Friday, June 9, 2023

Welcoming The Final Assessment

 It was one of the most gratifying compliments I have ever received. It was graduation time at Hood College in Frederick, Maryland, where I was the Chaplain.  Our graduation speaker was Elizabeth Kubler- Ross. She had just recently written her book, “On Death and Dying.” In our death denying culture, it had become an overnight sensation.  As we were leaving the commencement exercises, she took me aside to thank me for my words at the beginning and the closing of the ceremony. It was a reflection on what I said, not a casual “thank you.” It was obvious, she had actually listened to my remarks!

I’m in the midst of reading a later book of hers, “Death: The Final Stage of Growth.” This book is primarily a collection of other authors. Of special interest to me are several chapters where approaches to death and dying are explored by different religious traditions. For instance, the development of contemporary thought in Hinduism is explored from the time of the Vedas, through the Upanishads, to the Bhagavad Gita, and finally, in Hindu mythology. The author reveals a progressive understanding of death and dying, not a static one. It makes me wonder if this isn’t historically true of other traditions as well.

In another chapter, a Rabbi writes about a Jewish view of death. His contribution is basically a focus on several guidelines for dying. In his analysis, it becomes critically important for the person facing death to be able to put their house in order. They should have the opportunity to bless family members and share with them any messages of importance. Finally, they should have ample opportunity to make their peace with God. There are Jewish guidelines for mourning in this section as well, written by another author.

One can also read Buddhist thought on death, rebirth and liberation. Buddhism recognizes that we are being born and die anew in every moment. We are not the same today as we were yesterday. Some Buddhists believe as soon as you experience bodily death, you are born again in a different body. And it is possible to be liberated from that process of dying and rising, reaching an ultimate state of bliss, with work, knowledge and patience.

 Then there is a chapter on an understanding from an indigenous community in Alaska. This chapter is written by a Christian pastor appreciative of what he sees; people having an understanding of their own approaching death and growing into it. In his story, a matriarch recognizes her impending death, so she calls people together. The pastor helps gather family members, flying them in from different parts of the Arctic, but one was still missing. So the matriarch waited till the missing one could be present and expired shortly thereafter, that same day.           

We have much to learn from indigenous cultures about death as a part of life; how we should be recognizing death at our door and opening the door with love; rather than adding more locks and bolts and bringing out the shotgun. I recall a story of a Lakota woman recognizing her approaching death and singing her “death song;” only to find herself in the hospital hooked up to all manner of machines. She was eventually sent home, heavily medicated and often in severe pain.

One could wish Kubler-Ross had made a greater impact on U.S. culture; still largely death denying. Death is not a welcome subject of conversation; and the denial and fear of death manifests in unconscious ways. Two examples are most evident. We are still the most practiced of any country on the planet in the exploitation of the earth for our comfort and privilege; most of which ends up in enormous and expanding landfills. The way we generate, produce and market things, one would think there is no tomorrow. We are led to believe we can’t live without any of it. Consume while you can, for tomorrow you may die, is the capitalist mantra. 

The second example is our fascination with guns. Apparently, enormous numbers of our countrymen and women are so afraid of their neighbors and threats to their life, that they even harbor weapons of war to “protect” themselves. The overriding and ultimate fear is not the fear of the burglar or murderer, but the fear of death. Hence, the handgun in the desk, or the A-R 15 in the closet.

One of the ways Martin Luther King suggested Christians could overcome evil and the fear of death, was to look internally first, with a daily examination of their own conscience. Is there a personal defect that can be overcome with God’s grace? Are we going into debt morally or spiritually? What virtue might be cultivated to replace any recognized fault? In many ways, this daily opportunity to assess one’s life is also a particularly useful process to make preparation for one’s death. 

King says, don’t just count the money at the end of the day! Count the sins and their solutions; the personal demerits and personal credits; the forgivens and forgivings; the selfishness and the sharings; the life affirming and the death defying. Daily balancing and spiritual intention are excellent preparation, for banishing fear, and welcoming the final assessment!

Carl Kline

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