Two funerals this weekend of old and dear friends, word yesterday of a college fraternity brother’s death, learning a few weeks ago about the tragic death of a good friend’s wife, the stunning, televised, funeral of John McCain, and several close friends with terminal illnesses. When you are in your mid 70s, it is hard to miss the writing on the wall: we aren’t going to live forever.
So what are we to make of this? Is death the moment of our passing into eternal life when we will be reunited with our loved ones who have died before and the moment we will be with God forever? Do you believe this? I don’t, and neither did the friend of mine whose funeral was this weekend. Yet that is what one of the eulogists said about him—that my friend knew that when he died my friend was certain he would go straight to heaven, be reunited with his loved ones, and sit next to Jesus. Even though he was a loyal and regular churchgoer, I know he didn’t believe this because the two of us had a conversation about it the week before he died. He was in hospice, very weak, and knew the end was near.
“You know, Joe,” he said, “I am a deeply spiritual person and believe in God. I believe that there is a purpose to life and a purpose to the universe. I feel truly blessed and grateful for my life. But do I believe my cremated ashes will be magically reassembled and suddenly I will find myself at a banquet table seated next to Jesus Christ? Please! Death remains a mystery. And what happens next? Who knows? I know some Christians who say, probably nothing. When we die, it is over. And I say that is ok to believe that. What happens next is not what is really important. What is really important is how we live our life on Earth. That is what counts.”
The funeral service for him was packed. By his standard he scored high. He lived a rich and full life and was loved by many.
The other funeral Embry and I attended was also in an Episcopal Church. This friend was a former neighbor, a distinguished member of the foreign service, a former ambassador, and a pillar of his church. His memorial service was also standing room only and recognition of a long and productive life, lived to the fullest. The liturgy was mostly from the Gospel of John with its assurance of eternal life—but only for those who have committed themselves to Christ and are true believers. My neighbor lived and worked all over the world and knew people of many faiths. He was progressive politically and theologically. I could not help wondering what he would have thought of these passages.
As some of you may know, I studied to become an Episcopal priest and have a Masters of Divinity degree. I was not ordained into the priesthood but have been an active churchman almost all of my adult life, serving in virtually every lay capacity that you can. Embry has done the same and currently sings in the choir and serves on the vestry at our neighborhood Episcopal Church. We have paid our dues. But does this mean that we have all the answers or that we have certainty that we are going to live in eternity after we die? And how important is having the assurance of eternal life in making sense out of our own, all-too-short, lives on this small, blue planet in a vast universe of billions and billions of galaxies, each with its billions and billions of stars, many with their own planets?
The short answer, in my view, is not very. My friend was right. While no one knows for certain what happens after we die, what we all know is that we do die and have a very short period of time to make the most out of the life we have been given.
I have struggled with the mystery of death and what happens next for a long time. During my years in seminary I spent one summer in Boston as a chaplain at Boston City Hospital where I also participated in a program called “clinical training.” Part of this involved daily, group therapy sessions led by a trained counselor designed to help seminarians better understand themselves and do better relating to and providing pastoral care to their flock. Toward the end of the program we all had to write an essay about death. I struggled with this and then poured out my heart on paper, trying to make some sense of what death means. When I got the paper back, I received a D with the inscription by one of the program leaders that I would have gotten an F but for the fact that it would have meant that I would have failed the entire clinical training program and also that my essay was well written and thoughtful. My mistake: no mention of the guarantee of an eternal afterlife for Christians and no mention of being united with Jesus Christ forever.
When I asked him about it later, he replied earnestly, “Joe, this is the most fundamental part of the Christian faith. If you are not a believer in going to heaven where you will be with God and Jesus, many in the church believe you are going to hell. How could you leave something like this out?”
Short answer: because I do not believe it. I did not believe it then, and I do not believe it now. So after all some 55 years have passed, I am no closer today than I was then to “knowing the truth.”
The main role of religion in the human drama, I believe, is giving us some guideposts and affirming universal values, which are remarkably similar across most major religions: values like love, fairness, generosity, justice, honesty, kindness, integrity, selflessness, helping others, humility, and reverence for the Divine.
Now you know why I was deemed unfit for the Episcopal priesthood.
So in my mid 70s when this weekend I attended funerals of two good friends, one about five years younger and the other five years older, I couldn’t help acknowledging that the end of the road is getting closer for my generation and for me. That is just the way it is for us humans, in fact, for all living things. And the odd thing is that the idea of approaching the end of the road scared me a lot more as a young man than it does now. But I suppose this is natural. As a young person you have a whole life in front of you. The fear is that you will not get your chance. As an old man, you have had your chance. You have given life your best shot.
I was a runner for most of my adult life until my knees gave out, and think that running a marathon is a good metaphor for our journey through life. Running a marathon—or any long race—is really, really hard. You struggle to keep going and finally when you stumble across the finish line, you collapse in fatigue and joy. Hey, you did it! You finished the race! No, you didn’t win, but you were never supposed to. You ran at your own pace. And you finished.
And I think that is the way life is. And for that I thank God, who goes by different names in many languages and in many religions. I acknowledge the Divine mystery that we humans can’t explain but which gives meaning to the race we run and in the end, gives us reason to believe that on some deeper level, it all makes sense.