk down the pathways of Lent weeks ago on Ash Wednesday. We marked ourselves with a smudge of mortality and stepped into the season. Now, as we near the cross and the crucifixion, the way inevitably brings us back to where we began. Death is never too distant.”
Yet, a “veil impenetrable by earth-bound vision shrouds . . . [death]. The event itself can be so covered over by the machinery of modern medicine and the whispered denial of our culture that sometimes it takes the power of a poem to carry us down to what the old Celtic folk called ‘the river hard to see.’”
[The poet of Ecclesiastes said it simply and powerfully: ‘For everything there is a season, And a time for every matter under heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die….’]
“If we can acknowledge that death happens, that it will come to our loved ones, that it will come to each one of us, then we can see it not as mistake or failure or defeat, but, rather, as part of the rhythm into which we were born, the end of life as we know it.”
“Part of our job as people of faith is to demystify death, to help our world deal with it, to help others not be overwhelmed by it. In so doing, we help ourselves.”
“That sums up the proper approach of people of faith to death. We do not deny it. We do not look the other way. We recognize the pain it brings to those left behind. We name the sorrow of our grief. But we do not give it power over us. We are not afraid of the dark.”
“Our culture, on the other hand, is afraid of the darkness of death.”
“We are not afraid of the dark. We may not fully understand death, but we will not let it have the last word.”
“From Paul’s point of view we give up the physical body at death when, ‘in the twinkling of an eye, we will all be changed’ into what Paul calls a spiritual body that dwells with God in the life to come.”
“That may be all we can say about death. It may be enough: as a seed must die and fall to the ground in order to find new life, our lives must end in order to inherit what Paul calls the ‘mystery’ of eternity.”
Ecclesiastes makes death explicit: there is a “time to die.” The rest of the passage also tells us that during our earthly lives there is “a time” for many other experiences, including mourning, and that each of these other experiences will not last. That is both a challenge and a comfort. It challenges us to embrace every moment of the pleasurable ones and comforts us during mourning and other unpleasant experiences.
The passages from First Corinthians help with the “mystery” of the promise of eternal life. The perishable physical body ends with death. At death we will be changed into imperishable spiritual bodies. For me, I do not need to worry about what happens after death.
In a prior post, I described my intimations of mortality from attending memorial services for former law partners and friends, from writing obituaries for deceased Grinnell College classmates and from preparing personal financial statements.
Those reminders of my own mortality continue along with others.
My wife and I have taken steps in recognition of our advancing years, the risks of deteriorating health and the certainty of death. Last year we downsized and moved into a one-level condo that provides many shopping, dining and entertainment options within walking distance. We also have consulted with an attorney to update our wills, trust documents, and health care directives. We have decided for cremation of our remains, instead of embalming. We have shared information about these documents, decisions and our financial situation with our two sons. We want to minimize the trauma they will experience when we die.
I reflect on visiting my parents in 1967 and receiving a desperate telephone call from my father, age 67, to come rescue him at his business. I did so and managed to carry him to a car and drive him to the hospital where on arrival he was pronounced dead of a heart attack. I still lament that the prior day he and I had an argument that was still unresolved when he died.
In 1992 I was with my mother, age 86, as she was dying of congestive heart failure at her nursing home. I was astounded that the moment of death was not instantaneously apparent. A few seconds had passed when I realized she was no longer breathing. It was a blessing to be with her in those final moments.
Recently I visited a college classmate in hospice care. Her eyes were closed, and she was non-communicative. But I said goodbye and conveyed the prayers and concerns of our classmates before she died the next day. There is a ministry of presence.
As is common with many people as they age, I regularly read the obituaries in our local newspaper (StarTribune) to see if anyone I know has died and take note of news of the deaths of famous people. They are constant reminders that fame, wealth and power do not make anyone immune from death.
As I read these obituaries, I notice that some of the deceased are older than I, and I quickly calculate how many more years I have if I live as long as they did. Surprise, that arithmetic exercise keeps producing smaller remainders! For example, if I live to age 85, which now sounds like a very old age, I only have about 10 more years. Yet I know several people in their 90’s who are mentally alert and active.
I have been doing genealogical and historical research and most of the individuals about whom I research and write have DOB (date of birth) and DOD (date of death) data. At some point a DOD statistic will be added to my name.
This research and writing have brought some of my ancestors, who lived long before I was born, closer to me.
This sentiment recently was expressed much more beautifully by Roger Cohen in a New York Times column entitled “From Death Into Life” about the amazing life of his Uncle Bert Cohen, who died last month at the age of 95. The columnist said he has “found my life consumed by his” and “[n]ow he lives in me. The living are the custodians of the souls of the dead, those stealthy migrants. Love bequeaths this responsibility.”
Roger Cohen finishes the column with a story about his uncle’s serving in Italy as a South African soldier in World War II. While his uncle was in Florence, a small bird settled on his shoulder for five days. This “caused Florentines to prostrate themselves, name Bert ‘Captain Uccellino’ (or ‘Little Bird’) and proclaim him a saint. He was far from that but he had about him something magical.”
Roger Cohen then concludes his column with these words: “Of that [his uncle’s magical quality] the days since his death have left no doubt. He is now that bird on my shoulder, reminding me to take care with my spelling and be aware that love alone redeems human affairs.”
I believe that every human being is made in the image of God, including the potential capacity to be a parent with children. The only way this will work is to limit the physical lives of the human beings. Otherwise, the planet would be overrun with people. Yes, there is “a time to die.”
 Prior posts have discussed this year’s other Lenten themes of mindfulness, humility, mercy and repentance.