R- once said to me, “I’m not afraid of death. I’m just afraid of dying.” Close friends since childhood, R- and I were freshmen at different colleges. We had come back home for the holidays.
R- meant something like this. He believed that we will be endlessly happy in the afterlife. He had no worries about that at all. But imagining a painful transition from this life to the next was a serious buzzkill.
Both death and dying were abstractions for us at that point in our lives. Ideas to be explored and debated. Neither of us had a visceral sense of just how fleeting and fragile our own life really is. This is not so for me anymore.
In a few weeks I will turn 64. That does not make me especially ancient. And I am by no means decrepit. On the contrary, I am fit and very healthy. Nevertheless, I have become keenly aware of the passage of my time on this planet.
I suppose that’s why Bible verses like the following ones have been resonating with me lately:
James writes, “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” (James 4:14)
And then there’s 1 Peter: “All flesh is like grass/ and all its glory like the flower of grass./ The grass withers,/ and the flower falls.” (1 Peter 1:24)
Acknowledging our finitude may seem morbid to you. And yet Scripture assures us that embracing our mortality is actually the path to wisdom. “So teach us to count our days/ that we may gain a wise heart.” (Psalm 90:12)
Wisdom is more than mere information. It’s understanding how to really live in this world. And the key to this real life—to eternal life—is friendship with God. “In every generation [Wisdom] passes into holy souls/ and makes them friends of God.” (Wisdom 7:27)
This is not to say that facing our mortality—and gaining wisdom—is a breeze. On the contrary, an honest glimpse of the Grim Reaper can be more than a little unsettling.
And this is why I hear a trembling urgency in that man’s voice who once asked Jesus, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17) He seems to have realized that, despite his wealth and status and influence, death is a very real possibility for him.
Jesus recognizes in this an opportunity to impart wisdom. And so he invites the man to reflect. He says, “You know the commandments.”
The man does know the commandments. And he scrupulously obeys them. But he doesn’t really understand the spirit of them.
He follows the commandments to get a reward and to avoid punishment. Specifically, he’s hunted down Jesus to make sure that he’s complying with the law that will save him from death.
Jesus wants him see that avoiding death is merely surviving. There’s a lot more to really living.
Jesus has been teaching his disciples that true life—eternal life—begins when we learn to die. Letting go is how we let God really be God in our lives. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (Mark 8:35)
We’re all going to base our lives on something. The question for us is whether that something will be God or a god. As I’ve written elsewhere:
“Whether we realize it or not, whether we name it this way or not, something or someone becomes our god. By “god” I’m referring to whatever it is that we as individuals and communities believe will give our lives meaning, whatever will make our lives matter and make our lives significant. Even if we make no conscious decision on the matter, our habitual actions, the patterns of our lives reveal what god we are worshiping, to what we are entrusting our very beings.” (Looking for God in Messy Places, p. 68)
That is why Jesus tells this man that he lacks one thing. Go sell all your stuff and give the money to the poor. Let go of the wealth, the privilege, and the power that you have relied upon to make you somebody.
When we let go of our small “g” gods, we die. We die to the false self defined by a false god. A god who can never deliver the promises of eternal happiness, security, and significance that it makes.
Letting go is hard. It will feel very much like the loss that it is. And yet, when we do so we discover that what makes us somebody is actually a Who. God does. God’s love makes us the Beloved.
So my friend R- was right, I suppose. Dying can feel scary. But it’s the beginning of wisdom. And it’s the first step to real life.
I hope you’ll join me for a couple of online events:
If you would like for me to drop by your book study (in-person or online), give a talk, do a book reading, or lead a retreat just drop my assistant Holly an email: Holly@epiwla.org.