Research tells us that every last resident of 19th century Greater Boston is dead today. It’s true. Odds are that almost everyone in the room right now will be gone by the next century. I did a few google searches the other week for the oldest living Americans – they were born in 1904, 1905, 1906. But every time I’d double check if of these remarkable people was still alive, it’d turn out they too had passed on recently as well.
You don’t get to be the oldest living person for very long, it turns out.
We are all going to die. And we face these signs of that our whole lives – lost pets, lost loved ones, aging bodies.
Even in our teens and twenties, in the prime of our health, we notice there are years and times and opportunities we are never getting back. Last week, my teenage daughter’s cross country team had their final home meet of the year, senior day – this year my daughter’s last home meet of her high school career. And the seniors and us – their parents – get emotional. Partly because that day is never coming back. We age, and then we die. Gloomy, but true.
We don’t like to talk or think about aging and death very much, though, do we? In a time and place where we’re as good at extending our lifespans as we ever have been, we avoid and fear death as much as ever.
Which is too bad, because how we age and how we die is a big part of the life well lived, or not. In fact, there’s an old tradition of the experience of a Good Death, a way of approaching death that is one of the crowns of a good life.
And today, I want to talk about the good death – how we can prepare for it, and how that readiness can be part of today’s good life.
Today is our final talk in our early fall series, “On the Brink of Everything.” Next Sunday, we’ll start five weeks of an annual engagement with some of our church’s core teachings to encourage you on your faith journey, wherever that finds you today. And after that, we’ll be into Advent, our Christmas season.
But I wanted to make sure we got to end our “On the Brink of Everything” series with the biggest change and threat we’re all on the brink of, that being aging and death.
As it turns out, I’ve got this old school preacherly way into this, an alliterative three point thing going on about loss, and legacy, and levity. And some stories for each of those.
We’ll start by looking at a famous brush with death in the Hebrew Scriptures that Christians call the Old Testament. It’s a scene of one of the better kings of Israel’s southern land of Judah, and it’s so interesting it’s captured almost verbatim in two different books of the Bible.
Here’s part of the story from one of them, in the second of the books called Kings.
II Kings 20:1-6 (CEB)
Around that same time, Hezekiah became deathly ill. The prophet Isaiah, Amoz’s son, came to him and said, “This is what the Lord says: Put your affairs in order because you are about to die. You won’t survive this.”
2 Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the Lord, saying, 3 “Please, Lord, remember how I have walked before you in truth and sincerity. I have done what is right in your eyes.” Then Hezekiah cried and cried.
4 Isaiah hadn’t even left the middle courtyard of the palace when the Lord’s word came to him: 5 Turn around. Say to Hezekiah, my people’s leader: This is what the Lord, the God of your ancestor David, says: I have heard your prayer and have seen your tears. So now I’m going to heal you. Three days from now you will be able to go up to the Lord’s temple. 6 I will add fifteen years to your life. I will rescue you and this city from the power of the Assyian king. I will defend this city for my sake and for the sake of my servant David.
So this is a story about so many things. It’s a story about prayer. It’s a story about healing. It’s a story about God’s nature as the great source and being of lovingkindness. God in this story is listening to prayer, is healing, is tender toward this person and people God loves.
And that is all interesting and important, but this isn’t a talk about any of those things exactly. It’s a talk about the good death, one I’ll suggest that in many ways Hezekiah is not going to have.
So I want to start by noticing that Hezekiah is utterly unprepared for his own death. He’s sick, it looks like he’s going to die – he’s told as much. Put your affairs in order. And he cannot find the strength to do that. Instead, he cries and cries and cries.
Now I don’t want to be judgy about this. I might well be the same, if I got seriously ill tomorrow, and was looking at a potentially early death. Who knows how any of us would respond to that news?
We’re probably less prepared, most of us, than our ancestors were. Again, we’re better than we’ve ever been at postponing death, but we’re also maybe better than we’ve ever been at avoiding it; we’re unfamiliar with this one inevitable possibility.
100 years ago, in most of the world, most people lived in multi-generational households and most people died in their homes, so most people of all ages, knew what it was to be with someone as they died.
Most of us, though, do not live in multi-generational community, and most of us die in hospitals, and older and older, and having been unwell longer and longer. So our experience of death is changing. The local surgeon Atul Gwande and others have written about the ways our whole medical complex is bound up with our practice of extending the longevity of our years, but not preparing for death, and so not coming to grips with it, and so not often ready to die well.
I’ve had the honor to know and pastor people in this congregation who have died good deaths. And in each case, at some point, they’ve stopped fighting it, stopped focusing on a hope for healing and turn-around, and found ways to come to terms and make some sense of their loss.
One of these people was Julie O’Connor, who’d been a board member here when I started out as your pastor. Julie’d been diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer, which gives you odds of a couple more years of life. With lots of great medical care and prayer, she’d beat those odds – by a lot – but at a certain point, she was out of treatment options and coming to terms with her death.
We held a final prayer meeting for her right here, which I’ll never forget. Because she stood up in that time, and she thanked her church family for our love and support and prayers. And she said, I especially thank this church for helping me accept what’s happening. She said she’d been raised when she was young to believe that all things that happen on earth are God’s will, under God’s tight control. And she said that in her time in this church, she’d come to understand that a loving and powerful God doesn’t control history and circumstances that way. Things like her cancer are not the will of God. She didn’t need to figure out if she was being punished or tested in some way. Awful things happen, for a million reasons, in this broken and incomplete world of ours. God is a personal and present force of healing and love and peace and help in all things, but in the short run, God doesn’t always get God’s way. And that had helped her accept her coming death, that she was suffering something painful and tragic, but that she was still known and beloved and cared for by a good God who had not done that to her. And that gave her peace. She could face her loss.
So moving to me, her courage in the face of death. By not having to blame it on God or understand a cosmic reason for why it was happening, she could have peace in the face of death, and she could live well at the end. I honor Julie O’Connor’s good death – I hope to remember her courage when my time comes.
We’ve all known people who couldn’t do this. People whose terror grows as they age, people who long before their deaths are unable to age gracefully – always trying to look younger and act younger than their years. People who nurse regrets and brood over things lost and things they fear losing. Again, understandable dispositions, but ones that keep them from knowing peace, and keep them from inhabiting the wisdom and calling of their life in this season.
Part of preparing for our eventual good death is by learning to face death today. To accept, even embrace, our aging and our losses. To accept, even if not welcome, our eventual deaths. To accept that life will continue, this world will continue without us living in it.
There’s an ancient Christian tradition that’s meant to help with this. It’s called the momento mori, Latin for moment of death. It’s the spiritual practice of meditating on the eventual moment of our death. Sometimes doing that accompanied by artwork that displays symbols of death, or viewing the cycle of death in the natural world, as we will this fall, and contemplating our eventual death.
The purpose of this isn’t to be morbid or gloomy. In fact, as I’ll remind us as I close, it’s not best to engage this practice if you’re depressed, certainly not if you’ve struggled with suicidal thoughts before, because the point of it is not welcoming death as an escape. It’s meant to simply grow us in wisdom, in acceptance of our eventual end, in a way that helps us live with vitality, treasuring life today, but not pretending it will last forever.
There are Jewish traditions that do this as well. I’ve always been really struck by Jewish traditions around death and dying, including their beautiful, multi-layered, communal year-long honoring of grief, after a loved one dies. This includes visits in the home after the funeral. It includes prayers and liturgies, remembrances of loss and grief in the community’s worship, throughout the year after one’s death.
This obviously is for the comfort of those living, to enfold us in loving remembrance. But these practices also serve to remind a community that we all will die, and to prepare us to accept our losses with peace and courage.
Friends, life is full of losses. You don’t need me to tell you that. You have your own pains, the ones that have happened, and the ones you fear as well. I pray that you can accept these losses with gentleness, saying as you need – This is a moment of suffering. But this too will pass, and there will be more on the other side. I pray you can hold your losses with that hope as well.
Loss is the hardest side of aging and death but there are opportunities too – opportunities for legacy and levity.
Let’s return to our story with King Hezekiah.
Hezekiah is feeling good because of release from double jeopardy. He’s healthy again rather than dead. And a devastating invasion from the empire to his north, Assyra, has been repelled. So when ambassadors from a kingdom further off to the East visit, he gladly shows them around his palace.
II Kings 20: 14-21 (CEB)
14 Then the prophet Isaiah came to King Hezekiah and said to him, “What did these men say? Where have they come from?”
Hezekiah said, “They came from a distant country: Babylon.”
15 “What have they seen in your palace?” Isaiah asked.
“They have seen everything in my palace,” Hezekiah answered. “There’s not a single thing in my storehouses that I haven’t shown them.”
16 Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah, “Listen to the Lord’s word: 17 The days are nearly here when everything in your palace and all that your ancestors collected up to now will be carried off to Babylon. Not a single thing will be left, says the Lord.18 Some of your children, your very own offspring, will be taken away. They will become eunuchs in the palace of Babylon’s king.”
19 Hezekiah said to Isaiah, “The Lord’s word that you’ve spoken is good,” because he thought: There will be peace and security in my lifetime.
20 The rest of Hezekiah’s deeds and all his powerful acts—how he made the pool and the channel and brought water inside the city—aren’t they written in the official records of Judah’s kings? 21 Hezekiah lay down with his ancestors. His son Manasseh succeeded him as king.
Hezekiah, it seems, is so preoccupied with his own fears of Assyria and of death that he commits this major strategic blunder as a leader. In his short-sighted relief, he welcomes envoys of far-off Babylon to tour his household and all his treasures.
And Isaiah tells him this was a big, big mistake. Things are set in motion that will lead to the destruction of his nation, and the suffering of his descendants. This becomes his legacy – he did these other great things – waterworks and more – but here he’s known at the end for opening the gates to his people’s eventual destroyer.
Here’s the kicker – Hezekiah hears the news and is relieved. Like: sucks to be my eunuch grandkids. At least I’m OK. It’s shocking – even more so in the ancient world – how utterly thoughtless he is about his own legacy.
Politics hasn’t changed that much, I guess. These days our political leaders, some of our business leaders too, seem to also be weighing our current self-interest against the flourishing of future generations. And not making the most favorable choices for their legacy.
All of us, though, no matter how big or how small our influence, have our legacy to consider. I love that my friends lead a community group for couples over fifty that is called just this – the legacy group. But all of us, regardless of our age, can ask – what is the legacy I’ll be leaving the next generation or two when I’m gone?
This according to a recent Hidden Brain contest is one of the three main ways humans over the ages have dealt with the terror of aging and death. They’ve tried to live forever – a fools’ errand, but an attractive one, still now. Or they’ve had hopes in resurrection or some form of afterlife. Or they’ve put great care into their legacy, the memory and impact of their lives after they’re gone.
My maternal grandfather did this. Pop Pop, as we called him, functioned like the patriarch of our family. We all respected his work ethic, his generosity, and his common sense folk wisdom. He organized his finances, in particular, with great care and lived really simply. That, some help and privilege, and some good luck meant that he was able to make a dramatic financial impact for my parents and for me and my two brothers and our families after he passed away. More importantly, we remember and carry in our hearts his love and attention – I carry his name in my name, as do a couple of my nephews. His legacy is strong and beautiful in our family.
Some people go bigger and bolder and more generous on their legacy, extending love and impact well beyond their families. I spent most of last week at a retreat in the mountains of North Carolina, where we focused on leadership for justice and renewal. Our leader was the social psychologist and theologian Christena Cleveland. And she told this story of being propelled more deeply into her work for racial justice. She was working out, listening to a recording with the great Black theologian James Cone, who just passed away last year.
Cone’s work is stunning – his writing is some of the most important writing and thinking about God that anyone in this country has produced. Our staff team discussed one of his books, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, early this year. It’s an amazing book. Anyway, Christena is listening to the recording and hears James Cone say: Everything that I do is for the liberation of Black people.
And hearing this, Christena stopped, mid-stride on the eliptical trainer, and asked herself: How much am I doing for the liberation of my people? She was busy, she was getting famous, well paid, but this question shifted something in her. It was a watershed moment, that focused and deepened her work and her life choices, that clarified the legacy she wanted to leave in the world.
Legacy is not just a question for older people. Most of us find ourselves thinking more about the legacy we want to leave after 50, if we ever think about it, but considering our legacy throughout our lives is part of how aging can be part of the good life, whether we’re 80 or 20, or anywhere in between. For Christena Cleveland, this moment came to her in her early 30s.
What contribution do you want to make to your family, to your friends, to your culture, to this earth, that will remain after you’re gone? How would you like to be remembered – for your freedom and joy and courage, generosity, and love? Or like Hezekiah, for looking out for yourself, and short-changing the future?
This is beyond the passage, but I was thinking about it the other day and imagining what might have been for Hezekiah. What if he had heard he had fifteen years left to live, and thought: hey, bonus years! How can I live free? How I live with gratitude? How can I bless the future? How can I approach my own death more light, than heavy?
I’ve seen that people who prepare for the good death, and people that just age well do so not just making peace with their losses, not just building a beautiful legacy, but learning to live – even in some of their heaviest years – with more levity.
My favorite Stephen King book is the little novel he published last year called Elevation. He imagines a man who in mid-life begins to weigh less each day while otherwise in excellent health. What happens when gravity ceases to do its work, not on the whole earth, but on a single soul? As it becomes clear that this is isn’t sustainable, that in time he will eventually lift off the earth and soar into the heavens, this man finds he’s able to shake off some of the other heaviness of life.
He starts to live with less regret, with more openness to new people and new ideas. He dares to live with more courage and more joy.
It’s a weird premise – Stephen King after all – but a beautiful metaphor for the nature of a good life and a good death. To live with more humor, more freedom, more joy, even as our body fails, even as our future shrinks, even as death approaches.
The first two times I saw someone die, at their bedsides for their final breaths, there was some terror for them – it was not an experience of levity, in that sense not a fully good death. So I’ve looked for others who have gotten lighter as they’ve aged, lighter even as they watched death approach.
Some of these people have a fierce hope in the loving God they’ll meet after death, and in the loving arms that will enfold them there. So they’re fearless, they feel relief.
Others overflow with gratitude – the crown, I think, of a life of practicing gratitude each day. In one case, I saw a man who couldn’t stop talking about all the ways he loves Jesus. He loved Jesus because his momma taught him to. He loved Jesus because of the people that visited him while he lay on his hospice bed. He loved Jesus because of the kindness of his friends. He loved Jesus for the sky and the flowers, and the taste of communion, and the vitality of his stubborn child. He loved Jesus because of all the life he’s known, and he loved Jesus now that he was dying. So full, his life. And so light with love and gratitude.
I want to go through my 50s and 60s and 70s and beyond like this – laying down burdens, laughing at the years to come rather than dreading them, treasuring joys and nursing good stories and good times. Free of regret, full of gratitude, full of love.
When I find myself thinking this way, I think: life’s short. Why not start now?
If I live in a resurrection faith, why not live more now?
If worship a God who became one of us and beat death, what do I have to fear?
If risen Jesus took time to enjoy a meal of grilled fish with his friends, maybe I can take time for what brings me joy and renewal.
If Jesus’ friend who lived with the most regret saw Jesus look at him and say – let’s move on, let’s love. We’ve got work to do. Maybe I can let things go; live lighter; move on, love, work, live freely.
Invitations to Whole Life Flourishing
Prepare for part of a good death – write a will and a living will, and choose a healthcare proxy.
Some of our congregation are leading a practical seminar you’re invited to, on Sunday, November 3.