Matters of Life and Death
June 6, 2010
She had given up. She was tired, tired of the struggle, tired of the losses, tired not just in her flesh and bones but of heart and soul. We don’t even know her name but she is everyone and anyone who life itself has broken, been too hard, too long, without hope. When the prophet comes to her she seems unaware that God has already been using her. She is blunt and honest saying that she is going to eat the last of their food and die. Nevertheless she does do what the prophet asks and the food does last a while longer though (please take notice) not forever. The crisis has passed. Life goes on. But as surely as life is real there is another problem. Now her son is sick. Her response is as human as it gets. Why? Have I not suffered enough? The prophet of God has come to my house and I have done what I am told and still I must suffer more losses? She acknowledges that her sins may have done her in but she has worked hard to do what is right. Now she wonders if the scoreboard is against her and if only she had sinned less and done more good not realizing that her deeds whether for good or ill have no bearing on this event only on their own moment for what is good makes good and what causes harm causes harm and that does not change. It is what it is while it is. There is no ultimate cause and effect except that humans are always vulnerable, no cosmic scoreboard that decides are fate. We live for a while and we get sick and we die, some sooner than others and if there is a reason it is hidden from us and the point is not why but who and what is there and how much suffering is enough anyway? And is it not true that to be alive always risks suffering and even so is it not life that we want? In this instance the prophet stopped the suffering by crying out to God to spare this child this time but what of all the other children who were dying that day? What of them? Is it not true that we live and if we live, we die and that life and death are both part of the same reality. Will the circle be unbroken?
It is not about whether God spares this one or takes that one it is about, rather, that each and every day some live and some die and whether we live or whether we die we are with God. What did we think?that we could by sheer force of will and fair play alter the course of nature? Did we think that for one moment we would be spared from the pains of life while it is life that we are living? We can no more have life without suffering than we can have life without love. Life is good even when it isn’t.
Let me read for you this brilliant passage from the prize winning book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard on this very subject: There is not a guarantee in the world. Oh, your needs are guaranteed, your needs are absolutely guaranteed by the most stringent of warranties, in the plainest, truest words: knock; seek; ask. But you must read the fine print. “Not as the world giveth, give I unto you.” That’s the catch. If you can catch it, it will catch you up, aloft, up to any gap at all, and you’ll come back, for you will come back, transformed in a way you may not have bargained for?dribbling and crazed. The waters of separation, however lightly sprinkled, leave indelible stains. Did you think, before you were caught, that you needed, say, life? Do you think you will keep your life, or anything else you love? But no. Your needs are all met. But not as the world giveth. You see the needs of your own spirit met whenever you have asked, and you have learned that the outrageous guarantee holds. You see the creatures die, and you know you will die. Obviously. And then you’re gone.
I think that the dying pray at the last not “please” but “thank you” as a guest thanks his host at the door.
The universe was not made in jest but in solemn incomprehensible earnest. By a power that is unfathomably secret and holy and fleet. There is nothing to be done about it but ignore it, or see. And then you walk fearlessly, eating what you must, growing wherever you can, like the monk on the road who knows precisely how vulnerable he is, who takes no comfort among death-forgetting men, and who carries his vision of vastness and might around in his tunic like a live coal that neither burns nor warms him, but with which he will not part.
Emerson saw it. “I dreamed that I floated at will in the great Ether, and I saw this world floating also not far off, but diminished to the size of an apple. Then an angel took it in his hand and brought it to me and said, ‘This must thou eat.’ And I ate the world.” All of it. All of it intricate, speckled, gnawed, fringed, and free.
(And so) I go my way and my left foot says “Glory,” and my right foot says “Amen”: (in and out, up and down) exultant, in a daze, dancing, to the twin silver trumpets of praise.”
Yeah, Something like that. On matters of life and death we make so many desperate assumptions but in fact it is what it is and we fight it or ignore it or embrace it, consciously and unconsciously, making our way from one hour to the next alive for now, thanks be to God, alive for now, and moving on without fear, trusting that our only essential need is met in the God from whom we have come and unto whom we return who does not fail to be there where there is. (There is a there there-this is the good news.) Did you think that you needed your life? (oh, wow)
And so we live and die. We come and go. We love and are loved. We are alone and together, unloved and forgotten, embraced and remembered. We scarcely know what is going on while we go on and the more we pretend to know the less chance we have of knowing what will be revealed to us if we keep going on, keep obeying God’s will to love and serve one another through it all without keeping score or counting our losses or gains against one another.
One of you (you know who you are) passed this final word along to me recently. It too speaks profoundly and beautifully of what is going on here from the poetry of Rumi.
You and I have spoken all these words, but as for the way
We have to go, words
Are no preparation. There is no getting ready, other than
Grace. My faults
Have stayed hidden. Once might call that a preparation:
I have one small drop
Of knowing in my soul. Let it dissolve in your ocean.
There are so many threats to it.
Inside each of us, there’s continual autumn. Our leaves
Fall and are blown out
Over the water. A crow sits in the blackened limbs and talks
About what’s gone. Then
Your generosity returns: spring, moisture, intelligence,
The scent of hyacinth and rose
And cypress. Joseph is back: And if you don’t feel in
Yourself the freshness of
Joseph, be Jacob: Weep and then smile. Don’t pretend to know
Something you haven’t experienced.
There’s a necessary dying, and then Jesus is breathing again.
Very little grows on jagged
Rock. Be ground. Be crumbled, so wildflowers will come up
Where you are. You’ve been
Stony for too many years. Try something different. Surrender.
Live your life. Be glad for the gift of it. Whatever comes. Do not be afraid. God is with us. Even when it feels as if the very ground beneath our feet is being pulled out from under us there is a there there. Always. Even when everything else is gone, love holds us and we are not forsaken or lost, but found. Sometimes we are found even before we knew we were lost. So it is with us. We are in need of God’s grace, that’s all. In matters of life and death we trust God. Nothing else will do. There is too much to lose, too much to bear. When we surrender to the faith that trusts God for life and death we fall into the arms of God and what will be will be and whatever it is that will be, we will be safe there and the circle will be unbroken and the people of God will one day rejoice when we all meet again and understand fully what now we can only know in part. (Bless your hearts.)
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