Memories have become capricious things as I approach my seventh decade on Planet Earth. Conversations that I could swear happened just a few days ago actually go back 20 years or more, but there are days when I can’t remember if I had tea or coffee for breakfast.
One such memory came back to me as I watched the pomp and pageantry of Queen Elizabeth II’s state funeral. My memory bank opened when I saw King Charles III’s sister, Princess Anne, give him a worried sister look as they marched behind her mother’s coffin in their flag-draped armored chariot leaving Westminster Abbey. . Some time later, as a smaller crowd of royals and household staff were in St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle, I saw Charles with bloodshot eyes, the muscles in his jaw clenching as if trying to do not sob loudly, while the meeting sang “God save”. the King” after his mother’s coffin disappeared into the vault below.
Yes, he is now “Charles III, by the grace of God King of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Defender of the Faith and Head of all the Territories and the Commonwealth”, but he is still a son whose mother has died.
At that moment I remembered a 2002 conversation with the late United Methodist Bishop David Lawson when I explained that my absence from church business was due to the death of my mother.
“Ah,” Bishop Lawson said after a few moments of silence. You have entered the long goodbye.
“The long goodbye comes to us all.”
The long goodbye comes to us all. The passage of people and circumstances erodes our fragile shell of self-preservation, leaving behind what we spiritual directors sometimes call the “existential poverty” of humans: the awareness of our mortality.
Such awareness emerges even among the youngest of us. A popular Facebook video of a family singing “Happy Birthday” concludes with the opinion of one of the little brothers: “Though death is upon us.” The embarrassed giggles of their elders at the child’s comment shows how much we try to avoid the knowledge that everyone who lives will die, even little children at a birthday party.
Yet we still turn of the reality of our deaths.
Just a few months before my mother died, I served on a local religious resource committee related to a major Bill Moyers-PBS project on death in America. I learned two important lessons from that experience:
- Dying is a spiritual event, not a medical event.
- Hardly anyone wants to talk about death, let alone plan for it.
Understanding dying as a spiritual event has led me to the conviction that far from being a curse, our mortality not only conveys a blessing as an object but also a blessing as a practice. Resisting the reality of death deprives us of the deepest joys of life.
Let me explain.
Like many young Christians, For a long time I considered “blessings” to be those material things we seek from God, whom some pranksters have characterized as “that big gumball machine in the sky.” He was confused and even frightened when adults said that so-and-so’s death after a long and painful illness was “a blessing.” Death terrified me.
“I was confused and even scared when adults said that the death of so-and-so after a long and painful illness was ‘a blessing’.”
Then, when I was 18, my beloved father died after a year of suffering from cardiovascular disease. Worse yet, he died the day after his cardiologist told her he was doing so much better that his monthly checkups could be reduced to quarterly visits. The next day, while working at a small produce stand he had set up at a local flea market because he could no longer work as a manager at a major grocery store, Dad got up to serve a customer and fell. dead.
I was angry for years from then. Angry at my mother for the stormy times in her marriage. Angry at myself for going back to sleep when she should have gotten me up to say goodbye to my dad on the way to work. Most of all, I was mad at God for letting the good man my father was die just 20 days shy of his 46th birthday on Christmas Eve. Even after realizing much later that my father probably died of a pulmonary embolism rather than a heart attack, making his death mercifully quick, a small flame of anger burned deep in my soul. . That unacknowledged anger colored my life for decades.
Then in 1997 I went to the hospital for surgery to remove an overactive nodule in my thyroid gland. Instead, the surgeon found cancer in the midline of the gland, where it would have been undetectable had he not had fierce thyroid storms from the “hot” nodule spewing excess hormones. When I woke up in recovery and heard my surgeon say he had removed my cancerous thyroid gland, I thought I was having drug hallucinations. I fell asleep again, unsure of what I had heard.
“Sometime later I woke up back in the recovery room, but I wasn’t alone.”
Some time later I woke up back in the recovery room, but I wasn’t alone. Still drugged, however, I was aware of a Presence that surrounded me with a spiritual peace that I had never known before. All through that restless night, as I drifted in and out of consciousness, the question kept coming back: “Do I really have cancer?” Each time the Presence replied, “Yes, but I am with you.”
“Yes, but I’m with you.” This blessing led me to reflect ever more deeply on what it meant to be blessed with the visceral and inescapable knowledge that, like my father and mother, I will one day die.
For that blessing I began to lose the binary theology that was instilled in me from my evangelical youth. Events were no longer just good or bad. Instead, they became opportunities from which one could discern the good and, through that discernment, resist whatever evil presented itself. Although this concept had long been codified in the United Methodist Church baptismal covenanteven the blessing of mortality had spoken the words without understanding the true depth of their meaning.
Also, the process of discerning blessings made it possible to pass on blessings to others who were struggling as hard as I was to face their fear and anger at death. Instead of contempt and mockery for opponents, I developed compassion. Instead of fear, I cultivated attention to the Presence. Instead of despairing over the fallen state of the world, I practiced perseverance, thus beginning to reap hope, as Paul describes in Romans 5:5-6.
“Our Christian spirituality in the United States has given us an impoverished concept of ‘blessing.'”
After three years of seminary study and nearly a decade as a professional spiritual director, I have discerned that our Christian spirituality in the United States has given us an impoverished concept of “blessing.” This spiritual poverty endangers our society and our world.
Our intercessions for the healing of we ourselves and others get bogged down in our physical inactivity and consumption of “food-like products”. Our pleas for an end to police brutality and gun violence fail in our resistance to practicing conflict resolution that results in mutual security. Our belief that “might makes right” endangers the existence of our nuclear-armed world. Our lust for authority figures to solve our problems for us reveals our lazy selfishness. Our conviction that we have been given dominion over God’s creation has led us to devastate the planet with extractive economies instead of living in interdependence with all the world’s species. In none of these cases, and in thousands like them, have we sought authentic blessing, which I now believe is learning to bless one another.
On his deathbed, the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, is reported to have said, “Best of all, God is with us.” From my own experience, Wesley’s statement of faith has become my greatest blessing, sustenance, and joy. Now when death claims me, I will be blessed, and I hope to continue to bless those I leave behind.
Cynthia B Astle is a veteran journalist who has covered the United Methodist Church around the world at all levels for more than 30 years. She serves as the editor of United Methodist Insight, an online magazine he founded in 2011.
Other articles in this series:
‘We are so blessed!’ | Opinion of Mark Wingfield
Blessing is not about good fortune; is similar to the love of God | Opinion of Ann Bell Worley
Original blessing, the hashtag #blessed and what it really means to be blessed | Opinion of Ámbar Cantorna
When being a ‘blessing’ comes with some baggage | Opinion of Ámbar Cantorna