Mark 8:27-38 "Who Do You Say That I Am?" Lent 2B
Mark 6:14-29 "Head on a Platter" for Pentecost 6

John 12:20-33 "Learning to Die" Lent 5B

23cuaresmab5How much do you think about death? My first thought is that I hardly think about death at all. I’m relatively young at almost 42 years old, and mostly healthy. I plan to live a long time, working until I’m in my mid-70s and, like all my great-Grandparents, living well into my late 80s or early 90s. But as I ponder Jesus’ words here in John, death is often present in my thoughts, just below the surface, bouncing around in my unconscious.

Yesterday I was throwing a football with my son. After a few throws I felt my rotator cuff become sore and had to stretch and be careful not to throw too hard and injure myself. My thoughts began to wander towards my 42nd birthday coming up next week.

How much do you think about death? My first thought is that I hardly think about death at all. I’m relatively young at almost 42 years old, and mostly healthy. I plan to live a long time, working until I’m in my mid-70s and, like all my great-Grandparents, living well into my late 80s or early 90s. But as I ponder Jesus’ words here in John, death is often present in my thoughts, just below the surface, bouncing around in my unconscious.

Yesterday I was throwing a football with my son. After a few throws I felt my rotator cuff become sore and had to stretch and be careful not to throw too hard and injure myself. My thoughts began to wander towards my 42nd birthday coming up next week. I began to wonder if my body would hold out as long as I hoped, so that I could accomplish what I hope for in life. I have lived for 12 years with a chronic illness called Crohn’s Disease, and my thoughts turned to how this disease may wreck havoc on me as I age. I realized that I have not worked out for 3 months and I better get to the gym and take care of myself. I’ve also broken my strict diet which helps with Crohn’s. I watched my son energetically running around, and remembered when I had such boundless energy, but now I often seem to be tired.  He is throwing the ball so much harder than last Fall. He can now throw the ball over my head and make me run for it. In just a couple of years he will pass me by in speed and strength. He will be the strong one; he will lose his admiration of my prowess and not need me any more.  So at age 42 life is moving by me quickly. I’m back in school trying to become a licensed therapist when I should be at the peak of my career. I’ve made many bad decisions along the way that have put me in a bad position to move forward in life. Damn, my shoulder hurts, and I need to stop throwing this football.

See how quickly thoughts can move to death. The fear of death is always lurking in the crazy tangle of my neural pathways, just waiting to be activated. It is not a morbid or pathological fear, for I truly believe my life is only half over. If I can live as much in the next 42 years as I did in the first 42, then my life will be more than full and eventful. Still, there is this lingering fear of death. It is not just a fear of the actual act of dying. It is the fear of dying without meaning, dying without fulfilling my life’s purpose. My ego fears the loss of control, being rendered something less than the most important thing in the world. Thoughts of death remind the ego that it just isn’t all that important in the overall scheme of things, for it could be gone in an instant and the world will go on without it. It is the little deaths that plague me, the death of self-importance, ego, meaningfulness, relevance and control. 

As Holy Week approaches, the scriptures bring us near to the reality of death. Jesus has been predicting his own death and now reflects upon it:

 

 24Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

 

Jesus talks of death as if it were a necessary loss. He turns to images of nature where death and life are always cycling back and forth. The seed dies in the ground and comes up again with new life, giving a great abundance back to the earth. We watch the trees every Fall as green leaves lose their life giving power of photosynthesis, turning brown, yellow and red and plunging to colorful death. But what might these natural examples have to do with a human life, when we die not with beautiful leaves or more seeds but in loss of faculties and bodies that waste away before us?

 

The truth is parts of us are dying all the time. You probably just lost half a million or so cells just reading this sentence. We all lose about 100,000 cells per second. Fortunately, just a many cells are being reproduced in a healthy body. Healthy bodies have this constant cycle of dying cells and rebirth of new ones. Some scientists say that we are regenerated every seven years, which is an enormous relief to me. Apparently, cells that don’t die off in the normal cycle are a real problem. These cells are related to diseases like cancer and become problematic because they get in the way and block healthy development of the body.

(See Science Watch, March/April 2000 if you are scientifically inclined. http://www.sciencewatch.com/march-april2000/sw_march-april2000_page3.htm

I believe this is true in the spiritual and emotional life as well. “Those who love their life will lose it, but those who love their lives for my sake will save it.” ( I like Luke’s words better here because there is so much more at stake than heaven in these words.) Our failure to let go and let some things die is a primary spiritual disease, for new life can’t come without some death. The failure to forgive leads to death of relationship while anger and bitterness ravage the spirit like a cancer. Holding on to regrets strangles hope before it can lift us to new life. Trying to control events and other people leads to frustration, excessive stress, and exhaustion. Forgiveness and letting go of control are spiritual exercises in the art of dying so that new life may abound.

I’m writing a paper on depression for my Psychopathology class. One cause of depression among many causes is the mind’s tendency to get stuck in negative patterns of thinking called ruminative thinking. People with severe, recurrent depression often relapse into dark places where they become consumed with a sense of failure, worthlessness, shame or guilt. People get stuck believing these things despite great evidence to the contrary. They may really be reasonably bright, compassionate people, but they are stuck in negative ruminations. These thought patterns periodically get triggered acting like a destructive cancer upon emotional well-being. It is as if the brain has faulty software or a Trojan Horse type virus creating a glitch to normal functioning.

One of the treatments for severe depression is to use the process of mindfulness meditation combined with anti-depressant medication. Mindfulness is a style of meditation rooted in Buddhism where we learn to clear the mind and focus in on the present moment. Our mind is always full of thoughts; past memories, worries about the future, the din of things left undone, the whirl of schedules and the buzz of distractions from everything like television to what everyone else thinks of us are constantly barraging us. Mindfulness is a way of letting the moment be just the moment. By focusing on our breath, the constant flow in and out through our bodies, meditation teaches us to relax and let go of the din. It is a way of dying to the constant and useless noise in our heads so we can live in the present. 

Mindfulness helps people with depression break the cycle of negative thought ruminations. It gets people out of their heads and into their lives in the present moment, instead of being dominated by past regrets or future worries. As I have learned mindfulness the past few months, I have begun to realize that my thoughts and emotions are just my thoughts and emotions. They rise and fall, come and go, just like my breathing. One thought dies and another brings new life. As I learn to let go and be in the present moment, seeds fall to the ground and die, allowing the birth of something new. 

I am always dying, with each breath that enters and leaves my body, with each second and the hundreds of thousands of cells that are dying off to make room for more, with each toss of the football to my vigorous and growing son. And may I keep dying so life may abound. Thanks be to God!  

 

 

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