There has been this 'opportunity' floating around Face Book lately. If you follow the provided link and insert your name and the year of your birth, you will be given a photograph of a gravestone like this:
I've done it a couple of times and while the year is always the same, the cause of death differs. Indeed, last week, I heard my mother laughing from her chair. When I asked what was so funny, she said she had just done it, too. Her result is that she would die at the age of 99 from a bicycle accident. She hasn't been on a bicycle in years, which was the reason she reacted so. It would appear that while the result indicating one's cause of death is quite random, even so this particular app "knows" that the thought of death won't seem so bad if we can reach the century mark first. (If you want a laugh you can plug in your information and try it, too. Just click here.)
I've heard it said that for the most part --- at least in the particular time and place that many of us share --- we wouldn't want to know in advance either the circumstance or what the second date on that gravestone will be. I understand that this was not always the case though --- that there was a time when people were grateful for some fore-warning so that they could be sure that final arrangements were made, that their families were provided for and that amends were made with those dear to them when needed. And yet, even in the time we live in now, we do have to acknowledge that there will be a second date. There will be a time when death will come. And today's reading from Mark urges us to think about what that could look like. Indeed, as I read it this time through, it strikes me that 'dying' is not something to be put off until this earthly body is simply worn out. 'Dying' --- or at least 'losing one's life' is meant to be embraced, welcomed --- at least when it is done for the sake of Jesus.
And, of course, the meaning of 'losing one's life' is more than a second date on a gravestone. Losing one's life is about considering what it is we give our lives to every single moment of every single day. And yet, it takes a whole lot of 'intentionality' to consider that, doesn't it?
- How quickly my hours and my days get out ahead of me and before I know it, I'm home making sure my alarm is set for the next day.
- How often is it necessary to make a concerted effort to pay attention to the person, the matter, the situation right in front of me --- which may be calling me to 'take up my cross' --- and not already be thinking ahead to whatever it is that is waiting on my to do list?
- How often do I devote my 'life' (my energy, my worrying, my fearing) to things which ultimately do not matter?
- How many days do I 'squander,' forgetting that each day likely holds some opportunity to be about 'ultimate matters' --- if only I am paying attention?
On Ash Wednesday this year, I got a call from our local hospital. We had just finished our morning service and I was turning my attention to other matters before gearing up for an evening service later in the day. Diane --- one of the staff who checks people in for surgery and who often greets me from the front desk --- asked if I would be over that way today. I hadn't planned to be as so far as I knew, none of our Lutherans were in the hospital. Even so, I asked what she needed. She told me that somebody in maternity was requesting ashes.
Well, I didn't think much about it until it was time for me to head out the door. It was then I turned back to one of our staff at church and said, "Maternity! I wonder what's going on!" For it seemed at first like such an unlikely place for one to be making this request.
So off I went. After I was buzzed in to the maternity wing, they sent me down the hall. I knocked on the door and the voice of a young woman called out to come in. When I did, I walked in to meet the woman behind the voice --- having regular contractions by now. The father of the baby was holding her hand. Her grandmother and aunt stood at the end of her bed, looking on with a visible mix of hope and anxiety.
After introducing myself, I took off my coat, but before I went any further I paused to ask, "Why ashes? Why here and now?" For it would seem she would have more important things to tend to in those hours.
Her response? "It's Ash Wednesday!" And cradling her stomach she continued, "I just wanted to start things off right for this baby!" And so over and over to all those present I made the sign of the cross in ash and repeated the words, 'Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.' And then we prayed for a safe birth for mother and child before I headed down the hall to carry ashes and prayers to others who were requesting the same since the initial call summoned me.
Now I don't know if that young woman was speaking out of rote obligation or not. I do suspect, however, that not many would pause to think of this while they were in active labor. And yet, life and death do stand hand in hand in delivery rooms as anyone paying attention might tell you. And yes, it is such times which bring to us the certainty of the gift of life and perhaps, also, the limits of our own power in this life now. It is such times which remind us that we are called to something more than being for just ourselves alone. And yes, it is in times such as those when we are called to consider what our lives are for that we would do well to remember that as followers of Jesus, we are called to pick up our crosses as Jesus did. It is that cross I traced on that young mother's forehead and on the foreheads of those who love her and who yearn for all good things for her and her baby. Oh yes, isn't it always a gift to remember that even while we heed the call to pick up our cross? Jesus already died on one in our behalf.
It is several days later now and this much I know for sure. That young mother and dad have already begun to learn what it is to 'die' for the sake of another as they love that little girl they have by now brought home.
For this I do believe. The dying Jesus calls us to can be made up of big actions and small ones, too. For many of us, this 'dying' may be experienced much more in the mundane day to day as we heed that call and choose to be and do for others. As much as anything else:
- It may be in the listening rather than speaking first;
- It may be in the meal prepared and shared;
- It may be in the snow shoveled for a neighbor, the lawn raked for a friend, the cookies baked and delivered to someone whose day it will brighten;
- It may be in the hospital call made, the funeral visitation line endured, or the repetitive conversation shared with someone suffering from dementia when you can think of a thousand seemingly more rewarding other obligations calling your name;
And yes, it may be in something as small as my remembering to take the time to spread salt on my back steps and driveway so that my 84-year-old mother won't slip and fall. No, she most likely will never again ride a bicycle, but she still likes to get out and my call now is to do what I can to keep her safe, as she has always done for me.
For some of us, some of the time, picking up the cross Jesus calls us to now will be huge. It may come once in a memorable and permanent way. And for many of us, much of the time, those crosses which we pick up for the sake of others won't seem so big. Although even those may well be more meaningful, more significant than we first believe. Indeed, in the end, maybe the important question to be answered is not 'How and when will I die?' but "How shall I die in my living every day?'
- How do you hear Jesus' call to 'pick up your cross?' Does the dying happen only once or does it happen over and over again or both?
- What might it mean for you to 'pay attention to ultimate matters' in the life you are called to live today? How might that lead to 'picking up your cross?'
- How would you have reacted had you been summoned to the Maternity Ward with ashes? Would you have have been surprised? Why or why not?
- There is hardly a discernible difference between the question, "How will I die?" and "How shall I die?" Even so, it seems to me that one is about 'fact' and the other is about intention. What difference does the phrasing of that question make for your?