Memento Mori

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Thu, 03/15/2018 - 9:15pm

Psalm 39:4-7, Ecclesiastes 9:1-10, Luke 12:16-21 

Steve Hollaway

Harbor Church

March 4, 2018, Lent 3

            Like many of you, I’ve been moved by the high school students from Parkland, Florida. They are so articulate and passionate, and they organized so quickly. It seems their school has prepared them well for reflection and action.

            Most of the focus has been on gun legislation, but I am interested this morning in what came before that. The shooting on Ash Wednesday was a moment of awakening and enlightenment for these students. What they awoke to was the reality that “I too can die.” “I am in danger and no one is protecting me.” Some carried signs that labeled themselves as “The Hunted.”

            You can bet that most of these kids had never faced death before. Our culture conspires to hide death, especially from children. In earlier times, children and teenagers would have participated in many community funerals. Relatives would have died at home and been laid out there. Now we want to protect kids from having to see a dead body, rationalizing that the experience is too intense or they will find it simply “gross,” but the root issue is that we want to protect children from the truth that they too must die, their parents will die, “ashes, ashes, we all fall down.”

When I was in seminary I took course on ministry to the dying and bereaved. In the first class, the professor asked how many of us had ever been to a funeral. Less than half of this group preparing to lead funerals had ever attended a funeral. That’s how fully we had been protected from death. I imagine those students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School had been protected—until the shots were fired, and they could say with the prophet Jeremiah

Death has climbed through our windows;
    it has entered our fortresses
        to eliminate children from the streets,
        the youth from the squares.
(9:21 CEB)

The Bible seems to teach at many points that the recognition that we will die is the beginning of wisdom. Psalm 90 is a familiar prayer to God which ends, “So teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom.” We read earlier from Psalm 39, “Lord, remind me how brief my time on earth will be…how fleeting my life is…each of us is but a breath.” In Ecclesiastes, the preacher reports on his search for meaning in a meaningless world. He sounds like an existentialist from the 20th century. It makes no difference, he says in chapter 9 (which we read) whether you live a righteous life or a wicked life—we all die, and you can’t do anything about that. Those of us who are alive are haunted by the knowledge that we will die, but the dead don’t even know that. The dead, he says, have no knowledge or memory or love or hate; they are just gone.

It’s no wonder these passages were skipped over when scholars picked the readings for the three-year cycle of the Common Lectionary. It’s too depressing to think about. And clearly the Hebrew writers of this period had no thoughts about a resurrection from the dead or a life beyond this one. At best, the dead existed as shadows in an underworld, but for these writers it seems the dead cease to exist at all. The fear of death is the fear of non-being.

And yet, the preacher in Ecclesiastes goes on to say, basically, “Eat, drink, and enjoy life, for tomorrow you die.” It’s what the rich fool says to himself in Jesus’ parable. It’s what the Stoics said—from the Greek Epictetus to the Romans Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. Because you know that death is your destiny, enjoy this life fully. Carpe diem. Ecclesiastes says, “Wear festive clothes. Don’t skimp on that cologne. Enjoy the woman you love all the days of your pointless life. Do your work with all your might, because there is no work when you’re dead.”

To me that sounds cynical and brutal. But there is some wisdom to this line of thinking, isn’t there? Don’t live for bigger barns. Don’t live for things that won’t last. Think about what really matters in the time you have left. In the words of the great country song, “Someday I hope you get the chance to live like you were dying.” For a Christian, there is more to it than that. For us, the awareness that death is coming prompts us to think about what comes next. What is my destiny after this life? Have I been investing in the life to come? Am I prepared to meet Jesus there? Can I be confident that he has already welcomed me into that eternal life on the basis of what he did on the cross?

The phrase Memento mori—Latin for “Remember that you will die”—has its roots in classical times, but it was adopted as a motto for Christian spirituality. Monks and mystics were taught to meditate on their own mortality as a way of purifying their desires. In the 1500’s and 1600’s, Memento mori became a common theme in art. In museums, you can still see still life paintings with skulls in them. There are bracelets made of ivory beautifully carved into skulls. There are paintings of rats or worms crawling through skulls and human bones. Some say these are reactions to the plague, which made death a fact of everyday life, but most scholars say that death was always a fact. Most children died before they grew up. Most women eventually died in childbirth, if they kept trying. On average, men died at age 40. What is going on in the artwork is more a beautification of death and a consensus that death has a spiritual purpose. In order to truly live, you must remember that this life is brief.

It's no secret why I would be thinking about this subject. On Thanksgiving Day, perfectly healthy, I took a hike in a New Hampshire state park with my adult children and my son-in-law. The whole scene was snow-covered, like a dream, and the trail followed various streams to waterfalls and a cool rock formation where the water swirled in a circle. The snow on the trail had melted somewhat the day before and frozen hard. As I started back in the direction of my car, I stepped on one of those icy patches and my feet went out from under me. My head hit the ground or ice or maybe a paved path, I don’t know. I am told that I complained of pain but walked on my own steam to the car and agreed to let someone else drive. I don’t remember any of that. What I remember is “waking up” (in quotes) about 10 minutes later in the passenger seat and asking why I wasn’t driving. “You don’t remember falling?” “No.” “OK, let’s go to the ER.” I got a CT scan and talked to the doctor. Apparently it was “only” a concussion, but take it easy for a couple of days. Don’t concentrate or use your brain too much. My kids asked, “Like he shouldn’t study for a sermon?” “Right,” the doc said, so I didn’t preach that weekend.

Somebody should have whispered in my ear, “Memento mori. You never know when it might happen to you.” I thought it was all over in a couple of days. I went back to work. Planned Norris Pike’s funeral, a big one. Preached the next Sunday. Thought I was 100%. But about 2 weeks after the fall, I couldn’t climb stairs because my feet wouldn’t go where I told them too. Then I threw up all night. Then I got a bad headache. Becca took me to Dr. Clark then drove me onto the ferry and to South County Hospital. They put me on an ambulance to Rhode Island Hospital. By the time I got there I was completely unresponsive. The nurse pinched my arm as hard as she could, trying to get a reaction. She screamed in my ear as loud as she could, trying to rouse me. Nothing. Becca thought—for the first time, I think—“I might lose him. God, don’t let him die or I’ll kill you.”

Of course I don’t remember any of this. They gave me another CT scan and an MRI. The bleeding in the brain was putting a lot of pressure on the brain. Subdural hematoma. It caused a stroke they could see on the MRI. A surgeon drilled a hole in my skull to let the blood out. I woke up about two days later in the ICU, wired up, groggy, uncomfortable with catheters and bed pans, being asked every two hours what year it was and who the President was and where I was. I had no idea what day it was. After a week there in Providence, they sent me to an intensive rehab hospital for two weeks.

That’s where I was out of the fog enough to think about what almost happened. I remembered a church member in New Jersey who had a similar experience. Her husband thought she was getting dementia after her fall, for two weeks—until she blacked out, like I did, and he took her to the ER. They told him that if he had waited another couple of hours, she would have been dead. My brother Bill flew up from Nashville. He was thinking about our oldest brother who collapsed from an aortal aneurysm and died soon after he got to the hospital. Bill didn’t want to be too late to see me. My children were probably more scared than they needed to be at that point; Nathan was still in Baltimore, thinking that Becca was hiding the terrible truth from him. It was great when they could all gather around for Christmas—and even greater when I showed them I was recovering by beating them all at Trivial Pursuit.

But the thought Memento mori was not lost on me. I’m not afraid of dying, but I am not prepared. I was confident in God’s care and overwhelmed by the number of cards that church people and island friends sent to the hospital. The nurses said, “Wow, you’re really popular!” Like I was in junior high. But the truth is that I gave a lot of people a good scare. If I was going to see Jesus, they wanted me to give a good report. I was encouraged that day by day the therapists could see improvement; I was pretty sure that I wasn’t going to die anytime soon. Still, the knowledge that death is the underlying reality of this life made even more intense the question posed by retirement: “What are you going to do with the rest of your life?” Eat, drink, and be merry did not seem a sufficient answer. Remember the words of Samuel Johnson: “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mindwonderfully.” Escaping death in a close call concentrates the mind, too, at least for a while.

One of my seminary teachers, James Loder, had a near-death experience which turned his teaching from an academic emphasis to a spiritual one. He had stopped on the New York Thruway at night to help two women with a flat tire. He was lying on his back working on it when a large truck lost control and slammed into the car. The impact pushed the car right onto Loder’s chest, cut off a thumb, broke five ribs, and left him unable to breathe or move. In that moment, his petite wife grabbed the bumper of the car and lifted the car off her husband’s chest so he could wiggle out from under it. The professor felt the life force of Jesus move into his body, and he began from that moment to feel that Christ was more real to him than he had become when he accepted Christ intellectually years before.

But here’s what I want to tell you that I learned from Professor Loder. He said that life has four dimensions. The first two dimensions are the self and the world. Everything conspires to press your awareness into that two-dimensional reality, as if there were nothing else. But at some point you become aware of a third dimension underlying everything. He called it The Void. It can be experienced as emptiness, meaninglessness, or the awareness that you will die. The Void asks with Peggy Lee, “Is That All There Is?” It’s that insight that when you are gone it will be like a hand withdrawn from the ocean. Soon no one will remember. You can’t get to faith without facing this reality. That’s why the Bible speaks of this third dimension.

But the fourth dimension is The Holy. As you look into this great emptiness, you begin to see that there is something else there. There is someone calling to you. There is a possibility of life beyond the two dimensions you’ve been trapped in. But the only way you can get to it is to throw yourself into the Void, to enter the emptiness and meaninglessness, betting everything that there is Someone who will catch you. When you jump, that life force of Jesus that entered into the Void on the Cross meets you there and shares his life with you. And what you discover is that everything the Void took away from you—the sense that this world matters, the love and joy you found in relationships—all of that is given back to you, but in a purified form, in a form that will last.

This Table helps us to remember not only Jesus’ death but our own. Let us unite ourselves with his dying and find there eternal life. Amen.