Musing 5.15.20

This week one of you told me about the visitation for his great grandmother who lived and died in a small town in rural Ohio. Her body was shown on her dining room table. “That was how it was done in those days.” Friends and neighbors brought in food and gathered in the kitchen to eat and talk. Some of the crowd ate and conversed in the dining room. I asked how he reacted to all this at the age of four. Initially he had wondered how his great grandfather who was very tall would fit on the table. Also he concluded that death is part of living and is not frightening. It interested me that his choice of verbs in the present tense indicates he carries that conclusion about death and life into the present day.

Bodies are no longer laid out in dining rooms. Death is not seen as part of living. In most cases death and dying happen out of sight. As a society we deny death. It is not seen as a part of living and is regarded as frightening. Death is an unwelcome visitor which intrudes on our plans. It joins sex, religion, and politics as taboo topics. Despite the life-giving ministry of hospice, it is the elephant in the room. Then Death as Covid-19 enters the room. Now the news reports daily and to-date death tallies. We are very conscious of death. Yet, unlike the person of the opening story, we tend not to see death as part of living and are fearful.

This week I read and re-read “Learning in War-Time” a sermon by C.S. Lewis given in the fall of 1939, at the outbreak of World War II (C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1949). So much of what he writes of death and war is analogous to death and the pandemic. After all, the war analogy is used for the response to the pandemic. Where he writes of “war,” I’ll substitute “pandemic.” The section of the sermon from which I quote concerns fear. The pandemic does not make death more frequent: 100% of us die and the percentage cannot be increased. So it is ultimately not a question of death or life; it is only a question of which kind of death. Then Lewis writes, “Pandemic puts several deaths earlier; but I hardly suppose that that is what we fear. Certainly when the moment comes, it will make little difference how many years we have behind us.” Most of us will want more time to live. Further, the pandemic does not decrease our chances of dying at peace with God.

“Yet,” Lewis continues, “[pandemic] does do something to death. It forces us to remember it. The only reason why [the prospect of] cancer at sixty or the paralysis at seventy-five do not bother us is that we forget them. [Pandemic] makes death real to us: and that would have been regarded as one of its blessings by most of the great Christians of the past. They thought it good for us to be always aware of our mortality. I am inclined to think they were right.”

I doubt he is calling war or pandemic a blessing. I hope not. He is calling our awareness of our mortality a blessing. This awareness tells us we are not God. It makes us realize that God made us; we didn’t make God. We are the sheep of God’s pasture. We live in God’s world (Psalm 100). It is an illusion to believe that we, not God, are the center of the universe; that illusion generates so much self-righteousness, arrogance, and destruction. It was that illusion that led to World War II and so much else that degrades people and nature.

It is humbling to admit our mortality. Yet, that admission is our hope. It is an admission that we need God. We can’t do it without God. Then we may place our lives in God’s hands. Then we may let God fill us with Godself. Remember “humble” comes from the word “humus”, good dirt. God’s gifts may grow in our humble dirt.

I am going out on a limb with this speculation. I doubt that no group of Christians was more aware of their mortality than the early Christians. They had much to remind them of it. Paul writes of tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril and sword. (Romans 8:35). Were he writing today, I bet he would add “pandemic.” Yet no group was more hopeful. They knew that they were in God’s hands. They were not left to themselves. They were not abandoned. “None of us lives to himself and none of us dies to himself (sic). If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Romans 14:7-8). What an amazing confession of trust! They knew that Christ had conquered death.

I don’t know which comes first: awareness of mortality or living in God’s hands. Maybe they occur simultaneously. For me, mortal awareness came first. Whatever it is, these realities are the seeds of hope which overcome fear. It is this hope that allows us to address the elephant in the room. Mr. Rogers believed that, if we can name it, we can manage it. Then we live with confidence and freedom and love. In life, in death, in life beyond, God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God.