Rev. Ellen Jennings
~ Ecclesiastes 1:1-7, Micah 6:8 ~
How many of you remember the song, “Dust in the Wind,” by the group, Kansas, in the late 70s?
I close my eyes, only for a moment, and the moment’s gone
All my dreams pass before my eyes, a curiosity
Dust in the wind
All they are is dust in the wind
It goes on…
Same old song, just a drop of water in an endless sea
All we do crumbles to the ground though we refuse to see
Dust in the wind
All we are is dust in the wind
It sounds a bit like our passage from Ecclesiastes this morning, doesn’t it?
Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What do people gain from all the toil
at which they toil under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.
Actually, the passage sounds even more like the song if you know the Hebrew word Hevel, here translated, “vanity,” can also be translated, “futility,” “vapor,” “breath…” or “dust.” Meaning our passage could read: “Dust of dust,” says the Teacher, “dust of dust! All is dust.”
Which is rather Lenten, this Season that begins with an Ash Wednesday ritual acknowledging “from dust we come and to dust we shall return.” The ritual imposition of ashes has power, because these words are true. We’re mortal. And we’re each going to die. God is God, and we’re human, called to humility in the face of all we do not know and cannot control.
But today’s sermon isn’t about our relationship, as mortals, with God. Today’s sermon is about mortality itself— and how modern western culture is particularly unhelpful when it comes to dealing with it.
Our Christian tradition is mixed on the subject. I mean, the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible gives us both Ecclesiastes and Micah, one reminding us we are going to die and the other advising what we, as mortals, should do in the meanwhile. But the New Testament gospels offer a mostly Jesus-oriented focus on death, and Paul’s letters are preoccupied with the “afterlife.”
Now, for some, this works well. Believing for certain there’s an afterlife both removes the fear of death and provides a roadmap for life. So, if this describes you, please don’t feel I’m asking you to change. Rather, I’m preaching to the fairly large group of “faithful” for whom this does not work.
Because, the truth is, many of us aren’t certain what happens after death. And, as mentioned before, our modern western culture is, frankly, weird, about it. I mean, how many of you have even touched a dead human body, much less washed or dressed or prepared one for burial? And these were all common practices before the last century! Instead of normalizing death, our contemporary culture fetishizes youth, physical perfection (whatever that is), and the extension of life, making us both fearful of and resistant to the fact we are going to die.
Yes, the “fact.” We are each going to die. In ten years, a number of us in this sanctuary will be dead, in twenty-five years, many of us, and in a hundred years, all of us. We are each going to die.
Now, hopefully I haven’t completely depressed or panicked you (and, seriously, if you’re experiencing either, please let me know). Because I want to share one of my favorite bloggers with you. Rev. John Pavlovitz lost his father a few years ago, and since that time, he’s struggled with both his own grief and his experience of our culture’s “weirdness” about grieving and death. In one of his blogs he writes about what happened after he himself had a biopsy that ultimately came with the blessedly relieving news he did not have cancer. He writes:
Since that morning I’ve been thinking about the fact that I didn’t get an exemption with that good news—just a temporary reprieve. One day the news won’t be good. One day I won’t get to exhale. One day I might not see the sun.
Some people think it’s morbid to consider your demise, but I think it’s helpful. We should remember that we all have an expiration date; that our days here are finite, and that we all have far less time than we want. We should give ourselves the gift of doing the math of our remaining existence… There is a number that exists that you can’t see, and that number represents the sunrises you have remaining.
So, I’ll ask you:
What do you want to do with the time you have left here?
How much of those precious, fleeting, irretrievable-once-they’re-gone seconds, do you want to spend:
– postponing a dream you’ve been carrying around?
– holding a grudge against someone you can’t seem to forgive?
– obsessing about your waistline or hairline or worry lines?
– waiting for someone else’s consent to be happy?
– being a bystander to injustice?
– being less than the most authentic version of yourself?
– compromising your convictions to keep the peace?
– beating yourself up for the stupid stuff your younger self did?
It isn’t easy to get out of the well-worn ruts our minds make for us. The ordinary days have a way of lulling us into believing there isn’t any urgency to them; that somewhere off in the distance, we’ll actually begin doing the important stuff we need to do. We’ll start living someday.
Today is someday.
I love this blog, because I view John’s honesty about death as affirming life. Meaning, I think the more we’re able truly to face the reality of our (and others’) deaths, the more capable we’ll be of making good choices about our lives, aka, the number of sunrises remaining. For, yes, we do each have an “expiration date.” And we don’t know when it will be. Thus, we need to decide: what do we want to do with the time left?
As we consider this question, I think the wisdom of another faith tradition may be helpful. In Buddhism, there’s a practice known as “death meditation,” which, though it sounds a bit scary and off-putting, is really just a way of practicing what John is blogging until we “get it” enough to change our lives.
As Professor of Psychology and meditation teacher, Larry Rosenberg, writes: [Death meditation] is not meant to be an exercise in morbidity or self-pity… In fact, one often feels light, happy and unburdened after directly acknowledging the truth of our inevitable death… Deepening our understanding of death can radically affect how we live… In the words of [Vietnamese Buddhist monk] Thich Nhat Hanh, “Life is impermanent, but that does not mean it is not worth living. It is precisely because of its impermanence that we value life so dearly. Therefore, we must know how to live each moment deeply and use it in a responsible way. If we are able to live the present moment completely, we will not feel regret later.”
Like John, Larry has learned, “one day I won’t get to exhale.” He continues: When it is time to actually die it will be happening in an ordinary living moment just like this one. The process of dying will take place NOW. Death awareness practice can help us more nearly simulate such a moment and weaken or transcend the power of the fear it may release.
I think what he means is this: death isn’t going to happen to someone different from the person we are now or in a moment radically different from now. It’s going to happen in a moment similar to any other moment, simply another second of a day. The question, then, becomes: how are we living now?
And this is where a lay person’s version of “death meditation” comes in, renamed “death awareness practice.” Tracey Duncan, herself a product of modern western culture, began by attending a retreat at which she was instructed to meditate on what it would be like to receive the news she’d be dying in a year, six months, one month, or a day. After that she contemplated what she would do with that time, who she would spend time with, and where she might go.
Tracey writes: When I stood up from that meditation, I felt like I had been gifted a massive reality check. I was keenly aware that not only do I have zero knowledge about when I might die, but that considering I might die really soon changed my priorities enormously. Given a year left of life, I would travel everywhere, say goodbye to everyone, and change my life dramatically. Given a day, I would walk to the river with my dog and love the life that I have.
I was really moved by these answers: given a year… given a day… and the differences between them. It made me wonder how I would answer those questions. And this is where Tracey leads us. She says we don’t have to be masters in any faith tradition to confront death head on. We need only be willing to meditate on the fact of our death and answer some questions about how this might change the way we live our lives.
So, I’m wondering if you’d be willing to give this a brief try? If it feels too overwhelming, just let it go. Spend the next few minutes looking at the gorgeous Tree of Life at the left front of the sanctuary! But if you feel able, please join me. We obviously won’t do the full meditation this morning, but if you’re interested, you can use the insert in your order of service to answer the questions and complete it at home. If there’s interest in getting together as a small group to reflect and review, let me know. I’d be happy to arrange a session to explore this topic more deeply.
Okay, here are the questions for contemplation. If any of the answers comes to you immediately, don’t hesitate to write it down!
-If I had one year left to live, I would…
-If I had six months left to live, I would…
-If I had one month left to live, I would…
-If I had one week left to live, I would…
-If I had one day left to live, I would…
Then, consider the following:
How did your priorities and activities change as the length of time you had left decreased?
What stayed consistently important to you across spans of time?
What do you do in your current life that didn’t make the cut?
Finally, reflect on how you can use this knowledge NOW.
Are your priorities where you want them to be?
What can you do right now to get aligned?
Make a list of three things, pick the most important and get on it.
As Tracey says: “Tomorrow could be too late.” As Richard reflects: “Death happens in an ordinary living moment.” And, as John writes: “We all have an expiration date.”
What I want for you is this: see the fact of your death as a gift. Look at it, unwrap it, embrace it, and allow it to catalyze your life. Live fully, today. Do what you love, today. Be with those whom you love, today. Life is this present moment. “Someday” never arrives. Now is the time. Today is the day.