Sunday, October 23, 2011
by Ellen Sims
Lesson #1: How To Die
Deuteronomy 34: 1-8
Matthew 22: 34-40
Some months ago a friend I hadn’t seen since high school emailed to ask a favor. Although he now lives in another part of the country, he had kept in touch with one of his former teachers who had once supported him through a difficult time. Now she needed help. She was declining in health and was not close to her family. He asked if I would visit her in the nursing home here. She was lonely. She had not been in church in many years and had no pastor. I readily agreed.
I visited “Jane” a couple of times in the nursing home and found her to be a kind-hearted, intelligent woman struggling with depression. Then almost overnight her health declined precipitously and she was hospitalized. Multiple medical issues, including diabetes, complicated her treatment. Her kidneys began to fail. She was told she was dying.
At my next visit—in the ICU—Jane was at turns distraught and listless. As I held her hand, she looked at me anxiously, searchingly, and said to me an extraordinary thing: “I don’t know how to die.”
That statement and her gaze pierced me. “How do I die?” she seemed to be asking, as if she needed instruction to do it properly or successfully. “I don’t know how to die,” she said again at my next visit, as if Death might wait until it she’d mastered the skill, though her frail body was clearly having no trouble moving toward that end. Indeed, she died by the end of the next week.
How does one learn to die? What would have been your response to Jane? And is learning to die a lesson we want to postpone until our last days? How would you—how do you every day of your life—prepare to die?
The novel A Lesson Before Dying explores some of these questions. Set in Louisiana in the late 1940s, this book by Ernest Gaines tells the story of an innocent young black man wrongly convicted of murdering a white man. As if an unjust death sentence weren’t hard enough, Jefferson must also bear the weight of the words of his own defense attorney, who, during the trial, called him a hog in an unsuccessful attempt to convince the jurors he was no more responsible for his actions than a dumb animal. Jefferson’s mental condition deteriorates further as he awaits execution. He first refuses visits from his beloved aunt, he insults others, he eats his meals—when he eats at all—with his head in the bowl like an animal at the trough. And he refers to himself as a hog, a hog being fattened for slaughter. Jefferson’s aunt begs the local school teacher to teach her nephew to become a man again so that he may die a man and not an animal.
Reluctantly, Grant Wiggins, the cynical teacher, visits Jefferson. Zealously, Jefferson’s minister visits, too. But Jefferson seems hell-bent on playing the role of a hog and grieving his aunt and everyone else in the African-American community in the process. Over time, however, the agnostic school teacher’s growing sympathy and the minister’s unswerving faith allow Jefferson to care about others in the midst of his own pain. At a time when he has every right to be bitter and self-absorbed, Jefferson eventually finds compassion for others. And so regains his humanity. He walks toward his execution in the fullness of his humanity. How he does that is related, I think, to our scripture readings for today, which on this day force us to put together those eternal themes of death and love.
The lectionary has been guiding us these last weeks through stories about Moses. This evening we heard how Moses faced his death—within sight of the Promised Land. In the fullness of his humanity, Moses led his people by thinking first of their needs.
This evening we also heard the Psalmist tell us life goes by swiftly—even if you, like Moses, live to be 120. In the fullness of our humanity, we live fully in each moment knowing our lives are brief.
And on this evening we heard Jesus’ key to living well from Matthew’s Gospel, which just might be the key to dying well, too. In the fullness of our humanity, we love. Jefferson was not fully human until he, who had NOT been treated compassionately, could find compassion for others. Literary critics have called Jefferson a Christ-figure in that literary sense. What it means to be truly Christ-like is spelled out in Matthew 22: to love God, and to love neighbor as self.
When a lawyer asked Jesus which commandment was the greatest, this man who wallpapered his world with laws might have been asking: “How should we live—and how should we prepare to die?” Jesus creatively put into play two laws from his tradition and placed them in dynamic tension. “Love God with all your heart, soul, and mind. AND love your neighbor as you love yourself. Everything depends upon this.”
Remember that in Luke’s Gospel Jesus defined neighbor as the Samaritans, the despised foreigners of his day. To love another as if that neighbor IS myself is perhaps the way toward fullest intimacy with God. When we really see neighbor as self—when we fully appreciate that my neighbor’s fate is not simply bound up with mine and we all sink or swim together but recognize we ARE an interconnected creation—then we are on the path to living in union with God.
We also can see in this love commandment how the inner journey and the outer journey are mutually reinforcing. “How you love God is how you love your neighbor, and how you love your neighbor is how you love God”[i] The command to love neighbor as self should challenge all Christians to recognize the political or social implications of their faith. Likewise, the foundational mandate to love God should remind “social justice” Christians that actions for justice must be rooted in love of God and in a mature, authentic spirituality. Love takes us deeper into our journey with God even as it takes out farther in our relationship with neighbor. Learning to love like this takes a lifetime.
But a key to this lesson is the Christian paradox that we must lose our life to find it. Each new day is a lesson in dying. Each new day we once again relinquish our claims on being the center of the universe and instead center ourselves in Love. Loving is about letting go and becoming vulnerable. Love is a lot like dying to an older self.
“I don’t know how to die,” Jane said, as she was dying.
Some pastors would have responded to Jane differently than I. They’d have been at her bedside testing her orthodoxy, shoring up her beliefs, eliciting her confession, and perhaps determining if she were “saved.”
That is not the way Jane and I prepared for her death. She talked, when she was able, about a ruptured relationship with a sibling. She worried that God would abandon her because she had abandoned the church years before. A good and caring and, of course, a flawed person, she doubted whether she deserved whatever goodness might follow this life. She rehearsed her regrets while I prayed she would be able to release them.
To die—that is to die well—this former teacher needed time to learn a lesson about love—the love of God and the love God gives us for others and for ourselves. I don’t know if she had enough time and I was not with her in the moment of her death. Jane’s story is not the stuff of novels and though I’ve changed her name, I won’t reveal more of her sacred journey. I do believe that, ready or not, God’s love was merciful and that Jane is now enfolded in a love that she fathoms better than I do.
As for Jefferson, the fictional character in “A Lesson Before Dying,” he learned to die. That is, he learned to live. Because his aunt, the children in his former one-room school house, his teacher, his minister, his community needed him to be fully human, he walked to his death bearing their love and hopes. He gradually allowed himself to care about them. And that allowed him to live. The state of Louisiana was forced to murder a man rather than kill a hog.
You and I prepare to die each day—by truly living—with passion and eternal purpose, by giving up all the small stuff that tries to claim us, by letting go of our false images so that a truer self may live, by being aware of WHO we are and WHOSE we are: God’s eternally beloved ones, by dying to the need to be right or in control, by becoming fearlessly vulnerable.
“I don’t know how to die,” she whispered.
“Who does—and lives to tell about it?” I thought.
But surely we die as we live—by love. Marcus Borg has called these two commandments Jesus fused together the “great relationships” and remarks on the “remarkably simple vision of the Christian life” which is “not complicated, though it is challenging.” Maybe it really all comes down to this: love of God and love of neighbor and the right kind of love for self that happens only when we accept God’s love for us. This biblical love is not a warm and fuzzy emotion but a commitment to something beyond self.
I doubt that any of us has fully learned to love in the Jesus way. I don’t want to leave that lesson for my final days because it’s a lesson that takes a lifetime. It’s the #1 lesson in life rather than the final lesson. And the church, a community of faith like ours, is the ideal classroom where we help one another in these lessons before dying. Thanks be to God!