The Rev. Rob Courtney
Fr. Rob is the Rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church & School
In this post we conclude our Lenten journey through life's five hard truths. These truths are explored in more detail in Richard Rohr's book Adam's Return: The Five Promises of Male Initiation. Last week, we talked about the truth that you are not in control. This week's final truth is that you are going to die.
No one likes talking about death, particularly our own. Two of the most important liturgies we do all year revolve specifically around death, and unsurprisingly those services--Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, which bookend the season of Lent--are not as well-attended as some other days of special observance. I've talked to some people over the years who specifically avoid those liturgies. People have told me things like, "Why would I go to Good Friday? It makes me too sad." or "I don't see the point of spending that much time talking about death." There are certainly instances where I can sympathize with the avoidance--maybe, for instance, you've recently lost someone you love, and the pain is too acute. On the other hand, I've also encountered people for whom these days are incredibly meaningful. For many the observances help connect them to their own grief, help them see more clearly where they seek change, or help them experience God's solidarity with them in their own suffering even through the tragedy and reality of death.
The two things we have in common with every other human being who ever has or ever will grace this planet is birth and death. Death is simply a part of life, and it connects us with everyone in the world, past, present, and future. Death is something we can spend time being anxious about, or we can accept it in order to gain the freedom truly to live. There it is. Yes, I am going to die. You are going to die. BUT. Not yet. Which raises a big question for us that the poet Mary Oliver pointedly and beautifully asks in her poem "Summer Day":
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean--
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down --
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?
"Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"--Mary Oliver, "Summer Day"
Accepting the truth that we are going to die sets us free to ask this question of ourselves: I've got one life to live to the fullest. What will I do with it?
Richard Rohr makes a point about death that had never occurred to me in quite this way before. He writes, "If God is so patient and merciful and forgiving and accepting with us day after day in this world, which most religions teach, then why not believe the same is true after death?" We believe that "God is love" (1 John 4:8, 4:16). Why wouldn't a God who is love continue to show us love even after death? Rohr continues, "Yes, we are going to die, but we have already been given a kind of inner guarantee and promise right now that death is not final--and it takes the form of love. . . . Love knows love; it completes the circuit. Only love in us can see love over there, which is why God commands us to love. It is not a test or a trial; it is just that until you love yourself, you will not be able to see or allow or enjoy love over there. I call it the principle of likeness. Like recognizes like." In other words, as Rohr later says, "Most simply when we live in love, we will not be afraid to die. We have built a bridge between worlds."
Maybe this is something like what Jesus means when, in his final discourse to his disciples before he dies in John's gospel account, he says, "“As the Father loved me, I too have loved you. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I kept my Father's commandments and remain in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy will be in you and your joy will be complete. This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you" (John 15:9-12, CEB). Jesus commands us to love, always to love, because love is the bridge.
It's also something like what Paul means when he wrote to the Romans, "I'm convinced that nothing can separate us from God's love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created" (Romans 8:38-39). The beloved (you and me!) cannot be separated from the Lover.
To quote another poet, W. H. Auden, "Life is the destiny you are bound to refuse until you have consented to die." Acceptance offers perspective on what is truly important. It allow us to say to ourselves, "Yes, you are going to die. BUT. Not yet! You now know what to live for!" Our lives are meant to be lived for one purpose and one purpose only--to love.
"LIfe is the destiny you are bound to refuse until you have consented to die."
Let's do a quick recap of the five hard truths, and their corollaries which Richard Rohr calls "the common wonderful":
Now that you know the truth, "Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"
The Rev. Rob Courtney
Fr. Rob is the Rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church & School
Only two truths left in our Lenten journey through life's five hard truths. These truths are explored in more detail in Richard Rohr's book Adam's Return: The Five Promises of Male Initiation. Last week, we talked about the truth that your life is not about you. This week's truth is that you are not in control.
Throughout my life, I've encountered situations over which I've had zero control. It can be frustrating and anxiety inducing. In fact, my life has felt totally out of control at some points, which is true for you too, I'm sure. For me, the time when I felt the least control in my life was probably my early 20s when I'd lost my parents to health issues. That period of life was one when I didn't know which way was up. While there are always factors in our lives that we can control, things like unexpected health issues, the death of loved ones, economic downturns, weather events and other natural disasters, not to mention myriad other occurences, there's a lot we cannot control. Think of the last three years--whether COVID or Hurricane Ida, etc., there's a been a lot about life that's totally outside of our control.
I just did a quick Google search of the phrase "get control of your life" and it offered approximately 377,000 results. Clearly, there are a lot of people who feel like they need to reign their lives in, and there are many people out there who are willing to help. A lot of the advice is good, like this article I found. One of my favorite books from the last couple of years is called At Your Best: How to Get Time, Energy & Priorities Working in Your Favor by Carey Nieuwhof. I highly recommend this book. Nieuwhof does a lot of coaching for pastors and other church leaders, but this book is for any and everyone. In one section, he talks about control, and he says this: "There is so much within our control--from our bedtime, to our attitude, to what we eat and drink, to the sequence with which we tackle our work, to what we let slide and what we embrace. You have more control than you think. So do I. Mindset matters. . . . Focus on what you can control, not on what you can't" (p. 105-106). Sometimes, for instance, we allow people around us to dictate our schedules and our priorities. Why? A text comes through on your day off, or you're focusing on a task that needs completing and someone comes into your office with a problem--we end up dropping things and allowing other people to decide what's important for us. Nieuwhof calls this "hijacked priorities," and he says they "happen when you allow other people to determine what you get done" (p. 27). We're often afraid to say "no," or aren't sure how to say it with grace. Sure, sometimes things are important and derail us, but aren't there also a lot of things that, in hindsight, could wait? Absolutely. Whose fault is it really when someone hijacks my priorities? Well . . . *sigh* . . . me.
Yes, there are a lot of things within our control, and usually more than we think. At the same time, like some of the examples I listed above--illness, death, natural disaster--there's a ton we can't control, too. Richard Rohr points out that we live in a control-obsessed society. The modern age believes all problems can be solved, and will do its best to wring the mystery out of anything. He writes, "We are destined to become control freaks in a secular society because there is no one who we know, trust, or like enough to finally hand over control to. In fact, you would be absolutely irresponsible if you did not micromanage everything and engineer every situation" (Adam's Return, p. 161). He goes on to say that in a society like that, "When so many people have been given a sense of entitlement and deservedness, when taking control of your life has been made into a national mantra, quite contrary to the whole spiritual tradition, we are setting ourselves up for hurt and for hurting one another more than ever before" (p. 162).
I believe a lot of anxiety (at least mine, anyway) comes from spending too much time worrying about things I cannot control. This is what the "serenity prayer," made most famous by AA, has been trying to teach us all for a very long time.
"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference."
Acceptance. Courage. Wisdom. When I read those words they give me a lot of comfort, and make me realize how much stress, anxiety, and worry I could have spared myself over the years (heck, even over the past week!), if I'd prayed those words and taken them to heart. Sometimes, people will say the rather trite phrase "give it to God." Like, whatever my problems are, I can just hand them over to God. Yes, it's something of a platitude, but at its core that phrase is about acceptance. Surrender. A life of faith asks us to submit ourselves to God's will rather than our own will. Rohr emphasizes that this is not about giving up responsibility for our lives. He writes," Surrendering to the divine flow is not about giving up, giving in, capitulating, becoming a puppet, being naïve, being irresponsible, or stopping all planning and thinking. Surrender is about a peaceful inner opening that keeps the conduit of living water flowing. . . . Surrender is a willingness to trust that you really are a beloved [child], which allows God to be your Father" (p. 163). What if we truly accepted that a loving God, who is bigger than us, really does have us, really is working in our lives, and just allowed the flow to happen instead of kicking against it?
A couple of years ago my family and I went whitewater rafting. Some of those rapids were a little more than we expected, and on one rough patch we did not do a good job of listening to our guide's instructions to get down low in the boat. As a result, we flipped, and all went careening in different directions. I found myself fighting to get back to the surface, realized I was under the boat, panicked--it was ugly. Then I remembered him telling us, on the safety of dry land, "If you fall in, don't panic, and don't fight the current. Let it take you, and you'll pop right up to the surface." I gave in. Bloop! Popped right up, got my bearings, and was able just to stand up in the flow. That's what I think of when I hear Rohr explain the "divine flow." Surrendering to it, rather than fighting it by trying to make something happen by my own flailing around, was the key.
In the gospels, Jesus gives what I find to be strange and difficult advice: "Don't worry about your life," he says. "Who among you by worrying can add a single moment to your life" (Luke 12:25, CEB). Go read Luke 12:22-34 for more context. Notice he counsels specifically not to worry about the basic needs of life: food, clothing, shelter. He's not saying everything will be perfect, but he does remind us that God knows we need those basics, and I think he is trying to offer some perspective. Most of what I worry about is not the basics of life. I sometimes forget how fortunate I am to have those things, along with many other things that are blessings I take for granted each day. In one sense, it's easy for Jesus to say, "Stop worrying." It's puzzled me at times because worry feels like an emotion, and how do I stop an emotion? Maybe, though, this is where something like the serenity prayer comes in. Or a recognition of what I do have and things I can control.
Acceptance. Courage. Wisdom. Perspective. Surrender.
It's true. When it comes down to some of the biggest things in life--life itself, death, etc.--you are not in control. BUT. You can trust surrendering yourself to a God who loves you and knows what you need. You can also trust your true self (see last week's truth). And can "you by worrying can add a single moment to your life"? If we internalize Jesus' counsel before we hit rough waters, then when we do hit them it becomes much easier to remember to give ourselves over to the flow.
I'll give Rohr the last word, because he articulates is far better than I: "Ironically, when you give up your control mechanisms, you are able to live with both feet gently on the accelerator and move with the divine flow. Without all the inner voices of resistance, it is amazing how much you can get done and not get tired. . . . It is a school for the final letting go that we call death. Practice giving up control early in life. You will be much happier and much closer to the truth, to the moment, and to God--none of which can be experienced by taking control of your life" (p. 163).
"Practice giving up control early in life. You will be much happier and much closer to the truth, the moment, and to God."--Richard Rohr