Posts Tagged ‘mortality’

PSALM 104:1-9, 24, 35c

Bless the Lord, O my soul.
    Lord my God, you are very great.
You are clothed with honor and majesty,
    wrapped in light as with a garment.
You stretch out the heavens like a tent,
    you set the beams of your chambers on the waters,
you make the clouds your chariot,
    you ride on the wings of the wind,
you make the winds your messengers,
    fire and flame your ministers.

You set the earth on its foundations,
    so that it shall never be shaken.
You cover it with the deep as with a garment;
    the waters stood above the mountains.
At your rebuke they flee;
    at the sound of your thunder they take to flight.
They rose up to the mountains, ran down to the valleys
    to the place that you appointed for them.
You set a boundary that they may not pass,
    so that they might not again cover the earth.

24 Lord, how manifold are your works!
    In wisdom you have made them all;
    the earth is full of your creatures.

35 Bless the Lord, O my soul. Praise the Lord!

When the divine voice answered out of the whirlwind of Job’s suffering experience, it was not in defense of God’s justice or in prosecution of Job’s sin that it spoke. Instead it lifted Job’s attention to the larger context of his experience where far-off supernovas explode and seed new planetary systems, unpredictable weather patterns devastate entire regions with flood or drought,  hungry lions chase down gazelles, and this moment dies to give way to the next.

What would existence be if suffering in its countless varieties were completely eliminated? There could be no life, for life of one thing requires the death of another for its metabolism of energy. There could be no growth, for growth necessitates the termination of one phase for the next to begin. And since to exist is to survive in time, gradually reaching maturity but then winding down to extinction, time itself would have to be removed – leaving what?

Admittedly it’s not a remedy to the vexing problem of human suffering, but a widened view on the universe can be remarkably effective in helping us cope with our own burden of existence. Once the aperture of your perspective has opened up to take in the countless marvels of creation, it almost always happens that wonder, awe, and gratitude awaken in your heart. In wisdom God has made them all. Praise the Lord!

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PSALM 16:1-4, 12-19

I love the Lord, because he has heard
    my voice and my supplications.
Because he inclined his ear to me,
    therefore I will call on him as long as I live.
The snares of death encompassed me;
    the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me;
    I suffered distress and anguish.
Then I called on the name of the Lord:
    “O Lord, I pray, save my life!”

12 What shall I return to the Lord
    for all his bounty to me?
13 I will lift up the cup of salvation
    and call on the name of the Lord,
14 I will pay my vows to the Lord
    in the presence of all his people.
15 Precious in the sight of the Lord
    is the death of his faithful ones.
16 Lord, I am your servant;
    I am your servant, the child of your serving girl.
    You have loosed my bonds.
17 I will offer to you a thanksgiving sacrifice
    and call on the name of the Lord.
18 I will pay my vows to the Lord
    in the presence of all his people,
19 in the courts of the house of the Lord,
    in your midst, O Jerusalem.
Praise the Lord!

You have loosed my bonds. There are many metaphors used in religion to represent what is commonly called “the human condition,” but the most popular by far is that of captivity, bondage, imprisonment, and oppression. Salvation in light of this metaphor can be understood as escape or emancipation if the accent of meaning is on the circumstances of bondage, or as awakening, empowerment, and transcendence when the liberative move is more about an inner shift of consciousness.

What is it that holds us in bonds? Repressive governments do this, but so do the heavy circumstances of poverty and economic hardship. The prison of consciousness that we call the status quo can keep us in a consensus trance our entire lives. And we cannot forget the multiform delusion of orthodoxy, where the mind is strapped and chained by convictions that hold captive an otherwise creative intelligence.

Is it correct to say that mortality is another form of oppression? Are human beings “stuck” in time and “condemned” to die? Many feel so. But upon closer inspection what we find is that it’s not really the conditions of mortality that keep us hostage, as the widespread fear we have attached to this fact of facts. We are prisoners, then, not of death but of the fear that the prospect of dying provokes in us.

Of course, other animals die as well, but we have no evidence that they worry over it quite to the extent that we do. So much of the world we construct as human beings – at both the cultural and individual levels – are little more than shelter, distraction, and insurance against death, not to mention a major campaign for its denial and temporary postponement.

It’s not long before we find ourselves locked inside a prison of our own making. We invest in layers of insurance that obligate us to monthly payments, which makes it  necessary to pursue higher-paying jobs and work longer. We purchase gym memberships and a growing pharmacy of supplements in an effort to stave off the creeping menace of age, dysfunction, and disease. We might hand over our freedom and intelligence to a religion that promises everlasting life in exchange for our doctrinal consent and a weekly offering.

But perhaps the greatest liability in the construction of this fortress we build has to do with how it prevents us from full participation in reality, constantly shuttling our awareness away from this present moment, from the real presence of mystery. The spiritual traditions name this mystery the ground of existence, the presence of God, radiant being, and Abundant Life – but whatever it’s called, the referent is acknowledged as beyond all names and forms.

When we stop running and hiding, fretting and fighting, looking away and waiting for later, there is in that moment, in that very passing moment, the possibility that we might fall into the gracious support of the present mystery we call God.

ISAIAH 25:6-9

6 On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
    a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,
    of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.
7 And he will destroy on this mountain
    the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
    the sheet that is spread over all nations;
8     he will swallow up death forever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
    and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,
    for the Lord has spoken.
9 It will be said on that day,
    Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.
    This is the Lord for whom we have waited;
    let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

What is this “shroud” and “sheet” that covers human consciousness? It must have something to do with the “tears” and “disgrace” that the poet dreams will one day be wiped away by God.  And this? What’s at the root of this heavy anguish?

The answer is clear: death – or better, the fear of death.

Considered by itself, death is simply an end, the period at the end of our life’s sentence. Despite all the claims, no one knows for sure what’s after death. Clearly, the body that dies succumbs to decay and decomposes into inorganic compounds – the “dust to dust” of the old graveside eulogies.

The popular confidence in something, classically called the soul or “the real me,” that survives the body is actually quite recent in the history of religious belief. By far the most ancient and widely held notion is that when your time is up, you’re done. The personal ego that spent a lifetime (however short or long) managing an identity, collecting and casting aside the things of this world, and chasing all the while after an elusive happiness (or maybe running like hell) – that gig is up when you die.

When thinking human beings consider the prospect of mortality – and more specifically the certainty of their own death – a peculiar distress can come over the mind. Further reflection reveals that this life is characterized by pain, loss, and endings, along with the anguish these can provoke. The Buddha called this “dukha”: Life is suffering.

                                                                                              

What do humans do with this creeping realization of their approaching end? They busy themselves with other things. Countless distractions are instantly available to take your mind of the depressing thought. It can be therapeutic to throw your focus into something else – sometimes the more petty and trivial, the better.

Some people try to numb the distress with intoxicants. For as long as the cloud persists and the muscles are relaxed, the matter is as good as forgotten. But then, after the headache, it’s back.

Religion has done its part, with the invention of an immortal soul – “the real me” – that simply skips like a rock on a pond, from this life to the next. Or, according to Oriental theory, across many lives. In this case, the dark punctuation of death is but the briefest transition – the proverbial “blink of an eye.”

Critics have exposed the liabilities of such an eye-blink philosophy, noting how the minimization of death translates for so many into a disregard for the genuine (and passing) preciousness of life. In their hope and anticipation of a better life to come, they let this one slip by. If this one is particularly miserable, then such hope for the by-and-by can help you hang on till the end.

But here’s the point. Whether you are futzing around with meaningless distractions, finding solace in a drug, or pinning your focus on a paradise beyond, you are living (but not quite) under the shroud of a dangerous delusion.

While it’s not necessary to fixate on the real limits and final end of your mortality, living your life in full acknowledgement of this fact can be one of the most clarifying and liberating certainties there is.

Suddenly this moment, the one you were just about to dismiss and forget, is full of mystery and beauty. When this realization dawns on you, mark the day, for it is a day of resurrection. Fear is wiped away and you are finally truly alive.

Philippians 2:5-11

5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

6 who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8     he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.

9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
    and gave him the name
    that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
    every knee should bend,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
    that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

This passage is frequently used as a “proof text” for the orthodox doctrine of Jesus as God – even though the passage itself makes a very clear distinction between God (“the Father”) and Jesus (“Christ the Lord”). But isn’t being “in the form of God” equivalent to saying that Jesus was God? No, and here’s why.

We already know that New Testament authors made quick work of anchoring the identity of Jesus in a deep heritage of scriptural prophecies and mythic metaphors. The Suffering Servant, Son of Man, Son of David, Son of God, the New Moses, the Cosmic Christ, Lady Wisdom, and the Second Adam (or New Man) were titles with rich histories of their own. They covered the continuum of time from creation, through Israel’s national history, up to the Day of Judgment and beyond.

In this poem, which Paul may have taken from an existing tradition, Jesus is compared with Adam – the archetypal First Man and “son of God” (as we read in Luke 3:38). According to the Genesis myth, Adam (along with his consort, Eve) was made in the “image” of God, which is another way of saying that he was in the form of God. God placed the couple in a grove of fruit trees and flowing streams. Among the different types of trees in the garden was the Tree of Immortality (at the center) and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

According to the myth, one virtue that distinguished God from his son and daughter was his “knowledge of good and evil” – that is to say, his rightful authority to judge the difference and make the rules. God warned his children that partaking of this tree would result in their death; it was forbidden.

The children, however, were stirred in their ambition for this exceptional power by a crafty serpent, who encouraged them with the promise that its fruit would make them “equal to God” in that way. They took the fruit and ate it, whereupon they were suddenly aware of their “nakedness” (a metaphor of the self-conscious guilty conscience). Shortly thereafter the couple was evicted from the garden, and a sword-wielding angel (Death) was posted as guardian to its entrance. Without access any longer to the Tree of Immortality, the pair was condemned to live out a finite number of days “east of Eden.”

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The First Adam, then, was in the form of God but tried to make himself equal to God. As a consequence, he and his descendants (the entire human race) are subject to suffering, toil, time and mortality. Because of the First Adam’s disobedience, we all share the fate of death.

But Jesus was the Second Adam. He was in the form of God but did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited. Whereas (the First) Adam was defiant, Jesus (the Second Adam) was obedient. Instead of ambition for glory, he demonstrated humility in suffering. In that way, not only was Jesus our example of faith and devotion, but in staying true to God’s will even unto death he has made salvation (immortal life) available to the rest of us. How so?

As a reward for his humble obedience, God granted Jesus entrance to Eden and access once again to the Tree of Immortality. Thus we have here a mythic representation of the central metaphor of early Christianity, resurrection. Now, with the Second Adam alive and inside of paradise, we who commit our lives to him and follow his example can look forward to our own future resurrection and safe transit to life everlasting.

So through this archetypal comparison of the Two Adams, Paul is making the point that egoism, the unbridled ambition for glory, is what excludes the individual – every last one of us – from sharing in the higher life of God. The more tightly we twist our desires around “me” and “mine,” the deeper we sink into mortality and its complications: attachment and loss, pain and suffering, futility and despair. The ego’s arrogant presumption to decide between good and evil is what spins us out and away from God’s will for our lives.

Salvation, then, involves “putting on the mind of Christ Jesus” instead, living for God and giving our lives for his sake.