Advances in modern medicine have nearly convinced us that we can sustain our bodies forever. But the truth is otherwise.
New King James Translation
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures:
He leads me beside the still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley
of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil:
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff comfort me.
You prepare a feast for me
in the presence of my enemies:
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy
shall follow me
all the days of my life
and I shall dwell
in the house of the Lord
Caution: the first two paragraphs refer to end of life issues that some may find upsetting.
My mother-in-law is in the middle of what I call “the Hospital Cycle.” Those of you who have had elderly relatives or friends with advanced heart disease know the steps in this process: the trip to the emergency room, the scans, the tests, the hospital admission, the IVs, the oxygen line, the heart monitor, the soft-spoken, sympathetic nurses whose eyes tell you far more than words can say… Then the return home, or to a skilled nursing facility where, before long, the cycle repeats. It is the systematic, increasingly heroic effort to keep us alive, long after our strength has faded and our spirits have wearied.
Despite it all, the darkwinged angel waits patiently, knowingly. And so, in time, we die amid beeping monitors and blinking screens, our bodies perforated with wires and tubes and hoses, the scent of ammonia in our nostrils, our vision blocked by a privacy screen. The American Way of Death.
It’s not what anyone wants; yet it is the way we so often choose — or become swept up in: fighting the inevitable with every weapon in our considerable arsenal. We behave as though medicines and machines will give us eternal life; yet, in the end, medical miracles have their limits, and even the young may grow weak, and the strong will stumble and fall. (Isaiah 40:30)
We are mortal. That’s the inconvenient truth we have such trouble accepting. Perhaps that’s why Psalm Twenty-three is so abidingly popular. It’s an image of tranquility, of calm confidence even as we “walk through the valley of the shadow of death.”
That valley is not the exclusive province of the ill or the aged; each one of us walks through it, every day. As thinking, aware creatures, we understand that life is fragile and finite. Unlike dogs or cats or the squirrels who turn merry somersaults across the lawn, we know that our time here is limited. There is no guarantee of tomorrow, not for us or for anyone.
It is how we deal with that knowledge that matters.
And, with the remarkable creativity of our species, there is a large variety of options for doing so — primarily in ways of distracting us or disguising the fact of our mortality.
We can succumb to these temptations to lie to ourselves quite innocently; unknowingly, hardly realizing them as pale substitutes for hope or faith. Allowing these silly artifices to obscure what is truly important, we miss out on living our lives fully, meaningfully.
What is the benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? Is anything worth more than your soul?
~ Matthew 16:26
We may find ourselves drawn into virtual reality; living our lives on-line, engaging in (irresolvable) political debates, signing petitions, focusing on “out there,” rather than in our own lives. While it is important to be a knowledgeable and involved citizen, how much time is “enough,” and what are we not seeing/hearing/doing while on the internet?
It’s equally easy to distract ourselves with stuff — most notably through the infamous “retail therapy” method. Shopping is easy, stores are filled with sights and sounds and smells and people: there’s no time to think, but simply be entertained. Equally we may become “collectors”: stamps, coins, shoes, lawn ornaments, teacups, bottle caps, ancient manuscripts, figurines…. the world is large, there is much to choose from! Having an outside interest should add spice to our lives, not be a substitute for them.
For some, the fact of our mortality is treated as a challenge. These are the folks who engage in dangerous behaviors, take unnecessary (“death defying”) risks, repeatedly putting their lives on the line; playing dodge-ball with the Grim Reaper. In the young this attitude may be simple foolishness, but “cheating death” can become an obsession — each success adds to the addiction, the thrill of the game and the conviction that one more round can be won.
Then there are the ways in which the desire to live forever can poison other people’s lives. There are the spiritual Svengalis who seek to control those around them by innuendo, intimidation, and threats; the clergy who preach damnation rather than the Gospel, proclaiming their own prejudices to be divine mandates; the parents who demand that their children excel in every field and endeavor, focused on “success” — never happiness, mining their children’s souls for the material to build for themselves a “lasting legacy.”
Most alarmingly, we may decide that the only reasonable choice in a world where death lurks around every corner is to shelter in place. Seeking safety first, we avoid all possible dangers and unpleasantness, any exposure to sickness or suffering; other people are too “high risk” for us to get involved. Timidly, fearfully, we tremble and watch life unfold from the sidelines like mice at a cat jamboree. And that is truly tragic.
“Do not be afraid.” This admonition is repeated over and over and over throughout the Holy Scriptures. It must be in there for a reason.
Perhaps that is because fear poses a greater risk to us than all other dangers combined. Fear can make us do crazy things. It can drive us to make terrible choices; to hurt, to wound, to destroy. It can cloud our thinking and close our hearts, shutting out all compassion, sympathy, and mercy. Fear can squeeze the life out of us. It can poison our souls.
The solution is to live fearlessly; to greet each new day with tranquil courage and great expectations; to live in the moment cheerfully, certain that, whatever may come, All Will Be Well.
Of course that’s easy to say… much harder to do.
That’s where our Psalm comes in. It is a testament to tranquility, that not only speaks of peace, but brings it about as we take in the words. Here is my contemporary interpretation:
God is in charge; I will be ok;
I see beauty all around me,
I breathe deep, and relax.
My soul awakens.
I walk with grace and compassion because I am beloved.
Death is a mere shadow, it has no substance,
I will pass through it into the Light of God;
my life is sacred to the Lord, there is no cause for fear.
Abundant treasures are mine, that no one can take from me;
I am a priest, my soul God’s holy temple;
I am rich beyond compare.
All is well, now and forever,
God’s love and mercy are everlasting,
I dwell in peace, I am the Lord’s.
All is well, all is well, all will be well. We have nothing to fear. Not even death itself — least of all, death. The darkwinged angel is not an enemy, simply an escort who leads us through the shadow and into the radiant, eternal Light. And the angel serves, too, as a reminder: Live this life fully — with courage, joy, and compassion, and do not be afraid.
Virtual hugs and real-time blessings,
Spend time with the Twenty-Third Psalm. Let it speak to your soul.