I am inevitably approaching the end of my story, the end of my life. Although there have been times of depression, and struggling with a sense of failure and darkness has been a recurring theme, especially in the second half of my life, I wouldn’t change the life I have been given and the amazing wealth of opportunities, which I have usually embraced enthusiastically although often with some apprehension. So many good things have happened and I am so proud of my three children and their families, as well as the young people sponsored through TESS in Uganda.
Luningi, an old African refugee in Germany in the novel “The Shadow Girls” by Henning Mankell, says: “The only thing I fear [about death] is that when I feel my death is approaching, I will not have enough money or strength to return to the place where I was born. One can live a rootless existence, but one cannot die without knowing where one should plant one’s last and most valuable roots.” I identify with this sentiment and planned my funeral long ago; and, with the consent of my family, I have planned organ donation and where I will be buried. I have two homes – here in Loughborough and in Teso. So it feels very important for me that half my ashes will be buried in the lovely natural burial ground just outside Loughborough and half will be taken to Teso to be buried in John Omagor’s home in Kobwin. My grandson, Adam, has already said he is happy to take them to Teso. Is there a sense in which these two places, amongst my extended UK and Ugandan families, will be where my “last and most valuable roots” will be planted?
I have mixed feelings about dying. I no longer fear the end, as I did when I was younger, because it feels more natural at my age, although I fear the actual process, the pain and sickness and invasive procedures that may be involved. But I do feel sad at the thought of leaving friends and family, especially my grandchildren. Although I am selfishly relieved that I shall not be around much longer to endure the horrific consequences of what we, the rich and educated people, have done in and to our world, I also feel a sense of fear, corporate guilt and hopelessness about the world, with all its problems and crises, that my grandchildren, and their generation all over the world, are inheriting from us.
Dying is part of the everyday cycle of life and growing. I always benefitted personally from preparing sermons, and still find the insights from a sermon I preached in 1993 on Passion Sunday, just before Easter, helpful as I contemplate death and dying.
“Today’s theme is the Victory of the Cross. Why are we thinking about the victory of the cross today, two weeks before Good Friday and Easter? Because it gives us a glimpse and offers us the promise that Good Friday, the pain and suffering that is yet to be gone through, will not be the end, but the way through to resurrection. Death and suffering are an important part of life. What today’s celebration promises is that death is not the end, but the gateway to new life. That is the victory of the cross.
“Our readings today (Exodus 6:2-13, Colossians 2:8-15 and John 12:20-32) are full of pictures and stories of death and suffering – and in each case, it is the prelude to new life. We have heard about the groaning of the Israelites as they suffered the cruelty of slavery. We’ve heard about death and burial vividly portrayed by two pictures, one of being drowned and buried in the waters of baptism, and the other of a grain of wheat dying in the soil. We’ve read about losing our life. We’ve glimpsed already something of the anguish Jesus went through before his crucifixion. And Jesus hints at the cross to which he will be nailed and then lifted up from the earth.
“The Bible seems to be telling us that death of some sort is a pre-requisite for new and richer life. Death is the key to salvation – the way to resurrection. That doesn’t feel very comfortable, does it? And is it really true?
“Let’s look at our own experience of death followed by new life in the natural world.
“We are just emerging from a period of death and decay and darkness. Most of us don’t actually enjoy winter, and it can be quite hard to cope with. But now we are enjoying the wonder of new life all around us – the daffodils and blossom and green buds are bursting forth everywhere and the long dark nights are getting shorter. It is the same in Uganda, when the rains start after the long, hot dry season during which everything dies off.
“What about the caterpillar? That enters the darkness of the cocoon and its body is completely broken down before it is re-formed and emerges as a beautiful butterfly. And then there are seeds. Seeds have to fall into the ground and be buried. As long as seeds remain in the packet, nothing will happen. But if they are buried in the ground, they will come to life. They will shoot up and grow and mature, perhaps producing beautiful flowers and fruits. And each seed will produce not just one flower or fruit, but a rich harvest.
“In all these examples, there are glimpses, hints and signs amidst the dying of the new life to come. Next year’s buds can be seen even before the old leaves fall off the trees in autumn; the markings on the cocoon already show the shape of the butterfly’s wings and body, and it even wriggles if you touch it. And the tiny root shoot is hidden in the seed – next time you eat a peanut, first break it in half and look for the perfect, tiny shoot waiting to grow.
“So our readings today also offer us hints and signs of the new life that is to come after the suffering and death of Good Friday.
“Through the victory of the cross, God offers us new life through Christ, but the condition is a letting go of the old. There is a death to be gone through first. Jesus states this very clearly in today’s Gospel reading. Anyone who tries to hold onto his life will lose it; but anyone who lets go will, paradoxically, save it. Life springs up and grows where the bearers of life don’t clutch it to themselves. It is a process of abandonment, losing control, perhaps losing your way in the wilderness and darkness, of falling, letting go, passing through.
“It’s not a process which God inflicts on his creation while he stands back and watches. It is a process which God himself, in Christ, has gone through and experienced and transformed – only thus can we talk in terms of the victory of the cross. It is, however, a painful process – there is no getting away from that fact. Jesus, in the end, gave himself up to the process, but not without a great struggle, and with pain and anguish.
“If someone goes to hit you, you instinctively try to protect yourself with your arms. But Jesus, instead of protecting himself and clutching at life, consented to open wide his arms and allow his hands to be nailed to the cross so that, as he was lifted up on the cross, he was torn apart. And as he was torn open by the weight of his body, his life poured out.
“He consented to open wide his arms, and so let go of life, still believing in the love of God his Father, who allowed him to go through the process of death and who seemed to Jesus to be absent and silent. And for three days, death had power over even God.
“But our hope of new life after death springs not just from the examples we see in nature, but from the fact that Jesus’s death was not the end of the story. Spring comes after winter, the seed buried in the ground sends up a new shoot, the butterfly emerges from the cocoon, and Easter follows Good Friday. God’s power is greater than death and was able to raise Jesus from the tomb. The victory of the cross lies in the affirmation that the ultimate death is the gateway to new life.
“But just because we can see that the process of death leading to new life is, in some way, part of God’s overall plan, we mustn’t trivialize the pain and grief and suffering involved in dying and bereavement. And I’m not just talking about physical death. I’m thinking also of all the many other ‘deaths’ we experience in life – feelings of being lost in a ‘wilderness’, depression and darkness, loss and separation, unemployment and redundancy, rejection, disappointment, moving house, broken relationships, illness and disability. There are so many experiences of death and bereavement all through life. It is all too easy for Christians to come out with pious platitudes that trivialise suffering – their own and others’. The pain and grief are real and have to be lived through. What we need is people who will watch and wait with us when we feel God has deserted us, and the pain and darkness are overwhelming us, just as Mary and John did at the foot of the cross. It is not loving and supportive to tell someone to pull himself together, or “think of all those who are even worse off” or “Never mind, things will soon be better”. Jesus’s pain and suffering was very real – and so is ours.
“We come here today to receive bread and wine. We have this bread to share among us only because grains of wheat fell into the darkness of the earth and died and so yielded a rich harvest. And the whole loaf of bread can only be shared by being broken apart. The only reason we share this bread amongst us in this way is because Jesus consented to go through the experience of death by opening wide his arms on the cross, so letting go of his life and losing it.
“The breaking of bread and the sharing of wine, symbols of Christ’s brokenness and death, are vivid reminders of the process of new life following death. But they are more than that. They are the means by which we can bring our own brokenness and suffering and experiences of death, whatever they may be, to God, trusting him to transform them as we share in the victory of the cross. And as we share in Christ’s experience of death, so we are raised to new life in and through and with him.
“So as you come to share in the bread, which is made from the rich harvest following the death of grains of wheat and is the symbol of Christ’s broken body, bring to him all your own experiences of death and brokenness, pain and darkness, rejection and depression, trusting God to raise you up to new life as he raised Christ after his experience of death.
“In order to receive the bread and wine, we need to hold up and open out our hands. As we hold open our hands, we can offer to God our own pain and experiences of death. It will also mean being willing to let go of whatever we are clutching at or protecting, even our own life. This will involve risk and may be very difficult and costly to do. But as we hold out our hands and let go, we will receive the bread and wine which is God’s promise of his gift of new life. His love and power will not take us away from darkness and suffering and death, but will bring us through it and raise us up to new life. And look for God’s hints and signs, amidst the pain and suffering, of the new life he promises us. After the service, come and take some grains of wheat to take home and plant, to remind us of this promise.
“’He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life; and I will raise him up on the last day.’ This is the Victory of the Cross.”
Likewise, Buddhist teacher Frank Ostaseski believes that life and death should not be seen as being separate states, but all part of the same process:
“Suppose we stopped compartmentalizing death, cutting it off from life. Imagine if we regarded dying as a final stage of growth that held an unprecedented opportunity for transformation. Could we turn toward death like a master teacher and ask, “How, then, shall I live?”
I also agree with Cynthia Bourgeault, an American Episcopalian priest, that the death of our physical form is not the death of our individual personhood. Our personhood remains alive and is “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3).
I wrote this reflection on the breath of life in 2017, a few years after my father died.
Years of waiting, months of uncertain anticipation, hours of labour are over as the baby is finally pushed out into this world. It’s a boy. But the seconds waiting, with bated breath, for the loud cry which indicates his first intake of breath feel interminable. It’s a breath in, not out. Everything from this moment onwards depends on breathing.
Ninety six years of beauty and growth, of love and commitment, pioneering service, gentleness, were sustained throughout by breathing, in and out, in and out….
Rarely did he or anyone else notice this constant rhythm – unless he was running to catch a train or snoring whilst deeply asleep – until the time came to surrender. He went to bed early.
“What would you like to eat or drink?”
“Nothing, thank you.”
“What about your antibiotics?”
“I don’t want to take any more.”
With love, sensitivity and dignity, he said his goodbyes. His breathing became shallower, slower. He drifted into sleep – no snoring now. He took his last breath in – and gently, silently, it slipped out.
YaHWeH, God, never had a first breath in and will never have a last breath – he is and always has existed as the Breath of Life who sustains all that he lovingly creates. Before the baby took his first breath, he was sustained by the breath of his mother, of God himself. After his last breath, he was taken back into the eternal Breath of God.
I try to become more aware of God’s sustaining and eternal Breath of Life by breathing in YaH and breathing out WeH. Each breath links my past (and my first breath) to this present moment and to my future, to my final breath out when I finally surrender fully into God’s hands. “Jesus called out in a loud voice, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my Spirit.’ And when He had said this, he breathed his last.”
After being diagnosed with a terminal illness, Philip Simmons (1957–2002) wrote: “We deal most fruitfully with loss by accepting the fact that we will one day lose everything. When we learn to fall, we learn that only by letting go our grip on all that we ordinarily find most precious—our achievements, our plans, our loved ones, our very selves—can we find, ultimately, the most profound freedom. In the act of letting go of our lives, we return more fully to them.
“To accept death is to live with a profound sense of freedom. The freedom, first, from attachment to the things of this life that don’t really matter: fame, material possessions, and even, finally, our own bodies. Acceptance brings the freedom to live fully in the present. The freedom, finally, to act according to our highest nature.”
Is dying the ultimate experience of crossing cultures and finding freedom? I think it probably is. But I won’t be able to confirm this for you – we shall each have to find out for ourselves when we come to that point of physical death.
* * *
Whilst on retreat in October 2016, I walked round a cemetery when I was out on a walk. As I looked at the many epitaphs on the headstones, I felt that I didn’t want anything like the usual ones on mine, so started to think through what I would want on my ‘headstone’ – if there ever is one!
Here, and in Uganda, lie the physical remains of
Margaret Ruth Stevens (Pain) who
was created by God in his image, which she sometimes spoiled;
was loved, challenged and encouraged by many on her journey;
who loved God and others, but not enough;
dreamed dreams and achieved some;
was open to the Holy Spirit, but often quenched his fire;
failed often, but accepted God’s way,
of ultimate failure of death on a cross;
trusted in God’s loving forgiveness and resurrection power
to bring her with Christ
to share in God’s eternal work
of creativity and transformation.
To God be the Glory.