I have come to believe that in order to live, to truly live, to live the life that Jesus describes as “life to the full” two things are essential. First and foremost we must make peace with God, with the spiritual side of who we are. There is no denying the reality that deep within all humanity there is a piece of who we are which is seeking to know, understand and be understood by something, someone greater than we are. Creator and creation learning to live in relationship with each other as we journey through life. Deep calling to deep in the stillness of the night as we ask, “Is this all there is or is there something more to life?”
It was a Saturday afternoon. There were about forty college students gathered in a large room as we worked together preparing for Spring Break Service Projects. The leaders had many of those group activities planned which make my skin crawl…the kind which as soon as they start I feel as if I need to use the restroom or take an emergency phone call. I behaved this time. We all stood in the center of the room and the leader would give us two choices, and we would have to go to the side of the room which represented us. Liberal, Conservative. Favorite color is Blue or Green. We had to make a choice…no middle ground. It started off goofy and then got serious. “I am Religious, I am not Religious.” The vast majority of the people stood on the “not Religious” side. A few more goofy choices to make and then, “I am Spiritual, I am not Spiritual.” The entire room stood on the “I am Spiritual” side.
There was no denying the reality that this group who rejected the label of “Religious” recognized the reality that deep within they were Spiritual beings. I heard little of what went on the rest of the day. Believing we are spiritual beings the challenge then becomes, “how do we help people encounter God in the midst of their everyday lives!” I have watched and listened much from that day years ago. I believe that most people can and will agree that there is a spiritual side to their humanity. One of the keys to living, to truly living, is learning how to listen to the still small voice of the Spirit as He seeks to speak to the spiritual core of who we are.
The second challenge to living life to the full is coming to peace with the reality and inevitability of death. We can never truly live until we are at peace with the truth that one day our time on this earth will come to an end and life as we know it will end. I know, it sounds uncomfortable, maybe even what some would call morbid but stick with me for a minute.
From a young age we are taught to fear death. It is this ominous thing that very few of us are taught how to embrace, experience and walk through. We move in fear, or dread, of experiencing death within our families or personally. Yet the truth is that just as the miracle of birth is part of the human experience so is the transition from this life to the next.
How many of you remember this guy? Howard Dean was a Presidential Candidate in 2004. I did not know much, if anything, about him when he was participating in some town hall or debate event. The question came up, “What are we going to do to reform our healthcare system?” His answer went something like this, “We are not going to make any meaningful reform to our healthcare system until we as a nation come to grips with the reality and inevitability of death. Our current healthcare system pays more money in the last few days, weeks, months of a person’s life trying to stop what is inevitable. Until we come to grips about the reality of death there will be no meaningful healthcare reform in our country.” I sat in awe, someone speaking truth. I wanted to learn more about him. I never heard him answer that question the same way again. My sense is that his advisers and handlers just about fell out of their chairs as they listened to him that evening. I imagine them greeting him as he came off the stage saying, “you can never, never, ever answer that question the same way again…people do not want to hear you talk about death…you need to tell them how you will fix their problems.” For one shining moment truth was spoken, he who has ears.
We joke about death. We quote Benjamin Franklin, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” There are movies about cheating death. We work to avoid dealing with it and yet there is no escaping the reality that one day we will have to journey through our final days.
Pastor, this is morbid. Why must I think about it? Why must I come to peace with it now? When my time comes…well, I will deal with it then. Yes, that is the way our world moves. It is what we have been taught from early on, whether intentional or not, it is what we have learned from those that have gone before us.
Let me share with you two reasons why we MUST come to peace with the reality of death before we can truly live. One personal, dealing with our own lives…the other has to do with others, the families or communities we are a part of.
Let’s consider others first. One of the hardest things to walk through is the loss of someone we have loved dearly. It is painful to remain here while someone who used to walk with us, guide us, share life’s joys and sorrows is no longer here. It is made even more painful when those around us do not, cannot, or simply refuse to acknowledge that the one we have lost was once a part of our lives. We are afraid to talk about those who have departed because we do not want to “hurt” those who are grieving. We are at a loss as to whether or not we should share those stories or memories of the departed. Why? We are not at peace with the reality of death. Let me put it this way. When it comes time for me to leave this earth I want you to tell stories…lots of stories…the good and the bad…the ones that make you laugh and the ones that make you cringe a little. Remember me, celebrate me…be at peace with the fact that I have completed my journey. Do not forget me! Help those closest to me remember who I was and what I did. We cannot live and move that way unless we are at peace with the reality of death. Our communities are healthier when we recognize the totality of the human experience and we walk with each other through it.
On a personal level I have come to understand that I will not, cannot, be set free to truly live life to the full until I am at peace the fact that someday I will die. Cancer has a strange way of granting one clarity. In my oncologist’s office we speak of numbers and hope for the future. The truth is I may leave his office and be in a car accident on the way home. I think I know what will take my life…yet in truth nobody truly knows the time, place or cause…we just know that one day we will “walk through the valley of the Shadow of Death.” Yet we rejoice with the Psalmist that when we travel that journey we do not have to walk alone:
The Lord is my shepherd,
I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside quiet waters.
He restores my soul;
He guides me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil, for You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You have anointed my head with oil;
My cup overflows.
Surely goodness and loving kindness will follow me all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
When we come to a place where we can truly walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death with a sense of peace and hope…well then my friends the captive has been set free and life to the full is just over the horizon!