"I'm what the world considers to be a phenomenally successful man. And I've failed much more than I've succeeded. And each time I fail, I get my people together, and I say, "Where are we going?" And it starts to get better." - Calvin Trager
Wednesday, March 01, 2006 Remember that you are dust...
When I was doing my CPE rotation at Yale-New Haven Hospital, I learned a new term:
No, it's not the story of a lovely lady. It's a euphemism ... for death.
Instead of saying that someone died on your unit, you say they "Bradied". Or "we had a Brady." Never could figure out where the term came from. Was Brady someone who had died? Was it some reference to brain death? I'm not even sure if it was just a term from that hospital or if it's more widespread than that.
One thing I knew, though, was that it was easier for people to say Brady than to say "death". That's why they used the term.
Our culture is incredibly death-denying. One of the people who has written most eloquently about this is Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, who was one of the pioneers of hospice care in America. The whole reason hospices are necessary is because our culture (which the medical establishment reflects) views death as an absolute evil and the enemy. More than that, it views death as something we can and should have control over ... and something we need to distance ourselves from as much as possible -- as if by getting far away from it will keep it at bay.
Hence, we talk in terms like "Brady".
And it's not just in medicene. We build walls to keep death and anything that smacks of it out of sight and out of mind. Walls are all about keeping people on one side safe from whatever is on the other side. And we are GREAT at building them.
We build them in our communities along economic and racial lines - separating communities of white overprivilege from communities of black and latino underprivilege (communities with higher hopelessness, crime rates and, yes, mortality). We build them on our borders - selectively, of course. We feel no need to erect a huge wall between the U.S. and Canada, but we build them between the U.S. and Mexico - because the idea of people from Central America crossing the border makes us fear death -- death of our life of privilege, death of our life of secure comfortability, and even just plain death itself.
Most of all, we build them in our hearts. A couple posts down I talked about the scene in Hotel Rwanda where the CNN cameraman said that Americans would most likely respond to footage of the genocide by saying it was too bad and going back to eating their dinner. That's a wall, too. It's a wall around our hearts that tells us that death has nothing to do with us ... and more insidious, that it should have nothing to do with us.
And that's where Ash Wednesday comes in.
I just came from the Cathedral where I heard the words I've been hearing as long as I can remember:
"Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."
Think about what that means. It means we are DEAD. If there is something more countercultural for us right now, I sure don't know what it is. We spend our lives protecting ourselves from death, putting off death, trying to control death, even denying death even exists. And here we walk up, have ashes put on our head and have someone say "you are dead".
And thank God.
Because it's true. And it is actually the most liberating truth I can imagine.
Because the walls we build around ourselves to protect ourselves from death become our prisons. The prevent us from living -- from sucking every last bit out of the great gift of life God has given us.
Remembering we are dust, remembering that we are DEAD reminds us that our lives are not our own. There is no such thing as MY LIFE. It is all God's. And that's great news because it means we're playing with house money!
Put another way, there is nothing that we can do to keep from dying. There is no amount of money we can make or spend. No amount of fame we can acheive. No wall high enough we can build. We're all going to die. It's already done. So why be afraid. Why spend our lives shouting against the tide?
The truth is that each of us has won the lottery -- we have a life to spend and we all get to die broke. Some of us will have more to spend than others, but as long as you've got a pulse right now, you're in the game. The question is -- how are you going to give it away.
And that's the greatest joy -- giving it away. It's really hard, because mostly we're taught that hoarding it is what we're supposed to do and what gives us joy. But hoarding anything -- life, riches, whatever -- is just another way of building a wall -- 'cause that's what you'll need to protect it. Giving away your life is how we acheive freedom and the deepest joy.
That's what Jesus said when he said "whoever will save his life will lose it and whoever loses his life for my sake will save it." It's not about throwing yourself off a cliff ... it's about really living your life. Serving in a way that is all about the joy of giving it away.
When we refuse to wall ourselves off from death. When instead we go into the heart of death -- which is what Christ did on the cross and what he bids us to do with our lives -- then we get to be with people at some of the most sacred times imaginable. We get to share pain and suffering and be the salvation of companionship in the midst of it.
When we stop being afraid of death and embrace it, we can look across town and around the world and not be afraid to go into those places that "common sense" says are too dangerous and be with people who are literally dying every day in ways too horrendous for us to even imagine.
When we stop being afraidof death and embrace it, when death becomes not something that is happening "over there" to "those people" in places like Darfur and Northern Uganda, when we share in each other's death we are opened up to sharing in an even deeper joy... a joy that even death can never touch.
In the lingo of the hospital, a "very Brady Lent" would be a terrible thing to have. Today, this Lent, this life, what if we were to embrace death instead of fleeing from it. Befriend it instead of fearing it. Sit at the foot of the cross and know it is a place of honor.
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"Christ's example is being
demeaned by the church if they ignore the new leprosy,
which is AIDS. The church is the sleeping giant here.
If it wakes up to what's really going on in the rest
of the world, it has a real role to play. If it doesn't,
it will be irrelevant."