© Dr. Chris Schriner 2008
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
March 23, 2008

Here are three readings, starting with lines from Dylan Thomas:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

From the Gospel of John, quoting Jesus: "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit." (John 12:24)

And finally, from Karl Jaspers: "We are mortal when we are loveless, immortal when we love."

No minister can be an expert about every sermon topic, but I can say without boasting that I know a lot about the fear of death. However, I'm not an expert at overcoming that fear. No doubt many of you accept death more gracefully than I do.

I grew up assuming there would be life after death, but in college I decided that this life is all there is. At first this did not alarm me, until one evening I had a terrible experience. At age 25 I was visiting my mother's house, sitting in my bedroom alone sipping a tall, cool Tom Collins. In this only slightly altered state of consciousness, I was suddenly, in one single instant, transfixed by the finality of my own personal termination. I couldn't shake it off. Hour after hour, I was bathed in the consciousness of mortality, all evening, all the next day and all the next. I talked with friends about it, but that didn't help.

Filled with despair, nothing seemed to have value, nothing was enjoyable. Music, which I love, became just another kind of noise. It was the closest I've ever come to psychosis. One evening during that period I walked through the Claremont Colleges after a rainfall. I remember watching the yellowed autumn leaves drifting in the water along the side of the shining road, an unforgettable moment of melancholy.

After two or three weeks I decided enough was enough, and I starting blocking out this obsession. In two or three months, I was more or less back to normal. Fortunately in the 40 years since then I have learned to deal with death without totally avoiding the subject, so I want to share a few ideas about soothing the sting of mortality.

For me the problem of death is mainly the possibility that I will disappear. I can relate to what Woody Allen said when he was asked, "Mr. Allen, when you make motion pictures, are you striving for immortality?" Woody replied, "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve immortality by not dying!"

For many of you, personal disappearance is not an issue, because you have confidence that our consciousness goes on in some other dimension. Some of you understand the message of Easter in a traditionally Christian way, and I trust that Easter is an especially joyous time for you. But even though we Unitarian Universalists have many different theologies, I hope all of you will find some value in my suggestions today and in my own appreciation of Easter morning.

Human beings first confronted the problem of death when it dawned on them that nobody gets out of here alive. But after they started growing crops, people found a new way to look at this issue. They saw that when a plant dies or is eaten, it leaves behind seeds. Placed in the ground, these grow to new life. In many different cultures, burying the seed and watching it sprout inspired stories of dying and rising gods, including Jesus of Nazareth. The New Testament mentions seeds many times, and the Gospel of John shows Jesus poetically foreshadowing his death and resurrection: "...unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit." (John 12:24)

Even though I do not take the Bible literally, reading the story of Jesus has helped me deal with the fear of personal disappearance. I'm not entirely sure why it helps, but I don't need to know that. Rather than getting tangled up with whether the Bible or any other sacred book is "true," we can simply read the story and see how it changes us. One thing I appreciate is Jesus' attitude of trust and acceptance. "Do not be anxious about your life," he said. "Do not be anxious about tomorrow." (Matthew 6:25 and 34)

So reading sacred scriptures can soothe the fear of death. Another approach is more philosophical. We can look at how life and death fit into the big picture and get a broader perspective that helps us feel that it's all okay.

Buddhism offers one philosophical perspective that I find valuable. The Buddha realized the inevitability of death in one single instant, seeing a corpse on the roadside. [That was one of the "four passing sights" that led him to begin his spiritual journey. The other sights were a sick man, and old man, and a monk with begging bowl.] But after he became enlightened, he taught his disciples that we need not worry about personal disappearance, because there is no enduring personal self anyway. He may have been right in saying we do not persist through the passage of time. Certainly the Chris Schriner who existed as a six-year-old is gone. Some of little Chris' ways of feeling and acting are alive in me today, but he himself has passed away. This is sad, but it clears a space for the person I am now. Clinging to passing moments does not work. Clinging and grasping cause us pain. If you make a fist and hold on to something, what happens? Your hand becomes smaller and tends to pull toward you. And the tighter you grip, the more it hurts.

I appreciate the idea of releasing the craving for permanence in a world that is constantly changing. Another helpful perspective is the realization that in a very real sense none of us here will ever taste death. If death is not the end, then our lives will go on. If it is the end, we won't be around to experience it. This reminds me of another Woody Allen remark: "It's not that I'm afraid to die, I just don't want to be there when it happens." Well, when it happens, we won't be there. All we will ever know is life, so we will never "be" dead. Death cannot touch us - only the fear of death. So we sometimes think death is the problem when the real problem is fear.

A personal growth program called The Sedona Method wisely emphasizes that a feeling is only a feeling. I cannot keep from dying, but I can soften the fear of death. In fact most of the time I do not experience that fear. Feelings come and go like clouds in the sky. The habit of fearing death is only a habit, and habits can be changed.

In a way, it makes no sense to dread death because we do not know what it is. For one thing, physicists are still perplexed about what time is. What does it mean that one instant passes away into another? Does the past really vanish, or is it only gone from the perspective of the present? Is six-year-old Chris still living, somewhere in time? That may sound weird, but if nobody knows what time is, nobody knows what it means to pass away.

Another perspective: Death is the price of admission to life. This reminds me of a time my mother and I went to a roadside attraction when I was in grade school. I think it featured some big snakes and other freaky displays, and admission was free. But once we got inside they said we had to pay to get out! (Or at least they strongly encouraged that.) So there's no charge to be admitted to life, but when we come to the off-ramp we do pay a toll. Having to die is the cost of living.

So those are some philosophical perspectives that have helped me. And I have also found comfort in one of the most widely appealing responses to the story of Easter morning, which is that love is stronger than death. In so many ways, the life and work of Jesus was an incarnation of selfless love, and the light of that great love still shines today. For Jesus, the risk of death was trivial compared to the risk of living incompletely. And when he was asked to name the greatest commandment he just said simple things about love: Love God. Love your neighbor as if that person were yourself. (Matthew 22:37-39)

Jesus' radical commitment to love reminds me of passages I read last Easter from Edwin Burtt. In his 90s, Burtt concluded that the best way to prepare for death is to stop being so self-centered, since the self as we know it will pass away. Instead, we can identify with what Burtt calls "a more capacious self which has left its previous boundary behind." "Not where I breathe, but where I love, I am." Therefore, he wrote, "'Love or Perish' becomes an inescapable challenge." [from Light Love and Life, by Edwin A. Burtt]. So one way we can change our feelings about death is to identify with something larger than ourselves that will not die when we do.

I have been inspired by elderly men and women who completely accept life's ending even if they do not expect an afterlife. One of my parishioners in Costa Mesa, Marilyn MacIntyre, confided in me one day that she had Lou Gehrig's disease, with just a year or two to live. During her final months she told me sincerely, "If you can accept life, you can accept death with it. It is all part of the same thing. I don't know what will come after I die. Whatever it is, it's the natural thing, and that's okay."

Marilyn and many other Unitarian Universalists have found comfort through feeling part of the great web of all existence, as in this poem I found on a greeting card:

"Do not stand at my grave and weep;
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning's hush
I am the swift up-flinging rush
of quiet birds in circling flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die."

And one more thought. If Shakespeare was right that "our little life is rounded with a sleep," life's limited length can make it even more precious. In fact, thinking of life's brevity sometimes leads me to an experience that is almost the opposite of the dread I felt at age 25. Instead of sucking the joy out of me, facing death can grace human existence with a nearly miraculous character, as if it were bathed in holy light. Then I can see a simple, ordinary moment - like this moment we are sharing - as if it were a fabulous, luminous room floating within the vastness of nonbeing. The great darkness beyond is like an infinite picture frame that focuses my attention on living intensely today. I can then see mortality as something sacred, because it supercharges the value of life. It spotlights this precious day that now is ours. The sanctity of death is the way it illuminates life.

Part of me still rages against the dying of the light, but rage is my human response to something beyond my understanding. My fear and rage are eased by Jesus' message of trust, and he teaches me by example that living well is more important than living long. I appreciate the Buddha's invitation to let go of craving, and Karl Jaspers' suggestion that, "We are mortal when we are loveless, immortal when we love."

Most of the time I do see love as stronger than death. As the choir sang today, "Love comes when you're ready, Love comes when you're afraid. It will be your greatest teacher, the best friend you have made."["Give Yourself to Love" by Kate Wolf]. And love is also like a seed we can plant, which will bear much fruit as long as we live, and beyond.

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