Richard Rohr’s last published book, Immortal Diamond, has been formative in my heart and life over the past weeks. As many of you know, I spent much of the Lenten season in 2013 reading and re-reading Rohr’s work. I’m in the middle of doing a series of devotional writings based upon what I have experienced and learned. Your comments are welcomed (firstname.lastname@example.org).
It wasn’t too long ago for me (personally within my own family)…I stood at the bedside of my dad while he was struggling for life in the ICU. We prayed as a family, argued health care with doctors, did a lot of handwringing and worrying, and prepared for the worse. I think that over the years that I have been in pro church work that I have made 1000’s of hospital visits. After being in professional ministry for what is approaching 41 years, that number is a fair estimate. It never ceases to amaze me what depth of feeling is experienced at the threshold of life and death. Of all the times that I’ve been in that situation, I have never regretted one moment. Every life struggle is worth it! When life is on the line, it just feels right to be present, fully present, not only in support of our loved one or friend but also for the pure knowledge and experience of the precious nature of life’s gift. Because life is a gift, one given by the One who created life at its fullest, I have celebrated even when the battle has supposedly been lost. Why? Because I know from the rawness of my soul that life is going somewhere…that it is not static but a dynamic existence formed in the likeness and by the very heart of a Creator in whom purpose is defined.
I have often wondered why it seems to me that fewer and fewer people are not only NOT visiting loved ones who are ill in hospitals, care centers, and homes but also NOT making funerals a priority in their lives. Among the pastors and priests that I know, we’ve all remarked on the same reality – fewer people honoring relationships with people who are in crisis especially those who have walked through death’s door. Yes, I’ve noticed that many employers have decided that major events like serious illness and even death don’t “fit” within production schedules and work demands so people are denied time. That’s so unfortunate on many levels. Rohr’s chapter, “Enlightenment at Gunpoint” focuses on the “final surrender” and how important it is for people like you and me to walk those paths with others as one way of preparing to take the journey ourselves. He writes,
“The final surrender of our false self in the months, weeks, days, and hours in any conscious dying might well be called, ‘enlightenment by gunpoint’…not all people get to enjoy this luxury, although it should be sought after. We have made the inherently spiritual event of death into a mere medical event. Families were meant to accompany their loved ones across, and all the Sunday School or catechism classes in the world will never make up for this loss of spiritual consciousness. I would say exactly the same for births. We put off enlightenment by decades if we are not present at births and deaths.”
Rohr has a point. I’ve been at both, births and deaths. I was not only present for my own children’s births but for all but one grandchild’s (as well as for six others that I can recall.) And deaths…I’ve been at more than I can dare to count. Every one, every first and last gasp of air and reach of motion to grasp God’s gift was simply awe inspiring AND put life completely into a new frame of reference. Every instance reminded me, again and again of the fact that there is MORE TO LIFE. When a child is born it is not only born into the world but also born unto eternity. When a loved one is taking a final breath, the doorway of eternity is opening. You see, when you look at your body and you come to believe that that is all you are, then death becomes an enemy. So remember, you are more than what you see. You are the residence of the breath of God. The very Spirit that hovered over the “face of the deep” (Genesis 1), that which Jesus says is the source of life residing in our hearts and transforming us into the “temple” of God, is IN you! That’s why, at the core of who you are, you know that there’s GOT TO BE more! Your yearnings are more than dreams but glimpses into a life awaiting you day by day and through eternity as you follow the source of life, Jesus Himself. To acquiesce and only be satisfied in what this life has to offer is to rob the human soul and render the creation of the human spirit worthless. If all we are is one big hunger for satisfaction in the moment, we are a sorry lot indeed. Rohr puts it this way,
“The false self is terrified of death because it knows that this mental ego that it calls ‘myself’ will die, and it cannot find any long-term alternative to it…the ego has no substance, no permanence, no vitality, only various forms of immediate gratification.”
No wonder those who don’t have an eternal perspective have only one alternative – “to eat, drink and be merry.” If all you believe about life is completely summarized by the limits of a body that will eventually run out of gas than you might as well grab for as much gusto as you can NOW! As Rohr points out above, if all you have is THIS life than all you are left with is the satisfaction of passing appetites and a plethora of non-permanent experiences. For those who trust in Jesus, the Kingdom is not only NOW (life in abundance) but FUTURE. The risen Jesus made sure that all of us know that we will not lose anything that is real no matter what happens to our physical existence. Remember,
“The Risen Jesus is not about being rewarded for a job well done as much as He is mirroring the full completed journey and goal.”
Jesus is the Alpha and Omega – the beginning and the end. Jesus is the author and perfector of the gift of grace that we are and will enjoy. Jesus is the wellspring of life – the water that never stops refreshing, the bread that fully satisfies, the vine in whom we are sustained for eternity, the light that never stops shining, and salt that never loses its flavor. As Rohr says,
“He (Jesus) is the guarantee, the pledge and promise (Ephesians 1:14) that love works! You must die before you die and then you will know how to die and not be afraid of it.”
I must end this devotional by quoting one more segment of the Immortal Diamond. It is actually one of the few segments in the book that encompasses an imperative. I believe it is a good one at that:
“Visiting and caring for the sick and accompanying the dying and dead is their seminary.”
Rohr is explaining why it is many of the wisest amongst us are those committed to that kind of companionship. To be one with somebody in their suffering teaches as much as direct suffering does and even more so because of the love that God pours out in those moments. Doing these acts of mercy actually, and this has been my experience, are more of a benefit to those who give more than to those who receive. Remember John 3:16? If you want to be more like Jesus, give…”when you do it for the least of these my brethren, you do it for ME (Matthew 25).”