Life After Life: Part 2

February 24, 2013


Robin McGonigle
University Congregational Church
Feb. 24, 2013

“Life After Life, part 2”
I Cor. 15:35-58

Dorothy Ferguson tells about a time, shortly after her mother died, when she was leaving home to go out to the cemetery to visit her mom’s grave. As she started to life the garage door, a little gray sparrow darted across the inside of the garage. She flew and fluttered from one corner to another. She had apparently been locked inside the last time the door had been opened and closed.

Dorothy says this little gray sparrow made her especially aware of how fragile and unsure life really is. She was touched by the bird’s consuming desire to leave the place that held her hostage. As Dorothy lifted the door the rest of the way, she stood back and smiled as the little bird sailed past her through the door and flew away. Looking up at the twilight, coral sky, the little bird instantly became a speck as she made her flight unhindered and free!

Dorothy realized that she was silently applauding the sparrow for her newfound freedom. At the same time, there were tears in Dorothy’s eyes. The tears were for her mother whose spirit had so recently been released and set free. The little gray sparrow, winging her way upward on a February evening helped her to “let go” of her mom. She realized that her mom had gone on to a completely new and finer realm of existence.
Grief Digest, vol. 1, issue #3. Jan., 2004.

We continue the discussion today on death & dying… specifically, “What happens to your soul when you die?”

One reason it is so difficult to talk about death and dying is that to truly enter into a conversation about it, we need to recognize the inevitability of our own eventual demise. Another reason it is difficult to discuss death is because of the inadequacy of our language. Words in our language are designed to describe physical phenomenon and what we can describe because of our senses. Death, though, is something that lies beyond the conscious experience of most of us and we don’t have words to describe the spiritual realm.

Even Plato, some 400 years before Christ, wrote about the separation of the physical from the spiritual. The reason, he argued, was so that the soul may meet and converse with the departed spirits of others and be guided through the transition from physical life to the next realm by guardian spirits. In fact, he suggests that the physical body is actually a prison for the soul and that death is a release from that prison.

More contemporary writers such as Carl Jung, Ernest Hemingway and Leo Tolstoy describe near-death experiences in terms of being in a dark, cave-like space, having a flashback of past life, and entering into a brilliant light.

If we start in the beginning, the text of Genesis seems to indicate that we are souls — with a soul being the essential core of who-and-what we are, mentally and spiritually, in our relationship with God — not that we have souls. But the characteristics of a soul (what it is and isn’t, and the connection of soul with body) are not clearly defined in the Bible, so speculations abound, according to Craig Rusbult.

Descriptions I have heard about the soul are: it is the nucleus of our being, the power within, the core of freedom. Scientist, metaphysicians, and psychologists have referred to the soul as the “super conscious.” I personally appreciate the idea of a soul as the energy and essence of our being. It lasts longer than this lifetime and this body. The soul is always evolving, growing, and expanding.

One time, three friends were discussing this topic and the question that came up was, “When you’re in your casket, and friends and church family are mourning over you, what would you like them to say?”

A man answered, “I would like them to say I was a good person, that I raised two wonderful children, that my work and my life had meaning.” Another said, “I want them to say I was a fine spiritual leader and a great family man.” The third person quipped, “I’d like them to say, ‘Look! He’s moving!’”
Robert E. Neale, in his book, “The Art of Dying” writes: “… our fear of death is basically our fear of life. If our fears were rational they would not prevent us from looking at the inevitability of our own deaths and learning about ourselves and our lives. Since our fears are for the most part irrational, we run away from death, and what we are fleeing as well is our own life.”

I have found this to be true: when we are trying to escape death, it is often centered in our fears about our own lives. So what does happen to us when we die? As I mentioned previously, we can’t know for certain until it happens to us… but we can choose, in faith, to believe that death is not the end. In the words of last week’s scripture: “If I live, I live unto the Lord. If I die, I die unto the Lord. So whether I live or die, I am the Lord’s.”

Today’s text is another person’s way of describing the indescribable. This text is so beautiful and picturesque that I would invite you to close your eyes and hear it as if for the first time. Please remember that this is not a text to be taken literally, but it is a descriptive, metaphorical piece of literature which attempts to put into words something that is spiritual and too wonderful for words. Read I Cor. 15:35-58.

I have had a fascination with death for more than 20 years. And no, I didn’t mention that when I was interviewing with the UCC search committee! What I mean is that I have diligently worked with grieving families, read with a driven passion to find out more about this illusive topic, and had a thirst to discover what happens to us when we die.

Some twenty years ago, I did a research paper on the ancient rituals around a death and, among other traditions, found that bodies were often buried with a flask of water representing the tears shed by those who loved that person.

Probably the most important learning I have gleaned over the years is this: “we are first and foremost spirits or souls encapsulated in physical bodies. Our souls are the entire essence of who we are.” As a soul, we are capable of having a human experience in a physical dimension, but this physical world is measured by the limitations of time. Our souls, apart from our physical bodies, are not limited or finite. Our bodies have a lifetime that starts with our births and ends with our deaths. Our souls are spiritual and are not finite. We are souls living in a body – and not the other way around. James Van Praagh, “Growing Up in Heaven”. 2011.

James Van Praagh wrote a wonderful book entitled, “Growing Up in Heaven”. Mr. Praagh is a medium whose specialty is communicating with the spirits of children who have died. I don’t believe everything he says… but I do like his definition and his theology of the soul. He calls the indefinable essence of the soul “a vast storehouse of unlimited knowledge and possibility contained in a collection of memories that are locked deep inside”. He says we are first and primarily “souls having a human experience.”

Let’s think about that for a moment. What are the implications? If he is right – that our souls are not finite like our bodies, then it is important to consider what the purpose of our soul might be in this life. As I said last week – thinking about our death will guide us in our living. What is the soul work we need to accomplish in this lifetime?

We are all sacred, spiritual beings – with the stamp of God’s “it is good” image upon us at creation. For a time, our spirits inhabit these bodies. But inside, we are souls that grow and change, grow and change, until we fully embrace what it means to be beautiful – even perfect – and loved by our Creator. As Paul wrote, “The First human was made out of the earth, and people since then are earthy; the Second human was made out of heaven, and people now can be heavenly. In the same way that we’ve worked from our earthy origins, let’s embrace our heavenly ends.”

When our souls fully embrace what we are meant to be and learn in this life, we can echo the ancient words of truth, “Death swallowed by triumphant Life! Who got the last word, oh, Death? Oh death, who’s afraid of you now?”

Bible References

  • 1 Corinthians 15:35 - 58