How to be a Good Dead Person – Part 1 of 3

“Limited”

Rev. David M. Felten

Words of Wisdom: Romans 14.7-9


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How to Be a Good Dead Person #1: Limited
October 10, 2010

Unique among Paul’s authentic letters in that it’s the only one written to people who were not part of a church he’d started. It was a “cold call,” an intro for the occasion of Paul’s arrival in Rome (uncertain as to when). As best scholars can tell, it may have been written from Corinth, maybe around 58?

The overall content is really the most comprehensive statements of Paul’s theology, wrestling with concepts of righteousness and Christianity’s relationship with its Jewish roots.

Incidentally, people are often confused about Paul’s attitude toward women – the quote from Corinthians that “women should be silent in churches” is not Paul, but written by someone later (probably trying to synch the real Paul with the writings of the author of Timothy, who is pretending to be Paul to get his message heard). Part of the proof is here in Romans, showing the respect Paul had for women. Chapter 16 is an intro of the bearer of this letter, who was a leader in the church in Cenechrae (the port of Corinth), and charged with not only carrying the letter to the churches of Rome, but with reading it and explaining it to people – and her name was Phoebe, a woman Paul trusted in leadership and in the critical task of furthering his message.

This particular passage today is in the middle of an argument about judging one another. Paul is making the point that we’re all in this life together and should measure our “judgments” not against one another but in relationship to Jesus.
Romans 14.7-9
7We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. 8If 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. 9For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.

TEXT AND PRAY

Limited
I am riding on a limited express,
one of the crack trains of the nation.
Hurtling across the prairie
into blue haze and dark air
go fifteen all-steel coaches
holding a thousand people.
(All the coaches shall be scrap and rust
and all the men and women laughing in the diners and sleepers shall pass to ashes.)
I ask a man in the smoker where he is going and he answers: “Omaha.”

– Carl Sandburg

Nothing too hidden here. This is Sandburg’s spin on Ecclesiastes’ “All is vanity” ethos: Ecclesiastes proclaims that everything we do is inherently “vain,” “temporary,” “transitory,” or “fleeting,” (depending on translation) because everyone, wise or foolish, dies in the end.

Sandburg’s father worked for the railroad when steam engines were still in use, so these new steel “limiteds” were the equivalent of the Concorde to us. Still, rather than ride along in awe, Sandburg writes of the imminent destruction of all things material, including the mortal coils of his fellow passengers. He goes on to have a little fun at one of these men’s expense with his question, “where are you going?” – which, of course, the man answers geographically: “Omaha” – when Sandburg meant something much deeper than that.

It’s not something we think about often, but maybe one of the greatest gifts we’ve been given in this life is that of being “limited.”
We’re all limited in various ways, but, for all of us, the greatest limitation is that of death.

And to that, there’s only one thing to say: thank God we’re going to die! Without death, life would be a meaningless drudgery going on and on and on. With a cut-off, with an expiration date, we are motivated to make as much of life as we can, while we can.

Sandburg’s “Limited” plays on 3 kinds of limited:

1) train
2) life
3) consciousness of individuals
a. of death
b. shallowness

And because thinking about it can be overwhelming we, often opt for superficiality – we try finding meaning and purpose in all sorts of things and experiences. BUT, what ultimately motivates us to find meaning and purpose is Death. We avoid talking about it, but there it is.

Case in point: are you depressed?
Then strike up a relationship with your end – acknowledging your end can be a powerful motivator. For a lot of people, talking to someone about retirement plans is a very clarifying experience; life seems more finite, the end seems a lot closer, and the need to make plans greater.
Poets speak of Death as a great lover, full of mystery – and as long as you struggle with the mystery, you’ll get glimmers of meaning.

A Brush with Death brings a certain clarity:
1) Wesley on a ship with Moravians
2) Trauma Room puts one in touch with own mortality; fragility of life.

Coming face to face with death, you get a clear sense of what a great motivator it can be.

We’ve all heard the expression, “No Pain, No Gain” Did you know the first version of it was “coined” by Ben Franklin? “Those things that hurt instruct.”
So, we deliberately set up forums that challenge us learn or be productive, be it school or work or home — we learn best when we have “DEADline.”

Do you remember the movie, “Joe vs. the Volcano”? It’s a tongue in cheek parable about the meaning of life starring Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks. Joe is a hypochondriac, always sick, leading a dreary life. He’s diagnosed with a “brain cloud” and given 6 months to live. So, he quits his job and takes an offer to jump into a volcano to appease some Polynesian natives – hey, why not? I’m gonna die anyway, why not make my death have some kind of meaning. Once he reconciles himself to the idea that he’s going to die, he goes on a great adventure where, among other things, he discovers how to live.

At one point in his journey to the island, a huge storm comes up and breaks up his boat (very Jungian!). All seems lost, until…

VIDEO: Scene on the raft – “Thank you, God, for my life”

Not only does death motivate us to DO something, but it is a stimulus to eliminate our narcissistic self:
What’s the point in preserving self? We’re going to die anyway. Joe has no fear of sacrificing himself because he knows he’s going to die. In that knowledge, he can lift his eyes off of himself and give his life away.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because that’s EXACTLY what Jesus is saying: dying to self, eliminating self-centeredness lowers our fear of death, helps us to live.

Stephen Levine is a hospice therapist who for 20 years accompanied people and their families over the threshold of death. He saw in so many patients with a terminal diagnosis a profound life change. It was such an amazing change, that he decided to try it himself. He gave himself a date, one year away, on which he would die, then lived his life as if that was it. The resulting book, A Year to Live : How to Live This Year as If It Were Your Last is a profound reminder of what is important and how to prioritize things in your life.

It is only when we come to terms with our death that we can make full use of our lives.
Every day there are opportunities for us to learn how to die – from the little deaths of betrayal, lost relationships, and loss of all kinds, we can choose to transform ourselves every day.

For me as a pastor, Ash Wednesday is one of the most powerful days on the Christian calendar. I get to smudge ashes on peoples foreheads and tell them, “You’re going to die” — how nice! But how often in ritual seriousness are we reminded that we have a deadline? We’re so busy trying to put it off, avoid it, not think about it. And Paul reminds us, “Hey, whether you live or die, do so for God” It’s not ABOUT you. It’s about giving yourself wholeheartedly to the good of others – and like Joe, when you know you’re going to die anyway, what’s a little risk along the way?

So here’s the News Flash for today: We’re all going to die.

I don’t mean to be coarse, because for some of us here, this is not news and a struggle every day. But for most of us, we need to be reminded – if only to be jolted into remembering the preciousness of life, the fragility of life, and that we’ve been given the gift of life for one purpose:
To give it away.

So, 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.

At one point in Joe vs. the Volcano, Joe and Patricia are having a discussion about what gives life meaning and Patricia says, “I believe in myself.” To which Joe says, “When I think about myself, I get bored.”

Patricia is sad about this and remarks, “My father says almost the whole world’s asleep. Everybody you know, everybody you see, everybody you talk to. He says only a few people are awake. And they live in a state of constant, total amazement.”

It’s interesting to read comments online about the things that wake people up. With Joe vs. the Volcano, I read at least one post from a guy who saw the movie and was so moved, that the next day he quit his job, set out to follow his dream, and never looked back. And there were others, as well, who “got” the message. In fact, the screenwriter wrote the movie as a reflection on his feelings after his own near-death experience. Facing his own death shook him out of his stupor and gave him a moment of clarity that has invigorated his life ever since.

“The whole world’s asleep. Everybody you know, everybody you see, everybody you talk to. Only a few people are awake. And they live in a state of constant, total amazement.”

How did they get there? By remembering the preciousness of life, the fragility of life, and that we’ve been given the gift of life for one purpose: To give it away.

How can we be a good dead person? By being awake today!

Stream of Thought: Wake up!!

By not being afraid of death – but instead seeing it as a motivator, an incentive, a reminder to not be afraid to truly live, to give our lives away!

Even if it takes dwelling on the reality of our death just for a moment, let us give thanks for this incredible gift of life. Let us not be “limited” in our perceptions, but freed to see what’s truly important in life.

“Dear God, whose name I do not know – thank you for my life.”

Original material © 2010 David M. Felten