Sep  2017 12
An Ecclesiastes Moment

About 40 years ago, I visited Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C. The senior pastor was Dr. Ed Bauman, made famous through the Bauman Bible Telecasts (1958-1992), back when the liberal mainline had a substantial TV presence in most cities, often through the local council of churches.

His Bible lessons were widely circulated among mainline congregations. I don’t remember anything else about the sermon, other than the opening. Dr. Bauman leaned across the substantial pulpit about as far as he could. He turned his head slowly across the congregation, as if he were trying to catch everyone’s eyes individually.

Then, in a raised voice he intoned, “Someday, you are each going to die!” I don’t recall the rest of the sermon, other than that this might be the only sermon opening I recall in all the sermons I’ve heard.

At least annually, I want to be reminded in church that I am going to die. In addition to funerals and memorial services. In addition to reminders of death because we prayed for victims of natural disasters, heroic first-responders who did not make it, or the survivors of senseless and preventable violence.

There are many people not far from me who don’t need the reminder than they are going to die. They live in a zip code where the life expectancy is two decades less than mine. They go to school having to cross streets that divide warring micro-gangs. They suffer from a dearth of good food and affordable healthcare. They have multiple relatives who did not live through their teens.

But I am part of the world that grew up with antibiotics (or the multiple cases of strep I had before I reached the age of five might have taken me), with relatively low physical violence, and with religion that became secular. By “secular” I mean of this age, dealing with life in this world, rather than how to get to heaven.

Dealing with one’s own death has become option, much of the time.

In the 19th century, Christianity focused on how to get to heaven… and how to avoid the alternative.

Hell, and Satan with horns and tail, were really real for 19th century Christians in the U.S. Whether the preacher was a Protestant or a Catholic, the threat of hell for an unsaved person was an essential sermon topic. In fact, other than among Unitarians and Universalists, a preacher who never brought up the possibility of eternal damnation might be accused of malpractice.

In the 19th century, death was never far away. Childbirth endangered both mother and child. Diseases, cured simply today, enriched the undertaker. Wars and weather, infections and illnesses, falls and medical fallacies all killed.

Funerals were held in churches and homes, not in a rented parlor. In Chicago, I remember visiting a home constructed in the 19th century with a “coffin corner” on the staircase, designed to allow pall bearers to turn the coffin on the stairs where the stairs turned.

Can you imagine today a family holding a visitation for a deceased loved one at home?

With death always near and living under the threat of hell and the promise of heaven, preachers peppered their messages with calls to repent and, like Dr. Bauman, reminded the congregants that each and every one of them was going to die.

In comparison to the 19th century, in the 20th century death receded, and so did the threat of hell and the promise of heaven.

Among liberal mainline Protestants, salvation became this worldly. Life is not just a gymnasium to train for the next. Today is the day God has given us! Justice, equity, equal opportunity, and the like should be the bases for society. Whatever comes after death, God loves us all, nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:39).

I absolutely affirm these social values.

And the old wisdom is: the better I make my peace with my own mortality, the better person I can be. The fear of death is the primal human fear.

Philosophy, much poetry, and all religion, in one way or another, deals with the fear of death. So is having children. So is having an affair or acting out a mid-life crisis. As long as human beings have built cities, (mostly) men have tried to immortalize themselves by putting their names on steles and buildings, and by starting wars.

One might claim that the massive efforts of 19th century American Christianity to deal with the fear of death did not result in more moral, more grounded, more just and compassionate people. Probably so.

One could overcome the fear of death and simply be like the Klingon warrior Worf on Star Trek, “Today is a good day to die.” That is one way of making your peace with death.

When the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible was published, one of the changes that made great sense to me was to change from “man” to “mortal,” as in “God has showed you, o Mortal, what is good.”

To be reminded that I am mortal, that God is God and I am not, could have another outcome than, “Today is a good day to die.”

How do we, in Christianity, get to the point of testifying, “Today is a good day to live. As mortals, we see death, and we see love as stronger than death. Therefore, I am here to learn to love with all my heart, and soul, and strength”?

At least once a year, please. And more often might not hurt.

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips Faculty
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