A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, August 7, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Philippians 1:20-30 and Psalm 90
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Today’s sermon, as you may have deduced from the sermon title, is about life. So, of course, I want to talk about death.

Here’s the thing. Fear gets in the way of life. And there is perhaps no greater fear in the human condition than the fear of death.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the psychiatrist famous for her ground-breaking work on death and dying, and David Kessler, another expert of death and dying, wrote: “If we could literally reach into you and remove all your fears – every one of them – how different would your life be? Think about it. If nothing stopped you from following your dreams, your life would probably be very different. This is what the dying learn. Dying makes our worst fears come forward to be faced directly. It helps us see the different life that is possible, and in that vision, takes the rest of our fears away.

“Unfortunately, by the time the fear is gone most of us are too sick or too old to do those things we would have done before, had we not been afraid.… Thus, one lesson becomes clear: we must transcend our fears while we can still do those things we dream of.

“To transcend fear though, we must move somewhere else emotionally; we must move into love.

“Happiness, anxiety, joy, resentment – we have many words for the many emotions we experience in our lifetimes. But deep down, at our cores, there are only two emotions: love and fear. All positive emotions come from love, all negative emotions from fear. From love flows happiness, contentment, peace, and joy. From fear comes anger, hate, anxiety and guilt.

“It’s true that there are only two primary emotions, love and fear. But it’s more accurate to say that there is only love or fear, for we cannot feel these two emotions together, at exactly the same time. They’re opposites. If we’re in fear, we are not in a place of love. When we’re in a place of love, we cannot be in a place of fear. Can you think of a time when you’ve been in both love and fear? It’s impossible.”[1]

mr_00056508Now, I’m not sure I’m in complete agreement with this. I think it’s possible to vacillating so quickly between these two emotions it can feel like we’re experiencing both at the same time. For instance, imagine a teenager asking someone out on a first date. That’s going to feel like love and fear at the same time. But imagine, too, if that teenager were to choose to be only in a state of love when making that invitation. Imagine how different that experience would be – for both the asker and the askee – from the typical sweaty-palmed, voice-shaking invitation.

And that’s kinda my point. Fear gets in the way of life.

And the fear of death is one of the biggest fears we deal with. As I did some research on this topic, I came across this story.[2]

Once upon a time, a man set out on a sea voyage with many others. After they were some distance from shore, the seas got rougher and rougher, until a ferocious storm threatened to upend the ship and send it spiraling into the depths. [At this point as I read, I thought about Jonah and how he got tossed overboard and swallowed up by a big fish.] Everyone on board was beyond terrified – except this one man who just sat passively and seemingly at ease with the situation. [This made me think of Jesus, asleep on the boat as his disciples panicked.] At last, when it became clear the storm was passing, a group approached the man and asked him, “How could you remain so calm when we were only a second away from possible death?”

The man eyed them evenly and replied, “When is it ever different in life?”

Live in fear or live in love.

I have come to an understanding of death as the passage we make to dwell in the fullness of God’s love. Christian faith has influenced this understanding. Authors have written about it with words like, “death is merely a doorway, a passage from one way of living in God’s presence in the present to another way of living in God’s presence – in the open space of unseized possibility we call the future.”[3]

For me, this understanding solidified in a dream. Though I was living in California when I had this dream, in the dream I was back in Lexington, Massachusetts (where I grew up). I was walking across the town square known as “The Battle Green” toward Mass Ave, when the ground below me suddenly melted. You know how when you hold a piece of paper over a burning candle, the paper will turn brown and then burst into flame? That’s what the ground did. It was there; it turned brown; and suddenly it was lava.

I tried to run, but somehow the rational part of my brain crept into my dream and I realized it’s impossible to run on a liquid. “Oh,” I thought, “I must be dead.” And as soon as I acknowledged that I was dead, I was overcome by a great sense of peace.

I’ve had dreams when I’ve come close to dying. I’ve had dreams when my rational brain intervened to wake me up from some danger. This dream I had when the ground melted – this is the only dream I can remember when I actually died.

And I knew it was okay.

Writing about death, Brian McLaren says, “Nobody knows for sure, but in light of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we can expect to experience death as a passage, like birth, the end of one life stage and the beginning of another. We don’t know how that passage will come … like a slow slipping away of disease, like a sudden jolt or shock of an accident. However it happens, we can expect to discover that we’re not falling out of life, but deeper into it.

“On the other side, we can expect [and I (Jeff) believe we will find] as never before the unimaginable light or energy of God’s presence. We will enter into a goodness so good, a richness so rich, a holiness so holy, a mercy and love so strong and true that all of our evil, pride, lust, greed, resentment, and fear will be instantly melted out of us. We will at that moment more fully understand how much we have been forgiven, and so we will more than ever be filled with love … love for God who forgives, and with God, love for everyone and everything …”[4]

I don’t know if we will “meet” people who have died before us. If we do, I don’t think it will be like meeting someone at a family reunion in this life. I do believe that the illusion that we are all separate will fall away and we will understand and experience the connectedness and relatedness of all humanity, of all creation. It will be the fullest and “most exquisite sense of oneness and interrelatedness and harmony – a sense of belonging and connectedness that we approach only vaguely and clumsily in our most ecstatic moments in this life.”[5]

Perhaps I could describe this as a waking up. Or that it will be “like diving or falling or stepping into a big wave on the beach. You will feel yourself lifted off your feet and taken up into a swirl and curl and spin more powerful than you can now imagine. But there will be no fear, because the motion and flow will be the dance of [the Trinity]. The rising tide will be life and joy. The undertow will be love, and you will be drawn deeper and deeper in.”[6]

In our lesson from Philippians, Paul wrote, “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain,” as it is translated in the New Revised Standard Version. “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.”[7] Not exactly straight forward, Paul.

Eugene Peterson translated that verse with more than ten words in The Message. “[E]verything happening to me in this jail only serves to make Christ more accurately known, regardless of whether I live or die. They didn’t shut me up; they gave me a pulpit! Alive, I’m Christ’s messenger; dead, I’m his bounty. Life versus even more life! I can’t lose.”[8]

McLaren interprets the line this way: “On one hand, we feel a pull to stay here in this life, enjoying the light and love and goodness of God with so many people who are dear to us, with so much good work left to be done. On the other hand, we feel an equal and opposite pull toward the light and love and goodness of God experienced more directly beyond this life.”[9]

While I think this is true, I also think we shouldn’t be in a hurry to get to the next experience. Rather, I hope this vision, this hope, frees us from the fear of death so that we can fully live and fully love now. You see, when we overcome our fear of death, we are liberated for life. Our values, perspectives, and actions shift for the better. “To believe that no good thing is lost, but that all goodness will be taken up and consummated in God – think of how that frees you to do good without reservation. To participate in a network of relationships that isn’t limited by death in the slightest degree – think of how that would make every person matter and how it would free you to live with boundless, loving aliveness.”[10]

I can think of two spiritual practices that are helping me move from fear to love. The first is the practice of pausing to see the world as God sees it. The second is gratitude.

13876555_10208884602168310_1454543373759746488_nThe first is not easy, but let me share an example of what I mean by this. A Facebook friend posted this picture[11] yesterday afternoon. His comment about the picture: “These are both someone’s son. These are both esteemed by God – precious, loved, dignified, and worthy. Both breathe the same air and bleed the same blood beating from the same heart. One will sleep on clean sheets tonight, safely tucked in with a kiss. The other will not. Turn our hearts, God. Give us eyes to see.”

The second, practicing gratitude, is easier and there’s even an app for it. The app was inspired by the writings and attitude of Shalin Shah, a 22-year-old who died of cancer in 2015. In a blog post published shortly before he died, Shah described moving through his fear of death to realize his true purpose in life ― to inspire others to live their lives fully. Following Shah’s lead, the app reminds users to slow down and give thanks.[12] Whether you use the app or a pen and a journal, the practice of gratitude can help you move from fear to love.

Kubler-Ross and Kessler tell us it’s like this: “We have to make a decision to be in one place or the other [– fear or love]. There is no neutrality in this. If you don’t actively choose love, you will find yourself in a place of either fear or one of its component feelings. Every moment offers the choice to choose one or the other. And we must continually make these choices, especially in difficult circumstances when our commitment to love, instead of fear, is challenged.”[13]

May we all choose to live in alliance with God’s Spirit of Life, which is love, so that we may be fully alive.

As we move into our time of quiet reflection, I invite you to reflect on …

… anything from the sermon or scriptures that caught your attention; or

… a time when you had a significant encounter with death; or

… the idea that people are enslaved by the fear of death; or

… any one of the images of dying and death from the sermon or your own imagination, and to hold that image in the presence of God until you feel that death can be your friend, not your enemy.

[1] Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler, “When You Don’t Choose Love You Choose Fear,” from Life Lessons: Two Experts on Death and Dying Teach Us About the Mysteries of Life and Living, reprinted on Awakin.org, http://www.awakin.org/read/view.php?tid=680 (accessed 6 August 2016).

[2] Mark Tyrrell, “Dealing with a Fear of Death,” Uncommon Help, http://www.uncommonhelp.me/articles/dealing-with-a-fear-of-death/ (accessed 2 August 2016).

[3] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], chapter 50. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Philippians 1:21, NRSV.

[8] Philippians 1:21, The Message.

[9] McLaren, op. cit.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ryan Phipps, Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10208884602168310 (posted and accessed 6 August 2016).

[12] Antonia Blumberg, “This Simple Gratitude App Was Inspired By A 22-Year-Old Who Died Of Cancer,” The Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/this-simple-gratitude-app-was-inspired-by-a-22-year-old-who-died-of-cancer_us_57a3a580e4b056bad214f622 (posted 5 August 2016; accessed 6 August 2016).

[13] Kubler-Ross and Kessler, op. cit.

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