“Shining a New Light: Death & Salvation”

January 21, 2018


Robin McGonigle
University Congregational Church
Jan. 21, 2018

“Shining a New Light: Death & Salvation”
Deut. 30:15-16

This week, our daughter-in-law lost her grandfather. Although she is 30 years old, his was the first death of someone important in her life she has experienced. On the other hand, our children have experienced many deaths throughout their young lives – from beloved church friends to grandparents and even their own peers. They were forced to come to terms with death at a very early age and each of them was encouraged to normalize it as a part of life. Death and salvation were not occasional subjects in our home. We processed the physical parts of death during mealtimes. And, it is true that I took them on a hands on/ back room tour of a mortuary when they were ages 6, 5, and 3. They regularly attended hospital and nursing home visits with me and saw the aging process up close and personal. Reflecting back now, I wonder if their multiple threats to kill their siblings might have been a result of this early exposure to death!

Eventually, they had the regular questions about the physical and spiritual aspects of death….
• If a body stays on earth and a spirit goes to heaven, how will we know Grandma when we get there?
• If we don’t have a body in heaven, then how will we have voices and ears to communicate?
• How does God decide which people get to heaven and which ones don’t?
• What age will our spirit be when it is in heaven? The age we want to be or the age we were when we died or somewhere in the middle?

The Hebrew Bible offers this reflection from about the 7th century BCE. It simply identifies an eternal wisdom about life, death, morality and legacy…
“See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.” Deut. 30:15-16

In many cultures and even religions, death is the problem of human existence. We see it as painful. We want to avoid it. We curse it. The loss of a loved one can be excruciatingly difficult and grief can alter our lives for years. At the best, we see it as a necessary evil.

Loyal D. Rue wrote in the 4th R Magazine of Westar Institute, “From the perspective of evolutionary wisdom, death is not a problem at all. It is a solution.” We are continuing our series Shining A Light – and I’m offering some of the research and thought from the best progressive theologians in the world today. Today’s topic is death and salvation.

Rue notes that many species of organisms don’t need to die. “Single-cell organisms reproduce by simply dividing into halves, each half becoming a distinct individual capable of further subdivision. Death is not part of the picture, as both halves go on living, enjoying a virtual immortality. Death,” he says, “has no sting to an amoeba!”

Only sexually reproducing multi-cellular organisms must die. The reason has to do with the divergence of cells into the germ line and soma lines. It turns out that the inevitability of our deaths is a necessary condition for the lives we have. We must die because we get to live. Death, writes Rue, “is a mere entrance fee to be paid on the way out.” The splendors of human life include memories, love, joy, wonder, wisdom, longing, learning…. And because of these elements of our lives made possible by our biological makeup, we are destined to die. Rue sees grief and death as a measure of the gratitude we hold for the loved one we mourn.

Fourteen years ago, I got a call from a mortuary asking if I could conduct a funeral for a woman named Kala Su Ternes. I didn’t know her, but we were both about the same age at the time – certainly too young to die. She died from breast cancer. She was married and had 2 children. Although I didn’t know Kala, I learned a lot about life and death from her. When I met with her family, they came in carrying a large manila envelope of items Kala put together for her own service. In it were specific plans, information about the mortuary, the gravesite, and the funeral itself. (I later found out that she walked through the cemetery, chose and paid for her lot while she was in her 30’s). She kept a journal as she lived and as she died, which the family gave to me. Kala also put together poems, notes for each of her family members, favorite Bible verses, her philosophy about life, and her thoughts about death.

What a gift Kala left her family! She normalized her own death at an early age and she left her family a treasure of physical, spiritual, and emotional ways to mourn. If she could do that at her age, it seems to me that most of us can do it too! We can prepare for our deaths as a normal, planned part of our lives. Just as we save money and make plans for retirement, we can pay for and make plans for our deaths. Yes, Kala’s death was known to her before it happened. And so is ours. We do not know when it will happen… but we know that it will happen.

There is no better time to start writing letters to our families and planning our services, and collecting information to be used when the inevitable happens. There is no better time to make arrangements for the disposition of our money too. To do so makes a spiritual statement. It tells those around us …
• what we value
• that we are not afraid
• that we are grateful for our lives
• that our spirits will reunited with God
• and that we are at peace with ourselves, our lives, and our God.

For many, salvation is something that happens when a person dies. Salvation has been understood to be a discrete, atomic process that happens one soul at a time. Progressive Christianity expands that understanding to include salvation as molecular and social, according to Loyal Rue. He suggests some synonyms for salvation as sustainability and viability.

“We save individuals,” he writes, “by enhancing the solidarity of their communities, and we save communities by nurturing and enabling their individual members. For humans in particular, salvation will be a matter of achieving personality and sociality simultaneously.” In other words, we are not saved at our deaths or individually as much as we are called to work within our groups – our neighborhoods and cities and states – to ensure that every person receives what they need. Our salvation is found in God and in one another.

I think this is as ancient as Deuteronomy. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God by walking in his ways, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.”

Our salvation is found by our choices about how to live in community with others. As Deuteronomy indicates, our salvation is part of our being in the world; it is tied to the land and to our legacy.

Now, let’s put it all together. If death ends with gratitude for the wonder and wisdom of life and salvation is about community… then the possibilities are endless and exciting!
• Each time a child is born, we have the opportunity to ensure his/her safety in our community. We can mentor children, provide safe social systems, education systems, scholarships, and a community that values and respects them. To do so is to participate in salvation.
• When we look at our lives and consider our own legacies, we can count the love we have shared, the forgiveness we offered, the activism we took part in, the lives we touched, and the delight we experienced as our own salvation.
• We do not need to have anxiety or fear about death. It is a normal part of living. And it is what happens to all those who live. We must die because we get to live.
• Our salvation is tied to how we treat the land we live on and the people who live with us. The more sustainability and viability we establish in our communities – the more we can celebrate the salvation of life!

To succeed in achieving these goals is all the glory we shall ever need.

Resource Used:
Rue, Loyal D. “Death and Salvation”. The Fourth R, volume 29; Number 4. July-August 2016.