Thanatopsis: A consideration of death (and life)

I can’t begin to estimate how many times I’ve quoted part of a poem called “Thanatopsis” at funerals. It was written by William Cullen Bryant in the early 19th century. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve never taken the time before to look up the meaning of thanatopsis. According to Wikipedia it is derived from the Greek ‘thanatos’ (death) and ‘opsis’ (view, sight) and means “a consideration of death. Bryant was still a young adult when he wrote the poem, and the depth of his understanding of human mortality for one at any age is remarkable. The poem is much more than the title word can define; it is really a consideration of death and life because they are two sides of the same inseparable coin. One cannot die a good death without first living a good life.

The poem came to mind today because my father, who is 96, is very ill and likely nearing his own demise. As I wrestle with my emotions and thoughts nothing quite expresses my feelings than these closing words of “Thanatopsis.” They are wise words that always remind me that the key to being at peace with one’s mortality is living every day with integrity and gratitude. Thank you Mr. Bryant for wisdom far beyond your years. His poem ends with these words:

“So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan, which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.”

Advertisements

To Dust We Shall Return, An Ash Wednesday Meditation

“Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” That traditional reminder of our mortality that many Christians hear when ashes are imposed at the beginning of the Lenten season of repentance and reflection has always given me pause, which I guess is the whole idea. This year, my first Ash Wednesday as a septuagenarian makes those words more real than usual.

Mortality is one of those things we do not often speak of in polite company. Our youth-oriented culture is built on a shaky foundation of denial that Ash Wednesday threatens to expose. Maybe that’s why most churches are not overcrowded on that somber day. But mortality is a natural and essential part of our human condition. It can be argued it is one of the most important parts of what it means to be human. We don’t believe any other creatures are aware of their inevitable death, although I’m not sure that’s true.

Knowing our days are numbered is really a gift that makes it possible for us to value and prioritize the time we have in this life, and having the confidence that death is only a transition to another form of being frees us to embrace that gift.

So this Ash Wednesday this 70 something is going to enter a season of Lent reflecting on what God is calling me to do with the days remaining to me. I have no idea what that number is, but I know full well that it is a much smaller number than it was 10 or 20 years ago. On that score I find the wisdom of Psalm 90 sobering and uplifting at the same time:

“For all our days pass away under your wrath; our years come to an end like a sigh.
The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong;
So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
Let your work be manifest to your servants, and your glorious power to their children.
Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands—
O prosper the work of our hands!” (Selected verses from NRSV)

There’s plenty there to ponder for the entire 40 days of Lent, and that’s only part of the Psalm. The psalmist’s words call us to give up our regrets over what is past and fears of what is to come, to affirm and accept our dusty existence so we can “count our days” and make each one count.

The psalmist reminds us that we are alive only because of the grace of God, and that when attendance is called each morning we need to be present in every sense of that word because we have big work to do. God’s work is entrusted to us, God’s servants. That’s a huge job description, but if not me, then who? If not today, when?
We can even dare to consider accepting God’s mission as ours because with our marching orders comes the promise of God’s glorious power and that power alone can “prosper the work of hands.” Anything we do that is not according to God’s plan is doomed to failure.

I confess I begin too many days throwing a pity party for myself for the things I am no longer able to do. Ash Wednesday is a great day to repent, to turn around and welcome whatever task God has for me now in this stage of my life. Bucket lists are popular ways we talk about the things we want to be sure we do before we die. They are a good first step toward acknowledging that “we are dust and to dust we shall return.” But my challenge to myself and to you as we strive to keep a Holy Lent in 2017 is to ask not what’s on my bucket list, but take time in prayer and meditation each day to ask, “What’s on God’s bucket list for me?”

Thanks for a Spiritual Giant, Bill Croy

Today I was privileged to attend a magnificent celebration of the life of Rev. Bill Croy, a colleague and friend. We all knew Bill was dying, but that didn’t stop him from living to the end. He planned his own service, and I again vowed to do the same, as soon as I come to grips with my own mortality or at least quiet my fear long enough to think about it. Bill helped me get a good start. He chose some of my favorite Scriptures – Micah 6 and Matthew 25 – about justice and mercy and humility and service. He also picked some of my favorite hymns, including a jazz version of “Amazing Grace,” “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” “It is Well with My Soul,” and ended the service with “Hymn of Promise.”

We were challenged today to give ourselves away and use all the gifts God has given us, as Bill did all his life, even as ALS slowly took away most of the tools he had used before to share his love for all of God’s children. These last few years Bill refused to give in to ALS and just found new ways, mostly Facebook and the internet, to keep inspiring and supporting others. He humbled me and shamed me when I was tempted to throw a pity party for some minor problems in my life which were laughable compared to what he and his family were dealing with.

One of Bill’s colleagues, Rev. Laurie Clark, described Bill well as a Spiritual Giant who lived a life of integrity that had authority because he embodied the Gospel. (She said it much better than that.) I came away inspired from Bill’s service but also humbled, wondering and maybe a bit jealous, if people would say anything half so great about me when I die. I am reminded of reading somewhere that when I come to that great transition time in my existence, God won’t ask me why I wasn’t Bill Croy, or Mother Theresa, or Martin Luther King, or Gandhi. God will only ask if I was the best Steve Harsh I could be.

The answer to that question for me today would have to be a resounding “NO.” But I am grateful for days like today when I am reminded of that and for the tomorrows I still have to change my life so I change that answer.

Rev. Clark closed her remarks today about Bill with the observation that when a spiritual giant no longer walks among us, he or she passes on the torch to those left behind. Bill, I may have to carry a small torch or a candle compared to yours, but if we all live a life that gives away all of whatever gifts God has given us, together we can brighten the darkest corners of our world.

Well done, good and faithful servant.