Date: November 5, 2017
Title: “A Good Death”
Preaching: The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard
Scripture: Psalm 23
A Good Death… most people, hearing that phrase, immediately begin compiling a list of conditions they would like to have present in a death experience. We want to have control over the dying process. We want to choose our own treatment, and decide when to stop treatment. We want to control or minimize any pain we might be feeling. We want to decide where to die and who will be with us. We want to feel loved and supported. We want to be at peace.
Sound familiar? I suspect your list of conditions might be very similar to mine. The truth is that most of us, if we had a choice, would choose to die peacefully in our sleep, with no unfinished business. And even more of us would rather not think about it at all!
Not until 1969, when Elizabeth Kubler Ross published her ground-breaking book On Death and Dying, did we begin to break through the death taboo in this nation. Why is it so difficult to talk about – even to imagine – that good death? If you do an internet search for images based on the word “death”, what comes up are some pretty dark and scary pictures. There is the usual grim reaper, hooded cloak and large scythe. There is the skull and crossbones in any number of configurations, all pretty grim pictures of death.
These images originated in Europe during the Black Plague of the 1300s, when 50% of the population died. It turns out, people would sketch these images and pin them to their clothing, hoping to fool Death into passing them by, thinking they were already dead. It didn’t work, but it was a good try! In any event, looking at those images of Death it is easy to understand why we want to “avoid it like the plague”!
But, if you do another search, this time asking for images of “near death experiences”, you get a whole different picture. Now what you find are scenes like the traditional tunnel with a light at the end, or beautiful starry scenes. And your eye is drawn to the abundance of light in images that evoke mystery, but not necessarily fear.
And the difference is the first set of pictures imply that death is the opposite of life – you are either alive or you are dead. But the second set suggest a transition – or a cycle of transformation – where death is not the opposite of life, but rather the opposite of birth, and where the mystery cannot be contained or limited to an either/or way of thinking. And we begin to see that “A Good death” may, in fact, be a continuation of a good life.
A good death is a continuation of the kind of life that the Psalmist pointed out and that we who follow Christ proclaim, the kind of life that acknowledges the presence of mystery, ambiguity and uncertainty – and chooses to live as fully as possible, anyway. Life is uncertain; at times, it is tenuous. And still… life is to be LIVED, and it is to be lived as fully as possible.
Today we read one of the most enduring, cherished pieces of Scripture, Psalm 23. This is probably the most memorized, most often quoted of all the passages. And what is remarkable is that this Psalm has continued to pervade our culture, despite few really having a clue what a shepherd does. When was the last time you asked a child “what do you want to be when you grow up?” and heard that child say “I want to be a shepherd”!
So why this Psalm? Why should it be #1 in the hit parade of Scripture? Perhaps it is because it pulls no punches. Clearly, the author of these lines has experienced pain and loss and adversity. The author understands that life is uncertain, and even may be tenuous. Here the writer is honest enough and bold enough to point out that life is not all loaded tables, overflowing cups or green pastures and still waters. Sometimes, our heads are not anointed with oil, but plastered with sweat. Sometimes we are not drinking from still waters, but hanging on for dear life in Class 10 rapids. And every one of us has a valley. Everyone of us has a valley where God is walking with us.
It is true that some valleys may seem longer than others, and that right paths are not always easily discernible. It is equally true that God does not abandon us to the valley, nor leave us in the dead end. Those wrong turns we take and the dead ends we find ourselves in, those valleys we traverse are not meant to be resting places so much as they are intended to be passageways. Maybe you took the wrong job. Perhaps you chose the wrong spouse. Maybe you are persisting in the wrong priorities. Perhaps you are suffering illness and tragedy, heartache or sorrow. All of these are meant to be passageways, not resting places. They can even be passageways into new life.
Here we are again, at the cusp of another new week. And we may enter it with trepidation, wondering what news the coming days might hold. Or, we could enter it with wild and stubborn hope.
Jan Richardson gives us a hint of such passages in her “Blessing when the world is ending”:
Look, the world is always ending somewhere.
Somewhere the sun has come crashing down.
Somewhere it has gone completely dark.
Somewhere it has ended with the gun, the knife, the fist.
Somewhere it has ended with the slammed door, the shattered hope.
Somewhere it has ended with the utter quiet that follows the news from the phone, the television, the hospital room.
Somewhere it has ended with a tenderness that will break your heart.
But listen, this blessing means to be anything but morose. It has not come to cause despair.
It is simply here because there is nothing a blessing is better suited for than an ending, nothing that cries out more for a blessing than when a world is falling apart.
The blessing will not fix you, will not mend you, will not give you false comfort; it will not talk to you about one door opening when another one closes.
It will simply sit itself beside you among the shards and gently turn your face toward the direction from which the light will come, gathering itself about you as the world begins again.
To be a saint … must be to welcome the blessing, and to turn toward the light, trusting that the world will indeed begin again in the midst of a good life, and even at the moment of a good death. Thanks be to God! Amen.