For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. – 1 Thess. 4:13-18
Facing death is difficult for most people. It’s hard to face our own deaths as it is extremely hard to face and experience the deaths of our loved ones. Death inevitably forces us to wonder, “Where did they go? What has happened? Will we ever see them again? What will happen to me?” I wrestle with these questions as you do. Today I share some of my thoughts on how to negotiate such troubled waters.
In the Bible reading from First Thessalonians we read of people troubled about the death of loved ones. They too were wondering, “What happened to them?” In the same way we would. In this earliest letter of the apostle Paul, he tries to answer in a way that would bring comfort.
Dr. Holly Heerden, Prof. at the Duke Divinity School in North Carolina, writes how the apostle seeks to comfort the people in a language they could understand. And so Paul uses the same imagery, pageantry and fanfare announcing the arrival of an imperial messenger or even of the Emperor of himself. In those days when the Emperor came to a village or city the event was accompanied by a declaration of the evangelion, meaning the arrival of “good news.” The good news with the Emperor’s arrival meant the arrival of the “pax Romana” or the peace of Rome!
Thus we have insight into the words of Christ descending from the clouds with a shout as the trumpet calls, with the dead arising out of their graves as we meet them in air for the glorious journey into eternal heaven! In these times there was an expectation of a physical return of Jesus in their lifetimes. Some of us were raised in fundamental churches that taught a similar certain return of the Lord in our lifetime! In the times of the apostle Paul the world and the universe were pictured as the Earth at the center, heaven and God as above in the sky with hell and death below in the bowels of the earth. It was a three tiered concept of the universe. Science has long since disproved these theories and understandings.
We remind ourselves that all words describing what happens after death are merely symbols and theories that change from era to era. Words as symbols are as the mystics have taught, twice removed from reality. To help us understand we remind ourselves of the two ways of knowing or seeing. One is in gathering information or understanding to perceive an idea. In the ancient Greek and Hebrew world they use words such as eido and peh to describe sounds coming from the mouth with breath flowing from the lungs through vocal cords and teeth with movable lips. They used other words to describe what we think of or have heard called “heart knowing” or “inner knowing.” In Greek one of the words is ginowsko and in Hebrew it’s called yadah such in Psalm 46:10, “Be still and know I am God.” There are also words such as graphei and logos in Greek depicting the difference from written words and the sense of an “inner word” given. In Hebrew the later word is chazah or “ecstatic state.”
In this contrast we gain a picture of two kinds of seeing or knowing. One is out outward or surface while the other is inward and feeling. When we seek to understand or experience inner knowing concerning such issues as life and death, we would prefer “inner knowing”. How does this occur? In a word I say, “prayer.” Prayer is the experience of listening for that inner voice or heart knowing, which can give the deepest sense of peace.
We ask, though, for the proper form of prayer. True prayer is not any particular form or technique but an understanding. It’s an understanding or assumption that God or Spirit is within me. So whatever form I use is but a way I seek to connect with this Holy Spirit.
Perhaps attending a church or religious service is the least attentive way to experience this Presence. I do not denigrate going to such places but point out how easy it is to assume that going through such motions, saying a few known prayers, singing a few familiar hymns, giving money to support the building and missions, having fellowship with friends will do it. My observation is that attending most religious services in our traditions are more outwardly focused than inward.
Being alone or together in reciting or chanting psalms combined with periods of silence could deepen inward awareness. Chanting sacred words, sitting in silence, interpreting our dreams, sharing our hunches and feelings with others or in journals could enhance inner awakening.
In my own way along with many others over the centuries, I have found a few hours or occasional days alone in a silent retreat, gives me a refreshing sense of this Presence. It reminds me of what it might be to experience, “Being still and know I am God.” The late Fr. Tony DeMello said once, “Silence is the great scrubber of the soul, clearing away debris that we may hear the Voice.” But again as we said last week, with Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham, you have to try it to see if you will like it!
The other classic way to experience inner peace with a sense of the transcendent life might be much more difficult. Why? Because such peace comes through forgiveness for ourselves and for others. It is based on the understanding we cannot experience self forgiveness unless we offered forgiveness to others. We can’t give what we don’t’ have. “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” It is as Jesus is quoted saying, “By their fruits you will know them.”
In the Gospel of John chapter 13:34-35, we read; “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
The gospel of Matthew chapter 7:1-2 has Jesus saying it this way; “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.”
The understanding is that if my inward Self, my higher True self is one with God in Spirit, then nothing said about me or done to me can hurt or destroy me. In the East they call this, “living with detachment.” A detached person in this sense becomes unaffected by the opinions and good intentions of others toward him, or even actions.
Every day we are given opportunities to practice this type of prayer or awareness. It starts in how we treat ourselves. I can’t love others as I love God unless I love them as myself. So beginning with self love we practice loving our spouses, our family members, our neighbors, our fellow church members, and our politicians! The great experience of God’s peace in life and in death is felt in the way we treat people in church committees and in workgroups. Pretty scary isn’t it? But to the degree that we can work to perfect this will be the degree in which we experience the blessed assurance of eternal life.
In the book, A Course in Miracles, we read; “When you attack, you are denying yourself. You are specifically teaching yourself that you are not what you are. Your denial of this reality precludes the acceptance of God’s gift, because you have accepted something else in its place.”(T-10.II.4) It also goes on to say that “all attack is but self attack, and attack on the Christ self.”
So what is the secret to knowing and experiencing peace and assurance in regard to issues of life and death? How can we have a growing peace in facing our own death in bodies as well as that of our loved ones? It is in doing the work of staying awake and practicing the inner knowledge of being the Christ in living and sharing forgiveness with all.
May the Divine Spirit bless us all in our opening to Its presence through understanding and times of prayer and practice of forgiveness. Amen.
Talks offered by Rev. David Persons on November 6, 2011, 10:00 a.m., to the 1st Presbyterian Church of West Seneca, 2085 Union Road, West Seneca, NY.